Guiding Your Pen in the Right Direction

The Washington Post
The Washington Post – Washington, D.C.

By Matt McMillen
August 29, 2002

On the cusp of 40, David Leite had "a Thelma and Louise moment — it was either drive off the cliff or go back where I came from." But Leite wasn't behind the wheel of a convertible. He was in New York City, sitting at his desk and staring at his computer screen. The cliff's edge: a career change. He wanted to be a writer and nothing else.

Leite (pronounced "leet") had been scribbling in a journal for 20 years. At 33, he sold a story about his childhood in Swansea, Mass., to the Providence Journal. While not quite the Great American Novel he'd hoped to write, it was a start. Or it should have been. Six years of spinning his wheels would pass before he saw his name in print again. "I went to a couple of how-to-get-published seminars," he recalls about the period, "but it wasn't the right time."

That changed as the advertising market, in which Leite had worked as a freelancer, slipped into a coma. As jobs dwindled, his writing increased. He canvassed several major papers, pitching a story about growing up Portuguese in a small New England town: "I wrote about wanting to eat Wonder Bread, meatloaf and baloney but getting octopus and salted cod." A Chicago paper bought it. Stories on tea and champagne followed, and then an 8,000-word article on food in the 20th century. That article appeared on the last Wednesday of 1999. It was also Leite's last article for the paper — the editor now wanted only local stories.

Still, he was ready to go over the cliff. "I'll be poor for a while," Leite knew when he made the decision to write full time, "but I have to do it."

Staying poor was not in the script. But for freelance, self- taught writers such as Leite, learning the business of writing and how best to tailor and market stories is tough and time-consuming. Where can a freelancer turn for career advice? In Leite's case, the answer was a writing coach.

These days, there are coaches for everything: life, business, marriage, creativity, spirituality. The list goes on, and the number of coaches keeps growing. According to its Web site, the Washington, D.C.-based International Coach Federation (www.coachfederation.org) had more than 5,000 member coaches in its referral database.

Leite knew nothing about coaching before he attended the 2002 Symposium for Professional Food Writers (www.greenbrier.com/ foodwriters). There on a writing scholarship, he was skeptical. Still, he had come to the symposium to learn the business of food writing. And no one, he was told repeatedly, knew that business better than Toni Allegra.

Allegra, founder and director of the annual symposium, coaches food and beverage writers. A food writer and editor herself since the late 1970s, Allegra was drawn to coaching after witnessing writers benefit from the symposium's nurturing environment. For seven years now, she has worked with individual writers, both novice and seasoned, tailoring her skills to their needs.

One current client has written 40 cookbooks, Allegra says, "but he wanted a shift, a new direction and voice. He came to me because he wasn't sure how to market himself" in a new way.

When David Leite approached Allegra, writing was the "primary source of my meager income. I wanted to learn how to be a resourceful, effective businessman." He wanted to learn how to approach editors, craft query letters and present himself professionally: "She helps me determine what and how to pursue with each editor."

As she does with all her clients, Allegra consults with Leite by phone. They talk for an hour no more than three times a month. Working by phone permits Allegra to take on clients from all over the country, while the three-session cap prevents clients from becoming too dependent: "I am not going to be their mother," she makes clear. "I only work with people who are truly driven."

Maggie Lichtenberg, a writing and publishing coach based in Santa Fe, shares that policy: "I look for people with a strong sense of integrity," she says, "people who are willing to work hard." Like Allegra, Lichtenberg brings many years of experience to coaching — in her case, two decades with major publishers in New York and Boston.

"Keep your day job" is often the first piece of advice Lichtenberg gives new clients. Some people, Lichtenberg says, "come to me for a career transition and think they can automatically make a living [at writing] — I give them a reality check." She coaches her clients on the process of writing. She helps set goals and deadlines to which she holds her clients accountable. Start with small projects, she counsels; still, "I always have my marketing hat on — anyone who can take a shot at a publisher, I encourage it."

Lichtenberg and Allegra developed their coaching practices after training at Coach University in California. Like the International Coach Federation, Coach U. was founded in 1992 and is a major player in the coach industry. More than 3,500 coaches have been trained there, according to the Coach U. Web site.

For the past 25 years, writing coaches have been at work at newspapers around the country. Newsroom coaches help journalists expand their storytelling abilities, encouraging them to use dramatic techniques like foreshadowing and flashback. Newspaper writing coaches Dennis Jackson and John Sweeney point out in "The Journalist's Craft," "have convinced many editors that such innovation must be encouraged if newspapers are to hold their audience."

Coaches also fix bad habits. "Practice makes perfect," says newsroom writing coach Don Fry, sometimes "perfectly bad — writers know they have problems but don't know how to fix them. We dig in from there."

Fry, who works with few individual clients, has coached writers since 1980 and spent several years with the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla., which he describes as the "center" of newsroom coaching.

Lucille deView brings years of newsroom coaching experience to her individual clients. "I am very specific in terms of working with a writer," she says. "You have a story? Okay, how can we do it best?" Though she focuses on particular assignments ("If I were coaching you, you'd read your story aloud to me, so you will hear when a sentence rambles"), deView takes a broader approach to teaching the craft of writing. Playwright, poet, journalist and columnist, deView "feeds" her clients good literature: "Every form of writing has something to teach about writing."

Can the same be said of every coach? Probably not. DeView coaches because "I've been in the business so long and seen so much happen. I feel qualified to give advice."

Allegra, Lichtenberg, and Fry advise writers to look for that kind of long-term experience. Interview several coaches, ask for recommendations, assess their expertise. And make sure there is a good personality match. "I have to like them," Lichtenberg says of potential clients. That should be a two-way street.

For David Leite, the immediate benefits of coaching (he now has an agent, a cookbook proposal underway, and several articles due to run in the coming months) take a back seat to the long-term gains he expects from Toni Allegra's help. "She is the closest thing to a mentor I've ever had," he says. As for going over the cliff, "Toni is in the car with me."

The Washington Post – Washington, D.C.

By Matt McMillen
August 29, 2002