Notes from The Writing Coach

Babysitting the Brilliant: Getting the Best Out of Talented People

· Writing Coach,Writing Tips,Writing Fundamentals,Writing Coaching,Writing

Babysitting the Brilliant: Getting the Best Out of Talented People

If you’re like me, you’ve possibly made a few bucks babysitting in your day. It was one of my go-tos for pocket money in middle school, high school and college. I always loved kids and I found that my nerd sensibilities made me a good bet — parents trusted me to listen (no dairy for that one!), react when necessary (only call if someone is bleeding), set appropriate boundaries (no Carrie for preteens) and always be responsible. Oh, and you’ve gotta sling snacks, obviously.

It turns out, those babysitting lessons have come in handy. I have found that those basic rules of engagement make for a simple yet effective formula for getting the best out of talented people. I’ve been fortunate to work with some truly remarkable writers and I have learned that gifted people still have needs (sometimes quite a few) and challenges (more than a few, even). At the root of it, everyone wants to be seen, heard and regarded. When you get in the ring with a writer and listen, react candidly and respect the work, you get someplace.

Breaking it down, the process I use looks something like this:

1. Whole Listening

Illustration by Olivia Bloom

Here’s the thing: listening is an act of devotion. It’s powerful and it’s an art. I’m sad to say that most people suck at it. We’re distracted, checking our phones, watching the stock market, multitasking. We’re anxious about what we will say next and almost always, we’re half-listening.

Whole listening is rare and if you can do it well, you will be amazed at how clarifying it can be. I’ve always known that focus was my super-power and that listening well was key to my success. But I have to say that watching my gregarious, curious father progressively lose his hearing, I now get it on another level. He’s getting cut off from what he loves most, connecting. So, listening now looks to me like a privilege. One which I exercise with newfound joy when working with my brilliant clients.

2. React Honestly

Illustration by Olivia Bloom

When I coach writers, I read with gentleness but react with honesty. It’s worth it for everyone. I tell them what I see.

When my writers get my feedback, they know how deeply I listened. If I don’t get something what are the chances another reader will? If I think Bruno wouldn’t use that phrase, I’m going to say so. Because I know Bruno. The observations that I’ve made about the world, characters and shape of the narrative carry weight with my writers because they know I’ve been listening and that my only goal is to make their work better. We’re partners, not adversaries.

Babysitting teaches you to get down on the floor, play with Lego and give into imagination. That’s great until someone wants to stick one of the small pieces up their left nostril. Whose job is it to stop that? Mine. Or die trying. Sometimes, when I drop a critique it can be really hard for a writer of conviction. Writers, after all, tend to be people who choose their words with care. Often they’ll say, “but this really happened!” Maybe so, but if it’s dangerous our counterproductive to the writer’s purpose, disrespectful, nonsensical or somehow otherwise klunky, I’m going to stand up on it.

3. Respect the Work

Illustration by Olivia Bloom

My brilliant writers are people and I’m a person too (did you just hear Steve Buscemi utter the immortal line “I’m a person, too, Pop!” from The Wedding Singer? I did!). We bring our whole selves to the work. But the work, once it gels, takes on a life of its own. We build characters, arguments, through lines, situations and puzzlements. No matter what the subject or genre, we are dealing with a creation. All hail, because that’s where the magic happens.

All Posts

Almost done…

We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!