I’m an enthusiastic member of a local writers’ group. Once a month we meet in the back room of a pub and lay out our offerings – poems, short stories, fragments of novels. Last week it was my turn and I struggled to deliver what I hoped was a nuanced page of dialogue over the strains of Irish Folk Music Night in the bar next door. It didn’t deter my fellow writers, who offered their usual incisive critiques. The line where I had, figuratively speaking, battered my readers over the head was swiftly skewered. Ouch. But I came away with a much stronger piece.
As a lecturer in creative writing I expose students to a similar process on a weekly basis. It is a class, so we have rules: the writer must read their work out loud; the writer should not ‘explain’ their piece until the end; each student must have the space to speak. I tell them that no critique is personal; that we all want the same thing – to strengthen the work under review. I explain that there will be many opinions, but only the writer can decide what to do with the critique she or he receives. I hope the classes are fun, but not too much fun – cosiness can be costly for a writer. There is no point in bringing work that is not ‘work-in-progress’ to the table. The objective is to write better.
And yet… it takes a brave student to be the first to submit to the process at the start of a new term. Writing is a solitary occupation. Reading new work out loud to others is a huge step. We feel exposed, vulnerable. Some of us would rather eat our own pages. So how can an emerging writer find the right kind of support?
Some writing groups offer space in which it is okay simply to read out loud and be valued and appreciated for one’s effort. The critiquing aspect may be less important, or indeed, unwanted. This kind of group is a safe place where writers can build confidence in sharing their work.
Other groups may be more formal in structure, bringing in guest speakers or setting themes or writing challenges. They are often highly motivational, providing useful targets and deadlines.
Another way to share new work is to attend an event such as the Winchester Writers’ Festival where experienced tutors, along with editors and agents, lead supportive, friendly workshops that offer more tailored attention. These all-day sessions may focus on aspects of craft such as writing strong dialogue, developing conflict or refining point of view.
And of course some groups, like the one I belong to, are all about the critique – giving and receiving constructive feedback. Sometimes it’s tough love, but it’s worth it. We exchange ideas, celebrate successes and encourage each other through those troughs and saggy middles.
If you’d like to join a workshop or writing group, ask at your local library or community centre or consider setting one up. You may want to discuss some basic ground rules. For example, how often will you meet? Should there be a timekeeper? Will comments be offered one at a time around the table, or would you feel happier with a less formal, free-for-all approach? The National Association of Writers’ Groups (NAWG) offers plenty of support and advice.
A writing workshop works best where trust is established and everyone understands the group’s aims. It helps to remember that any critique is about the words on the page – it is NOT a judgement on the ‘talent’ of the writer. An early draft is just that – work-in-progress – unfinished and in need of improvement. Come with an open mind, whether you are giving or receiving feedback. The rewards are frequently transformative!
Suggestions for writers who are receiving feedback:
• Only bring work that you are prepared to have freely discussed.
• Bring plenty of copies – others will give better feedback if they can see the work in front of them.
• Read your work out loud – you will hear things you don’t ‘see’ on the page.
• Don’t explain your piece first – let it speak for itself. You can always provide some context later.
• Listen carefully to everyone’s views – make notes.
• Don’t automatically apply every suggestion; suggestions are only helpful where they feel right to you.
Suggestions for writers who are giving feedback:
• Make notes on the copy you are given.
• If something is working well, let the writer know.
• Phrases such as ‘have you considered…?’ or ‘it might be strengthened further by….’ can be helpful.
• Mention presentation issues such as typos and punctuation where necessary but don’t focus on these issues above all else. Consider aspects such as structure, voice, language, mood, dialogue, characterisation, point of view, pace and narrative momentum.
• If something isn’t working in a piece but you’re not sure why, it is okay to say so.
• Respect the writer’s vision and ownership of their work – don’t seek to impose a solution.
Judith Heneghan is Director of the Winchester Writers’ Festival and programme leader for the MA Writing for Children at the University of Winchester.
The 35th Winchester Writers’ Festival provides support, inspiration, workshops and one-to-ones for new and established writers working in all forms and genres. Join us on 19-21 June at the University of Winchester. For information and booking visit www.writersfestival.co.uk