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© Alan John Ward

Recurring themes in one-to-ones with writers

May 9, 2018

As writer in residence at Hastings Library I offered one-to-one feedback sessions with local poets and authors. These were some of the most rewarding experiences of the residency. I love the opportunity to dissect a piece of writing and chat to its author.

 

The writer would send me their piece in advance, and I would give it a thorough read and take notes. Sometimes they'd be looking to find out something specific (like how they could move towards publication, or whether a particular element of the writing worked), and they'd let me know that in advance too. We'd sit down at the library or over a video call and talk. I'd give feedback, but also ask probing questions to encourage the writer to consider their work in a new light.

 

There were a number of themes that came up in conversation time and again:

 

Beware, feedback

 

Feedback is a beast. Your closest friends will tell you everything you write is great. In a writing workshop the other participants might hold back because they know you're also critiquing their work. There's a difference between constructive feedback and unhelpful feedback, and at the end of the day you can take or leave any feedback you receive. The piece of writing belongs to you and no one else. Don't be railroaded into taking it in a direction you feel uncomfortable with. Only do what you feel is absolutely right, otherwise you might lose sight of why you started writing in the first place.

 

Format and layout means a lot

 

I can tell a lot about a piece of writing even before I've started reading it. If it's in an unconventional font or untidily or inconsistently laid out on the page, alarm bells ring. Yes, the content of your writing is important, but it's going to be hard to read if the paragraphs have different indents, some of them are double-spaced and some not, and you sometimes have more than one space between words.

 

How do I find opportunities for my writing?

 

Lots of people would ask this question, and the answer is different depending on the form and genre you are writing in. In most cases I found myself able to make some suggestions of places to submit even if a piece of writing wasn't in my field. You need to do your research, and the internet is your friend. I keep a spreadsheet of opportunities I've found online, or seen mentioned on Twitter, and keep track of the deadlines and what I've submitted where. Whatever you're writing, there's probably a publication out there dedicated to it (ghost stories, science fiction, crime stories – there are tons of lists of reputable magazines online). Think about more unusual opportunities too. Writing your family history? Perhaps you could pitch a related article to a genealogy magazine or website to gain a publication credit that might enhance your query letter when you start pitching to agents and publishers.

 

Not all competitions are created equal

 

I often talked to participants about where they submitted work, and sometimes I'd feel a little uncomfortable about the types of competitions mentioned. If you're going to pay to enter a competition, check at least these two very important things: First, can you see yourself sitting alongside previous winners? If your writing is nothing like theirs – a significantly different style, genre or length – chances for success are slim. Second, who are the judges? Are they reputable? If not, it could be a sign that the competition isn't of the highest quality. At worst it could be a money making scheme. If the prize is publication in a book you then have to buy, steer clear.

 

You know the answers already

 

...but if they're not on the page they don't exist. So many times when I would ask a participant a question about why a character did something, why a particular object featured, or why a place had been described in a particular way, they would have a very sensible answer. However, if I probed further and asked them how I (the reader) would know that, they couldn't tell me. So much writing goes on in our heads, it's easy for some of it not to make the page. I'm not advocating unnecessary exposition, but I did note this as a recurring theme in the one-to-ones. Try to read your piece of writing like a reader coming to it for the first time.

Thanks for reading this blog post. If you're seeking feedback on your writing, remember:

  • You can get free advice by posting your piece of writing online or in a forum, but if you do this then it's published. Most competitions, magazines and publishers won't accept previously published work.

  • Another source of (potentially) free advice is your local writers' group, or a group of friends. You could get lots of opinions this way, but they might be conflicting. Bear in mind that if you're also critiquing their work they might have an incentive to hold back, and that your friends will always be nice.

  • In London you can pay £70 for a critique of up to six poems or 150 lines of poetry, or, from another organisation, £100 for 200 lines. (Prices correct at the time of posting.)  

  • In general, proofreading services for short stories start from £45 for 2,500 words, though it can be harder to find general feedback services for writing that isn't poetry. (Again, price correct at the time of posting.)

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