Saturday, 20 September 2014

One in, all in

I've talked before on this site about the question of whether the ability to write is inherent or something that can be learnt.

The conclusion I've always come to is that it's somewhere in between. I think there are some people who are natural writers, but you can always learn to be a better writer. To me, the best way of learning has always been to read lots, and especially read lots of really good writing. But I've always been prepared to investigate more direct methods as well.

I've taken more than my fair share of writing classes. Some have been useful. Others less so. I've had some really fantastic teachers who have really inspired me in my writing, and others who were clearly there just to take the paycheck.

But no matter how good the teaching was, there has been one thing above all that has really put me off ever wanting to do any more writing classes: the dreaded all-in workshop.

You may know what I'm talking about. Every week, one or two people are nominated to read their work out to the class. And then it begins. Open slather. One in, all in. It's really not a pretty sight.

It seems that everyone has an opinion. No matter how little sense they have of what your story is actually about, they'll have something to tell you about what's wrong with it. Your head gets pulled this way and that way, until you know longer have any idea of which advice is actually useful (and yes, you can get the occasional pearl of wisdom) and which ones are completely nonsensical, particularly as the most nonsensical suggestions often come from the loudest and most persistent members of the class.

Don't get me wrong. I really value feedback, and wouldn't dream of putting anything out without seeking the considered advice from people whose opinions I value. But random suggestions, thrown at me from all directions from people whose expertise range from zero to nil - I really don't find that useful at all.

Will I ever do more writing classes? Never say never is what I say. If the right class and the right teacher shows up, I'd be mad not to consider it. But as soon as there's any suggestion of an all-in class workshop, then I'm out of there.


  1. I’ve never been to a writing class. I’m not against them as such but I do tend to hear more negative things about them that I do positive. The main gripe that comes to mind is that they tend to produce a certain type of writer which is not something one hears about art classes; the art produced there is as diverse as it gets. But not so much with books it seems. I do notice a tendency with younger writers to look for rules. You see them on the boards asking some of the daftest questions—How long should a short story be?—but then there would’ve been a time when I would’ve asked inane questions like that too.

    There are techniques to writing, yes, and those can be taught. At the very least a writer needs to be able to construct a basic sentence beginning with a capital letter, ending in a period and containing at least one noun and a verb. But, as you rightly suggest, any writer with a modicum of common sense will be able to pick that up from even a single novel; even bad novelists are usually formed from mostly well-constructed sentences. Reading good books is essential. I’m not entirely opposed to the reading of bad books. A writer needs to know how good he or she is and continually trying to measure up to the greats can be depressing but it is nice to be able to say, “Well, I’m better than him and he got published so why not me?”

    As regards talent I think I prefer the expression ‘natural ability’ or ‘natural inclination’. I am a natural. Not all writers are. Pretty much anyone can string a sentence together and what’s a novel but a long string of sentences? and everyone (arguably) has at least one novel within them. I define a writer as a person whose natural response to life is to write about it. That doesn’t make him a good writer—there’s still the matters of technique and plain ol’ practice—but at least he wants to be there are the coal face every day. Most people don’t. Oh, they get the odd idea, a clever sentence or two, but mostly they prefer to relax in front of the TV or down the pub.

    I, too, value feedback and it’s damn hard to get decent feedback, feedback you can truly trust. On the whole I’ve come to trust myself. When I hand a book over to a beta reader I expect them to pick out the odd typo, that’s it. I’m honest enough with myself that I’d never try and pass of something as finished that I knew needed more work. For starters I’m a careful writer to start off with. That helps. I’m not a dumper and sifter. I have no problems with those who are and some decent writers are—I know from talking to Jeanette Winterson (briefly at a book signing—let’s not pretend we’re best buds) that that’s exactly how she works—but I’m not good with messes and I’ll hardly have written a single sentence before I’m fixing it, certainly no more than a few paragraphs. Everyone is entitled to their opinion but at the end of the day you’re the writer and you make the final cut. You can’t please all the people all the time. It’s hard enough to please any of the people any of the time. At the very least you can please yourself and if you’re book doesn’t please you then you’re not done with it.

  2. Right class, right teacher is exactly the right incentive, hope you find it. I quit my last writing class for similar reasons and I am not fond of writing groups filled with self indulgent hobbyists. I find the best feedback comes from other creative professionals who actually learned how to give feedback and I use a critique sheet when I give feedback so i am consistent and as objective as I can be. I think anyone can learn to adopt the skills required to write however not everyone can tell a good story. I think brilliant story tellers are rare and shaped by their life. Polish can come in a class(grammar, punctuation, sentence structure) but the skill of story telling is not an automatic one for every writer.