In her autobiography Sex and Shopping, the novelist Judith Krantz talks about a professor from her college days. In the anecdote, he’d reduced her grade from an A to a B on account of her spelling. That incident put her off writing for more than 30 years.
Rationally, it seems like an overreaction: one comment by one person on one day set her career back three decades. Yet negativity is a powerful weapon.
Some years ago, I had a job where I spoke to the public by phone for 37 hours a week. On any given day, the interactions that I remembered most vividly were not from the friendly and co-operative callers, but from the rude and obstructive ones. And it works in reverse: one disrespectful sales assistant on one day can mean a shop losing a customer.
There is research to suggest that it takes five positive events to cancel out a negative one. In the case of Krantz, she was also of college age at the time and therefore in learning mode, so it’s likely she would have taken this more personally than if she’d already been producing work.
Last week, a friend finally showed me some of her poetry after we’d talked about it for weeks. She hadn’t shown anyone before, so I’d promised to take it seriously and to provide constructive feedback.
Dismissing someone’s work without good reason is at best unproductive and at worst unprofessional. If a writer hasn’t received feedback before, how can they improve? I’ve never seen a piece that couldn’t be improved by restructuring the narrative or removing words.
After our discussion, I hope the aforementioned friend will feel encouraged to show future work to me and to others.
As I’ve been writing for so long, I sometimes forget that less experienced writers still struggle with the initial hurdles that I overcame a long time ago.
Earlier this month, my partner sent me a poem she’d written, after we’d spoken about her interest in developing her craft. She’d always been reluctant to revisit and redraft her work, yet that’s arguably the first step to improving your writing. When you’ve just placed something on the page, you’re not reading it fresh like the next person will.
We discussed the sent poem, in which I suggested trimming many words and restructuring the stanzas. It’s not unrecognisably different from the first draft, but it now flows significantly better.
And now a friend has asked me for help. She has no problem redrafting her work, but is reluctant to show it to anyone. It’s a real fear among some people that their work will be disrespected. I’m currently working with this person to encourage her to open up a little.
When I’m asked to look over someone else’s piece, I sometimes ask whether there’s a particular aspect I should focus on; for example, grammar, structure, themes, &c. I also make it clear that whatever suggestions I make are optional. This sometimes means letting go of aspects that break convention: a couple of poets, for instance, like to capitalise the beginning of each line, even though the widespread practice died out a century ago.
When someone has asked me to look over a piece I might not understand it, or it might not be to my taste. But what I won’t do is sneer at, ridicule or dismiss someone’s work when they’ve taken the time to request constructive feedback.
On this blog, I’ve previously discussed the theory that 10,000 hours of practice makes someone an expert in a given field. In particular, I raised the topic first in December, but held off from defining what an expert is in relation to writing.
As there is no objectively good way to write, it’s awkward to apply the word ‘expert’ to anyone. I think it more accurate to use a term such as ‘go-to person’.
Every so often, one friend or another will ask me for writing advice. I’ve recently been asked me to look over a poetry chapbook by one person, while another wanted help to create a workshop about how to perform on stage.
I always feel privileged to be the go-to person in any given matter, even if I make clear that my advice is made up of subjective suggestions and that the writer can implement or reject each one.
This also works the other way around. I have a roster of folks I can ask for help. One might be the go-to person for playwriting, for 19th-century poetry, or for academic writing.
I’m an expert by no means, even if I have a lot of experience in a given area, and neither are the people I rely on. Instead, we are mutual go-to people. None of us know all the answers; instead, we work together to find the answers.
I also like to participate as often as I can, and I’m always happy to give advice to those who want to do the same. I’ve updated my guide from 2016, and I stress that it is only a subjective guide, not a textbook.
Talk with the organisers about what’s required
Ask the organisers to talk you through their plan for the event. This will typically include, but is not limited to: how long you’ll be asked to speak for, what type of content is required, whether you’ll be given an introduction, where you should wait before you’re called up, and whether any fee is payable.
If it’s an unfamiliar venue, be sure to obtain the exact address and check how to access the building. Don’t forget to arrive in plenty of time.
Think about your own structure and running order
The organisers will take care of the overall structure and running order, but it’s wise to plan your own time so you don’t miss a step. A typical note-to-self might read:
Give name and say you’re reading from short story collection The Pie Seller
Briefly mention editor at Law Hill Books
Tell obesity clinic anecdote
Read out And an Onion One Too
Thank Tracey Jones for organising
You’re happy to sign copies
Read out The Crust of the Matter.
Note that the thanks isn’t placed at the very end. This structure means the audience are more likely to go away with the ending of your work in their head.
Briefly explain if you need to, but don’t apologise
Some pieces do require an explanation; perhaps a work is unfinished, is an extract from a longer work, or was written under certain circumstances. But keep it brief and don’t explain anything that the audience will take from the piece.
If you feel you can’t read a particular piece without apologising, either take it out of your set or work on it until no apology is necessary.
Read out loud and time your words
The best way to identify weak parts in your set is to read it aloud – and that’s the last thing you want to happen in public. So find a space on your own and read it out when nobody can hear you. Are there any long sentences that need to be broken up? Are there words that are difficult to say clearly?
When reading from a book or from sheets of paper, it’s a good idea to turn up the corner slightly or stick a post-it note to the back. When using an e-reader or tablet computer, practice tapping the correct area of the screen to turn the page; there might also be a delay on some devices.
Don’t forget to use a stopwatch so your words fit within the agreed timeslot.
Make sure everyone can hear you.
In my experience, smaller readings tend not to use a microphone, so you need to project. Avoid tilting your head down to read the piece; instead, hold your manuscript higher and off to one side so it doesn’t muffle your words, or look down only with your eyes. Always speak slowly than you would in normal conversation.
If you do have a microphone, ask the sound engineer if you can test it out beforehand, especially if you’re unfamiliar with using one. Whether the microphone is handheld or on a stand, keep it at the same distance from your mouth. One of the biggest distractions for an audience is a sound level that increases and decreases at random.
Avoid too much alcohol or a heavy meal before the gig
I fully understand why folks need Dutch courage before going on stage. But a drunk speaker rarely makes a good impression, especially during a paid gig.
My rule is not to take alcohol before speaking, only coffee or a soft drink. It’s also a good idea not to eat too much in the hours before the performance, as a heavy meal can also slow down your thought process.
Decide where in the room to look.
I know a few poets who deliberately look at individual audience members. However, it can be unnerving to make eye contact. Fortunately, there are some techniques to make this easier.
One of my favourite methods is look between two people, so the person on the right assumes I’m looking at the one on the left, and vice versa. Another way, which is particularly good for a theatre setting, is to look beyond the back row. This has the advantage of keeping your posture correct.
Keep going through the cock-ups
Perhaps the microphone fails, perhaps you forget the words, perhaps somebody keeps chatting during the show. A performer has no control over these factors.
The audience will normally forget the problem if you ignore it and keep going. Conversely, they’ll remember the person who dries up and leaves the stage or screams at noisy attendees. However, if you find different audiences keep reacting in the wrong way to the same part, consider revising it or editing it out in future performances.
Signalthat you’ve finished.
At the end of a piece, the audience doesn’t necessarily know whether you’re finished or simply pausing for dramatic effect. But an audience can pick up on your gestures. You can lower your manuscript, step backwards slightly or say Thank you, whereupon they’ll take the hint and applaud.
Do it again.
It’s an eye-rolling cliche, but the more you stand up and speak in public, the easier it becomes. Over time, you’ll learn little nuggets like which techniques work or don’t work for you, which pieces always or never provoke a reaction, and so on.
Ultimately, a good performance can increase your fan base and help sell more work.