Responding to writing

A peek inside a Writing Circle

Last weekend I had the pleasure of running a taster session for the upcoming Writing Circles. I could call the session a dry run as I had a chance to familiarise myself with the hall, play with lighting, arrange chairs and tables, find teacups and sugar spoons, etc., but there was really nothing dry about it. We had a steady flow of conversation, tea and ink. In fact, even the writing prompts we used were wet!

I decided to revisit an activity from a previous workshop that seemed rich with potential the first time I used it, but in the unfolding had felt slightly rushed and underdeveloped. So for the taster session, I expanded it further, allowing time and space for more connections, more discussion and more writing. Time and space are underused ingredients in teaching and learning.

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After several rounds of freewriting, we shared some early lines, to aerate our ideas. Then we harvested ripe words:

And before our wondering eyes and listening ears, poems started to emerge! We found a few haikus, as well as some other forms, still in progress. Here's a taste:

A pile of orange peels too soft, too sweet fuzzed with new green mold  - Melissa
writing circle the slow melt of the ice prompt -  Nicole
Skating across my palm slipping through my fingers the beans hold their secrets - Melissa

This week, I've been planning for the sessions. I so love planning. Ideas shout out like a class of five-year-olds, waving their arms wildly, each one believing in the urgency and import of what it has to say : 'Me! Choose me!' or 'I know! I know!' or 'Oooh! What about this?' Big ideas need big paper, so I use flip-chart paper and big coloured pens to capture them all.

I consider myself a very lucky woman to count flip-chart paper as an official business expense.

Registration update:

  • Only one space remains for the Harlton Hall Writing Circle. Is it yours? Register here.
  • The Rock Road Library Writing Circle has been postponed until after the October half-term.

7 Questions - A sample response method and opportunity for feedback

One of my goals in creating Writing Circles is to explore types of responses to writing.  Useful feedback takes different forms at different points in the writing process.  In this post, I'm sharing a method of responding that would be appropriate for a piece in a readable, but still early draft form. This response exercise works well with a partner. If you both have a piece of writing for which you’d like feedback, you can be readers for each other. It also works if you have a piece of writing and a willing responder who doesn’t have writing to share, but enjoys giving feedback. Perhaps you have written a draft (or several) and you feel you’re ready for some outside opinions on what to do next. Or maybe you’re wondering what ideas and messages are coming through most clearly to your audience.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Ask your reader to read your piece and then jot down answers to the 7 questions listed at the end of this post. There is no need to make the answers beautiful writing, they are simply meant to be a record of the immediate, gut-instinct answers to the questions.
  2. Reread your piece and write your own answers to the 7 questions as a free-write exercise. It’s important that you’ve written your own responses to the questions before taking in your reader’s responses. This is a way of anchoring yourself before finding out what others see in the work. Without this step, you may feel like a boat being tossed by every wind of opinion that comes your way.
  3. Exchange answers with your reader and compare. You may find that,
    • You agree – This may point towards an idea or theme that is transmitting clearly. Or it may indicate agreement on an area that needs more development.
    • You disagree – Maybe the reader just didn’t get it at all. You may feel that your writing has been misinterpreted, misunderstood, or misread. It could be that the vital ideas the reader has missed need greater emphasis or a different angle of approach. You could see this as an opportunity to experiment more with the section or ideas in question.
    • You disagree – But you might see the reasoning behind your reader’s point of view. This may point you in a direction that hadn’t occurred to you and open up your writing. Disagreement can be an unexpected gift.
    • You interpreted the questions differently – I find this to be exciting as it may show you dimensions of your writing you didn’t even know existed!

Ready? Here are the questions:

  1. What is the main theme or idea in this piece of writing?
  2. Are there any secondary themes? If so, what are they? Do they compete with or compliment the main theme?
  3. Are there contrasts to draw out more fully, details to bring into greater relief? What are they?
  4. Starting points. Can you suggest a few possible different starting points that grab the reader with the first sentence? How does choice of starting point shift the tone of the work?
  5. What do you think is the most compelling part (sentence, image, idea) of this writing? How does the rest of the piece support this part?  How does this part support the rest of the piece?
  6. What do you want more of from the writer after reading this piece?
  7. What are you left wondering about at the end of this piece?

There are no questions about whether the reader likes the piece of writing, agrees with the writer’s viewpoint or thinks it is good writing. I believe that responses during the writing process are most helpful when acting as indicators of how the work is taking shape rather than as verdicts of its worth or quality. The purpose of this particular response is to let the writer know what the piece is transmitting and the effect it has on a reader.

Want to try it out? If you are considering joining a Writing Circle and would like a taster of how I respond, I invite you to send me a piece of your writing (500-750 words) and I will respond using this method. Once you send me your answers to the questions, I will send you mine. Contact me if you’re interested. Alternatively, pair up with another writer to answer these questions for each other. I’d love to hear how it goes and what you find out.

  • Register for taster sessions or Writing Circles here.