The Value of Calm Encouragement

Last Sunday I spent the afternoon at a writing workshop run by a friend of mine.

What’s unusual about that, you may be asking.  And I would have to answer, pretty much all of it.  I was a great participator in workshops and on courses when I first started taking my writing seriously, but it’s a few years since I did one, now; over the years I’ve also written in company of friends for timed exercises in coffee shops and pancake joints, but that’s not happened for a while either.

It was a useful reminder that surprising things can come out of writing by hand in a room where other people are also writing, and that others can often see things in your work of which you were not previously concious.

The way any workshop is managed is vital to create the right environment for its success; Sunday was my first experience of one organised following the ideas of the Amherst Writers.  There is a complete structure to the programme for writers at different stages in the development of their work, but the key elements of the workshop on Sunday were that we wrote in the presence of each other, read the work to the group, and then gave and received comments on only those aspects which worked; accentuate the positive and don’t mention the negative.

It all sounds rather ‘nice’, doesn’t it?  Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of it was how much the opposite of bland it was.

For some reason that I’ve never quite understood, writing in the company of other people who are also writing, and doing it for a specified period, be it 10 minutes or 45, makes me focus my attention and can often generate the first few rough lines of an entirely new idea or an unexpected aspect of something already a work in progress.  It’s something that I have found impossible to replicate on my own in front of my computer, where the cursor can often seem to be blinking at me in a particularly accusing way.

As the giver of feedback all too often it can be tempting to focus on the things which jar or which can be nitpicked to death.  Being deprived of that as an option makes you pay close attention to a piece to identify, and then articulate, a positive response.

As the receiver of the comments, it is fascinating to hear other people’s reactions to even the roughest of drafts: they hear things in it which were not consciously put there and which can be worked on and elaborated subsequently.

The ‘positive comments only’ rule, together with the requirement that all remarks are depersonalised, so that you speak by reference only to ‘the narrator’ or ‘the writing’, rather than ‘you’, contributes to creating a cohesive group out of a collection of strangers very quickly, and was both a challenging and an incredibly encouraging way to spend an afternoon engaged in the process of writing.

Leave a comment


  1. Sounds great Rowena. It’s good to re-visit old practices. We think we have come a long way & we have. But there is nothing like writing in a room with other people & having that immediate feedback.

    • Thanks Kathy. It did indeed remind me of that something extra that can come from being with other people when you write.


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