Though not necessarily a common occurrence within Peer Writing sessions, it could be possible that a student approaches us with a piece of non-academic writing; be it for an assignment within The School of English, The School of Creative Studies and Media or even a personal piece it could be useful to know a few tips to help advise a mentee on their creative work.
The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing which is available online via the university catalogue (I’ve copied a link to it below) is an excellent compilation of advice for both students attempting creative writing and mentors trying to give constructive feedback. This is a useful skill for us to have because, as the Companion states, ‘writers are, at their best, creative writers whether they are writing journalism, plays, philosophy, novels, history, poetry or scientific nonfiction.’ (Morley & Neilsen, 2012 Pg. 1) Below I have compiled a list of three aspects within creative writing that I’ve noticed my students struggling with consistently, and how we can aid them in overcoming these obstacles.
- Floating Dialogue
This is a term used to describe too much dialogue being used in succession. It applies mainly to bodies of text such as novels and short-stories and can sometimes be used by writers attempting to avoid heavy amounts of description because they worry it makes their work seem ‘boring’ or takes away from the action. Essentially, the writer shall have a small map in their head of everything that is occurring within the story as they write it and may not be aware that we, the reader, cannot (and will not) create the same map of movement without written hints. So, when the writer focuses only on the dialogue between the characters the speech tends to ‘float’ up and the reader loses track of where exactly these characters are. It’s important to reassure the student that despite having good dialogue, the reader sometimes requires a little description too, even if it’s as simple as…
‘They began to pace, hands flapping and feet stomping against the ground.’
This is enough to ground the reader and remind them that the characters are still within the same room they were when the dialogue began.
- Purple Prose
This may be a term some are familiar with, and probably experienced if you’ve ever read Tolkien or Wilde, and is essentially the opposite of floating dialogue; purple prose is when the writer spends far too much time setting the scene. They may write pages about the glorious medieval manor house their story is set in and after a page of dialogue we leave it behind, never to be seen again. It brings down the reader engagement of the story and can oft times be a slog to read through. The best advice to give a writer who is showing this within their writing is to simply tell them it’s not required. Remind them that world-building is important but should be peppered in over the course of the narrative. If they’re unaware of it, inform them of Checkhov’s Gun:
‘Remove everything that has no relation to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.’
This is an excellent quote to use because it can get the writer thinking ‘What does have to be there? What can I put in that will become important in later chapters?’ etc. and can often turn a point of criticism into a point of creative thought.
- The Inciting Incident
Many times when going over creative works with my students I will read about half way through, put a small line by a sentence and tell them ‘you’ve started your story here.’ All stories need to have a hook, an incident that incites the movement of the narrative while gaining the reader’s attention; this, as the name suggests, is the inciting incident. We, as the mentors reading through and helping to improve the work will often pick up on this much more easily than the mentee will. We read ourselves and if you look through the mentee’s creative work and find yourself wondering ‘what is going on here? What has happened? Why are these characters doing this?’ And you’re halfway through the piece it’s important to flag that up with the writer and let them know you’re lost. Once the writer explains it to you things may make sense and if they do, let them know that you should be able to obtain that information from the writing alone; encouraging them to think like they’re reading it for the first time is useful too.
And that’s about it! The most important thing, as I’m sure we all know, is to be kind when giving this kind of feedback as students can become very attached to creative pieces they’ve written, especially if it in some way is a reflection of their life, and encourage them to redraft, edit and never delete anything for good. If a piece needs to be removed I tell my students to save it within its own word document. Later down the line if they’re looking for inspiration for another piece of writing that small part could be just the thing… Come to think of it, that may work for pieces of essays that need to be edited out too.
Morley, D. and Neilsen, P. (2012). The Cambridge companion to creative writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.