Mentoring – Marvelous or Just Plain Mean?

A couple of weeks ago a young writer friend of mine phoned me in absolute bits regarding her work. She’d won second place in a poetry competition the prize for which was the publication of a pamphlet of her work…usually a cause for celebration and congratulations.

Because she’d wanted to buff up the work to make it a stronger and more polished collection, she’d paid for a mentoring session with quite a well-known writer in the hope that he’d be able to help her strengthen each piece and make it shine brighter. Sadly, instead of getting the kind of constructive criticism she was expecting, and which she’d paid for, she was subjected to a barrage of negative comments that told her none of her pieces were up to scratch, each one needed re-writing, and she should not only do more work to improve the quality of the collection, but that she also needed several more (expensive) mentoring sessions with him.

As you can imagine, this left her distraught. Instead of celebrating, she’d been robbed of her confidence, and was on the verge of giving up writing – her creative spirit had been broken. I was, and continue to be, absolutely incensed. Suggesting she spend more money on additional mentoring sessions, especially when they were clearly being used as a vehicle to disparage her talent, was just plain unethical as well as not being terribly professional. I re-read her collection, and while I agreed that some of her pieces did need another look to clarify and strengthen what she was trying to say, I felt that fundamentally her work showed great promise and sensitivity. It was far from being trash!

Surely the job of a mentor is to encourage not dishearten? I’ve judged a fair few literature competitions in my time, run workshops in many places, and edited the Loose Muse anthologies. Some of the work I’ve read has been exceptional, some promising, and some either mediocre or just plain poor. But it’s not my job to tell people they’re rubbish…I try to encourage and support budding writers no matter how hackneyed, clichéd or unimaginative their work is. I try to find something positive to say alongside the criticism, suggesting ways of improving what needs to be enhanced, and hopefully helping them to move on to another level.

We’re not all born with the genius gene! Most of us have to work hard to produce something we’re reasonably content with. And it takes courage to expose our naked poems and stories to the critical eye of the ‘professional’ writer. Thoughtless ego-driven criticism can do a lot of damage and ultimately serves little purpose. That’s why I try to make Loose Muse a friendly and supportive event where women writers can come and share their work without being afraid they’ll be pilloried, after all the central ethos of Loose Muse is that we’re there to help each other, not to discourage. The next Loose Muse is on 14th November, featuring Natasha Morgan and Patricia Foster, and plenty of open mic spots from the floor. Come along and enjoy the atmosphere, and if you want to, show us what you can do…I promise we’ll be gentle with you!


PS: A great book to help writers improve and sell their work is Wanna Be A Writer by Jane Wenham-Jones. I cannot recommend it highly enough as it’s packed full of excellent tips written with good humor and common sense – a great Christmas present!


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