We asked four professional writers to create resources to help guide entrants through the process of researching, finding a form, starting to write and responding to feedback on an entry to the Orwell Youth Prize. This resource on Responding to Feedback was created by the poet and fiction writer Anthony Anaxagorou.
It was on a coach heading to Leicester where I first confessed that I wanted to be a writer, or more precisely, a poet. The year was 2009 and as ostentatious as that sounded to me as a 26-year-old, the reality was I had no money, no stable job and no meaningful qualifications that could help resolve my dilemmas.
My last real experience with poetry was some years prior where at the age of 18 I’d won a competition my mother had covertly entered me into. Part of the prize included the opportunity to perform at a live event. Plagued by persistent self-doubt and low self-esteem which had metastasized to hinder almost every aspect of my life, I went along to read my poems to the crowd. The gig wasn’t great. At the end of the evening I received a remark from the organiser so disparaging that it put me off writing for nearly a decade. Now, after having spent the last fifteen or so years working in poetry, I can say rejection coupled with that crushing feeling of failure, are all very legitimate emotional responses nearly every writer must contend with. And yet, as I still remind myself, they are not things to be ashamed of. Rather, they require us to establish unique ways to move forward, while also acknowledging the writer’s road is difficult, precarious, and for much of the time solitary.
Constructive (and Unconstructive) Criticism
There’s a distinction between poetry and the poetry business which much of the time wants a sellable product before it wants art. When we create, we are making something that previously didn’t exist. It’s the science of uncertainty. One of the major barriers in my early writing life was not wanting (or knowing) how to take constructive criticism. My experiences at secondary school had scarred me to the point I felt too afraid to hear again the words this isn’t very good, or this is wrong and so I’d never enter my poems into any magazines or send them to a publisher. It’s an odd thing because on the one hand you need a healthy amount of ego (or belief?) and interest to write poetry – to write anything in fact – but then you have no real idea if what you’ve made is any good. Until you’re able to decide on what isn’t very good.
In classes I labour the point of saying there’s no such thing as a wrong poem. You can write a good poem or a bad poem but never a wrong poem. It was one of poetry’s major appeals which first drew me towards it. At the start of my writing career, I would share poems with family and friends, then later fellow poets. What I discovered was that certain people were unable to give me the feedback I needed to make the poem better, and so resorted to complementing the enterprise of writing. Some would confess they didn’t ‘get’ the poem but thought the images were interesting, others said nothing.
The Audience and The Editor
Between 2011 – 2014 I spent most nights on London’s spoken word circuit, writing and performing poems deliberately written with a specific kind of audience in mind. They were poems with a strong moral backbone, often rhetorical, direct and topical with my politics at the centre. The response from the audience became my barometer, the litmus test that told me whether a poem was successful or not. In a way the audience were my editors, my critics and cheerleaders because I’d written the piece primarily for them.
When you venture away from performance-based arts and start thinking about how to formalise your verse in books in a way that will require the poem to work without you being there to guide it, they’ll come a point where you’ll need to defer to an editor. I’ve now written two full length collections of poetry that required me to work closely with people who I may not have known how to a decade ago. What I realised is that in order to use feedback constructively I needed to 1) trust the person offering the feedback and 2) be unattached enough from the work to allow for change. There are of course many more factors to consider but these two for me were the most saliant, and the ones which once I understood how to work with had the most lasting impact on my writing.
What to do when you receive feedback:
Whenever I receive feedback from an editor my main question is: will their suggestions enhance the writing and make me more aware of how to perform better on the page? A perceptive editor will be able to identify your blind spots, your ticks, and tautologies (things you’ve already said in the writing). With the feedback you receive, have a go at reworking the paragraphs to get them sharper and more concise. Try to establish where the editor has noticed a strength and play to that. For example, if they feedback saying your writing feels genuine and well researched, then do more of that. Similarly, if they think a certain section could do with being less descriptive then see what you could cut. Have you repeated yourself or is there too much exposition? Writing is a balancing act depending on the kind of thing you’re doing. If you need to rewrite sections then that’s ok, don’t get disheartened, it’s making the writing stronger.
I’ve focused on poetry as that’s my field of expertise, but much of what I’ve said relates to other forms of writing too – from prose, essays, fiction and journalism. Trusting the opinion and direction of not just an editor but a fellow writer, someone who is skilled or trained in knowing how to think critically and laterally about a piece of writing, is tantamount to its success. But then knowing what to stet and what to accept is also part of the skill.
Writing Exercise for a Poem:
- Write down 5-10 words which you feel can be associated with something sad or negative. For example, funeral, bad, rain, end and broken.
- Now, try to write a sentence for each one which uses the words in a positive way. An example might be even funerals with you are full of light. Do that for each of your words.
- Once you’ve got all the lines down try to build 4 stanzas using the constructions. Each stanza must be in quatrains (4 lines per stanza) and try to keep each line under 10 syllables.
Writing Exercise for Flash Fiction/Short Story:
- Tomorrow morning when you wake up spend 10 minutes with a notepad noticing. That means you write down everything that you notice to be happening around you.
- Once you have a list of things mix up the order and see if there’s a way you can make one set of ideas link to the next.
- Think of pronouns and whether this will first or second or third person.
- Try to write a short piece of writing which captures the essence of a day using your list.
The key to making a successful story or poem using this prompt is that you need to find a little glue to piece the ideas together, just so it avoids them appearing like a list. Personally, I like letting ideas leap and bounce around a page before suddenly adding a connective or bridge to bring in two separate clauses. Play around until you think you’re working the language in an interesting way – poems and short stories want mystery, surprise and intrigue. Lastly, never worry about writing like this making ‘sense’ – they unravel their own system of magic. Remember what the late Charles Simic told us, ‘poems want to take the familiar and make it strange.’
Thank you for reading this resource. We hope you enjoyed it and that it comes in useful as you write your entry to the Orwell Youth Prize! If you have any feedback on our resources, please email email@example.com.
Anthony Anaxagorou is a British-born Cypriot poet, fiction writer, essayist and publisher. He has published three volumes of poetry, a collection of short stories and a craft book called How To Write It. He is artistic director of Out-Spoken and publisher of Out-Spoken Press. He is the editor-in -chief of Propel Magazine, an online literary journal featuring the work of poets yet to publish a first collection.
The commission of these resources was supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England as part of the Orwell Foundation’s Regional Hubs project.