Page the Consultant! - Or, A Guinea-Pig's Tale - by Susan Price

  RLF Consultant Fellows

The  Royal Literary Fund Register of Consultant Fellows


        Here we are, then. 

          This is the reason I've been pleading that I'm too busy, for the past year. I've been an RLF guinea-pig on their latest project, the Register of Consultant Fellows, the aim of which
Dr Trevor Day
was to turn twenty writers into people capable of 'operating with appropriate training and to high standards of professional and ethical practice, to facilitate writing-related activities with groups of students or staff.' This is a quote from Trevor Day, the highly qualified educator and writer (and marine-biologist who swims with sharks) who devised and led the training-course.  (Trevor has modestly asked me to add that the course wouldn't have been the same without the 'considerable input' of  Marina Benjamin and Tina Pepler who 'helped design it and steered it in new directions.')

          I think the Consultant's Register is part of the wide change taking place in publishing, and to the position of writers in the industry. The Society of Authors is concerned about the drastic fall in writers' earnings. This is, after all, the reason why many of us began to self-publish. (This blog about writers' earnings is interesting too.)

          My own income - which had never been all that enormous, because if being rich is your ambition,you don't become a writer - went off a cliff as soon as the recession hit in 2008. It was the Royal Literary Fund, fondly known as 'The RLF,' which kept me afloat for three very enjoyable years as a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at De Montfort University. My contract required me to be on campus two days a week, and give all the help I could to students studying any subject, at any level, to improve their writing.

          I soon became aware that there were many bright, lively students, interested in their subject and knowledgeable about it, who nevertheless couldn't write a grammatical English sentence, couldn't construct an argument or an essay, couldn't write in the 'academic voice,' and couldn't punctuate or spell. It never occurred to many to redraft or edit. They hadn't a clue how to reduce their 5000 words to 2,500. They were stymied by writers' block.

          RLF Central received reports like this from all over the country, from every university where they had a Writing Fellow. In response they came up with the Consultancy Training Scheme, and the Consultant Register. The idea is not only to provide help for the students, but also to provide another income stream for the writers who gain accreditation as consultants.

          All of us RLF guinea-pigs had been RLF Writing Fellows, so we thought we knew what to expect. (There are, by the way, many photos of guinea-pigs wearing mortar-boards and even specs, on the internet, but none of them copyright-free. I thought you'd like to
know that. Make do with one of my favourite LOL cats instead.)
             I think I can speak for most of my fellow guinea-pigs when I say, we thought we knew, roughly, what we were in for - and blimey, were we wrong. The course was between three and five times harder than anything we'd braced ourselves for. We were punch-drunk before the end of the first 3-day training weekend.

          Quite rightly, the RLF intend their consultants to be able to pass muster in the world of Higher Education, so they didn't mess about. We were taken through Educational Theory, ways to approach universities, how to structure workshops, how to devise 'interactive exercises' and why they're necessary. We got tips on how the lay-out of a room influences learning, and how to build a relationship with the students. 'It starts outside the room, where they're waiting to come in,' said Max. 'Introduce yourself. Find out their names - and you've started a relationship, started to build a bond.' There was a lot more, over the 6 days of training, but my space here is short.

          We were provided with mentors to wail to and, being writers themselves, they were unfailingly supportive, helpful and
My lovely mentor, Katie Grant
understanding. I was lucky enough to be appointed to Katie Grant, author of the brilliant 'Sedition' and also of this fascinating piece in The Guardian. As a mentor, she was not only kindly and unfailingly soothing, but consistently offered truly constructive advice that steered me in the right direction. I'm not sure that I would have got through without her.
          At each step of the training, we had to do nerve-wracking 'presentations' to other trainees, or to real, live students bribed into taking part by the RLF. (But all the students reported that they'd enjoyed the experience for itself and would volunteer again.) After the workshops, we were given feedback, by mentors, other trainees, and students. We were told what our strengths were, and our weaknesses.

          At the end of this 'core training' came the 'work-experience.' We had to persuade some seat of learning to host us for a workshop, or workshops, which had to add up to at least three hours, and we had to devise and deliver a workshop, with 'learning activities'. The RLF paid us a fee for this, plus expenses, and also dispatched a mentor to observe our workshop and report on it. (A hardened Head of
Max Adams
Science of my acquaintance winced in sympathy and paled behind his beard when I told him this.) The RLF observation was made a little less painful, though, by the fact that the observer was another writer, and someone we knew. In my case it was, for my first workshop, the ex-archaelogist and historian, Max Adams, author of 'The King of The North.'

           For my second workshop, (I did one of 2 hours, and one of an hour) it was the Big Cheese himself, Trevor Day, who did the observing. So I felt I was thoroughly observed.

          We also had to hand out feedback forms to the students taking part, and get feedback from the 'client,' and all this feedback had to be forwarded to the RLF.

          After this, we had to complete a 2000 word 'reflective' account of how we'd designed the workshop, our thoughts on the experience, and how our thinking had changed. With at least 6 academic references.

          We had to pass on all these sections - the in-training presentations, the observed workshops, the reflective account, before we could gain accreditation. And I passed. There were times I was certain I wasn't going to, but I finally did.

          So what do I, and the other RLF Consultants, offer?

          There are many different approaches. Some consultants, such as Trevor himself, aim their workshops at academic staff and post-graduates, with the aim of helping them to improve their communication with the general public or potential employers.

          Others, like me, are more interested in sixth-formers and undergraduates. I want them to have a clear idea of what 'academic writing' is - what 'active' and 'passive' voice are, and how to use them. I want to arm them with some idea of how to structure an essay, and how to redraft one. This is one reason why I was assigned to Katie Grant, because she has been working like this with schools in Scotland for a while now. Much of the material I adapted in my work-experience work-shop came from Katie's 'Bridge' project. (I was also helped, with advice and material, by Authors Electric's own, our very own, Bill Kirton. Thanks, Bill!)
Author Electric Bill Kirton

          Another approach, and one I'd very much like to take part in next year, if I can, is the 'Immersive Essay-Writing' course. This was developed by Babs Horton and Tina Peplar, and has been a hit wherever it's been done. It involves two weekends, and one-to-one sessions during the week between.

          On the first of two successive Saturdays, a group of students come together with two consultants, bringing an essay they actually need to write. They are taken through exercises which get them started on their essay. At the end of the day, they are sent  away to write it.

          During the week, they can meet up with the consultants, for one-to-one advice and help. On the second Saturday, they come together as a group again, and there is a review of their work and more exercises. The aim is for them to lose their fear of essays, and to provide them with some of the skills they need to tackle any future essay or writing project that comes along.

          Here's my entry -
          I used what the RLF taught me about workshops to devise a three-hour session on 'how to build a scary story,' using the powerful (and very scary) 'Mr. Fox' story as a model. I feel it could be adapted to teach a better understanding of the structure underlying any story - or essay, for that matter. I had originally
intended to use it for school children and students, but Trevor suggested that school teachers might find it equally useful, to better their own understanding of creative writing.

          At the moment, Trevor Day is working with the RLF on improving their Consultancy Training, based on feedback from us guinea-pigs.

          Anyone wishing to learn more about the consultancy service can either contact a consultant individually - their contact details are on the site - or, for a more general question, fill in the form on the site's 'contact' page.




madwippitt said…
Blimey, sounds exhausting ... but congratulations!
Do you now finally qualify for that wood panelled study with the roaring log fire and decanted port close to hand where you can read extracts of your latest book to the adoring students sitting at your feet though? :-)
Bill Kirton said…
Chapeau, Susan. I'm with MW on this one. Sounds far too much like hard work to me.
It's a wonderful initiative by the RLF, though, and I think their intervention into the problems of literacy in Higher Education has had a significant impact. In all the years I had as an academic, I never really 'taught' much in the way of writing skills. I think we all made assumptions they'd be in place. It was only when I spent time as an RLF Fellow that I realised how harmful such assumptions could be. Also, apart from any benefits the students any have got out of the sessions we had, I learned a helluva lot about writing myself. We do it instinctively, but it's only when we have to step back and ask ourselves 'Wait a minute, HOW do we do it? WHAT exactly is it that we do?' that we begin to understand the mechanics of it all.
I bet you'll find the hard work was well worth it as your consultancy progresses.
Kathleen Jones said…
Congratulations! It sounds exhausting and very, very exacting Sue. I, too, was an RLF and horrified by the students' lack of basic literacy. However did they get to Uni without being able to write an essay? I'm getting involved with a new project based in the community being explored in August. I think their work is fantastic and a life-line for impoverished authors.
Lydia Bennet said…
yes congratulations Sue, brilliant, and they are very lucky to have you - both RLF and any students you teach. while this all sounds very laudable, I'm a bit puzzled by a couple of things, eg why don't unis teach students how to be academics in the first place, esp now that schools teach to exams and nothing outside them? Also, the system of helping writers earn by putting on these clearly excellent and needed courses can only work if the orgs are willing to pay RLF bods to do them - are they still willing to do this during the recession? I've heard in a similar situation, unis desperately drawing in foreign students particularly from the far east/China whose parents pay massive fees for the privilege, and who arrive with poor English - someone I knew was teaching them remedial English but was made redundant as they didn't see the need to pay anyone... good luck with your hard-won new venture!
Dennis Hamley said…
Fascinating, Sue. Five years ago, William Bedford and Jane Bingham, both RLF fellows at Brookes, suggested I apply, but it seemed too much like hard work. I'd spent a professional lifetime correcting bad grammar and had had enough and besides, I was teaching on the Diploma. But now I don't know. You show that isn't a chore, it's a noble calling and probably a lot more use than raising the hopes of talented people most likely doomed to disappointment. Would I be too old now? Do they cut you off in your prime?
Susan Price said…
Bill, everything you say is absolutely right - from the lack of writing skills among students, to how much the writer learns in teaching them.

And Kathleen, I think every RLF writer I've ever met has also been astonished at the number of students coming to them - 2nd and 3rd years sometimes - who don't know how to use paragraphs, can't spell, can't punctuate... The list goes on and on. It's not just one or two students either, it's many. And more than one of the students I saw told me that they were baffled by their poor marks because they wrote good essays at school!

Valerie - I think part of the problem is, there's a huge gap between the standards demanded even in 6th form in schools, and the standards expected at university. For years, in schools, there's been less emphasis on grammar and more on 'expression.' And then, in a school, a teacher is working with a far wider range of students - from those interested in the subject and motivated, to those who just want to be somewhere else. As one of my mentors said to me, 'Most of teachers' energy goes into crowd control.'

So some of these students go on to university, and suddenly find they're writing for an entirely different audience - a very small audience,dedicated to one subject, and assuming mastery of all reading/writing skills. Lecturers make little or no allowance for anyone who struggles with these. And so these students flounder, and lose marks and confidence - and fail. Yet they know their subject. They can sit in an RLF's office and explain it well. They just can't write it down in a way that conveys any sense.

And there are many, many foreign students who can hardly speak English, let alone write it - I met some of them. (There are also many who speak very good, if slightly bent English, and will argue you into the ground if you venture to straighten it. 'But my tutor in Hong Kong said...' I eventually took to saying, 'I have medals for my English!' Even then, they weren't convinced that I knew it better than their tutor in Hong Kong.
Susan Price said…
Dennis, I don't think you'd be too old - and you'd be superb at the job. Problem is, you'd be so good at it, you'd have an unending queue of students - and you wouldn't be able to say, 'No, I've got to go home now,' would you?

I think all the RLF places are booked up for next year, though - and there is more and more competition for them, because of the recession - which is partly why the RLF started the consultancy programme.

No harm in enquiring, though. Go to the RLF website, and to the 'Fellowship' section.
Elizabeth said…
I was lucky enough to get a one to one session with Max Adams at Newcastle. It was great and so positive. But, as you say Susan, when an RLF fellow is really good its hard to get a slot. I couldn't get another one because it was at the same time as the undergraduate dissertations. You had to book him months in advance. He still offered to read my work though, which wasn't really what I needed. If he was offering this service to all the people that he couldn't fit in he must have been working way over the two days. I loved his Collingwood book.
Chris Longmuir said…
I take my hat off to you, Susan. I am so impressed with what you've done, I have severe doubts I would have been able to accomplish what you have, or even whether I would have been able to stay the course. Congratulations on your success.
Penny Dolan said…
Such an interesting overview of all that you and the other RLF consultants undertook, Sue. I remember, back in the 90's, what could be called a movement in education that suggested students (esp the various sciences) should be marked for what they knew, not for their essay writing skills. So maybe exams were designed that way (becoming tick boxes & so easier to mark?) and that's where the essay writing problems began. So about time this need was recognised and good to know there's now help. The RLF Fellows & Consultants placements are such an excellent initiative. All power to everyone involved and to your "medals in English", Sue.
Nick Green said…
I'm a copywriter by day, and the number of times I get into arguments with colleagues over some point of grammar or syntax, and they are convinced beyond doubt that they are right and I am wrong... "But that's what I learned at school." Yup, I say to myself, silently, and that would be primary school I take it...

But of course it's not just grammar. It's how to clarify a thought and then articulate it in such a way that a reader can receive it in the most useful form. I keep telling them: it's IT. It's the original Information Technology.
Susan Price said…
Great point about the 'original information technology,' Nick!

And thank you, everyone, for your positive comments.

Elizabeth - yes, Max is an inspiring, enthusiastic lecturer. During the consultancy training, he gave us an impromtu teaching demonstration. He took Wright's painting of the alchemist experimenting on a bird, and used it in a dazzling number of ways to open up all kinds of discussions - historical, creative writing, science vs art, philosophy. I'm not surprised he was booked up months ahead!
Susan Price said…
Oh, and Madwippet, I keep telling you, IKEA don't do wood-panelled studies...
Congratulations on getting through, Sue! A very interesting post, especially since I am just about to start as a RLF Fellow this autumn.

But hearing how much work you have taken on, I'm getting a little concerned... how are you ever going to find the time to write another fabulous book like the Sterkarm Handshake now you're a high-flying RLF consultant?
Susan Price said…
Thank you, Katherine - but haven't so much a fluttered a wing yet. I think you'll love being an RLF, but your wonderful books might be slowed down from full gallop!
julia jones said…
congratulations - sounds thoroughly professional and worthwhile. Just get those darling undergrads writing confidently, intelligibly and like human beings. Please!
I'm full of admiration, Susan, (coming late to this - been away) but it sounds exhausting. Good for you for doing it though. I was an RLF Fellow here at the University of the West of Scotland for a time. They were a great organisation to work with: very supportive and the money was so welcome. However, a few years after I finished my stint there, they axed the fellowship after a short spell when the numbers seemed to be going down. I'd worked my socks off to build it up from scratch - and it had been growing steadily. Universities such as UWS take a great many students into third year from further education colleges. They are bright and motivated, but often struggle with formal writing. Arguably these kind of universities need more support than, for example, the Russell Group institutions that could well afford to pay for extra help - and should be paying for it in my opinion. I was - and remain - rather disappointed in the RLF. I helped students who had hardly done any formal writing and saw them progress and change and grow. Sometimes I would have eight or nine one-to-one appointments in a day and would stagger home exhausted at the end of it, but it was worthwhile, especially when somebody chased after me through the town to tell me that she had passed all her exams with top marks, where before she had struggled to scrape through. The gap between school and university or between college and university for these kids can be a yawning chasm and they are simply not prepared for it. I don't know what the answer is but schools should certainly do more. Colleges should prepare them for the harsh realities of relatively unsupported learning and Universities should also fund more practical support instead of shrugging their shoulders at the problem.

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