Page the Consultant! - Or, A Guinea-Pig's Tale - by Susan Price
RLF 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
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.')
Dr Trevor Day
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 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
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.
|My lovely mentor, Katie Grant|
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
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 - http://rlfconsultants.com/consultants/susan-price/
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.