How to Write a Cracking Reader’s Report

In case any of you were longing for a blog entry from me last week, I was on holidays. On my return, I was delighted to discover a lovely new project waiting for me in my inbox, in which I get paid to read. It’s a reader’s report for an author who has finished a memoir and wants to find out whether it is ready for publication.

A reader’s report is a curious beast, as it crosses the line between writing and editing. It’s a comprehensive critique of a novel, a memoir or a short story collection, with editorial suggestions that authors can apply immediately, either to complete their writing project or to polish it up for publication.

How The Report Is Compiled

I start by reading through the author’s story almost as if I were a casual reader, letting the words sink in. But I take notes along the way, making observations that I can later turn into recommendations. After I’ve finished, it’s time to get down to brass tacks and start giving my verdict on the story. I’ll always start with the strong points in the story, to encourage authors and give them a feeling of confidence. Then I compile a set of recommendations, which I divide into different sections.

The most important sections are the ones that deal with the building blocks of story: character, setting and plot. I help them to flesh out their characters and pay attention to how their characters interact. I encourage them to draw on the senses to create a strong sense of place for readers. Finally, I advise them on ways to pace their plot and ensure the plot holds the reader’s interests. 

Finer Details of Story

I then go into the finer details of story. The point of view a story is told from can shape how the story develops. I advise them on how to achieve a consistent point of view and how to make seamless changes in viewpoint. I’ll advise them on whether their dialogue reads the way people would speak and show them how to lay it out correctly. A reader’s report is more about giving broad editorial suggestions than editing an author’s language or tweaking the layout. However, if I notice recurring language or layout errors, I will flag these to the author.

Reader’s reports steer authors through the maze of their ideas.

These editorial suggestions usually apply to both fiction and memoir, because authors are using many of the same storytelling skills and are taking a creative approach to writing about their lives. However, for memoir writers, libel can be an issue, so I give general advice on material that could be libellous and suggest they contact a good libel solicitor.

Why Reader’s Reports Work

For all reader’s reports, I will then give a conclusion, summarising my recommendations and giving authors suggestions on how to further develop their stories. Some may need to flesh out the story to make it long enough for publishing. Others may need to work on the building blocks of story to make the story more convincing. Some lucky authors are more or less ready to go, with just a few suggestions from me to take them over the finishing line.

For me, creating reader’s reports is very satisfying, as it gives me a chance to help other writers achieve their writing dreams. For the authors, my hope is that the reader’s report will guide them through the maze of writing a book and help them over the finish line. If they’re getting ready to report, my reader’s reports will give them access to an objective view that they can use to help them decide if they will publish. If you’d like to find out more about how a reader’s report can help you achieve your writing goals, check out the WriteWords writing consultancy services.

Create Powerful Stories From Your Own Life

A couple of years ago, I gave a series of one-day memoir writing workshops, which gave people a chance to write about their lives. The workshops were a success, so I decided to revive them.

I was delighted to discover that interest in memoir writing was still as strong as ever, and the workshop soon filled up. On a Sunday morning, ten women gathered in a beautiful, sunny room to begin unlocking their memories and turning those memories into stories.

This writing workshop aimed to show the participants that their daily lives contained all the material they needed for stories. It would also show them that they only needed to record their lives with one small story at a time, event by event. This would take away that sense of drowning in story that often paralyses people and stops them from writing.

Building Stories

We began with the building blocks of story, which I’ve discussed in previous blog posts. After warm-ups, we did one exercise to cover each of the three building blocks: plot, character and setting. For plot, the participants recorded a small but significant injustice that happened to them when they were young. Everyone has a story like this – a time when they were promised a prize that wasn’t delivered, or when they were left out of a family occasion. Small incidents that sear themselves into your memory. Recording them makes for vivid stories.

Then we moved to character, and the participants did a character sketch, a sort of portrait in words of someone significant in their lives. They wrote CV type details like their name, age and address, described their appearance, and gave more personal details, like their hobbies, jobs, and family circumstances. The most important part of the sketch was the character’s secret past, a detail about them that was unusual or wasn’t known to the general public. This detail often forms the basis for rich stories.

Finally, we discussed setting, the time and the place where a story happens, and the characters wrote about rooms in their houses that meant a lot to them. I asked them to write about their bedrooms, as people often have a strong relationship with their bedroom, but they could write about any room that they were attached to. They wrote about what the room looked like, sounded like and smelled like, and most importantly, how it made them feel.

Journey Through the Senses

After lunch, it was time for a journey through the senses. With memories of good food still in their minds, the participants captured the taste of oranges, which can be a challenging fruit, and recorded a memory of a meal which was either horrible or delicious.

Oranges work all of a writer’s senses.

Then they told the life stories of unusual objects. I gave each of them an object from my collection of weird treasures, and they imagined where it came from, what adventures it had had and how it came to be here. This exercise was the hit of the day, producing vivid stories packed with event and emotion.

Finally, we travelled through soundscapes, recording the sounds we loved and despised, and listening to a piece of music which produced mixed reactions. The participants were asked to pick five words that came to mind when they heard the music. I deliberately pick pieces of music that aren’t easy on the ear, based on the fact that uncomfortable sensations produce writing that is just as eloquent as that produced by beautiful sensations.

If you feel you’d like to record your own memories through story and you’d like to be included in an upcoming memoir workshop, send me an email on and I’ll add you to my newsletter mailing list. 00

How to Deliver a Supercalifragilistic Creative Writing Workshop for Kids

This week, I gave a creative writing workshop in a primary school. Not that unusual, you might think, but schools can be a hard nut to crack. They have tight budgets and don’t want to burden parents any more than they have to. But this workshop came about in the loveliest and most unexpected way.

I was chatting to my local librarian, a wonderfully dynamic woman called Tracy McEneaney, and she happened to mention that a school had been in touch asking if the library knew of anyone who gave creative writing workshops in schools. Tracy suggested I give her a quote and she would pass it on to the school. Within hours of sending in my quote, I was booked to give two workshops at that school, to two classes of children aged eight and nine.

Challenges of Delivering a Creative Writing Workshop

Immediately, I was faced with two challenges. One was that the workshops were only three days away. The other is that each of the workshops was to last just one hour. But I had a ready supply of activities which were more or less guaranteed to work. And an hour was enough to give the children an introduction to writing skills.

I usually like to have children complete a story within the timeframe of a creative writing workshop, and that wasn’t going to be possible on this occasion. But when you’re delivering a workshop in a school, you’re dealing with children of all abilities, so it’s more important to design your workshop in a way that gives every child a chance to take part.

The Ingredients of Story

I began by introducing the children to the story hat. This is a hat I bring to every workshop and it looks quite eccentric, so it’s a great way of breaking the ice. They all hat a chance to look at the hat and try it on, and then they wrote a story in a sentence about the hat, beginning with, ‘This hat is…’

This got us off to a flying start, and it was now time to introduce the three ingredients of story. The first of these is character, and I availed of the classroom’s interactive whiteboard for the character activity. I put a picture of a strange-looking old man on the computer screen, and got the children to create a portrait of this man in words. They gave him a name, an age, and a place to live. And they gave him a superpower which made him stand out from the crowd.

My magical storytelling hat, picture taken by moi.

The second ingredient was setting. Children love writing activities relating to setting, and this activity was a big hit, particularly with the second group of children I worked with. I got them to imagine what would happen if an alien landed in their classroom. That alien would never have seen Earth before. What would it see? What would it hear? The children drew the alien and the classroom, and wrote words in a speech bubble, imagining what the alien would say when it landed in their classroom.

Time was pretty tight, but we were able to squeeze in the third ingredient, plot. I did an activity called What If, based on the idea that many stories begin when a writer asks what if. The children were asked to write down three things they would do if they were invisible. Needless to say, they envisaged all kinds of mayhem.

The Delights of Writing in Schools

These two groups of children were among the most responsive I have ever worked with. My requests to share their writing were met with a forest of hands. They not only ran with every prompt I gave them; they added their own twists to it. And the ideas they came up with were creative, inventive, and hilariously funny. I left the classroom on a high which lasted for about two days, and I still feel a warm glow when I think about it.

I’ve developed an appetite for giving creative writing workshops in schools now, so if you happen to work in a school in the Waterford/Tipperary area and you like the sound of the workshops I offer, drop me an email on

Want to Write About Your Life?

When I tell people I give creative writing classes, one of the most frequent comments I get is. “Really? I’ve always wanted to write my life story.” There is a great hunger in people to set their experiences down on paper and record their lives for themselves, for their children and for the wider world. That’s why when I was submitting a proposal for my next creative writing workshop in Dungarvan, Co. Waterford, I chose to deliver a memoir-writing workshop Write About Your Life.

The goal of the workshop will be to help people put a shape on the stories they want to tell. Writing about your life can be overwhelming. How do you sift through a lifetime of memories and pick out the most important one? The workshop will help people create a filter for those memories and focus on specific ones. A lot of the techniques of fiction work well in memoir-writing, so people will learn how to use plot, character and setting to bring their memories to life.

Here’s a flavour of the activities the participants will be doing in the workshop.

Writing About Characters

All of our lives are shaped by the people around us, for better or worse. Those people are usually our family, but they can be friends, teachers or local community figures as well. People will write a character sketch about a person who meant a lot to them, and do other activities that will help them get to know their characters better and bring them to life. They’ll also explore the connections between themselves and the people in their lives by drawing up their family tree.

Exploring our connections with the people in our lives

Writing About Place

People have a huge attachment to the places where they grew up, even if their relationship with that place is sometimes troubling. The aim of the activities connected to setting will be to help participants see the places in their lives with new eyes and find the extraordinary within the ordinary. Participants will write about rooms in their homes that they have a deep attachment to, such as the kitchen or bedroom. They’ll also imagine that they’re aliens who have just landed in front of their childhood home. To the alien, this will be a strange sight, and they will write a report about what they see and hear to send to the mothership.

Writing About Events

Our lives may not make the news, but they’re still full of events that provide rich materials for stories. Some are life-changing; others are small yet significant. Participants will write about events in their life as if they were news, which will give them a sense of the power of their own story. They’ll also do activities that will show them how interactions between themselves and the other people in their lives can form the basis for stories.

How have you approached writing about your own life? Have you used time period or theme as a basis for it? If you’re a creative writing tutor, what activities do you do to help people shape their stories?

What I Hope for My Creative Writing Participants

Tonight, I’ll be manning a table at an enrolment night for people who want to do night classes at Colaiste Chathail Naofa, the further education college in Dungarvan in south-east Ireland. I’m giving an eight-week creative writing course as part of their night class programme, and after the success of the class I gave there last year, I’m looking forward to getting stuck in again.

The college where I’ll be giving my workshop. Taken from the Colaiste Chathail Naofa website.

Each of the participants who sign up will have their own hopes for what the class will offer them, and contrary to popular opinion, these don’t always include getting published. But here are my three hopes for the participants, if I’m lucky enough to get the numbers for a class.

1.      That they’ll learn how stories are put together

Each class will cover a different aspect of storytelling. As well as the core techniques like character, setting and plot, participants will learn how to tell a story from a particular point of view, how to use the senses to create vivid description and how a story’s theme can influence its structure. Some people are bookworms and enjoy seeing how their favourite writers put together books. Others will use the techniques to add depth to the stories they’re writing.

2.      That they’ll write their own stories

This course is aimed at people who have never written before. It’s important that a course has a solid outcome, a tangible result of their efforts. In this case, I hope the outcome will be a complete story, created by the participants. As the weeks unfold, I hope they’ll grow in confidence and that they’ll achieve that outcome. Some people come in with an idea already and some find that the course activities trigger an idea.

3. That they’ll realise they have something special to say

This is the true power of creative writing. It helps people to see that they have their own unique voice, and that they have a story to tell which other people will want to hear. Exploring that story and bringing it to life gives people a real sense of satisfaction and confidence. Even if they never look at the story they wrote again, or write another word, the participants will have the satisfaction of knowing they told their own story, and that it was heard.

What reason did you have for going to creative writing classes? Were your hopes realised? If you give creative writing classes, what hopes do you have for your participants?  


 This course is aimed at people who have never written before. It’s important that a course has a solid outcome, a tangible result of their efforts. In this case, I hope the outcome will be a complete story, created by the participants. As the weeks unfold, I hope they’ll grow in confidence and that they’ll achieve that outcome. Some people come in with an idea already and some find that the course activities trigger an idea.

3.      That they realise they have something valuable to say

This is the true power of creative writing. It helps people to see that they have their own unique voice, and that they have a story to tell which other people will want to hear. Exploring that story and bringing it to life gives people a real sense of satisfaction and confidence. Even if they never look at the story they wrote again, or write another word, the participants will have the satisfaction of knowing they told their own story, and that it was heard.

Why did you start going to creative writing classes? Were your hopes realised? If you give creative writing classes, what hopes do you have for your participants?  


Teenage Writing Workshop in Waterford Library

It’s workshop season again, and to celebrate that, I’m resurrecting this blog. The first workshop on the horizon is for teenagers at Waterford Central Library. I was asked to do it as part of a programme of children’s events to celebrate Culture Night on 16 September. I had approached the library about doing workshops for younger children and adults, and those will come to pass, but first, they’ve asked me to help teenagers put a story together in 90 minutes.

Waterford Central Library
Pic from Waterford Central Library


The prospect makes me gulp slightly. Trying to reach teenagers through their hormonal fog can be a bit of a challenge. The workshop is on a Friday, straight after school, when they’re probably a bit tired and fed up with being told what to do by adults all week long. Luckily, I have access to a teenager, and to get an insight into what might hold their attention, I put him on the spot and asked him straight out. He suggested that teenagers like near-future stories where the world is almost the same, but not quite.

I had been considering the possibility of devising a near-future dystopian story, so it was good to have my instincts confirmed. I also know that superhero stories are always a winner, especially with younger people. So I am devising a story set in a near-future world which is recognisable, but something vital is missing that needs to be retrieved. The teenagers will create an unlikely superhero tasked with retrieving that missing ingredient, invent the world where the action happens and decide how their hero will succeed in their mission.

After warm-ups to get rid of the post-school cobwebs, it will be time to get down to business, with activities to come up with the character, setting and plot for the story.

What If: I sense that teenagers are more driven by plot than character when they read, so we’ll start with the plot. Many great stories start with the question “what if?” I will give the teenagers three what-if scenarios, related to the upcoming story, and they will come up with three things they would do in each circumstance. For example: what if you were transported to another time?

Character Sketch: I will give the teenagers a picture of a “geeky” superhero and they will write a profile of the character they see in the picture. They will fill in the profile under various headings, such as name, age and family background. The most important heading is “Secret Power,” in which the teenagers will identify the superhero power that will help the character succeed in their task.

Report from the Future: Characters need a world to inhabit, and the teenagers will imagine they have been transported into the future world where their story will be set. They send back a report about this world, describing what they see and experience. I will guide them towards describing a world where everything looks nearly the same, but there is something missing, something that is needed to make the world a better place.

Story Spine: When the teenagers have done the activities, they will use the information they have gathered to fill in a story spine. A story spine provides a structure for a story. It consists of a series of sentences with blank spaces. The writer fills in those spaces to decide what will be included in the story. You could say it’s the bones of a story. If time allows, the participants will add flesh to those bones and write a full-length story.

By the end of the workshop, the teenagers will have created their very own story. And if I play my cards right and grab their interest, I will be rewarded by their humour, their inventiveness and their imagination.

Do you facilitate creative writing workshops for teenagers, or write books for teenagers? What do you do to hold their attention?

The Storytime Express Comes to Waterford

You’d be surprised how quickly you can put a story together. Of course, to bring it to publishing standard takes months or even years, but the basic idea can emerge in a matter of hours. I give a workshop for beginning writers to help them kickstart their stories, and after just two hours, they come out with the first draft of a story. I’ll be giving that workshop for an upcoming writing festival, Waterford Writers’ Weekend. I call it The Storytime Express. Due to the demands of the schedule, it’ll be three hours instead of two, but that will give the participants some much needed breathing space.

Overall, I hope the workshop will give people the confidence to start writing and the power to tell their own story. I also want them to feel that sense of accomplishment that comes from producing a complete piece of writing that is their own creation. At the very least, they’ll come out with a story plan that they can develop in their own time.

Building the Story

After some icebreaking activities, we’ll start to build the story by creating a character, setting and plot. They’ll be given a picture of a strange looking old man and be asked to create a character for him. Then they’ll sell a destination, writing a brochure blub for a place with a wacky name. Finally, they’ll be given a headline and will write the story behind the headline. These activities will form the ingredients for their story.

Maurice Murgatroyd
The unlikely hero of our express story.


Planning the Story

After a well-earned break, it’ll be time to combine those ingredients together to make the story. The template I have devised for the story is that a valuable treasure has been stolen and the old man is the unlikely choice to get it back. It’s your classic quest narrative. I will outline that template with a story spine, which is a series of sentences with blank spaces for you to fill in. They’ll use the information from the three previous activities to complete the story spine.wr

Writing the Story

Now it’s time to add flesh to the skeleton of the story and to create a story with a beginning, middle and end. Depending on time, the participants spend the rest of the session writing the story. If they finish reasonably quickly, we’ll spend the last 10-15 minutes hearing the stories, and enjoying the surprise of the participants at how creative they can be in a short space of time.


If anyone reading this blog is in the Waterford area and likes the sound of this workshop, it’s on Saturday 7 May at Greyfriars Gallery from 10am-1pm. Visit the website for details on how to book.

School of Writing

I’ve never skydived, but I imagine that in that moment before skydivers launch themselves from the plane, their stomachs give a little lurch, as they stare at the vast nothingness below them. That’s the way I felt when I stood in front of 25 lively children, about to deliver a creative writing workshops.

I’ve been running creative writing camps for children aged 8-12 for the past four years, but this was my first venture into a primary school. In a creative writing camp, you hope that children at least want to be there, that they love literature enough to write during their school holidays. In a school, you’re dealing with a bigger crowd, and some of those children will be about as interested in writing as they would be in pricking their eyeballs with matchsticks. But I had developed a structure and I had to trust that it would be my parachute, bringing me through the workshop without a scratch.

Relationship Building

The first 10 minutes of a children’s writing workshop are crucial. During that time, you need to build a rapport, so that, to be frank, they’ll be more likely to do what you ask. So I donned a silly hat, my most reliable prop. I wore it at ridiculous angles, because if you want to get children on your side, it really helps to look ridiculous.

The children got a chance to try on the hat, and they came up with words to describe it. Mouldy, hideous and wizard were top of the list. I just love the way children don’t hold back. They  then told a chain story about the life and times of the hat, with each child contributing a sentence.

Magical Storytelling Hat
My magical storytelling hat, picture taken by moi.

We also played a game called Animal Names, where each child said their name and the name of an animal whose name had the same first letter as their names, for example, Jake the Jaguar. I used the occasion to display my range of animal noises, which went down pretty well.

Ingredients of Story

After some more games to break down inhibitions, it was time to start putting the story together. Another good way to get children on side is to play to their interests. That way, even if they’re not much into writing, they’ll at least they’ll be interested in what they’re writing about. In a group of boys and girls, as this was, music is a good common denominator. So I structured a story called The Land of Music, about a land where the people are all gifted at music. Disaster strikes when a valuable instrument is stolen, and it must be returned so the people can continue playing their music.

We did three activities to help the children come up with a character, setting and plot for their story. They involved:

  • Creating a character profile of a seemingly geeky superhero, whose job it is to return the instrument
  • Drawing a map of the mythical musical land, the world the superhero lives in.
  • Some uncomfortable questioning of the Mayor of the capital city to establish how such a horror could have happened.

Everyone Can Write

Now the ingredients had been gathered, it was time to write the story. The children did a story spine to complete the story I explained to the children that your spine holds your body together, and this story spine would hold their story together. A story spine is a set of sentences with blanks that you fill in to complete a story. The children used the information from the three earlier activities to fill in the blanks, and all the pieces slotted into place.

In a primary school, the group you work with will have mixed abilities and some children will have low literacy levels, as was the case with this group. The beauty of a story spine is that you only have to write one or two words in each sentence, so everyone gets to come away with a completed story, regardless of their ability or inclination.

The children’s stories were funny, inventive, imaginative and sometimes quite dark. The more literary-oriented ones changed a lot of the details in the story spine and started exploring their own ideas. But the outstanding achievement I witnessed came from the child with low literacy. With the help of the teacher, she came up with ideas and filled in the blanks. Then she read the story to the class. It wasn’t easy for her, but she persevered. Nine months earlier, she had come to the school unable to read. Now she was the author of her own story.

What Is A Big Picture Edit?

Last week, I did what I call a big picture edit for a client who wanted two short stories evaluated. Big picture edit is the writerly term that I like to put on it, but officially this kind of editing is called developmental editing. Developmental editors differ from proofreaders and copy editors because rather than zero in on spelling, grammar and other details, they look at the whole story. They give in-depth evaluations of the overall story, the bits that work and the bits that don’t. Authors can then use their feedback to drive the story forward.

Developmental editors will help you develop your story.
Developmental editors will help you develop your story.

What aspects of a story do developmental editors look at?

Storytelling Techniques: Developmental editors focus on authors use the building blocks of story: character and how they interact, settling and plot. They will tell you whether the point of view you have used for your story is convincing, whether your dialogue sounds natural and what you can do to give your story momentum. For example, I may tell an author that there needs to be more conflict in their character interactions, or that the story needs a defining event to make it more interesting for readers.

Technical Points: When I do a developmental edit, I don’t correct spelling, grammar or sentence structure, but I do highlight consistent errors that need to be corrected. They will also advise on layout issues, such as the correct way to lay out dialogue. I will comment on how effectively the author uses language overall and flag up instances where authors over-rely on certain words, or choose words that aren’t appropriate to the context of the sentence.

When should I go for a developmental edit?

It is not a good idea to go for a developmental edit until you have at least edited your first draft yourself. Any earlier than that and the editor’s input may interfere too much with the development of the story. There are two reasons to use a developmental editor. One is if you feel you’ve done all you can with the story, but it’s still lacking, and you want to know how to take it to the next level. The other is if you want to assess whether your story is ready for publication or not.

What are the benefits of a developmental edit??

A lot of authors use a team of “beta readers,” who read the manuscript and give their feedback. This is certainly useful, but the problem is that a lot of the time, these beta readers are known to the authors. A developmental editor will give you a totally unbiased opinion. This is particularly useful if you’re not part of a writing community and the only person who’s seen the manuscript is yourself. The developmental editor will also have a lot of professional expertise which the beta reader may not have, and your story will benefit from that expertise. Using a developmental editor will ensure that your precious story is ready to go out into the world.

Have you ever used a developmental editing or critiquing service? How useful did you find it? Do you offer these services yourself? If so, how do you approach it?

The Story Spine

This week, I’ll be doing my express creative writing workshops in two libraries. These workshops aim to help people put together stories in the shortest possible time, in this case, two hours. You may be wondering how it’s possible to tell your story in two hours. It’s actually surprisingly doable, particularly with the help of a story spine. I’ve introduced story spines to my workshops in recent times to speed up the process of writing their stories.

What is a story spine, you might ask?

It may be trite to say this, but it is literally the spine of your story. Like the spine in your body, it holds your story together. It gives you a structure that you can add flesh to. It’s a series of sentences with words deliberately left out, so it’s up to you to decide how the sentence is completed. The sentences are designed to help you plot the beginning, middle and end of your story.

A story spine is a skeleton that you can hang your story on.
A story spine is a skeleton that you can hang your story on.

What to Put in A Story Spine

The first sentences introduce you to your character.

There was once a man called ____

They also set the scene

He lived in a ______

In the middle of the story, a problem is presented which the character must solve. You also learn more about the character and their role in the story.

The treasure was stolen because _____

Only (the character) could rescue it, because _________

Towards the end of the story, the story spine centres on how the problem is resolved.

(The character) got the treasure back when he ______-

Technical Point

You’ll notice I put (the character) in brackets. When creating your story spine, you’ll need to be careful about how to refer to the character, since you don’t know what sort of character the write creates. When referring to the character, I put (name) in brackets after the blank space, so the writer can insert the name they’ve chosen for their character. Elsewhere, I refer to the character as he/she, and the writer can cross out whichever pronoun doesn’t apply.

Bringing the Story Together

Story spines are beneficial because they help people organise their thoughts and they can see how the ingredients of a story fit together. In the workshops I’ll be doing this week, we’ll do three activities to help participants come up with a character, plot and setting. The participants will then use the ideas they came up with during the activities to fill out the story spine. By filling it out, they’ll start to see how they can use the information they gathered during the activities to help them finish the story.

When they finish the story spine, they then flesh out the story. I indicate to them which parts of the story spine to use for the beginning, which for the middle and which for the end. For example, sentences 1-6 could be used to set the scene in the beginning, 7-12 for the climactic middle and 12-18 for the exciting ending.

Have you ever used story spines yourself, as a creative writing student or tutor?