A practical approach to constructive criticism.

I’m going to set down a practical approach to providing constructive criticism in poetry, because this is the area I have most experience in, both as a recipient and a provider of feedback. I hope some of this is transferable to other genres.

I would appreciate any comments, criticisms or addition ideas.

1)  Read carefully, paying attention to every line, every word. I make notes from the beginning, partly so that my first impressions are available and accessible later. Others may prefer to read through without making notes, but I like to capture first impressions. One reason for this is that the title and first lines are so vital in poetry, and if they don’t appeal on first reading I think this may be something to look at.
A good reason for politely declining an invitation to provide feedback (and there are others which I’ll write about another time) is the amount of time involved in careful reading, note taking and summarising . Better not to agree to look at someone’s manuscript then to end up feeling pressured and possibly resentful.

2)  A second or third reading might be the one when things make better sense, when the strengths or weakness of a poem become easier to see. If I haven’t read carefully the recipient will know because my comments or suggestions will reveal a lack of understanding or even a misreading. If I don’t understand something I’ll make a note of it and write something like ‘I read this line a few times because I wasn’t clear about such and such ’ I’ll try to explain what my interpretation was so that the writer can see how the line might be unintentionally ambiguous, open to misinterpretation or confusion.

3)  If you are giving a summary I think it’s best to begin by erring on the positive. By starting positively you will encourage the recipient to read on and make it easier to take on any suggestions for changes.  Researchers have highlighted that humans have a ‘negativity bias’.  This means that we are likely to dwell on any fault-finding rather than on compliments. Recipients are also likely to focus on any part of the feedback they consider factually wrong, and to fixate on it. This again reinforces the idea that If feedback is to perform its intended function of helping the recipient to improve, it needs to be delivered skilfully.

Giving constructive criticism is a skill that can be learned. Obviously the  person you are offering to help needs to know what didn’t work or confused you about their writing. But along with clarity of communication you will need tact. Maybe grace is too strong a word- perhaps consideration is best.

As a side issue, perhaps it would be helpful if recipients of feedback were aware of ‘negativity bias’ in order to make them better at dealing with it and to make a conscious effort to balance out the negative with any positives. In addition it will be easier to do this if the feedback is clear and of a certain quality.

4)  If the provider of the feedback is struggling to find positive things to say, it might be possible to find a strength in the idea or concept behind the poem. Even if the language hasn’t worked as far as you are concerned, it might be possible to appreciate the idea and to encourage the recipient to approach it in another way.

The bath water is not the baby, and you can often pick up when a piece is in its early stages. A promising idea is more likely to develop if feedback is nurturing and does not remorselessly focus on the negative. While your support and encouragement is valuable, showering praise and neglecting to comment on things you think can be improved is worthless. A lot depends on where the writer is in terms of confidence and self belief, and understanding of how good constructive criticism works- aspects of the interaction that are beyond your control.

5) Using questions to help illustrate and stimulate

Trying to get across that something in a poem doesn’t work for me involves thinking about how to express this. I try to avoid negative language and often phrase my issue in a question such as

‘It might be better if’ or ‘Is there another way to say this?’ I try to qualify these questions by saying why I think a change might improve the poem.

6) Concrete suggestions

Sometimes I will offer concrete suggestions. I often have an internal debate about whether to do this or not as I don’t want to take over the poem and believe that it’s better if the poet comes to their own word.  For example, if I think a word is weak, vague or overused, I used to offer some possible alternatives. Now, I often hold back
and just explain why I think a word could be removed or replaced. This is an area for debate and I suppose you might tailor your style to the recipient by asking them if they would appreciate suggestions before offering them.  Incidentally I won’t use the word ‘weak’. Better to think up less negative words, or to imply that something could be stronger.

7) Empathetic reading

I know from my own writing that it is hard to take out lines or words that I think are particularly good. But if they are not serving the piece as a whole they may be doing the opposite. For example, I might have to choose between 3 or 4 metaphors because I realise I only need 1 or 2. To keep all 4 (even though I’m in love with all of them and think they are very clever) would upset the balance of the poem. It is difficult to accept that some of these ‘really good’ bits might have to go, or at least taken out and perhaps used elsewhere. All you can do is explain that you know all these metaphors are good, but that you think the whole poem will benefit if only one are two are allowed space to shine and show their style and elegance unhindered by what might be considered rivals for the reader’s attention. This is only one example.

8) Feedback on feedback. Following up.

It is probably inevitable that there will be occasions when the recipient of your feedback will feel a bit deflated, particularly if you have made a lot of suggestions.
If you have given your response in order to help the writer and done so carefully and attentively and constructively, you will hopefully minimize this deflation. As well as checking to see the effect of your feedback out of concern or curiosity, it is good for your own learning, perhaps after a short break, to ask whether your comments were helpful.  If you are still interested in the work (you may have dedicated yourself enough and need to get on with your own work, for example) and have time, you might offer to read any revisions. If you find (as is quite likely) that most of your suggestions will not have been adopted, try not to take this as a rejection of your expertise and efforts. This is poetry, precious and personal, and if the poem has changed shape in any way, if this change seems to be for the better and has been influenced by your suggestion, the writer has put significant trust in your judgement.

I’ll talk about some of the benefits of providing constructive criticism next time.
As I said earlier, I look forward to reading any responses or ideas. Thank you.

Now I’m off  to prepare to give a poetry reading on Friday. Wish me luck.

A few thoughts on Feedback in creative writing

Feedback is

A two way conversation
A chance to explore and develop ideas
The provider of the feedback should ideally be a facilitator
enabling the recipient to see other ways of doing things.
Feedback is pointing in a direction
but not taking over the wheel.
Feedback is about building confidence.

Feedback is not

Scoring points or showing off.
Knocking down to make someone stronger
(it doesn’t really work- I know)
It is not about using language
that is inaccessible or overly technical.

I’d be pleased to hear any other thoughts.
Thank you

Constructive criticism continued. Some personal history.

I’m going to mix up this series of posts on constructive criticism in creative writing by putting in personal anecdotes along with articles. Already there has been some interesting feedback on the subject and I’m hoping to incorporate comments from people reading these posts so please continue to contribute.  Thank you

Here is a list of some of the places I have received criticism of my writing from in adult life.

1) I showed some of the first poems I wrote with a view to possible publication to my partner. My partner doesn’t write poetry and mainly reads novels, but she has a keen eye for the sense and rhythm of poems and she loves words and their meanings. I still sometimes ask her if she’ll read a new poem, usually prefacing my request with ‘It’s only a short one.’ I imagine a lot of people reading this will think this is not a sensible way to obtain feedback because a relative, partner or friend is unlikely to be as objective about my work as they might be. True. Obviously, it is only useful to the writer if any of these people, however close, are able to offer constructive criticism. Unconditional admiration my be good for the ego, but it won’t improve the work.
I am lucky. My partner spots things in drafts of poems that don’t make sense or that are unclear to her as a reader- things that I can’t see. This is vital. She also offers a different perspective. Sometimes, her lack of enthusiasm after reading a new poem is all I’ll need to tell me it isn’t perhaps as good as I think it is. Also, she’ll challenge me, knowing (and she is often right) that I have been too easily pleased with my work and that I can do more and better. I’ll know it probably isn’t finished if she says ‘Humm, it’s coming along.’  Occasionally she’ll say ‘Oh yes. I like that’. Which is nice. We all need encouragement.

2)  The second people to ever see my poems were magazine editors. One or two of these made helpful suggestions. Once declined to take my poems, but wrote ‘We found things to like in every poem.’ That was constructive feedback.  Although disappointed that my work had been returned, I was encouraged and will always remember how those words provided a glimmer of hope.

3) I attended workshops that included a feedback session. I enjoyed the ones where the criticism was constructive. On one occasion someone (I hope he’s reading this) said of my poem that it was ‘Heaneyesque’. At that time I couldn’t have wished to hear anything better. I also remember another occasion when someone read lines aloud in a funny voice. They said they didn’t like the lines but weren’t able to say why. How annoying. How unhelpful. How rude. This will happen in workshops unless ground rules are in place (see comment from poet and teacher John Foggin on previous post) . Some people don’t understand what constructive criticism is, particularly if no one has told them.

4) Some years ago I went to a writers group. The people there seemed rather eccentric. That was fine. But one or two of them seemed to loath and despised more writers, dead and alive, then they actually liked. The negativity worried me. I left.

5) I went on a residential course. The most valuable part of the course for me was the hour of feedback I received from the tutors. My first experience of proper, professional constructive criticism by established poets and editors. It was great.
A few small changes to one poem transformed it. My tutor had been reading contemporary poetry for years and knew that the poem contained an image which was almost a cliché. Having not read so much I had no idea that my lines were not stunningly original but in fact a little hackneyed. She suggested I try to say what I was attempting to say in a different way. It worked and the poem later won a competition.

6) When I won a competition to have a pamphlet of poems published by Crystal Clear, part of the prize was that the poet and editor Wayne Burrows was available for a few hours to mentor and to assist me. We met face to face.  Wayne was an excellent and very experienced writer and reader.  One of his contributions was to help me see how the poems could be condensed, removing the odd superfluous word from my already rather condensed poems. Wayne rather generously said at the end of the project that he hadn’t done much, but one of the most valuable things he did was to gently point out which of the poems were weak. In this way the final product was much stronger.

7) Before my book came out I asked two poet friends to read the manuscript and make comments. I knew how busy they were. They gave their time and expertise.
Of course I did not agree with everything they suggested.  I have since exchange work with other poets, one of whom I met on a degree course. What they all have in common is that I like their work and I like them as people. In fact they are all wonderful and I love them.


Constructive criticism part 2

Right. I’m back from work and I’ve had tea. Earlier I looked at what constructive criticism is. Now I’d like to consider why writers need constructive criticism and the need for a writer to be in a frame of mind where they can accept it. Then I’ll say a little about the first time I was asked to give some written feedback on a manuscript of poems and my feelings and thoughts at the time.   As before, I’d appreciate any comments on any aspect of this subject. Thanks.

Creative writers have (or should have) an emotional attachment to their work. Perhaps not everything they write will be the product of deeply personal experience or firmly held beliefs, but an investment of the self is necessary on some level in order to produce something the writer can feel is worthwhile. Writing a poem or story generally requires effort and time, and this means that attachment to a piece of writing is strong.  This inevitably means it is difficult for the writer to see the strengths and weaknesses of their own work, so in order to improve it someone else’s opinion is valuable, assuming they are asking the right person.

For this reason the giving of feedback to a writer is a delicate task requiring an empathetic understanding of how closely associated with the work the writer might be

Tread softley
Resistance to all criticism, constructive or otherwise.

Of course the writer must be in a place where they are able to at least listen to feedback without immediately responding with defensive counter arguments or explanations which might even border on the hostile. I remember being in a workshop where all comments (which were I think, on this occasion, were all considered, respectful and constructively delivered) were met with a succession of responses as to why they were misguided or ‘wrong’. I did wonder why the writer had attended the workshop at all since she appeared not to want to hear what people thought and seemed to think her poem was beyond critique. I am not talking about the understandable response to destructive criticism (I’ll go into what that might be later) but about being receptive to reasonable and reasoned comments and suggestions.

At some point I will talk about further about my own experiences, positive and negative, of being given feedback on my writing. But now I’d like to share a little about my experiences of giving feedback.

I have only offered feedback to writers who have asked me for it. I have done this as part of a workshop and in response to e-mails from friends. Once or twice I have had to decline the invitation to critique a manuscript. There are a number of good reasons
for declining invitations to give feedback which I’ll go into later.

The first time a poet friend sent me some of their work for feedback I knew they had entrusted me with something very important and I experienced a range of thoughts and emotions. I was pleased that they thought I was qualified for the task. I was excited. I knew I liked the work I’d seen and was looking forward to reading more. I was honoured by the invitation. I wanted to be useful, to develop my skills in reading carefully and writing a considered and well-organized response. I was slightly nervous. I knew that I would have to point out aspects of the poems that I thought didn’t work. I was worried about upsetting the poet. I didn’t want to do any damage. I was keen to be as honest as possible (I’ll return to the concept of honesty or candour in another post.) I wanted to be subtle yet clear about areas I thought might need work. I wanted to be balanced. I was aware that the task, if done properly and sensitively, would take up a lot of time.

The Art of Constructive Criticism.

I’ve been thinking and reading a little about the delivery of constructive criticism to creative writers. I’ve also been thinking about how an understanding of what constitutes good feedback can help us recognise quality and good practice and it’s opposite –  poorly delivered feedback which is potentially destructive and demotivating.  I’m not talking about what is said but the way in which it is said.  When I’ve had time, perhaps in a week or so, I’ll write my thoughts findings and ideas and share them here.

In the meantime I thought I’d start at the very beginning by looking closely at the meaning of the phrase ‘constructive criticism’.

I looked up the words separately and found a list of synonyms for each. When I put the lists together I found they dovetailed nicely and can be seen as providing a set of mini definitions.  This is the list I made. You can re-order the words any way you like.

Constructive              Criticism

effective                    assessment
positive                     comment
practical                    critique
productive                judgement
useful                        opinion
valuable                    review

There is a difference between criticism and constructive criticism of creative writing.   I hope that everyone reading this will have experienced constructive criticism at some point.  I can tell you that a half hour session of constructive criticism of my poems left me excited and motivated to make changes and improve the work.  I’d barely made it down the corridor before stopping to mark in some new lines while leaning against a wall. In contrast, an experience of negative criticism (I’ll distinguish between the two styles and give examples next time)  made me want to throw my poem away, to give up, perhaps forever.  I know I’m not alone in having these reactions to the two types of feedback, and I’ll be attempting to look at this art or discipline here. Right now I’m off to work, but I hope you’ll join me and share your thoughts and feedback in the coming weeks.



Thank you

Thank yOu

Thank you to everyone who followed, visited and commented here in 2015.  Although I have never set a target to write here regularly,  I find this a very useful and enjoyable place to clarify and share thoughts, experiences and ideas related to writing and publishing poetry. This year these pages received fifteen thousand five hundred hits. Some popular posts were, in no particular order

Where can I send my poems (parts 1 and 2)
The tongue in cheek Becoming a poet, which was written quickly in January last year and picked up and shared widely on Twitter and elsewhere.
Putting a poetry pamphlet together – a few thoughts on selecting and grouping poems.
In May, the post Drafting Poems , recently re-written as Drafting poems re-drafted, received lots of attention and positive feedback .
Also quite popular was a recent post on poetry ‘rejection’ and the nature of success .

One of the permanent pages, entitled Poetry Submissions gets lots of regular visits.  The page that doesn’t is  ‘Poets on Poetry‘ – I’d recommend it as I think it is fun, interesting and thought-provoking, so I hope do have a peek if you have time. I hope to keep collecting and adding quotes.

Some posts have taken time and planning. I was very pleased with the series of interviews with poet/ editors including Nine Arches  editor Jane Commane  , and others with Noel Williams of Antiphon , Brett Evans of Prole, and Martin Malone of the Interpreter’s House, all of whom generously provided insights into their work as both editors and poets.

I was also pleased to feature the work of young poets whose work had not appeared widely at the time, but who have subsequently been published in prestigious magazines  – James Giddings, in Ambit and the current edition of Poetry Review, and Emily Blewitt, who kindly shared three poems and some thoughts here  and who has a full collection forthcoming from Seren.  Others whose work featured this year included that of Siegfried Baber and the excellent and very distinctive poems of Tiffany Anne Toudut .  Also featured was the inspirational John Foggin, a brilliant writer and thoughtful and supportive friend to so many poets including yours truly.

I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to write some poetry reviews this year – for the Interpreter’s House, and for the brilliant new On-line magazine The Compass whose reviews editor is Kim Moore.  You can read versions of some of these reviews on the Poetry Reviews page.

My poetry writing has progressed steadily with poems arriving at fairly regular intervals, and I am working on a draft of my new collection which is due to be published in early 2017. This year my work appeared in a number of places it hadn’t been published before including Ambit magazine,  and I’m glad to say that new poems will be published in Poetry Wales, Magma and The Manchester Review in the coming months.

It is always a great pleasure to read and attend readings by friends, old and new.
In 2015  I was delighted to be invited to read in London, Leeds, Oxford, Hebden Bridge ( a wonderful place, currently beset by terrible flooding) Sheffield, Swindon,  Halifax, Lichfield, Leicester and  Manchester, the last of these with the wonderful Liz Berry in the magnificent John Rylands library.

I’ve also been honoured to have poems featured in several anthologies including The Emergency poet, More Raw Material, and Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge.

Also in the last year, my collection ‘The Sun Bathers’, was nominated for the Michael Murphy Award. I was pleased that the book had been short-listed, particularly as the majority of other books on the list were published by larger poetry publishers including Faber and Faber and Bloodaxe.  My publisher kindly reprinted The Sun Bathers and, for fear of running out again, I bought a large stack. If anyone would like a copy of the book you can purchase a copy via the link at the top of the page.

Elsewhere, my short story ‘Late’, appeared in the lovely Bare Fiction magazine.   

Some poets admirably manage to write weekly posts, but as I said at beginning, this was never a place where I intended to write as regularly as that.  I do enjoy writing here when I can, and am grateful for the space this place affords me to share and clarify and learn, and I greatly appreciate your readership and comments.
I’ve got a couple of ideas for posts for 2016 but – perhaps some more interviews, and a little about delivering a workshop and judging a children’s poetry competition (something new for me.)
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading.

Finally I’d like to wish you all the best in 2016.

Here are some horses…

Wild Horses

Drafting poems re-drafted

One of the most popular posts on here this year was a list of thoughts on drafting poems. I was pleased when a poet and educator whom I admire asked if she might share it with some of her students. I’ve re-read the original list, added a few ideas and spruced it up a little.  These are questions to ask, perhaps not just when looking at ‘draft’ poems but also when considering poems you might think of as ‘finished’.

1.Does the opening line invite the reader to read the poem? Is it compelling? Is it hard to understand? If so, will it repel the reader or is intriguing? Do you need the first line? The first stanza? Half of the second stanza? Delete until you are left with the poem. Or not, in which case it probably wasn’t meant to be a poem.

2.Have you read the poem aloud? Does it sound ‘right’? Is it hard to read? Does it move and flow well? Does it jolt or falter?

3. Where do the line breaks naturally fall? Are you interested in using breath as a unit of measure to decide this?   Do you want to subvert this, and if so, to what purpose? What’s the white space doing? Do you need it? What shape best serves the poem? Have you tried several alternative shapes to find what works best?

4. Do you need to put the poem away until you can see it more clearly? Come back tomorrow. Or next year. If you are struggling with the poem, go for a walk. Read poetry. Read anything. Listen to music. Put the washing out. Do something else.

5. If you are attracted to a word for its ‘cleverness’, it’s probably the wrong word. Is a short, subtle word better than the long, flamboyant, archaic or obscure word? Are there some dull words in your poem? Is that OK if they serve the poem as a whole? Could you find better ones? Get the Thesaurus out. Dive into meanings and glorious alternatives. Is your poem, or certain words or lines, trying too hard to be noticed? Not every line has to be ‘stand out’; ‘quieter’ lines might provide structure, be the setting that allows the jewels to shine, or be regarded as the web that allows the drops of dew to catch the light, or the spider to move (apologies to those with arachnophobia) or whatever metaphor you prefer. That reminds me- have you overdone the metaphors? Similarly, have you got too many similes?

6. Keep drafts. After one hundred and thirty-three drafts, you might decide that the third is the best. Don’t throw an ‘unsuccessful’ poem away. You might find it one day and give it new life.

7. Like a skier on a slalom slope, keep the whole journey in mind. A shift in the balance in the poem will affect something further down. You may need a radical adjustment to your line. You may want to go back to the start.

8. Do your rhymes and assonance serve or choke the poem? Avoid tongue twisters. Do you really need an ‘angry, addled, straggly, shambles of geese’? Or has the language evolved over time to express a lot in a single word. Will ‘a gaggle of geese’ suffice? Read aloud again to check the rhythms. Are some lines too sparse, some too crowded?

9.Every word, every line break, every bit of punctuation needs to count. If you are not convinced, remove or change it. Are there area’s where your poem reads as ‘slack’? Are you at risk of losing your reader? Is the surface ‘tension’ fairly consistent throughout? Consider the part of the poem you are most pleased with- the line or word you think is great. Does it detract from the poem as a whole? Is it out of place like a red rain hat worn by a woman in a little black dress or a Lycra-clad man in stove-pipe hat on a racing bike? Would the poem be more balanced without it?

10. Is the poem “true” in terms of emotional resonance? If you don’t feel that it is, it’s unlikely your reader will. If you have people speaking in the poem, are they using language that people actually speak or is it archaic or unconvincing in some other way?

11. Is your political poem too literal? Does it lack subtlety? Does it tell the reader what to think or ask a question? Can you approach the ‘political’ obliquely, emotionally, drawn on your own experience? Does it lack irony? Could you use allegory, imagery, a ballad or translation to approach the political?

12.  Has this poem been done before and possibly better? Can you twist or turn it a few degrees to make it more original and specifically ‘yours’? Are there any memorable lines? Is the poem doing enough?

13.  Do your images relate to emotion, or are they there simply to show off? Do they detract from the poem? Are there too many? Not enough? Do you suspect an image or phrase may be a cliché? Is it OK to use cliché in some instances? If you think an image is surprising, original, arresting, but doesn’t fit in this poem, could you keep it for another piece?

14.  Have you ‘stolen’ well enough? If you’ve used a model or started with a found piece, have you made it fully your own? If your poem began as a ‘workshop’ exercise, has it moved far enough away from its origins to seem organic or are the building blocks showing? Is that all right?

15. Does the poem contain too many ideas? Is less more?

16. Have you repeated yourself? Have you said the same thing more than once? Covered the same ground twice or more?

17. Can you imply rather than state? Have you credited your reader with as much intelligence as feel you yourself have? Are you stating what is implied elsewhere in the poem?

18. Are you interested in clarity of communication? If so, do you need to make your poem clearer?  If there is ambiguity in your poem, does it work in favour of the poem or potentially lead to confusion?  Have you checked for ‘shadow’ meanings – (not always easy to detect) i.e words or combinations of words that have resonances and trigger meanings you may not have meant to include in the poem and therefore distract the reader?

19. Is the end of your poem the way you want it to be? Is it stating the obvious? Do you have a stronger line to end on, further up the poem? Would it be better to ‘step off lightly’ than to end with a summary of what has already been said? Would it be best to end with an image rather than a statement? Have you tried removing the last line?

20. Would you be happy to read this poem aloud to someone? Do you like your poem? If not, why not?