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.

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9 comments

  1. Thanks for these posts, Roy. Lots to think about. I have been part of various on-line poetry groups for years now but still have much to learn about the subtleties of communication – giving and receiving feedback. I consider it an ongoing opportunity to learn & grow.

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  2. On 6)……….For me, the formula that seems to work (and the one who uses it most consistently is Ann Sansom) is the one where you say: try doing X or Y and see what happens. If you don’t like what happens, then stick to your guns. The key idea is that the writer keeps her ownership of the poem. My analogy is with not telling a parent how to bring up a child. S/he has to ask for advice, and to say what they do. OK, you say. Try this. See what happens

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  3. Online feedback must be hard. Even if you know each other, you are missing a whole dimension of communicating between two people (further obfuscated if it’s online, but a whole group critique or forum.) Face-to-face, I have got to a stage quite quickly with a tutor, where just by an intonation, gesture, or even discussion through or beyond the poem (like who it may sound or read like or remind them of, or not remind them of), even by what’s not being communicated, you know their views on something. It needs both critic and recipient to sensitise to each other’s ways, and then even quite harsh criticism can feel as if being delivered on a silken cushion with pink bows- seriously, it’s an art, and the best teachers have it in spades, I think. (And are few and far between.)

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      • I spent a poem-a-week-year exchanging pomes with a friend of mine who had written almost nothing in the way of poetry for years….though he’s written a lot of books. He lives in Cambridge, so it was all done by email. I think we got into the swing of it quite quickly, using the contract I described. All comments (apart from proofreading) assumed to be provisional. You miss the face-to-face BUT there is a benefit inasmuch as neither of you can get into the special pleading trap, the business of saying: well, what I meant was……….You and I have done it too, haven’t we, Roy. Do you think it works? Which reminds me. I owe you feedback on some crows. OOps

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  4. Thanks John. I’ve exchanged poems with two or three friends and a you say, got into the swing quite quickly. I’ve also critiqued a three or four pamphlets and book manuscripts via e-mail and that seemed to work out well. I think either written or face to face critical relationships can work.
    One face to face relationship I had didn’t really work very well at all because the other party was not fully engaged- but that’s another story. Yes John, Crows xx

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