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.