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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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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.

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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.