We’ve put together a short list of tips and ideas that we hope will guide you in the best ways to give constructive feedback on another person’s poetry, and how best to take it on board yourself.
Showing someone else your writing can be a really daunting experience. However confident you feel about your work, however many poems you have bristling in your notebooks or filling up folders on your laptop, sharing that work with another person is something that lots of us can feel anxious about – even if we’re dying for some feedback.
- Remember the writer. Sharing work with another person takes courage, and you should always be mindful of this when offering your feedback. You don’t have to lie, or sugarcoat what you’re saying, but remember that poetry isn’t written in a vacuum – there’s a real person, with real feelings, behind it, and being instantly dismissive or negative about a piece of work is neither helpful nor kind.
- Don’t deal in generalities. If you’re drawn to a striking phrase, or the rhythm isn’t quite working, try and pinpoint exactly why that is. Being able to say “the build-up of images in this poem is a bit overwhelming for me; try just using one or two”, or “the language you use in the second stanza is more formal than in the rest of the poem, which I find confusing” is much more helpful to the poet than just “I like this” or “I’m not so keen on that”. Worst of all is saying “I can’t explain why I like/ don’t like this, I just do”, as this doesn’t highlight anything for the poet to work on, or to remember for next time.
- Avoid extreme responses. “I hate” or “I love” aren’t necessarily constructive phrases, and you risk sounding a) a bit clichéd b)as if you’re dashing off a quick response without really examining your reaction to the writing.
- Writing is subjective. Just because something in the poem isn’t working for you, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong, or that it must be changed. No two poets will have exactly the same opinion on a piece of writing and, however experienced or skilled you are, remember that you aren’t the oracle – and you shouldn’t be offended if the poet you’re critiquing doesn’t accept your suggestions.
- Engage in a conversation. It’s often easier to discuss the poem(s) with their author one-on-one; this way, you can explain your ideas and opinions and better understand theirs, rather than just offer a one-way view on the work.
- Offer a reading recommendation. The more you read, the better you write – at least we think so. Recommending some poetry to read, listen to or watch is a good way to round off a feedback session, particularly if the work you’re suggesting is a good example of a style or technique that the person you’re critiquing is struggling with. Ask them for their own poetry recommendations in turn.
- Think about who you’re asking. If you want constructive, honest feedback (and really, what’s the point in anything else?), ask someone who can deliver just that. If you know that your Mum, or your sister, or your mates will just sing your praises whatever you stick under their noses, by all means show them your writing, but don’t rely on them for a genuine critique! A teacher, a friend who also writes, a mentor at a writing group or organisation – these might be better bets. You could also think about whether you’d prefer one-on-one feedback, or whether you might benefit more from a crit group, where a small number of people take it in turn to read and critique one another’s writing.
- Remember that you shouldn’t share your work with anyone unless you feel comfortable in doing so. It’s fine to feel a bit nervous about sharing, but if you feel actively unhappy at the thought of someone reading your work, or someone is pressuring you to do it, don’t. Your poetry doesn’t have to be anyone’s business but yours; not if you don’t want it to be.
- Avoid the wrong kind of feedback platforms. It’s really easy to receive an instant reaction to something via the internet, particularly social media. That can be compelling – but it can also be unregulated, unfiltered and very damaging. Our strongest advice is that anonymous commenters are rarely going to offer helpful or constructive feedback on poetry you post yourself online, and that this is best avoided. Online magazines and poetry websites like Young Poets Network can monitor any comments made on a piece of writing, and ensure that only helpful, positive feedback reaches the author.
- Ask questions. Don’t just nod along with what the other person is saying – you’re not likely to remember what’s been said if you do. If you don’t understand a point of their criticism, say so, and ask for clarification. If you think a line’s been misunderstood, or a poem’s been interpreted in a way you hadn’t thought about, explain, and see if there’s a way to make it clearer for both of you. If you’re not actively engaging in the critique, it will be much harder to successfully edit your poems when you come to look at them later.
- Be gracious. It can be hard to take on negative feedback about your work, however tactfully it’s phrased. If you can adopt a positive attitude towards criticism, however, you’ll be in a better frame of mind to improve your writing. You’ll also make a more positive impression on those reading your work than if you grumpily reject or refuse to engage with their suggestions, and perhaps put yourself in a better position to receive more advice and support further down the line. Even if you disagree with their comments (and there’s no compulsion to change your work if you really don’t agree with the feedback) be open, receptive and grateful to the person who’s given their time to read your poems.
Do you have a top tip on how to share and receive writing feedback? We’d love to hear your ideas – and your experiences – in the comments section below, or you can email us at [email protected]
Published January, 2017