When a writer asks you for feedback, they are looking to improve their work.
Sometimes, their work will be amazing, and, as such, you should feel free to give them praise, and point out why. Did the poem arouse emotion? Did it make you shiver? Was its musicality magical? Tell them!
Sometimes, a poem is lackluster. Sometimes it’s unappealing. Sometimes it flat out sucks. If a poet honestly wants feedback (and you should ask before offering), it can make us feel awkward if we don’t like it. Approaching critique with empathy and a true desire to help can make all the difference. Finding the bright spots, and offering gentle suggestions for improvement can help develop a floundering writer into a competent one.
Here are some things to think about when offering critique in Writer’s Circle:
- Remember the writer. Sharing work with others takes courage, especially when a person is writing in a language not their own. Be mindful of this vulnerability when offering your feedback. There’s no need to sugarcoat your feedback, or lie about the quality of the work, but remember that there is a real person behind the poem. While it is important to be honest, it is also important to balance critique with positive insight. “Brutal honesty” is often less honest than it is brutal. Give targeted complements as well as critique. Try for a good balance (2:1 is the norm.) If you honestly can’t think of anything positive to say, perhaps it’s best to say nothing at all, or at least to offer your advice privately.
- Give specific notes. If there is something in particular you like or dislike about a poem, give feedback that is as specific as possible. For example, “that image is striking, but I’m not sure it really works for me there. It seems to overpower the rest of the stanza. It might work better as a punch-line at the end.” Pointing out specifics and giving alternate suggestions is useful. Saying, “I like it” or “that doesn’t sound quite right” without being able to explain why (or what changes they might make to improve the work) is not helpful, as it doesn’t give the writer any focus for revision.
- Extreme responses are not helpful.“I hate this” or “I love this” are not constructive responses, and can leave the writer feeling defensive and dejected, or, on the flip-side, pandered to. Be specific about the feelings the words invoke in you, and why you think that might be.
- 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. Poetry, like any creative art form, is personal, and it is up to the poet to receive the feedback and do with it what they wish. Feedback should be given generously, but don’t be offended if the writer chooses not to accept or use your suggestions.
- Go deeper. If you have several critiques, or if the critique engenders further conversation, invite the poet to a face-to-face. It’s often easier to discuss the poem(s) with the 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 to exchange poems and work on a two-way critique.
- Recommend further reading. Reading poetry is the fuel for better writing. Suggest poems you particularly enjoy, or which you think might help others improve a style or technique they are exploring in their own work.
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Next: Receiving Feedback