Kalliope On Line Poetry Workshop Banner




Join Us





Please sign our Guestbook


Why critique? Or get critiqued?

What purpose does critiquing serve, anyway? Why is your opinion of my writing any of my business? Why should I work at saying something useful about your stuff, when I could be writing my own stuff?

Some reasons (unranked) for getting critiques:

A) Seeking critiques for validation.
Some people ask for "critique" meaning "tell me you like it." Don't sneer too much at this motive. It's going to take a long time for our work to be published, and we may never hear from our readers. Taking it to a workshop gets immediate feedback. It takes an immensely secure ego to work forever in silence.

B) Proofreading.
This is useful -- though one workshop I'm in, of fan fiction, practices "Beta Reading" BEFORE a story is sent to the workshop list. One or more readers proofread for basic grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. It is ALWAYS easier to see these errors in someone else's material. We tend to see our own writing as it's SUPPOSED to be.

But even having such things caught in workshop is better than having them caught by an editor.

C) Finding out if it's working.
If you read your horror/suspense story aloud in workshop and everyone falls on the floor laughing, it's a pretty good clue you need to change genres -- or something. If everyone who reads your sf story, including sf fans, says "Huh?", then what is obvious inside your head isn't getting out onto the paper clearly.

D) Catch what's missing.
In stories, especially, we can miss describing details that we take for granted -- but readers outside our heads can't see. Or we haven't asked additional questions that could make the story even richer -- Why did Mom come home just then? Why was Billy afraid of driving? What was the History teacher's personal history?

E) Tighten it up.
We also, especially in poems, tend to include fluff that is in there basically because we thought of it. Again, other eyes are better at noticing what's not really necessary.

F) In other words.
Being able to pick other people's brains for alternate phrasings and other ideas is a great big asset of workshops.

So what good does it do you to give other people all this critique?

A) What goes around comes around.
A good critique is a lot of work. You are much more likely to get other people to put that kind of work into your stuff, if you put that kind of work out.

B) Learning by doing.
If you are trying to learn what makes a poem's image vivid, you can gain as much from analyzing five poems by other people -- why the image is vivid, why it isn't, how to make it stronger -- as you can by writing five poems of your own. You can check out what makes plot work in stories, or characterization; what makes an article grab you; what makes an essay convincing.

C) New blood.
Most of us have a greater tendency to try new things when we are constantly exposed to them.

Reading, and thinking about, writing from other people who see things differently, think and feel differently, say things differently -- I think it's stimulating and addictive. I love it.

So at last I get into

How to Do It:

1) Remember why you're here.
Maybe for you the purpose of critiquing is to Demonstrate My Erudition and Excellent Taste, or to Demonstrate My Rapier Wit, or to Defend Civilization Against the Barbarian Hordes Like This Writer. For me, the purpose of critiquing is 1) to help the writer being critiqued accomplish better whatever she's trying to accomplish in this work, and hone her craft in general; 2) hone my own writing craft by analyzing what works, and what doesn't work, in another's writing.

2) What was the author trying to do?
If you critique a poem intended to be Rap by the same standards as a Sonnet, both you and the poet are going to be exceedingly frustrated. A comic romp has different standards than a hard-boiled private eye detective story. (Everyone who loves a challenge may now go prove that the forms can be combined). For the first year of my time on the Real Change Editorial Committee, every suggestion I made for a story was met with, "That's an Op-Ed piece, not an article." I am finally beginning to get ideas for Articles. Give me another year, and I'll be writing them without having the Chief Editor cut me to pieces.

So -- you need to know the form aimed at, and the genre. It is best if you know the rules and traditions of that form or genre. For instance, if you have an excellent background in haiku, you will praise an evocative image that is not phrased exactly 5-7-5, but you will point out that the precisely 5-7-5 poem metaphorically comparing depression to "ebony lost in midnight" is NOT haiku. And if you had a thorough background in science fiction, you could have advised George Lucas NOT to have Han Solo do the Kessel Run in under X parsecs.

But you don't have to totally back off of critiquing a form or genre you aren't familiar with. Personally, I like to have my fantasy stories critiqued by people who aren't familiar with fantasy. They catch the points where I am depending too much on "everybody knows that ..." and hold me to the demanding task of working the background into the story.

The important thing is, don't impose inappropriate rules. You may not know the rules of fantasy - okay. But don't substitute the rules of detective stories, or romance novels, or historical fiction, or even science fiction.

What is most important is to identify the story, or the meaning, or at least the image and the feeling, that the writer was trying to convey. Back to personally, one of the most frustrating crits for me to get is one that deals thoroughly with my technique, form and grammar -- and totally misses the POINT. I don't, usually, write just to show off my technique. Even when I do write to tackle an element of technique, I am not satisfied unless the piece also says something I really wanted to say. Most writers are in the business to SAY something, and they really won't be satisfied with a crit unless you tell them you HEAR them.

Once you identify what the author is trying to say, you can give her useful feedback on what worked to get that point across, and what distracted from it.

And that is something you can do, even if you haven't even learned what "technique" or "form" IS yet.

3) Try to hear the author's voice.
This is a tricky one, and I don't want anyone getting too hung up on it. If a piece sounds "odd" to you, you can certainly say so, and you can say why. But one of the pleasures of reading, to me, is to hear different voices than I get alone in my room; to feel reality with different sensibilities. I enjoy both Patricia McKillip and Mickey Spillane. If you haven't read them, believe me -- they sound different. I am not going to try to make Mickey Spillane sound like Patricia McKillip; and if I get a poem by someone who writes like Mickey Spillane, I'm not going to try to turn it into something that could have been written by Patricia McKillip.

4) Humility.
I'll give Alexander Pope the credit for this one, but it's also part of my basic religious philosophy. "My opinion is my opinion -- it is backed up by no authority whatsoever, religious or secular. If you accept any bit of it for any reason except that it makes sense to you -- I'LL BE ANGRY WITH YOU."

Your opinion is important. Your opinion is not the most important thing in the whole universe, and it is certainly not Law. Even if you are quoting Webster's, Britannica, or Strunk & Wagnall's, it is still your opinion that what you are quoting is accurate, that your interpretation is correct, that the quote is even relevant. So offer your opinion -- just offer it. Don't jump up on a soapbox and leap down the author's throat with your opinion backed up by a ramrod.

And if, by chance, someone does differ with your opinion -- try to take that with the same attitude you hope another writer takes your own critiques. Recognize that it is only their opinion, and see if there is anything in it you can use.

5) Courage.
Okay, it's just your opinion. You acknowledged that. You don't have to keep diffidently repeating it in every line.

Say what you think. If someone is sincerely hoping to publish inspirational Christian poetry someday, telling her that a poem that made you wince all the way through when you weren't yawning is "Wonderful!" is doing her just as bad a turn as ranting, "All you Christian missionary mercenaries make me puke! It was you people who burned the Library at Alexandria! How dare you write poetry!"

You can be hard without being harsh. Ex: "I can see what you are trying to say here, and it is an inspiring theme. The line you started with is very vivid. But you lose the power of that line. Trying to hold to the form of your poem, you fall into a sing-song lilt, and very innocuous phrases and images. The total effect is flat. I suggest going back to that first line and starting over, without trying to force what you write into a form."

It isn't just as writers that we "edit ourselves silent". We do it as critics, too. We're reading along and go "Ugh!" Then we sit there and try to think, "Now how can I phrase that?" until we run out of time, and move on, hoping another critic will cover that point.

Well, to start with, just write what you think. Before you hit "send" you can edit as necessary to keep the screen from blowing up.

One more note on Courage -- you may not be able to think of much to say, and you don't think it's very useful. Well, it's useful to me if I get only one line saying, "I strongly identified with Kathy", or "I cried at the end of this story", or "I laughed out loud; can I send this to a friend?" -- or even "I was really into this until about three-quarters of the way through; I can't tell you why, but it just went dull" or "I could not believe this fellow was for real, at all." Even if you are sure that everybody else noticed the same thing -- say it anyway. I've had lots of flaws that were caught by someone who only noticed that one thing -- while three other people analyzed fifty other things in detail, but missed that one.

6) What are you trying to do?
Take the techniques that you are studying, and look for them in what you're reading. If you are learning to write villanelles, try to find some to critique. If you are working on suspense stories, critique some suspense fiction. Look at what techniques work for the writers you are critiquing. Try to figure out if you would start the story at a different point, or use a different POV character, and why.

Critiques are a learning tool for both the person being critiqued, and the critiquer.

7) *Please*, *Please*, *snip.*
For email critiques -- Include only the amount of original text that is essential to the point you are making. If you are recommending one correction to the 200th line of a 600-line story, and you quote the entire story to insert your one line, I am probably going to miss it.

A rough rule-of-thumb is: include at least one line of your own comments for each 3 lines of quoted text.

8) But *do* quote, and *do* identify.
If you are making a comment on Audrey's comment about Wes's comment about Judy's poem, and all your post says is, "Yes, but it was Prufrock" -- most of us reading you are going to be totally lost.

As part of Good Writing Habits with *anything* you write -- scan back over your post and ask yourself, "Does this make sense to someone reading it from outside my own head?"

The following is from The Poets Dictionary by William Packard.
Is poem titled or untitled? Does title seem apt?
Does poem have strong enough opening?
Do first few lines establish appropriate tone?
Would any later part of poem make a better opening?

Are there enough specific image details in poem?
Are the metaphors and similes apt?
Do any figures or conceits need further development?
Are any sections of poem weak in visual images?

Is there any strong assonance--vowel sounds?
Is there any strong alliteration--consonant sounds?
Any problem with scansion of rhythm in poem?
Anything special about texture of sound in poem?

What is voice or persona or point of view in poem?
Is diction consistent? Any odd word choices?
Is syntax appropriate? Sentence structuring?
Is diction consistent? Any odd word choices?
Is syntax appropriate? Sentence structuring?
What is totality of tone in poem?

Do last few lines seem right for ending of poem?
Does the closure seem artificial or overwritten?
Could poet get out of poem in any better way?
Should poem be left suspended, with no closure?

Do the line breaks seem right? Enjambements?
Does poem have left-hand capitals? Why? Or why not?
Can any punctuation in poem be stripped away?
Could line placements be arranged in any better way?

Can this poem be tightened in any way?
Is there any rhetoric, generality, abstract words?
Could any parts of poem be developed more?
More proper names, place names, concrete particulars?
They also say "the best criticism is always description."

Write On!