Discussion #8: Critique Part 1

The suggestion for this topic comes from Paula, as well as others. It is a huge topic and so I have decided to break it up a bit. This first part is about the experience of critique. Have you had it, received it, or done it? Do you know what it entails? In other words, do you have a definition for the experience? This may sound like a rather lame question, but everyone, especially we writers, have our own definitions for things: all things. And this is an attempt to get some sort of consensus before stepping into the wider topic itself, and the big question of whether or not we, as a group, would want to engage in it.

Several months ago, Viv posted a site that had some tips and suggestions about critique. I seem to have lost the site addie, and it might be a good idea to have a few such reference points. If you have something that you have read and think is good, please share it with the rest of us here.

What I would really like to see this week, is a sharing of thoughts and feelings about the topic. I think I’ve had more experience with it than most of you. Thus I want to know where you are coming from. I know that critiquing is a valuable learning tool, but I also have seen it turn into a contest of personalities and even a blood bath where the poem under discussion has been totally lost from view, and the poet has walked away wondering why he/she ever wanted to do this thing in the first place.

I have a degree in English with a writing concentration, specifically creative writing poetry. It took me seven years to complete that four year degree, but that is pretty standard for a non-traditional student still raising her children. I did have classes in Literary Analysis, as well as critique discussions within individual classes.

I belonged to and eventually became the moderator for the longest established poetry group in Southeastern Wisconsin, for ten years. We were a critiquing group, and at least three/fourths of the group, if not more, were established as publishing poets, including my own person. That meant that at our monthly meetings we brought a poem and copies to share and the meeting didn’t end until everyone had an opportunity to read aloud and present their piece to the group and get feedback on said piece. It was a completely voluntary process; you could read if you chose to, but we also had a selection process for membership and did public readings, as well as creating periodic anthologies of the members work. I was also, for a short time, a poetry editor for a literary magazine titled The Pike Creek Review. As a student I had my work critiqued by different professors, and as a teacher I did some of that same sort of critiquing. But, I have also self-published and worked as an editor on a variety of publications and endeavors.

I’m not boasting here, but I do want you to know of my own background and where I am coming from. I have some issues with this topic and perhaps a discussion might really help me clear the air about some, if not all of those issues. That would be a wonderful outcome.

Thanks for being here and the podium is now open, and questions are welcome:


About 1sojournal

Loves words and language. Dances on paper to her own inner music. Loves to share and keeps several blogs to facilitate that. They can be found here: http://1sojournal.wordpress.com/ http://soulsmusic.wordpress.com/ http://claudetteellinger.wordpress.com/
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10 Responses to Discussion #8: Critique Part 1

  1. Mary says:

    I have belonged to an online group of writers / friends (we know each other in person, though we live in various parts of the country) for perhaps 13 years. We generally meet in person once a year for ‘workshopping’ as well as enjoying one another. But we meet online once a week. We critique each other’s work on a regular basis.

    A few things I have learned about critique. Everyone has his/her own style. Everyone is the final judge of his/her own work. Suggestions are only that, suggestions. I have learned to critique within a person’s own style. We each DO have our own style. I don’t want someone else’s poem to sound as if it were mine. I don’t want my poem to sound as if it were someone else’s. I only take suggestions that work within my style. I never try to change someone’s style, nor do I wish my basic style to be changed. I feel quite free within our wonderful group to either accept or reject or adapt suggestions. I am not offended if people do not accept mine. It is just process.

    My blog poems are generally early drafts. I often send one of these out to critique to my group. If changes are made, I will change it in the blog as well. I let people know suggestions were helpful. Even if I didn’t use some suggestions, they did help me to think through my poem. People like to know that, I think. I am always grateful for the time someone else takes with my work.

    I personally don’t feel that commenting on someone’s poem online should be ‘critique,’ but I think if something strikes us, an email might be a good thing. I know a few people have occasionally emailed me when I have made some kind of typo. I have appreciated that.

    Interesting topic.

  2. pmwanken says:

    Yay! Thanks, Elizabeth, for covering this topic this week. I’ll be back to leave a few thoughts…but for now, just wanted to say thank you.

    And Mary…thank you, too, for your input. It’s great to hear from those who’ve been doing this for more than six months!! 😉


  3. anl4 says:

    Since I am a visual artist, and only a “heart writer”… and can only really speak of critique when it comes to visual art, but I think it is similar. We do not create from rules, we create from our heart. It is only when we critique, that we go back to the rules as guide lines. But if you can make it work and break the rules, so be it. (Probably how new rules come into being.) I love to hear what people have to say. And since I don’t know the rules, nor write to the rules… it doesn’t really much matter. I think sometime I am inspired and I surprise myself, and sometime I’m not. Perhaps in time I will learn more, and that is one reason I write. Also to better be able to organize my thoughts. Thanks Elizabeth!

  4. Elizabeth, I think there is a time for critique. I am not in the position to critique others’ work. I don’t know enough to feel in the least bit comfortable doing that. As Mary said we all have our own style and that is the beauty of writing. What a boring world it would be if we all wrote the same. Did I go off topic or what, oops!


  5. Mike Patrick says:

    To critique or not to critique? That is the question. Speaking for myself, I love to receive critique. I wish I had saved the first email critique I received from the person who is now a wonderful friend and mentor. She broached the subject, of where several (a bunch of) areas in one of my poems could be improved, so delicately it appeared they were suggestions for tiniest of tweaks. Added together, they were almost a total rewrite—but they changed a weak idea into the best poem I had written to that date. I was honored that she was willing to spend the time to help me. Even today, she makes me feel special.

    Since that time, she had modified her method by simply sending critiques, suggestions and simple editing corrections as comments. She knows I moderate all comments and can delete those too personal, large or scathing.

    Poets live and write with their emotions and passions; there is an assumption that their egos are fragile. While my ego can survive a direct torpedo attack, I have adopted my mentor’s method of initial contact when offering to assist another poet. About the only thing I feel qualified to critique is poetry containing rhyme and meter. Meter comes easy, and when I see a talented poet (there are many of them out there) writing rhyming poetry, and they are just missing the meter by a few beats, I’ll send an email with a gentle suggestion. So far, no one has been offended.

  6. pmwanken says:

    This follows so nicely the discussion from last week on “comments.” I love getting comments because as we discussed, the rule of thumb is to “be nice.”

    Sometimes, though, I want/need more than “good poem.” I’m still learning! I want to know WHAT is good about it. And likewise, for those who chose not to leave a comment or wrote “good poem” just to be polite, I’d like to know what it was about my words that might not have felt right.

    I liked what Mary said about everyone having a different style and giving critique in the writer’s style. Again, because I’m still finding my way toward my own style, I wouldn’t want to take on critique that would make my writing sound like someone else. But…as I study and learn the various forms of poetry, it would be great to have more experienced writers help by giving pointers.

    Which brings me to echoing Pamela’s comment: I’m so new at this writing thing, that I wouldn’t begin to feel adequate in GIVING critique. Sure, I might be able to give feedback on what a phrase or stanza means to me…how it makes me feel. But to read it with a critical eye regarding form? I’m just not there yet.

    Mike broaches a good point, as well…not all poets are equipped to receive critique…feeling it as the direct torpedo attack. I think earlier in my writing I probably would have taken any critique as an attack. But I’ve come to the point of recognizing that in addition to just expressing my thoughts in words, there is also a craft to be learned…if for nothing more than to be able to appreciate it when others do it! I might study all of the forms (on my list to learn) and decide to keep writing unmetered, unrhyming free verse. So I need to try them….and to get feedback. And in the spirit of learning from one another (and having fallen in love with this wonderful online poetry community) I don’t believe I would see it as an attack, now. 🙂

    And Annell…I love that as an artist you talk about being a “heart writer.” I think that’s what I’ve been doing, mostly, as well. Just writing from the heart. I don’t know the rules…I just make ’em up as I go along and hope that I don’t offend anyone along the way! 😉

    Elizabeth…if having some sort of open (or closed) critique forum via Writers Speak is an option, I would be eager to participate in whatever (inexperienced) ways that I can…in the meantime, thank you for this forum for discussion. 🙂


  7. Tilly Bud says:

    Paula, one of the best ways to improve as a writer is to critique the work of others. When you say something works/doesn’t work, you have to justify why, which makes you think. Then you work on a poem of your own and notice you do something similar to that other poet, and know that it’s good/bad.

    Critiquing opens the poet’s eyes.

  8. neil reid says:

    Well “critique”, that harkens back to “rules” of course. There is that first broadly defined set of more commonly agreed upon formalized standards of phrasing and language. Then there’s the second, which is everything else, which may uniquely be the individual poet’s own set of parameters, even to include a bending of the first formal set. Then everything gets to be thrown against the wall, “does it work?”. This may condense or shatter all else, regardless of rules.

    I think some of my poems have, rarely, been “reviewed” but not really much “critiqued”, which I take to be – evaluated in terms of how it might be made more effective as a poem. My own formal education is limited; I write mostly by seat-of-the-pants intuition (and I do pay attention).

    Mary very ably laid out the bones of ethical critique in her response. Ultimately each writer and poem is “right” within their own experience, and we should all desire that be honored. Further, any critique must be done from the original author’s point-of-view, not our own. (That’s a serious challenge in and of itself.)

    Respect for this point deserves to be included in the poet’s Bill of Rights!

    Honestly, for myself at this place on the road, I suspect I’d get more value out of “doing” critique than “receiving” critique (not meaning to sound pompus about my writing – I’m not – but I have pretty clear ideas about what I’m up to, whether realized or not). Having to attempt to stand in another’s shoes without judgment on issues of style and taste – that would be a real confront.

    Because critique is no casual or easy task, don’t think I’d offer such within the framework of a common poetry-prompt website. It could be done as a special subset however, wherein people understand the undertaking coming in. (I do however remember a rather lack luster response to critique even on the strong RWP bandwagon. So I still wonder about the precise where/how of participating in shared critique.)

    I think I’d also question the precise process for such a group activity. Only to critique member poems, one by one as it were? I might more see questions arising from a poem (or presented in advance) as becoming more generalized topics for “discussion”, then allowing that to feed back to the poem in its turn.

    Personally, honestly, this is a topic that does interest me, however there are as yet more questions than answers in many regards.

  9. Pingback: Friday Freeforall: Come and Get Your Poetry Prompts « Margo Roby: Wordgathering

  10. 1sojournal says:

    I want to thank each and every one of you for adding to this discussion. And I did get a bit of concensus out of this.
    Mary – I like that idea of critiquing from within the poet’s style.
    Annell – Yes we create from the heart and that might be why we are sensitive about how others view our creations.
    Pamela and Paula – Tillie is absolutely correct when she says that the best way to learn about poetry is to critique it and answer that important question: “Why didn’t this work for me?” And of course it’s opposite.
    Mike – Others suggested it, but you mentioned an important issue. I also think that if we are to critique, it should be by private email because of the way that the poetry prompt circuit is set up. If we decide to do this activity as a group, that would change, of course, but for now, we are dealing with the circuit and need to respect it.
    And last, but certainly not least, Neil – You made several good points, but the one I most heartily agree with is the need to respect the other poets. To never forget that however we feel or think about any particular piece or poem, those words came from a thinking feeling individual. One who is struggling, as are we, to express themselves.

    What I got from this, as a whole, is that we are all a bit curious about critique and how it might work here online. We have a wide variety of experience, even within this small group, and that would be very helpful in formatting some type of direction to move on. We are definitely in agreement that critique should be handled in a way that encourages and respects each individual and I was quite glad I asked the questions.

    Part 2 of this Discussion is coming up, thanks for joining in,


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