Writers need feedback. It is very easy to get caught up in the shininess of a new poem, absolutely aware of what you intended. But that’s exactly the time you need to show it to someone else who, not being aware of earlier drafts, can take a distanced look and let you know whether you’ve achieved what you set out to write.
While waiting for your reader to come back with their feedback, consider the following points:
Who is giving you feedback on your writing?
Unconditional praise is a good ego boost, but no one’s writing is actually that good.
A trusted reader, who understands your writing style and what you’re trying to achieve, will give more valuable feedback than someone who can point out every single grammar error but can’t tell you whether your writing’s any good or not.
If you’re writing a free verse, you might not want feedback from someone who thinks that poems must absolutely rhyme otherwise you’ve written prose.
What you do want from feedback?
If you just want a pointer as to whether your poem is on the right track and is worth persisting with, you don’t want a hugely detailed critique. If you think it’s ready to send out for publication, you don’t want to know your poem’s OK.
A good critique isn’t just criticism, it will also cover the good bits that actually work. To develop as a writer, you need to know what you’re good at as well as what you’re not so good at.
Remember: it’s your poem
Unless you are deliberately collaborating with someone, be wary of writers who want to rewrite your work as they would have written it. Poems weren’t designed to be written by committee.
Some writers find that writing to a formula works for them, but they should not shoehorn your poem into their formula. A tickbox critique can be useful if your poem is being judged against or compared with others, but generally is not helpful for a solo piece of writing.
Your reader says “I don’t get it.”
Drill down and find what they didn’t get. It is a metaphor that doesn’t work? Have you made a reference that’s not on their cultural radar?
If your poem is based on a fairytale or fable and a reader is not familiar with the original fairytale or fable, how far can you go to accommodate that?
Are you using a technical term that’s not familiar to a general reader?
You don’t need to pander to those who think that if your poem or story features rock music, you can only mention a band like The Beatles “because everyone’s heard of them” or take out references to a Biblical story because Leonard Cohen once said he felt he could no longer use them because no one knows the Bible anymore. But be aware that you might be limiting your audience, which is fine if your target audience will get the reference but not if your target audience aren’t with you.
Sometimes a reader will make a suggestion, such as changing a metaphor or turning a red pill into a blue one. The suggestion itself might not be valid, but it does highlight something that isn’t working and needs revision. Don’t simply accept a recommendation, test it first by writing a version of your poem with the recommendation. If the revision doesn’t work, revert to your original but take another look at the stanza/image/metaphor where the recommendation was made. It might be that you need another line explaining the symbolism behind the pill being red (and hence why it can’t be blue).
Rules are for Guidance, not absolutely cast in stone
Sometimes it does make sense to use a passive voice: if your narrator is depressed or unable to see a way out of their problems or tied up and held at gunpoint. Sometimes, to move the plot along, you need to tell rather than show. Sometimes ‘blue’ is perfect and aquamarine, topaz, sky, sea, navy, royal, sapphire, cornflower, whilst more precise, are rhythmically not right.
It will weaken a poem if you try to pad it out with four unnecessarily lines just to create fourteen lines for a sonnet. Far better to stick with ten lines that include a volta and let the reader decide how to define it.
What looks critical might be praise
If someone comments that one of your characters is ‘cold and emotionless’ and accordingly dislikes the character, is that a bad thing? If you wanted that character to be liked, it is. However, if character is supposed to be an unlikeable psychopath, then your reader’s reaction is a good thing.
People don’t speak in grammatically perfect sentences so if a reader complains your dialogue isn’t grammatically correct, is that because you’re not using quotes and attributions properly and so creating confusion as to who is speaking or because your characters are speaking as they would if fully-rounded, alive people?
Be receptive to Feedback
When you’ve written something, read it, revised it, read it, edited it again and got it as close as you think you can, it’s hard to hear that there’s a gap between what you intended to write and what readers think you’ve achieved. Feedback is there to help close the gap between intention and achievement. If you’re not open to feedback, you won’t develop as a writer. If you’re not prepared for readers to take a view on what you’ve written, you’re probably not ready for publication.
By Emma Lee