critical thinking I

The idea of critique and criticism** has cropped up on a number of occasions recently, including at the poetry group I attend. There, it seems clear that some of the less experienced writers feel they shouldn’t be commenting on, let alone criticising, the writing of the more experienced group members.

poetry books
I think they are wrong for two quite different reasons.

  • Firstly, however unskilled you may be as a writer, it’s quite possible to be an experienced reader and a helpful critic. If you want to be a poet, you ought to read published poetry, and if you do, you should have some knowledge of what is considered ‘good’, which you can use as a gauge against which to compare the work that you are commenting on.

    Even your personal preferences and reactions can be useful or interesting to the writer, who, presumably, has offered a text for discussion because he wants feedback on it.

  • On the other hand, the person who is making the comments can learn a great deal from doing so. Over the years, I have belonged to a number of workshop groups, both presential and online, and have commented on many works-in-progress, including writing a lot of line-by-line critiques. These can take a long time – nowadays, I find recording my thoughts as an audio file is quicker – but I don’t think the hours spent have been wasted even when I haven’t shared my comments with anyone else.

    By reading closely enough to make comments, I have learned a huge amount about how poems work – and how they fail: by looking at each word and line break, I’ve discovered details that aren’t revealed by reading superficially; by reading aloud, I’ve found how the sounds are working and I’ve ‘tasted’ the poems; by going beyond ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’, I’ve tried to clarify what it is that has provoked that reaction. And even when I haven’t told the writer what I felt, these discoveries have been useful as I have been able to apply some of what I’ve learned to my own writing.

  • So, even if you aren’t an experienced writer, commentary is valuable, and when the writer is willing to discuss the points raised, the resulting dialogue can be a tremendous learning experience both for the poet and the critter. It’s an opportunity not to be missed.


    ** I’m using the words ‘critique’ and ‘criticism’ interchangeably here to mean commentary and workshop discussion of works-in-progress, not to refer to formal literary criticism.

    Author: don't confuse the narrator

    Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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