white cat
Over the years, I’ve given a lot of feedback on a lot of manuscripts, both poetry and prose. I’ve also been grateful to receive commentary on my own writing.

It’s never very nice to be told that your work has failed, that your scansion is all to pot and that your grammar and spelling need major revisions. But how are we to improve if no one points out the weaknesses in our work that we are too blind to see for ourselves?

I have attended many creative writing groups and workshops and, in general, if I am ready to put a piece of my writing in front of a reader, I am interested in hearing their honest opinion. Experience tells me that I learn more from negative comments than from praise. Experience also tells me that, whether the feedback is verbal or written, there are few people bold enough to tell the truth.

I recently submitted a poem for a small competition at the local university. The rules were vague and I’m not at all sure who the judge was. It was a fairly simple poem, and although it didn’t even get placed, I was pleased to receive some written feedback from a “member of staff from the English Department”.

Sadly, this was of little use to me as it focused almost exclusively on the positive.

The comments included phrases such as: “mellifluous and contextual”, “you have a good handle on the rhythm”, “good sound pair” and “you have a flair for description and imagery.” There was even a “nice epistrophe.” (I had to look that one up!)

In fact, there was nothing negative at all until the comment that said: “Not sure how I feel about the end – it feels a little abrupt.”

Looking at the printout, I was not surprised: the final line of my poem had been completely cut off. The version the organiser had given to the judge simply ended with the phrase “all the familiar” – no closing noun, no final punctuation mark.

In an otherwise ordinary poem, with standard grammar and punctuation, there was absolutely no justification for such a non-standard ending. Even so, an English Department academic was not prepared to say that the ending was weak, let alone that it was complete and utter rubbish.

It may not be easy to quantify the quality of creative writing, but we still run competitions and give prizes for literature. We recognise that some writing is better and some is worse. And it is simply not true that modern poetry has no rules and therefore whatever the writer does must be intentional and good. Why on earth, then, do we pussyfoot around so much when it comes to telling people that their writing needs work?

Author: don't confuse the narrator

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

8 thoughts on “pussyfooting”

  1. A writing group, that I was invited to, had an unspoken rule that you didn’t say anything negative about certain people’s work.

    My first comment got me ostracised for life.

    The insular nature of positive comments just for showing up is on the rise after the touchy-feely rise in the 90s, because
    “You’re all winners; but some people are more winners than others.”


  2. Fantastic post, and awesome blog. I know I’ll look forward to reading more. As for your question, I liken it to hesitating when someone who isn’t so great at singing asks you to come to their show, or give them an appraisal of their self-proclaimed craft. Simply, we’re scared of hurting the other person’s feelings. Have you ever told a three year-old her drawing needed work? I can’t think of anyone who has. It’s kind of the same thing with writing, or other things that require a lot of time and considerable thought. Additionally, we doubt ourselves. We may not feel that a piece is good, but we may ask if we could produce a worthy piece ourselves. And if we doubt, we often refrain from dishing out an honest critique. It’s easy to comment on the positive. The comments you listed on your poetry seemed pretty vague. You don’t have to say much. More so, it’s providing positive adjectives that’s easier than saying “This is what needs work, and why.”


    1. Firstly, thanks for reading – and for commenting.

      I understand that many people in workshops just find some fairly standard positive phrases to spout about a poem rather than really looking at it to see what is and isn’t working – albeit it only in their opinion or according to their taste – and providing reasoned comments. What I don’t understand is why they offer to give comments in the first place if they aren’t prepared to engage. Even if they haven’t got solutions, pointing out problems can be really helpful. (And I think the solutions are really up to the writer to find so that they are in keeping with their style and preferences not imposed from without.)

      I think I was particularly disappointed in this case as the reader was theoretically very informed and yet failed to see that the poem had completely lost its ending – which made me doubt the value of anything said.

      Personally, once I actually spend any time on reading a piece, I tend to find it simpler to find the things that trip me up and don’t work – and those are the things that I want people to find and report on when they give feedback on my poetry. I know that my writing can be superficially satisfactory, but I’m aiming for better than that, so any negatives can help me improve it. Which is not to say I will necessarily change anything: but even if I’m not convinced now, that comment will be stored away in the back of my mind and niggle at me when I write future pieces.

      I don’t want anyone to re-write my poems for me, but I am really happy when someone challenges what I’m doing: it gives me something to think about and I agree with them and just not have noticed the problem. There’s even the possibility that their comments will make me look closer and decide that, yes, I really have made the right choices – maybe I did want them to trip there or make that ugly connection that they’d prefer not to have seen etc.

      Hmm. I think it’s time for another blog post /article on workshops, commentary & critique & how to deal with them!


      Liked by 1 person

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