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?