If you don't have anything nice to say then don't say anything. – My mum (and probably a thousand other mums too)
Okay, hands up – no one taught me how to critique but then no one taught me how to write a novel so there.
I think the biggest problem with the word critique is the word itself. It sounds like 'criticise' and so people can't help but assume that when you critique something you're expected to pick holes in it, after all aren't critics famous for tearing people to shreds? In fact it often seems like a prerequisite for the job is the ability to belittle, berate and beat the bejaysus (metaphorically speaking) out of any poor bugger that wanders into their sights.
Critics have a lot to answer for, the death of Tchaikovsky for one, although we will never know for sure but I'm blaming them anyway. In Waiting for Godot "Crrrritic!" is one of the insults they throw at each other.
So, how do you critique a piece of work? Stories are fairly straightforward because there are core elements you want to look at:
- Spelling, grammar, punctuation
You can look at each one of them in turn and observe what works and what doesn't. Your object is to analyse and evaluate but let's stick with a poem for just now because similar principles apply. On Zoetrope apart from a written review you're expected to give marks out of 10 for the following points:
- Communication of Theme
It's not perfect but it's a reasonable list to keep in mind. I would suggest a few other things that should be considered:
- If the poem has a title, how does it contribute to the work as a whole? Or is it simply a label?
- What poetic techniques contribute to – or detract from – the success of the piece (e.g. alliteration, onomatopoeia, symbolism, rhyme)?
- Is any part of the poem redundant? Is repetition used to good effect or is it a distraction? And that's not simply using the same words but expressing the same idea(s) but in different words.
- Have the very best words been used?
- Does the poem rely heavily on clichés or out-of-date and hackneyed expressions?
- Who's the poem's target audience?
- Is it relevant?
- Does the work use esoteric terminology or require specialist knowledge?
- And I would look at spelling, punctuation and grammar too.
Don't look at this as a checklist so much as things to think about when you look at a poem. Obviously the first time you run across a poem you're seeing it in isolation. If I can I'll have a squint at a few other poems by the same author to see what their style is, if they have one, and that will help me see if what I'm about to review is typical of their work.
I come across a lot of poems on the boards in certain forms (the haiku is obviously a popular one) so, if they're writing a haiku are they abiding by the rules and conventions that govern that style of writing. In simple terms, it is simple a poem with three lines with a 5-7-5 syllabic rhythm or is it true to the basic principles of haiku. Or does any of that matter? Western haiku is so far removed from its origins that beating someone over the head about their approach or subject matter is probably not going to help. I do usually mention the 5-7-5 structure IF the poem would work better with an extra syllable or two more or less.
The most obvious thing is first of all to look for what works about any piece – and even the worst poem has something praiseworthy about it. Note I didn’t say what's 'good' about it. Before you start dissecting a piece, find something – anything – nice you can say about it.
Then point out what doesn't work as well as it could, not what's 'bad' about it. Both of these should be objective comments.
Then what you like and dislike about the piece. These can be subjective remarks but it's so much better if someone tells you WHY they liked the piece. A comment like: "Great poem!" is … well, great, but not very helpful. If they're completely misread the piece then maybe it wasn't as great as you've been led to think it was. And, "That's the biggest load of horse manure I've ever read," is probably not the right thing to say either even if it is the biggest load of horse manure you've ever read. If they've put it out there for the world to see then they probably don't think so and no amount of persuading will convince them that it is.
One site I looked at suggested including a disclaimer:
Include a disclaimer that says you recognize the poet has the right to throw your critique into the nearest dumpster. "Take this for what it's worth." is a very common way to say "This is what I have to say, but you don't have to listen."
The next thing you know they'll be asking for a lawyer's letter.
But, yeah, make the point that this is an opinion and your motivation is to encourage and support the writer. You're not telling them what to do. You're telling them how their poem has affected you. So many writers forget that what they write is only part of the equation and their readers will bring only what they are capable of bringing to the table. Readers complete poems. In some cases this will be too much. In other cases not enough. I've had poets come back at me on both counts.
The Poetry.org website gives its own list and includes this option:
Offer suggestions for the poem from the point of view of a reader: point out the places that you don’t understand or sections that you find inconsistent with other parts of the poem. Give advice on the poem that is as concrete as possible. Tell the poet that you didn’t understand this line, or that word, or ask why each stanza begins with a capital letter.
You can also see some sample critiques there if you're interested.
I have completely reworked poems before to demonstrate a point I was trying to make. There are those who say this is an absolute no-no but sometimes it's easier to show rather than tell. But I'm always quick to point out that this is not saying their way is wrong and mine is right because so often there isn't a right and wrong way. Look at my post on my poem 'Stray', for example, and all the different ways it could have been laid out. That, I have to stress, is not something I do very often but a few lines is probably okay to illustrate your point.
I found this fun list on Author's Den. The author says of it: "I chose the letter 'I' to do this to remind us all that poetry is subjective and so is a critique."
Insight: A poem will often give us insight into a person's thoughts. What does this poem tell you about the poet?
Interpretation: What was your interpretation of the poem? What do you believe the poet meant for you to interpret?
Impact: How did the poem influence you? What impact did it have upon you? Describe from your own perspective remembering that this might not have been what the poet intended. Ideas Comment upon the ideas used. Was the poet original?
The article goes on to list illustration, inspiration, information, imagery, and a good many other ‘I’ words, some of which are a bit of a stretch. It is worth the read, however. The first comment on the list got to me:
Thanks for the info here, but basically, I think someone's write's either do it for you, or they don't. I personally don't try to find meaning/substance in others writings if it just dosent turn me on, that simple. And i am sure others feel the same way about my work. Each to his own.
And she's right, even if her English needs a bit of work. Or is that me being critical? Not everyone wants their work dissected and presented back to them arranged on a plate. For some people poetry is a take-it-or-leave-it medium. I don't get it. I think it's stupid but it's their right and so when I do encounter someone like that I apologise for any offense caused and move on to someone who might appreciate my efforts.
And that's the thing. When someone reviews your work never forget the fact that they've given up some of their precious time to try and make you a better writer. And that is the motive behind the majority of critiques. And even if it's not you can still learn from a bad critique. Just don't let 'em get to you.
For the record the next commentator on the 'I' list had this to say:
You are sooo awesome! You have helped me so much, now I know what questions I should ask on my critique. Thanks alot!
You never know how people are going to react. Some will be appreciative and other not. It's life and life sucks but we get on with it anyway.
There are other lists. Here's one taken from Poets Dictionary by William Packard:
And, lastly, how NOT to critique: DON'T CRITICISE THE POET. Was that clear enough? It's the old: hate the crime, not the criminal mentality. You can get away with quite a bit IF you're respectful. And if they won't listen don't try and force them around to your opinion.
All of the above is assuming that the poet has asked for comment in the first place. I've come a cropper before for saying too much when the poet has simply posted their poem on their blog. To my mind, if a poem's out there in the open then it's fair game though I've learned not to say too much on a blog. I just touch on a point or two and pass on. Poems on discussion boards are a different thing completely.
So, go for it. Just don't go for the throat. Okay?