Whether you are critiquing poetry or fiction in a creative writing course, or peer editing argumentative essays for your college composition class, there are some universal ideas (in my opinion) that will help you make the most of the critiquing experience.
What to look for in your peer’s writing:
A poem uses imagery, stanzas, line breaks, subtext and other literary tools to paint a picture with words. Fiction uses paragraphs, dialog, subtext, metaphor, and other literary devices to tell a story. An essay uses a thesis, supporting evidence, and rhetorical devices to make an argument, explain a theory, or analyze a text. Each of these should be easy to understand and smooth to read aloud. However, each one has a very different audience that will affect what type of language you might use.
Your job as a critic or peer editor is to help a fellow writer when their work does not yet fulfill above statements.
When reading the writing, look to your syllabus if it is an essay. Does it include everything the professor requires? For instance, if it is a persuasive essay, does it make an arguable claim? Making a statement that can’t be argued (just stating a fact) doesn’t work! If it is an expository essay, it shouldn’t make an argument; it should state facts from science or history, for example.
Peer editing creative writing will be a little different.
When reading a poem or story look for:
-intriguing words and phrases
-detailed descriptions (using as many senses as possible)
-emotions, depth and content
-word efficiency (short stories have word limits and so do some types of poems)
-engaging literary devices
Word craft is one of the key features of poetry and creative writing, but it has its place in academic writing as well! Good use of clever phrasing and word combinations is always desirable. Think of it like this: your words are like various colors of paint - you can use them creatively by mixing or blending them on your canvas to achieve a desired result.
Detailed descriptions help put "meat" on the "bones" of a poem and make your essay more clear, especially if it is an expository essay or if the intended audience is expected not to know much about the topic. Well placed imagery and good descriptive language can transform a pair of stick figures into the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Although word craft and descriptions are very important, a poem will connect better with readers when it's more than surface beauty. A poem with some dynamic and relatable meaning will be a stronger piece than one that's just a bunch of pretty words. In academic writing, this is where you bring rhetorical devices (ethos, logos, and pathos) into the essay to strengthen the argument or make the expository essay more meaningful to your audience.
"Tightening up" a poem by eliminating words, phrases, lines or entire stanzas that don't add content, depth or meaning to the poem can add a lot of potency to the necessary words that are left. If you can paint a picture that's just as beautiful and emotive with one less bottle of paint, why not do it? In academic writing, you are often limited to a certain page or word count. If you waste too many of those words in a digression that doesn’t help your argument (or by writing a circular argument), your argument will be much less effective.
Literary tools ("literary devices") like meter, rhyme, alliteration, metaphor and personification can add both beauty and depth to your creative writing. Parallelism, allusion, simile, and anaphora can add interest and depth to your academic writing . These can be overused or underused, just like the rest of the above features. The trick is to find a balance between them!
On to your suggestions:
You can offer the writer suggestions and praise based on how successfully you think they met the required criteria (or the aforementioned criteria if the assignment was open-ended). This is not to say that this is a definitive list or absolute truth. These are my guidelines, written by a-most-certainly-fallible 23 year old. I'm still learning too!
We can’t forget flow, spelling or grammar, now can we? A poem or essay that meets the above criteria could be chock-full of syntax errors or be terribly choppy and difficult to follow. You will want to read the poem or essay aloud whenever possible to help you check the flow of the piece and keep a dictionary or thesaurus (online options work well!) to help you as well. Remember, the workshop environment is not here for you to become someone’s personal spell-checker, but it doesn’t (or shouldn’t!) hurt to mention it if you notice a typo, especially if the writing is for a grade!
You can use proofreading marks like these (http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_proof.html), write longer comments on the back or in the margins, highlighting, underlining, whatever feels best for you (on Neopoet you can use all kinds of spacing, symbols like arrows --> or the Advanced Formatting function, which I know I explained somewhere once upon a time).
Don’t forget to talk with your peer when you are done and explain what you meant in your critique. Don’t forget to praise what they did well. Our successes give us the confidence and determination to fix our mistakes and improve ourselves!
[broken into shorter parts for readability, emphasis added in bold]
"He / Who casts to write a living line must sweat, /...and strike the second heat / Upon the Muse's anvil," wrote Ben Johnson. Indeed, few if any immortal poems can have been perfected with the first blow. The labor of revising seems the usual practice of most bards (other than the Bard of Avon, if we believe the famous rumor that in "whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out line").
A study of these versions is valuable to anyone who cares to observe how a finished poem comes to be. More important to anyone who wishes to read poetry well, we stand to learn something about the rightness of a poem by comparing its successive drafts. If the poet is a master who kept revising over many years, as Yeats did, we may learn a great deal. Revising his work, the poet has had to make some merciless evaluations. By setting earlier and later versions side by side, we may see the difference between the weak line, merely decent line, or even very good linke he discarded, and the line he finally chose.
A novice poet who regards his first draft as inviolable sometimes loses interest in a poem if anyone suggests he do more work on it. But other poets have found excitement in the task ("What bliss!" Yeats exclaimed, looking forward to weeks of laborious rewriting.) Indeed, "the work of correction is often quite as inspired as 'the first onrush of words and ideas,'" as A.F. Scott remarks on revision by English poets (in The Poet's Craft) ...
Not all revisions are successful.... But when he revises effectively - when we agree with his second thought - the poet is changing his meaning for the better. He enriches it, he finds words that speak with greater precision and economy.
Kennedy, X.J. An Introduction to Poetry. Little, Brown and Company, 1966, pp. 258 - 260.
This introduction to a chapter on the different versions of poems from many master poets throughout the centuries (including Horace, Yeats, Rilke, Coleridge, and others), Kennedy demonstrates the value of revision. Although the chapter doesn't necessarily suggest that these great writers had peers who gave them suggestions (in fact, it almost seems like Kennedy suggestions revision comes solely from the writer with their "merciless evaluations" and the disdain for "anyone [who] suggests he do more work on it" that many poets have) we can safely assume that many did.
I wanted to share it because it goes to show that even textbooks and prominent poetry scholars are in favor of revision. This text was published in the 1960s, when Post-Structuralism came to be as a literary theory, which states that "to understand an object (e.g., a text), it is necessary to study both the object itself and the systems of knowledge that produced the object." (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-structuralism).
I think this textbook from Kennedy being concurrent with this literary theory makes perfect sense. Understanding why we write and why its important to revise doesn't stop at understanding the forms of poetry or the ways of making revisions; it extends to asking ourselves why we can and why we should, and like the Wikipedia article states, what "systems of knowledge" are at play here.
I think one system at play today is the immediate gratification and instant communication of our online world. As a digital native ("a person born or brought up during the age of digital technology and therefore familiar with computers and the Internet from an early age" --> Google's definition), I do love the instantaneous ability for me to connect with people all over the world, share my life in digital diaries that are less fleeting than printed photos or paper journals, and to learn anything I desire to know in a second.
Yet, I think more than ever before these same privileges that the Internet gives us also can bring about the worst in people or lead people to inflate themselves with constructed personas that are more constructed than they ever could be "IRL" (in real life). I can show the world exactly what parts of myself I want it to see, in a perfectly edited manner thanks to photo editing and other technology. Yet, if we do it enough (present a hyper-edited version of ourselves) without stepping back and reminding ourselves that no one is perfect, we lose touch with reality. We start to convince ourselves that everything we do is perfect.
We start to forget all the revision we did to put on that perfect persona. We say things like "it came from the heart" when it comes to our poetry, followed by assertions that constructive feedback is cruel.
In 1711, Alexander Pope wrote “An Essay on Criticism” a poem all about how horrible critics of the time were, including such memorable quips as:
“'Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill/ Appear in writing or in judging ill” (it’s hard to say whether there is a greater lack of skill among writers or among those who judge writers)
“Authors are partial to their wit, 'tis true,/ But are not critics to their judgment too?” (it’s true that authors think rather highly of themselves, but critics are the same about their criticism)
“But you who seek to give and merit fame,/ And justly bear a critic's noble name, /Be sure yourself and your own reach to know, / How far your genius, taste, and learning go; / Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet, /And mark that point where sense and dullness meet. (if you want to be a critic/critique, make sure you know your place and don’t bite off more than you can chew, be discreet, and avoid obsessing over correctness and becoming a bore)
“So vast is art, so narrow human wit” (art is so much more than anyone can comprehend)
These parts of the poem, I find, best demonstrate that Pope had terrible experiences with critics of the day, but still his words remind me of people today who seem to be experiencing this false sense of perfection that comes with instant gratification. Many people in the arts share his same sentiments today and have done so throughout the centuries. I think part of the problem is that we don’t always distinguish between the “critic” and other readers who would make comments. Yes, there are critics, like in film, whose opinion seems applauded for no good reason. Did they even study film? Have they ever tried to make a movie? Who gave them this platform to say such impactful things in the first place?
But these critics, and the ones I think Pope had a problem with, I think, had something to gain by being cruel. I think critics of Pope’s could have gained a lot by defaming him, humiliating him, in that time, because appearances and reputation could make or break a person’s entire livelihood, whether facts were presented or not. A few bad reviews, metaphorically yelled loudly enough, could have discredited Pope and kept him from ever publishing again, whether he was a good person or a good writer or not. Something similar could be true today with film. A film that should have been a box office hit could take a nosedive if a prominent enough critic slams it after the premier, whether it was a good movie made by good people or not.
I also suspect that he may have penned “So vast is art, so narrow human wit” as an excuse. Maybe he didn’t, I don’t know him and can’t know him, but I think it was his way of saying “I’m just too good at art. Y’all just can’t understand my art. Too avant-garde, too highbrow, for you lowlifes to understand or even appreciate.” It is true that the scope of art is too much for any one person to fully comprehend, but every subject is. It’s a given. But it doesn’t feel like he’s just stating the obvious. Why would he need to? Maybe he’s using this “obvious statement” as derision of the very critics who derided him, to try to put them in their place.
I say all this because this type of criticism (someone saying bad things about another person’s work because they have something to gain from it) has nothing to do with revision, workshops, and critique at all, in my humble opinion. When a poet joins a workshop, they are working with other writers, other people who do actually study the craft. Yes, maybe “critics” as I’ve described above have no sense about writing and only have their opinions of what they like, but in a workshop, online or in real life, that’s not who the poet is interacting with. They are interacting with other students and other artists, and other teachers. (don’t get me started on “those who can’t do, teach”).
If you want to learn and grow as a writer, being stuck in the mindset that there are critics out to get you and hurt you is only going to hinder you. Thinking that the greats “wrote from the heart” and didn’t experience the learning process or make revisions is only going to hinder you. Thinking you are exempt from the conversation about learning and change just because of your age, experience, or some other factor, is only going to hinder you. Seriously. If you care about writing and want to use your writing to help yourself or anyone else for that matter, you will benefit from making the effort. You will benefit from aspiring to have even one fraction of the enthusiasm about revision as W.B. Yeats did.
I'm just your average fictional creature, living in a swampland by the sea.