Lately I have spent a lot of time looking at other people’s work, because my Writers Circle has run a short story competition and a poetry competition and is producing an anthology of the winning entries and our own work.
I was on the panel for judging the poetry competition, and we had about 42 entries. This meant I had to put my ‘poetry head’ on and read every poem several times and make notes on whether it was good enough for the shortlist. Then we had a meeting to make the final judgement.
We didn’t have a single poem that all four of us liked, so we thought it was going to be a long night! When we talked about why we liked or didn’t like a poem, it raised issues some of us hadn’t thought of, and that helped us come to a consensus. It eventually took two hours to pick a winner, two runners up, and six highly commended.
Meanwhile another panel judged the short stories. I think they had similar problems.
It’s really hard to be on the other side of the fence. I’ve entered writing competitions before and got discouraged because I never won anything. When you are judging, you are painfully aware that you are disappointing lots of people. Sometimes we had to reject a really good poem because it wasn’t on the subject set, or it had spelling mistakes.
We were told by our publisher that the book needs to be at least 50,000 words, so having got our competition winners, we all wrote poems and short stories to showcase our work in the rest of the book. They are not being judged, but we want a high standard, so we all had to read each other’s work and critique it.
We do that all the time at our monthly Prose Group, but there is a word limit each month to keep it down to a manageable size, so the discussions don’t take all night. I read and critiqued about 34 poems and stories and was then sent sent another 4, and the meeting is tonight! We’re not going to discuss the critiques as there are so many, but discuss general issues.
Critiquing happens on two levels for poetry and short stories.
There is the copy editing level – which checks spelling, punctuation, grammar, typos, layout and such things. They’re small things, set against the creativity of producing the work in the first place, but will put readers off if they’re not right. They also make the author look bad. In poetry, if you use metre and rhyme, you must keep it consistent, or that spoils it for the reader too.
Then there is the content level. What is the author trying to say and does it work? A lot of this is subjective, and you need to say so. There are few if any rules, particularly in writing prose, so you can’t say in a critique that something is wrong, just that it doesn’t work for you.
The worst thing to say about a piece is that it was nice. That means absolutely nothing. If you liked it, why? It is just as important to tell an author what works as what doesn’t. You need to be kind in your critique but you need to be honest, and you must give reasons. Then the author can think about what you say and do something constructive with it.
I didn’t know how to critique when I started, and other people in the group always come up with insights I didn’t spot at all. As time went on, I learned by doing and by hearing from others, and from the critiques I received myself. A good judgement is to ask yourself, ‘If this was my work, what would I want to know?’
If you are a writer and don’t have anyone to give you good feedback, try joining Critique Circle where you earn points by critiquing others and spend them having your work critiqued. There’s lots of good advice on there too, and forums where you can interact with others. From Critique Circle I got the following links to critiquing advice:
The Diplomatic Critiquer by Andrew Burt from Critters.org
It’s Not What You Say, but How You Say It, also by Andrew Burt
How to Cope With Critiquing by Rich Hamper from The Rth Dimension
How to Critique Fiction by Victory Crayne from her web site