Starting Monday June 18th, I will begin hosting an online, self-paced workshop to help teach poets about writing concerns and as a formal introduction to how to critique. A new topic will be introduced once a week for six weeks, but the workshop will be available after that time and as a series of free printable documents for self-paced learning.
Description/Goal: A lot of folks who don't offer critique (who aren't doing so for selfish reasons) don't offer suggestions because they don't feel qualified. I’ve seen it in countless comments on forums and in real-world workshops. They don't have the terminology, the technical skills, the poetic know-how, or the formal education overall.
This workshop is intended to serve the needs of readers and writers who want a more formal foundation for suggesting revisions and giving writing advice.
By following my critique blogs and some additional scholarship, together we will explore different writing concerns for poetry. These writing concerns include content, flow, word efficiency, imagery, literary devices, syntax, and more. During this workshop we will learn how to identify, analyze, and discuss these features of writing for the benefit of our own poetry and the poetry of others.
This is not a workshop for poets to workshop any of their own writing; it is an in-depth introduction to critique where we will explore “anonymous” poetry.
Level of expertise: Open to all
Subject matter: Critique and Understanding Writing Concerns https://www.neopoet.com/workshop/great-big-all-inclusive-critique-workshop) in manageable sections.
Get the short version of the workshop (exactly as it will be posted to Neopoet by clicking the download file below. This version offers less in terms of academic resources/discussion/reading, but still offers plenty of free resources.
My classmate, coworker, and friend Cameron Green is offering workshop services on his new website, https://camerongreenwrites.com. There you can also read his creative writing, sign up for a writing newsletter, and read his enlightening and entertaining writing blog.
Stop in and say hello!
I don’t know about other folks here, but sometimes I have have trouble following along in a poem like I should. This mostly goes for poems that don’t have enough capitalization, line/stanza breaks or punctuation or poems that use these too much. I also don’t know if other writers intend the same pauses as I do when using the same punctuation, line/stanza breaks, etc.
Without cues (or with misused cues), I can’t discern where one thought begins or ends. This is especially true when two thoughts share a line (enjambment) or multiple thoughts span one stanza. I inevitably end up pausing at weird spots because I misjudge where I should be pausing.
I can remember this being a prevalent issue when reading poetry aloud in school as a child. Us shy types would would rush through the poem as quick as we could, never stopping between stanzas or between thoughts, regardless of the inclusion of aforementioned cues. Those who couldn’t read as well would stumble through the poem like it was the thickest mud you’ve ever had the displeasure of trekking through. If there had been cues that would normally signal a pause, full stop or other form of emphasis, they wouldn’t have noticed it, if they knew what it meant or not.
I see poems lacking poems lacking the cues readers need everywhere from school to Neopoet to Emily Dickinson to Shakespeare’s sonnets. For some, it’s overdoing the signals. You might come across a poem with capitalization on every line, using punctuation as if the poem consists of complete sentences, lines long enough to make the stanzas look like paragraphs, extraneous punctuation (a period and a question mark together, ten periods in an ellipsis etc. For readers who notice every capitalization and every punctuation mark and try to use it the way it’s intended, it can make the poem very difficult to get through.
The poet. May not intend. For readers. To. Read the poem. Like this but. Capitalizing. Every line might. But sometimes, not, because. Some readers are used to this traditional style. on the other hand no punctuation or capitals means that the thoughts go on and on without any pauses or stops at all so that the reader just keeps going this is not so good because the reader will not be able to make heads or tails of the beginning and end of each thought they will miss out on important details they also won’t be able to savor the language use.
My suggestion is for poets to find a balance between their signals. Pick and chose. Use a combination of line/stanza breaks, punctuation and capitals. If you want to put more emphasis on one or two of those, limit your use of the others.
You can have multiple thoughts on one line or multiple thoughts spanning a single stanza, but use something that will tell the reader to pause between the two different ideas.
Punctuation like commas, semicolons, em dashes, parentheses, and periods can all provide different kinds of pauses in your writing. Commas are a brief pause that tell the reader that more relevant information is to follow. A period is a full stop that means a totally new idea is coming. Semicolons are a pause longer than a comma but shorter than a period that means related information is coming, but the information is it’s own complete thought or complete sentence (or for long lists). You typically see a period used when you have a new subject or you are explicitly restating the subject in the sentence. Semicolons are used when a previously mentioned topic, subject or action is not being explicitly restated.
Sentences are made up of clauses. An independent clause is a complete sentence with a subject and action. A dependent cause is not a complete sentence because it relies on another clause to establish subject or action. Use a comma to separate an independent and dependent clause. Typically, a sentence with an independent and dependent clause will still be a complete sentence if you removed the dependent clause (remove “Typically,” from the beginning of this sentence and the rest still makes sense). A sentence that follows a semicolon is like a dependent clause, but is a complete sentence; the statement needs the previous sentence to establish the subject or action, but it’s a complete thought and using a comma would have created a run-on sentence or comma splice. Do you see how I used the semicolon above? I needed it because my subject was “the statement”. Well, which statement? The previous line gives me the answer: the sentence that follows a semicolon.
Em dashes (the long dash, like this —) are similar in usage to parentheses or commas in that they usually denote appositives. An appositive is “added information” that can be taken away from a sentence without making it an incomplete sentence (it’s a dependent clause of useful information). The en dash (the short dash like this -), or hyphen, (the part “or hyphen” is an appositive, marked by commas) is used to hyphenate words (if you removed all the appositives from this sentence you would have “The en dash is used to hyphenate words.”). You hyphenate words (like-this) when two (or more) words together creates one adjective (age-old story, fire-red eyes, low-budget film, ten-year-old brat).
Does that all make sense (especially the period and semicolon part)? It’s a lot to take in, but I thought it worthy of explaining since I’m talking about punctuation!
If used, capitalization should occur where it would normally be if there were complete sentences and proper punctuation. Basically, use a capital to note a new thought and for proper nouns. You may not want to use this method if you plan to have multiple thoughts on one line (a capital would be odd in the middle of a line).
Lastly, lines and stanzas can also be used in various ways to distinguish thoughts. A poem that is one stanza with multiple thoughts (or could have multiple complete sentences) can use punctuation or capitalization to separate thoughts so that the reader pauses or stops when they should. Lines and stanzas can be used to separate ideas as well (new thought = new line or new stanza). However, if you would like to use the “new thought = new stanza” concept, you may not want to be writing a very long piece. Aim for a few haiku-like stanzas and express your ideas as concisely as possible.
Remember, find a balance between the various cues that are available for signalling pauses and stops. Under-doing it or overdoing will make the poem difficult for many readers to get through. You want to guide your readers. And for readers and critics, make note of how the poet uses these cues. There should be purpose for every signal that is used. If the poem does not appear to have selectively and intentionally chosen cues, let the poet know. They should be carefully placing each one.
Learn more about punctuation here: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/section/1/6/
Have any questions about using pauses and other cues in your poetry and other writing? Feel free to leave a comment on this blog or contact me in the contact form on my "About Me" page.
See this blog post on Neopoet: https://www.neopoet.com/swamp-witch/blog/tue-2018-06-05-1327
There are many online options for some of the writer or poet’s most basic tools- the word processor, dictionary and rhyming dictionary, and thesaurus.
Here’s information about a few of these tools.
Most computer users will be familiar with MS Word, a common word processor with many useful features. What some of us may not know is that recent updates of MS Word (probably editions from 2010 and later) have built-in synonym and dictionary features. Some of the older versions have a define feature, but it is called “Look Up”. It is likely the most feature-rich of the word processors I know of, but it is also a paid software.
One downfall of MS Word is that it does not automatically save your work. I can not count the number of times I have lost work irreversibly in the past when MS Word was my only option. I have spent more than my fair share of time retyping entire essays from scratch at the last minute. If you need help saving your work on MS Word, check out this tutorial: https://support.office.com/en-us/article/Save-a-document-in-Word-B7F55D8...
On the other hand, most online word processors have the benefit of being free (or just costing $1 - $2 USD) and automatically saving (the only downfall to that is you must be connected to the Internet for the auto-save feature to function, so any time you are out and about working on your tablet, laptop, or smartphone without a stable Internet/WiFi/mobile data connection, you won’t be able to save).
The most common free online word processor is Google Drive/Docs. It has somewhat less features overall compared to MS Word, but is a powerful tool for those who might otherwise obsessively click the Save button on MS Word! The great thing about this online word processor is that it is connected to your GMail account, so you can access it anywhere from any computer or device just by logging into your GMail account. There is also a Desktop/’Google Drive for Windows” feature which allows you to download Google Drive for your personal computer and syncs your documents for offline access.
Google Drive does not have a Synonym feature, but it does have an “Explore” feature. By right-clicking on a word and selecting “Explore ---”, you will bring up a pane that gives you web, image, and Google Drive search results of that word. You can do the same thing with an entire phrase by selecting/highlighting the phrase then right-clicking (learn how to select text in the above Copy and Paste tutorial).
If these particular apps are not your style, a simple/free notepad app or one of these note-taking apps may be better: http://www.gadgetmatch.com/best-note-taking-apps-phone-android-ios/
For those writers who want a simplified, clean, focused, and uncluttered writing/typing experience with less bells and whistles (maybe even something akin to old typewriters) try these: http://fieldguide.gizmodo.com/9-minimal-word-processor-apps-for-distract... or Ywriter4: http://www.spacejock.com/yWriter4.html
The online/digital options for online dictionaries and rhyming dictionaries are just as plentiful, if not more plentiful, than word processes (the above links only share some of the available ones). Google can define words for you without using an additional dictionary by simply searching the word with “define” such as “define alliteration” or “alliteration define” as the search terms.
English to Other Language Dictionaries
For an online rhyming dictionary, my go-to is RhymeZone. Rhymezone features a dictionary, rhyming dictionary, thesaurus, near rhymes, and many other features useful for poets like searching for specific phrases or searching for a usage of a word in Shakespeare. It has the added benefit of organizing the words it provides by syllable so that you can find the perfect word to fit a syllable count in your poetry.
For picking end, middle, double, or other types of rhymes, (and also learning about the many different types of rhyme) use Rhymer.
To generate random words by part of speech or other parameters, try one of these generators (great writing prompt):
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.