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If you do critique...

Here are several suggestions that should be kept in mind while critiquing:

  1. Make sure you have explicit permission. Even better is for someone to come to you requesting the critique. However politely you put it, the basic point of a critique is to call someone’s baby ugly. Although your comments may seem harmless and unemotionally delivered to you, they may seem earth-shattering and mean to the author. Make sure they know up front that they asked for it.
  2. Ask questions first, and comment later. Make sure that everything is clear as to why something was written as it was and who the audience is. H. Beam Piper wrote in one of his books a spoken sequence out of one character’s mouth that can be generally applied to most human interactions. To paraphrase it, “When someone says something that you don’t understand, don’t call him crazy. Ask him what he means.” Verify your assumptions with the poet whose work you are criticizing before commenting and sticking your foot down your gullet. You will also find that criticism presented as questions can be less threatening to the writer’s ego. Here are some examples:
    • What would happen if you were to change this in such-and-such a way?
    • Now I may not understand this, but would it be clearer if you do this?
    • This isn’t terribly clear to my addled brain, what do you mean in this part of the poem? (Also note the example of self-deprecating humor.)
    • Now my elder brother always said I wasn’t the brightest penny in circulation, so could you explain this to me? (Note that this is another example of self-deprecating humor that can soften the question.)
    • What would happen if you were to try this?
  3. Reflect what you hear or understand someone to be saying back to them. Translate it into your own words and see if you understand what they are saying before commenting further.
  4. If you detect a possible opportunity for improvement, try to be able to present where the opportunity is, why it might be better another way, and at least one suggested way to make improvements.
  5. Remember, you are making suggestions. Unless you have true editorial power, the writer makes the final decisions.
  6. Beware of using humor in your critique. You are probably commenting on something that the author has poured his or her heart and soul into. Using levity or humor might give him the impression you are making fun of him. It is also more likely that your humor may touch a very raw nerve in the author, especially if the poem is about a serious subject. Self-deprecating humor can be okay as long as it doesn’t seem put on as satire. Your best bet is just to try not to be funny, especially if the critique is written. People can’t see how you intend humor when they are reading it in black and white, so it becomes open to their interpretation.

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