About 15 years ago I was lucky enough to have a one-to-one writing tutorial with the poet Seamus Heaney. This was before he won the Nobel Prize, but he was still an acknowledged superstar, someone whose poetry I had been reading and studying for years. So I felt pretty nervous as I sat waiting in the corridor with my manuscripts. When it was my turn, he ushered me in and patiently read through the three poems I had brought.
Obviously, my heart was in my mouth. It was so quiet I could hear him breathe.
Then he looked up with a smile on his face and picked up the first poem I had shown him. “If I were you,” he said, “I would have shown me this poem first as well”. He then went on to talk about what he liked about the first poem, enthusing about the promising bits and encouraging me as much as he could. Most of all, he got me to notice the points at which I was clearly enjoying myself, delighting in the words themselves, rather than hammering away at trying to get a ‘message’ across.
It was only gradually, through hints and asides, that he made it clear that the other two poems had virtually none of the redeeming features of the first one. But by that time I didn’t really mind, I was so pleased that he had found something he liked and was showing me how to improve it. He also mentioned in passing that he was currently accepting submissions for an anthology of student poetry.
Ever since then, whenever I’ve been asked to critique a poem (or other creative work) I’ve tried to follow his example: focus on what’s working and encourage the person to do more of that. The aim, of course, is to help the artist maintain their enthusiasm for the work while giving an honest judgment. If you’re lucky, they’ll take the hint. If not, you’ll need to be more direct about what doesn’t work.
Heaney made it easy for me. He was charming, tactful and funny, while making it very clear where my writing had some promise and where I was wasting my time. I left the room with renewed enthusiasm for writing and respect for the craft. Unfortunately, not everyone is so good at giving feedback. Whenever I think of this meeting, I also thank my lucky stars I wasn’t the young composer who asked the great Rossini to appraise his compositions. According to the story, after hearing the first piece Rossini said “You needn’t play any more. I prefer the other one”.
So what do you do when someone gives you ‘constructive criticism’ that sounds anything but? Or when you simply can’t see what they are talking about, and wonder whether you are both looking at the same work? Continuing the theme of at How not to give feedback on creative work and my 5 tips on giving feedback on creative work, my next post will look at how to deal with feedback constructively.
As for my poem, I took Heaney’s hint. I went back to my room and reworked it, addressing the (now glaring) weaknesses. By the time I had finished I was much happier with the poem and very grateful for his feedback. I was even more grateful when I received the letter saying he had accepted the poem for the anthology.