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    Are You Versed in Peer Critique?

    Thursday, May 12, 2011

    I’ve long admired the quirky acting style of John Lithgow. So I’m happy to report that the two of us have something in common: We’re both poetry promoters.

    Lithgow’s The Poets' Corner: The One-and-Only Poetry Book for the Whole Family is a wonderful introduction to a wide range of verse from across history. Besides the poems themselves—from William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, Dylan Thomas, and others—the book presents a short historical introduction to each, delivered in Lithgow’s delightful writing style. What’s more, the print book includes a CD with a wide range of celebrities reading these poems, from Lynn Redgrave to Kathy Bates to Morgan Freeman and others. But I particularly recommend the audiobook version, which integrates the histories (in Lithgow’s voice) with those poetry readings. Play it in your car while commuting to and from work. Your life will be the richer.

    As for my own promotion of poetry (besides recommending books), in my spare time I’m president of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets. It’s a small way of thanking Wisconsin for supporting my own growth as a poet and writer.

    You might assume that as a poet I have an innate sense of rhythm and tone. To a certain extent, that’s true. But I’ve learned to always ask someone else to read my work aloud before I submit it for publication. Often, I discover that the rhythm I’ve been hearing in my head isn’t the rhythm other people use. By the same token, where I might imagine an ironic tone, or a gentle one, or something else, my reader may react altogether differently. From reader reaction, then, I’m able to target the weak spots in a piece and work to revise them until the poem accomplishes just what it’s intended to do.

    The same is true of business writing. What you think you’ve written isn’t necessarily what your reader understands. This makes peer critique essential. (Seriously, a colleague critiqued this very blog entry before I posted it.) What distinguishes the professional writer at this point is a willingness to lay the blame for any miscommunication on the text, rather than on the reader, and the dedication to refine that text to make things smooth and clear.

    Do you ask a peer to read your text before it’s published? If not, give it a try. If the person is hesitant to comment, ask him or her to point out specifically the one strongest thing and the one weakest thing about the piece. That will be a good starting point both for revising your writing and for building a critique relationship.

    Be sure to let us know how it works out! Just click the “Comments” link below.

    —Les