I joined an online writing site five years ago with almost no knowledge of literature, and I made some inane comments on creative writing during my first year.
However, with the coaching of online writers, my skills have slowly improved. I’m writing this article to share what I have learned with anyone interested in commenting on literature. It seems to me that creative writers deserve more that just a few (or a few hundred) presses of the “like” button. We need to give then real feedback as to what their words make us think and feel.
According to Wikipedia, An essay is “often written from an author’s personal point of view. Essays can consist of a number of elements, including… political manifestos, learned arguments, observations of daily life, recollections, and reflections of the author.”
The key here is that the author is talking about real events and offering his or her opinions and reflections. When I think about essays, I think about the work of Mike Firesmith,* John Philipp, and Greg Schiller, among others. (I also consider myself an essay writer).
Essays are easy to comment on. Because the author has expressed his or her opinion on one or more topics, you can agree or disagree with their opinions and give your reasons for doing so.
Or, if you prefer, you can simply state that the author has argued their thesis well, and tell them why you find their statements convincing. For instance, although Mike Firesmith and I disagree on many issues, his essays are so compelling that I often find myself nearly persuaded to his point of view as I read. This is the sign of a good essay-writer.
In addition, humor is often a large part of essays, so picking up on a strand of humor and continuing the joking (check out John Philipp’s or Greg Schiller’s comment threads) is a great way to give feedback.
2. FICTIONAL PROSE
Fictional prose (short stories, novel chapters, or writing exercises) can be complex, made of elements such as plot, character development, settings, theme, and underlying message. This makes commenting difficult, so I find it best to remark on what strikes me most about the writing. For instance:
a. Does the piece have a strong sense of mood? How is this created? By a detailed description of the setting or the internal state of the characters? Any author that sets a strong opening mood is off to a good start, and this is worth commenting on. One online author who does this very well is A. F. Stewart.
b. Is the plot brisk and easy to follow, even in the case of an installment piece? Instead of spending a lot of time describing characters and settings, many authors rely on a compelling plot to keep their readers’ interest. If the plot drew you in and was, above all, unpredictable, this is a good thing to comment on. One of my favorite online plot writers is Magi, who is able to maintain a brisk and entertaining plot in long stories that include many installments and complex characters.
c. How real are the characters? Some authors focus mainly on the people. For them, the creation of “real” characters and depiction of their inner growth is paramount. This is accomplished by describing their mental states and/or actions in detail.
When I of someone who creates excellent characters, the writing of Sandy Knauer comes to mind. Any character Sandy writes is likely to be so realistic that they jump off the page.
Poetry is probably the hardest form of literature to comment on, but I find it to be the most fun. And there’s a secret to commenting on poetry: You need not understand the entire poem and all its nuances in order to write a good comment. (More on this in a minute).
Some accomplished poets write very straightforward, easy-to-understand poetry (John Beck and Stephen Berwaldt, for instance), while others pack their work with metaphor and point-of-view changes, making a puzzle to be deciphered (See the work of Atticus or Smaragdus) .
If the poet is writing about their personal life, with themself as the narrator, they are writing confessional poetry. However, you should never assume that poetry is confessional unless the author explicitly says so. Poets write in many different voices, and it is customary to refer simply to the “narrator” of a poem without assuming this to be identical to the author.
So— what’s the best way to comment on a challenging poem? Below are some options I find helpful:
1. Copy and paste your favorite lines into the comment box (be sure to put them in quotes or italics), and explain why you like them.
For instance, do you like with the message they present? Did the mood strike you in a certain way? Do you admire the wording, or did you learn a new word?
2. Many poets paint pictures with words. Comment on the “pictures.”
Any poet who works hard on the imagery in their poems will appreciate you describing in your own words the mental pictures they conjure up, or what they remind you of. They have no other way of knowing the exact effects of their words on the minds of their readers.
3. Did the poem resonate with you in an emotional way?
Many (perhaps most) poets seek to tug the heartstrings of their readers, and will be interested in hearing your emotional reaction to their work.
For instance, did something in the poem trigger an emotional memory for you? If so, the poet will probably be interested in hearing about this (briefly). Or do you sense a predominate emotion to the poem? If so, you may be close to understanding the entire poem, so write about your reaction!
4. Comment on the Pace of the Poem
There’s no need to understand rhyme and meter to discern when a poem slows down or speeds up. Reading it aloud should prove sufficient. Does the pacing of the poem fit with its content, its highs and lows? If so, comment on this.
As an example, consider Craig Lawson’s gorgeous poem Skiing Alone. If you read it aloud, you’ll hear that Craig has written in forced pauses at a few spots in an otherwise smoothly-flowing poem. (For instance, the beginnings of lines 6 and 11, if I am reading correctly). These may represent changes in the direction of the skier’s path.
5. If you read the poet’s work on a regular basis, compare it to their other work.
Poets appreciate it if you remember their work. For instance, if you are reading one of your favorite of their works, say so, and explain why. If it reminds you of another of their poems, point out the similarities, or compare and contrast the two.
For more information on the elements of poetry, click here.
SYMBOLS IN LITERATURE
Most literature includes symbolism, that is, word(s) which have a meaning beyond what they literally represent. It is not necessary to fully understand the symbolism to comment on a piece of literature.
However, the study of symbolism is fascinating, and the symbols in literature are more universal than you might think. If you are interested in literary symbolism, I have included some references below.
Scribd list of literary symbols
Wiki answers list of literary symbols
Ask Jeeves reference on symbols in literature
Try To Make Your Comments Unique
If you are going to comment, you should make your comments unique. The problem with standardized comments (such as “nice” or “I love this”) is not that the author doesn’t appreciate the fact that you have commented. The problem lies in the fact that they can’t tell whether you have read their work. And ask any serious author on the site— they are here to be heard!
What have I omitted?
PLEASE JOIN ME BY OFFERING YOUR COMMENTING SUGGESTIONS IN THE COMMENT BOXES BELOW!
* (Note that the authors I mention are members of the online site Gather.com and/or Inkstained)
Copyright 2013 by Ann Marcaida
Image credits: 1. Erato, Muse of Poetry, by Sir Edward John Poynter 2. email@example.com 3. passonapoem.com 4. shutterstock.com 5. Poetry Reading by Charles Bukowski