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a:About a Bear Chair and Critique

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This is my Bear Chair. 

From the seat to the tip of Mister Bear’s ears is a little more than 20 inches. For the past couple of years, it’s been the repository of what I call, “Writing Whatnot.” Lots and lots of paper stacked all the way up to the tippy top! 

So in January of this year, I started clearing off the chair, which was mostly scraps (with quotes and ideas) and manuscript pages (with lots and lots of critique notes from writer friends, agents, and/or editors). 

Eventually, a few thoughts became crystal clear (I mean besides the obvious thought about 1,237 pages sitting around for years…) and so I’m sharing what I learned, starting with a favorite quote I found amongst the scraps: 

I have spread my dreams under your feet; tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
 ~William Yeats 

Friends, I found quite a few instances of hard treading upon my dreams. That is to say, some rather harsh critique notes on my manuscripts. 

But I also found some extremely constructive critique notes. Happily, I’m mostly constructive and fair with critique. Sadly, I’m also guilty of a few not-so-constructive critiquing habits. So herewith are a few pointers when you’ve been asked to critique the dreams of fellow writers. May we all improve going forward. 

The “Thanks for Nothing” Critique 

You know what I’m talking about here, right? The note that’s just a few words, usually a command, that’s completely unhelpful. 

Don’t start with a question! 

Don’t start with dialogue!

Cut! Too Much! What?? Or worse, just “???” 

Now, these may all be valid points that will help a manuscript shine. But I, for one, always appreciate a bit of explanation. 

Like why not start with a question? Is that a rule? Because Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White starts with both a question (Where’s Papa going with that ax?) and dialogue. And so understandably, a writer might think it’s a fine idea to start a story in a similar manner. 

And why does this section need to be cut? What, exactly, is too much? And what am I supposed to glean from “What??” 

So to turn these around to constructive comments, provide a critique that might give more explanation. For example, why this particular manuscript should not open with a question. Or why the opening dialogue isn’t working. It doesn’t require a lengthy paragraph; a few sentences is often enough. 

And gosh, it’s much better to ask a writer, “How necessary is this part to your story?” Give the writer something to think about. As for “What?” or “???” Well, that’s just rude. Please don’t do that. 

The “I Could Write a Book” Critique 

You know this kind of critique…it goes on and on and on. This critique-er practically rewrites the manuscript, taking your dream and making it her dream. The comments are full of “should” suggestions. And I know it’s tempting at times when there’s a hot mess in front of you to just fix it, but that’s not helping the writer find her truth, her voice, her story. (Unless you’re getting paid to do a line edit and then you probably should just fix it.)

So there’s a middle space between the too short and too long critique. It may take some thought but that’s what good critique is: thoughtful, constructive, personalized feedback that helps a writer discover how or what needs revision. 

Now, what about you? Do you have a critique pet peeve? Or what do you especially appreciate in a critique? And finally, how impressed are you that I cleaned up all that stuff on the Bear Chair?

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