About a Bear Chair and Critique

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

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?


Sioux Roslawski said...

I appreciate it when a critique partner comes with a "This is just a suggestion... It's your piece" approach. When critique partners give me advice about my writing, and it's a nudge to reflect upon my choices--I love that.

I was in one critique session (not my regular one) and there were a couple of guys who were dismissive of anything memoir-y. They wrote detective stuff (and it was crappily written) and looked down their noses at anything Chicken Soup-y. I didn't like their condescending manner, especially considering their own writing wasn't impressive.

(I guess that bear--like Smokey the Bear--is intent on preventing fires. Your bear chair held a mini fire hazard... and never let it go up in flames. ;)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

In my critique group, we often start our verbal comments with "Look, I know I'm playing in your sandbox here. But I think this might work..."

It is so tricky to help someone hone their vision for a piece especially if a piece needs big changes. But an explanation goes a long way to helping someone see why a change needs to be made or how it might occur.

In my group, we refer to people like Sioux encountered as Sharks. They circle the critique waters looking for someone to tear apart. Sad, sorry people.

Cathy Biggerstaff said...

Being overcome by the clutter in my home, and being intent on cleaning it up, I love that your Bear Chair is now a Bare Bear Chair. Thanks for sharing this. It made me smile. Blessings on your writing!

Cathy C. Hall said...

Oh, Sioux, I find those condescending types so annoying and I SO hope I've never done that...but there does seem to always be one in a bunch. And when it's a professional, like an agent/editor, it can be devastatingly hurtful. Thankfully, I've only encountered that once, maybe twice if you count the time I was a wee bit over-sensitive. :-)

Sue, I love that "playing in your sandbox" comment! You are so right, it IS tricky when one can see plainly what's not working in someone else's manuscript (and as writers, we get so attached to our work!) but I do so like a "why" with a suggestion; it helps me think through the problem.

Jeanine DeHoney said...

Cathy, I'm impressed and applaud you for cleaning your Bear chair. It is so cute. And your post definitely resonates with me today. I received a personalized critique from an editor of one of my stories that highlighted more pluses and only a few negatives in my manuscript and what I needed to do to make it better, that left me smiling and ready to quickly revise it. Thankfully, I've been lucky and have gotten more inspiring critiques with helpful feedback that can help me grow as a writer than hurtful, stinging ones, so I hope that continues.

Cathy C. Hall said...

Ha! A Bare Bear Chair! That made ME laugh, Cathy, thanks!

And Jeanine, yay for you, getting that personalized critique. May all your critiques be positive and personalized!

Renee Roberson said...

Cathy, that chair is adorable and I'm happy you restored it to all its shiny glory. The Bare Bear comment cracked me up, too. For me, personally, when I'm critiquing someone's work I try to provide a fair balance of suggestions AND things I like in the work. I think when we've been on the wrong end of a critique or series of ???'s (seriously?!) we learn how to better craft our own suggestions. For me, I've had a few "professional" critiques or comments from competitions where I've been told my manuscript is not marketable and that burns me up more than anything. In today's world of hybrid, indie, self and traditional publishing, why say anyone's work isn't marketable? Have the critiquers seen any of the books adapted streaming services? I could go on and on.

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