The first person to read each new story I write draws chickens in the margins. Okay, maybe she doesn’t actually draw a chicken, but she does write “chickens” wherever she finds I’ve used the word “laying,” when I should have used “lying.” She does this to emphasize that chickens are laying eggs, while people are lying in bed.
She is also a member of the Punctuation Mafia, and frequently puts out hits on the commas in my work. “Kill this comma,” is a fairly common phrase in my margins. Really, whole families of commas have been wiped out by this Mafia Wise Gal. But don’t worry. Commas are pretty much like hydras–cut one and two more grow in its place.
When she puts on her detective hat, she ferrets out faulty character motivation, and will leave messages like, “why would she do this?” or “this doesn’t work for me.” She’s never been wrong, often seeing and getting to know my characters better from an external perspective than I possibly can from the internal one.
She highlights double and triple words, and no longer even has to write the word “echo.” And she’s great at finding those bits of fluffy stuff that simply isn’t needed or doesn’t fit in the story. She’ll highlight and ask one simple question: “Need?”
When I fall into the old habit of using too many dialogue tags, she gives me gentle reminders that they are distracting. And if she’s read a hundred or so pages and found her fifth or sixth exchange of dialogue with too many tags, she will not so gently let me know that I may “choose one, but don’t use both.”
The first thing I ever sent her came back so marked up, I almost threw in the towel and quit writing. I say almost because amid all the editorial comments that told me where I could improve, she also wrote things like, “this works well here,” and “this is wonderful writing,” and “you tell a great story.” There was just enough encouragement in the first manuscript she critiqued for me to make me want to keep trying to tell what I knew in my heart was a good story. She once told me that anyone can get the grammar and spelling right, but that it takes someone with real talent to be able to tell a story. She apparently feels I have “real talent,” because she hasn’t given up on me yet.
So, why do I let this person mark in my margins? Because she is far more objective than I am when it comes to my writing. She can read with a critical eye and catch my idiosyncratic errors–the ones that have become such ingrained habits I don’t always notice them (e.g., lay/lie).
I look at it this way. I give birth to a baby (get an idea for a story I want to tell). I can raise it to adulthood (finish the tale). But before I seek the perfect marriage (find a publisher) for my now adult child, she needs to go to finishing school. She needs to learn how to be a lady before I can arrange her marriage.
Quite simply, I trust my critique partner to help me put the best parts of myself forward, while holding back the ones that aren’t yet ready for the world. I’ve talked to many people recently who find the idea of a critique partner or group intimidating. At first, so did I. But I came to realize that if I believe in my writing, someone has to read it first. It’s far better that my first reader be someone who finds my human errors so I can repair them, as opposed to an editor who will recognize writing that is not as good and crisp as it can be. With my critique partner, I can fix the mistakes. With an editor, I can expect a rejection letter.
Oh, and I guarantee that while she’s been reading this, my critique partner thought at least once, “she should kill that comma.”