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Do You Need a Crit Partner?

I got kicked out of a writer’s critique group once. No, I wasn’t badmouthing Strunk & White or renegotiating the rules of grammar. I just didn’t do enough crits. Since then, I’ve kind of done my own thing.

I wasn’t always a Lone Ranger. When I first started writing (about 5 years ago), said critique group was pivotal to learning the ropes. But as I developed my chops, my writing voice, and my genre of preference, the less I seemed to extract from them. When I did do critiques, they were often biting — not mean-spirited, just pointed, clinical and exhaustive. And they took a lot of time. I mean, it didn’t seem fair to offer critiques of others works based on casual readings. Which led to conflicts of time and priorities.

So for the sake of schedule, sanity, and the preservation of my own voice and vision, I split.

Occasionally, people will contact me about reading their WIP, and in some cases, agreeing to swap work. Just recently, I was contacted by another aspiring author who was looking for a crit partner and wondered if I’d be interested. This was the email I returned to to him:

Thanks for the consideration. I’ve kind of given up the crit partner thing, mainly because of my own schedule and perfectionist tendencies. When I’m not working (which is full-time), I’m writing or editing. I’ve found that I tend to overwork so many things — nit-pick, second-guess, obsess over detail — to the point that critting just takes far too much time and is often frustrating for whomever happens to be on the receiving end. My apologies, but I’ll have to pass on the offer. Thanks for considering me, however. Godspeed to you and your endeavors!

There were other things I could have said. But the schedule issue is probably one of my biggest. I just haven’t figured out how to manage my life, maintain my career, be with my family, keep my house up, write a lot of good stuff, and regularly critique other people’s work all at the same time. Oh, and stay creatively fresh along the way. Sorry, but I’m just not there.

Please don’t interpret this as arrogance, as if I’m above critique. It’s not that at all. In many ways, every rejection letter I receive (like the 2 I got this week) is a critique of my writing. My first novel, as yet unpublished, was read by more than a half-dozen people, including my agent. So it’s not like I’m afraid of having my writing scrutinized. And maybe that’s the important thing for a writer — a willingness to have her work scrutinized and to absorb criticism. Whether that’s done through an official writer’s group or not is another story.

But there’s another thing. Advice from novices and unpublished authors must be taken with a grain of salt. Some of my best stuff has been shot down by my crit partners. In a way, it’s to be expected. Novice writers who are, in theory, still jockeying for a place at the trough and still excavating their own style, are often the worst critique partners. And that’s the catch-22, because many writer’s groups are made up of relatively unpublished authors all pining for the Holy Grail (see: Book Deal). In the hands of the wrong person, critique can become reckless, perpetuate myths, and crush the emergence of an aspiring author’s voice.

Several years ago, the authors at  Charis Connection were asked if they belonged to a writing group. Of the ten that responded, only a couple spoke favorably of crit groups. At the time, I was indignant. After all the help I’d received from my writing group and these professionals kind of blew them off. Well, two years later, I think I see it their way.

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{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Nicole March 26, 2009, 10:05 AM

    Couldn’t agree more, Mike. Salient points all without mentioning the hidden agendas of arrogance among some who have no right to be, clingers to the unbendable rules folks, and, yes, those who get jealous of anyone else who has talent. Ultimately, it’s you who has to be pleased with your work. If you can’t stand behind it, who will? That’s not to say good, qualified readers can’t help make it better. JMO

  • Ben March 27, 2009, 7:03 AM

    I liken it to young athletes. Learning the basics (baseball, basketball, football, whatever) is important. This is the role of mentors to teach those techniques. But along the way, participants will develop their own style. Some professionals are weird thsi way, develop hitches that are not necessarily taught. But it’s completely their own style. Likewise young writers should be mentored in the basics, but also given room to develop their own technique. Thanks!

  • Alexander Field March 29, 2009, 11:57 PM

    Mike, I couldn’ agree more. Occasionally I do allow people to read my work, friends and those interested in the genre in which I write, but critique groups? Waste of time. The groups I have been in have been filled with two kinds of people: Writers who can’t get a word on the page (they just want to talk about writing endlessly), or writers who likely won’t publish a word in their lives. Gotta be honest, I couldn’t respect feedback from either type. Writers are a notoriously cagey lot, especially when it comes to their work, myself included. So it’s easier just to work on my writing, on my own….

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