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What Do You Really Need From a Critique Group?

Not long ago, I was contacted by an unpublished author who was looking for a crit partner. They had acquired my addy from a mutual friend and was wondering if I’d be interested. I was flattered. Really. Nevertheless, I emailed this response:

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.

Okay, so I’m anal retentive. When it comes to critiques, I am just too hard on myself and others…

And I think this is a good thing.

Maybe that’s why me and critique groups don’t always get along. You see, many of the online critique groups I’ve come in contact with are just way too nice. Perhaps this is what some writers want — they want encouragement, they want to be told their stuff is good, they want to feel they’re on the threshold of publication, they want a pat on the back. The problem is, that’s not what they need.

Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, in a piece entitled “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” provides some wisdom on what we need in a critique group:

I believe the [writing] teacher’s work is largely negative, that it is largely a matter of saying, “This doesn’t work because …” or “This does work because …” The because is very important. The teacher can help you understand the nature of your medium, and he can guide you in your reading. I don’t believe in classes where students criticize each others manuscripts. Such criticism is generally composed in equal parts of ignorance, flattery, and spite. It’s the blind leading the blind, and it can be dangerous. (emphasis mine)

Two things stand out in this quote in relation to critique groups. One is the nature of the task. O’Connor notes that “the teacher’s work is largely negative.” No, she’s not implying that good critique is intentionally harsh, nor that it should be without encouragement or positive reinforcement, but that critique, by its nature, must be rigorous and address what is wrong with a work. In this sense, the work of a good critique group is largely negative.

Equally insightful is Ms. O’Connor’s suggestion that student-led critiques are unhealthy, “generally composed in equal parts of ignorance, flattery, and spite.” Which is a bit of a problem. Nowadays, most online writing groups are comprised of “students [who] criticize each others manuscripts.”

Clearly, many online critique groups do not seem to meet either of Flannery O’Connor’s specs. Whereas some groups exist primarily to provide support and encouragement (rather than correction and hard critique), other groups suffer because of their make-up (too many students and not enough seasoned authors), resulting in what O’Connor calls “the blind leading the blind.”

Of course, I’m not suggesting that a good critique group is without “support and encouragement” or that it cannot involve “students” swapping advice. The important thing is getting “trained” eyes on our work, receiving hard critiques without swooning, and being willing to absorb and make changes as needed. It is natural to need encouragement and, occasionally, a shoulder to cry on. But ultimately, if we are unwilling to seek honest criticism and unable to weather the toughest scrutiny, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and potentially capping our artistic growth.

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. “Of course crit groups are a good thing!” I protested.

Now I’m not so sure.

The question isn’t IF you need critique partners. The question is WHAT KIND of critique partners you really need. How you answer that question may, in the long run, determine a lot about your growth and longevity as a writer.

* * *

Question: Do you agree that there is an inherent danger in being critiqued by unpublished and beginning writers? Do you see the role of a critique group as primarily “negative”? What advice would you give a new writer who is seeking to have her work critiqued?

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{ 15 comments… add one }
  • Kaye Dacus July 26, 2010, 10:01 AM

    If I could go back in time knowing what I know now, I still would not give up the years that I worked with critique partners (and between those I met at writing conferences and those I was required to work with in graduate school, I’ve worked with more than 15 crit partners over the years). I learned more about how to apply all of those craft-of-writing guidelines through getting feedback on my writing than I would otherwise have learned.

    But there finally came a point at which the last critique group I was in became more about me mentoring the other writers in the group while not receiving viable and helpful feedback on how to continue to improve my writing. Like you, I tend to be rather on myself and others, perhaps holding other writers to a standard I myself may never achieve. And it created a level of toxicity in the group when one of the members became offended by receiving criticism of her work instead of empty praise that it was the “best thing she’d ever written,” which was her opinion of the work. I think we had all known for a while that our group was no longer working, but waited until it got toxic to actually break it up, which was the wrong thing to do—as it cost us our friendships by letting it go so far and get so bad.

    Do I still need feedback on my writing? No doubt. But now I have editors who fulfill that role for me.

    • Kaye Dacus July 26, 2010, 10:03 AM

      [That should read *rather HARD on myself and others* in the second paragraph.]

      • Mike Duran July 26, 2010, 11:14 AM

        Hi Kaye! Your arc sounds similar to mine. My first writing group was great. There was accessibility, encouragement, and honesty. We were friends and advocates, all unpublished, and didn’t mind honest critiques. But as the group grew, the dynamics changed. People were more sensitive, expectations changed. Eventually, I had to limit my involvement because I simply couldn’t reciprocate people’s critiques. Once I left, I got a little different perspective on the “rules” and the industry. But the bottom line was, AT THAT TIME, that critique group was good for me and I made some great friends. Now, I just have to approach things differently. Appreciate your comments!

  • Nikole Hahn July 26, 2010, 12:52 PM

    I have exactly one somewhat part-time, sorta there crit partner. She is busy with her own books. But when she can she helps me with my short stories. I’ve been thinking long and hard about crit partners and my novel. It’s so risky sending your work out to total strangers and then, what if they aren’t qualified to crit? I can’t help but recall Stephanie Meyer finding out that her unfinished manuscript went viral because of someone on her writers group.

    One friend is a grammar expert. For a time she critiqued my short story. It was helpful. I learned alot.

    Now that I am almost 40,000 words into my manuscript, I am wondering if my novel would get better attention if I send it to a manscript service or mentoring writer services like what Mary De Muth offers? Although, I am an inactive part of a ACFWs crit group, I still wonder.

    I’m not looking for someone to tell me how great I am, but I am looking to polish this first novel and create a good proposal so I don’t come off to publishers or agents as inexperienced, or have it rejected because of some grammar mistake. I do my own editing on short stories, but novels require so much more work that I can’t send it without feeling absolutely sure it is my best work possible.

  • Merrie Destefano July 26, 2010, 6:27 PM

    I think there comes a point in a writer’s path toward publication–or afterward–where the need for a critique group isn’t as essential. But I do believe in having a crit partner, if you can find a good one. And I do believe in continuing to come together with other writers. What’s most interesting to me is the fact that a different combination of people can make such a big difference. For me, the right group is magical, while the wrong group is monstrous.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller July 26, 2010, 7:06 PM

    My first on-line critique group was invaluable. Yes, I had to learn who to trust and such, but I think the real benefit was in my having to critique others. It made me aware of problems in my own writing when I saw similar issues in theirs. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

  • Tim Ward July 26, 2010, 7:40 PM

    Once again, Mike’s post hits the mark — this time while I’m clicking the link to go to my Second Life writing group, the Quillians.

    I’ll start with answers to your questions. I agree with that inherent danger, but only as far as statements are made dogmatically. If you have people offering opinions or observations from books they’ve read on style, theme, etc., then aspiring writers can be useful in critique groups. I would hope people in crit-groups are making educated statements, but not all of our audience is going to be thoroughly acquainted with all the rules of our genre. So, sometimes it is beneficial to get a simple observation “from the masses.”

    I think crit-groups should hover around midway between constructive criticism and encouragement through success. I don’t want people to tell me how glorious one of my sentences was and then neglect my mistakes or weaknesses that surround it. Writing is such a lonely hobby, that support can be what we need to get from the depths of self-doubt to the motivation for new ideas.

    For new writers looking for writing groups, I would check out your favorite author’s website and see if they have a forum where writers meet and discuss writing. I’ve found these at Orson Scott Card and Ted Dekker’s websites, so it may be mostly for the more popular authors, but that is usually where new writers started reading anyway.

    An aside on what I’m looking for in a crit-group…I would like one or two people to share my story ideas with who will give me time to talk in detail. A chat group with 7-13 people online is a difficult environment to hold the floor for one topic.

    Then again, after 8 or more hours a day plotting and brainstorming, my ideas can change significantly from day to day, so what I’m looking for does not likely exist. What I’m looking for is a person with similar interests in Christian Sci-fi and Fantasy to follow the growth of a story from infancy so I can question paths and be reminded of the “gem” I started with. Forums are ok, if they are small enough and active enough that you get responses.

  • BK Jackson July 26, 2010, 7:48 PM

    I have found online groups least useful–not because of crit style, but b/c the online version members just slowly drift away into cyberspace. That has been the case in 3 different groups I’ve been in. Part of it is just real life interference.

    But I have been running an in-person crit group in town for the last 6 years and it has worked very well. Only 1 member is published (non-fic, not fic) but we still have a good diversity of experience and no one hesitates to bring the hard questions in feedback.

    The key to a good crit group, I have found, is carefully screening members BEFORE they join. Weed out the ones with a casual, most likely passing fancy to write fiction. Weed out the ones who have not yet reached the stage where they can accept criticism. If they’ve reached the stage where they can accept criticism, they’ve generally reached a stage of writing commitment. If someone inquires about joining my group, I send a tough email about the requirements. It scares some off–but that’s ok. It’s necessary. They’ll either find another crit group or wait until they’re at a different place in their life.

    Would it be nice to have a multi-pubbed author in a crit group? Sure thing. But how likely is that in the plethora of crit groups around the country and the world? And to me, what a person lacks in years of writing experience and publication can be made up for simply by having a group of people who come from diverse backgrounds.

    • Mike Duran July 26, 2010, 8:58 PM

      BK, an actual person-to-person crit group is invaluable. Of course, the issue about giving and receiving hard, “seasoned” critiques still apply. But, you’re right, it’s hard to hide behind your words when a person is sitting in front of you. And as to “screening members,” that is wise. What level of writing is this person at? Does their genre fit? Would their inclusion tilt the group in a certain direction? How will their personality fit w/in the existing group? And then, more importantly, will they provide refreshments after every meeting? 😉

  • BK Jackson July 26, 2010, 8:46 PM

    P.S. to previous note—have any of you used readers who are NOT writers/industry professionals as a check for your work? How did that go?

    • Mike Duran July 26, 2010, 9:07 PM

      Yes, I’ve found that helpful. But it all depends on who your reader is. The average reader (one with no interest in writing), can be invaluable. Remember E.M. Forrester’s famous imperative: “Only connect.” Oftentimes, the average reader does not bring the “baggage” we writers do. They approach the story differently and don’t worry over issues like verb tenses or POV switches. While professionals can help us with many “inside” elements, I’ve found that the non-professional is an expert in whether a story “only connects.”

  • Cassandra Frear July 27, 2010, 4:34 AM

    You make some very good points here. We need to be careful about the feedback we take in. It does shape and influence our work.

    We should be careful of our beta readers, too. Recently, in sharing some excerpts from a project, I received completely conflicting advice. There was no way I could respond to all of it. What these readers, representing perhaps the readers of my future work, wanted was impossible to address simultaneously.

  • Jill July 27, 2010, 12:42 PM

    Seriously, a good critique group is worth its weight in gold. Timing is also key, as well. I had a good group when I really needed to grow in my writing–it disbanded nearly ten years ago. I would like at least a crit. partner, now, and I do have one, but he is terribly busy. Those are the breaks. So much of the writing life is going to be solitary. It just is.

  • Jeff Chapman July 27, 2010, 8:36 PM

    I belong to a very large and well-run online critique group focusing on horror, fantasy, and science fiction. The size of the group renders the critiques virtually anonymous as I only know a few of the other writers. I usually receive ten or more critiques per story. (Shorter stories get more attention.)

    Of those critiques, at least two-thirds are junk written by those ignorant, spiteful students that O’Conner mentioned. After my annoyance wears off, some of them are quite funny. One reviewer told me that I shouldn’t use words she didn’t know because she had to stop and look them up and that broke the flow of the story. Her lack of vocabulary is my problem? Others have told me that no sentence should be longer than 40 words. Why 40? Or that absolutely no editor will buy a story with a particular kind of plot. An editor did buy it.

    A small percentage of the critiques are helpful. They confirm that there are problems in areas that I already thought were problematic and find new problems because they are seeing the work from a different and indifferent perspective. I’m not looking for expert opinion as much as I’m looking for multiple opinions. I send my second drafts through the group which helps to soften the blow from negative remarks. I can tell myself that it’s just a rough draft that they’re ripping. I would not feel comfortable sending out a story without first running it through a critique group. That would be like releasing software without testing it.

    The other benefit of a group is the chance to critique other writers. If you do a good job at it, you can learn as much or more than having your own work critiqued. You’ll get a lot of practice trying to make scenes and sentences work.

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