Critique Groups

My critique group met night before last and it was a lot of fun as it always is. (Of course, it’s more fun to read everyone else’s stories and chapters than my own, but you have to pay in words to stay in any group.) The group is dense with knowledge and they care that stories work well.

I’ve been in bad critique groups. I’ve even run bad critique groups that I couldn’t fix. Bad critique groups are worse than no group for writers because they strip them of confidence and wreck their stories. Sometimes the critique group will try to rewrite the story completely, moving it out of the genre it is in and into another one.

For your historical novel set in ancient Egypt, wouldn’t it be cool if Mussolini’s dog went back in time and found your main character? You could add magic to it. Oh, and maybe move it from ancient Egypt to medieval China. And make it one of those foo dogs. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Slightly exaggerated example of something that happened to me

That’s not helpful. Nor is a vicious stabbing attack on the story. Nor its opposite: gushing praise without anything concrete that the person specifically liked or reacted to. So I take critique groups with a grain of salt, generally.

But the group I’m in right now is excellent. Obviously part of the dynamic of any group comes down to the people. And this group is good on that scale with a variety of personalities and writing styles. The group is just a little advanced for me, which means it challenges me to improve both my writing and my critiquing skills. And that’s a good thing, too.

One thing I think other people could learn from with this group is that it has rules, and a ruleskeeper to keep everyone in line.

Before I get to the rules, let me talk about the role of ruleskeeper, which is often an unofficial role that the person most likely to be bothered by rule breakers takes. Or it can be an official position. I took this role when I ran critique sessions for Memphis Writers and for my small in-person group. I have no problem doing it. I’m not shy and I have years of practice doing project management.

The ruleskeeper is critical to the function of the group. Without a ruleskeeper, the most obnoxious person will take over and the group will eventually dissolve because no one will want to be there. If you are picking someone formally, pick the person who is most bothered by rule breaks and tough-skinned enough not to mind a bit of pushback.

The rules from my current critique group that I think are broadly valuable are the following:

  • Each writer should bring something new and the word count is limited (though from what I can tell word count rules are less likely to be adhered to than other rules).
  • The author must listen without arguing or defending.
  • The author gets a chance to ask questions of the critiques afterwards, but again, it should be questions and not arguments.
  • Readers shouldn’t try to rewrite the plot or major elements.
  • No one interrupts the person speaking.

My group does something that I think would be good in theory but I haven’t seen it work perfectly yet in any group I’m in, which is to ask authors to put the kinds of feedback they are looking for in a note at the top. The idea of this is that readers will direct their comments to the note.

This is actually an advanced skill for many people. Often authors do not know what they need. And some readers know only how to do one sort of critique, to give one kind of feedback. That’s not to say that it isn’t a good practice. It is. But be aware that it’s aspirational rather than doable for many people.

The group I’m in has existed for what sounds like more than a decade (without me). My guess is that their rules have evolved over time and now they just have what they need and what has stood the test. The lesson there is to evolve your rules if they are not working. Or add rules when needed.

A good critique group is not a substitute for an editor. Their role is different and they read differently than an editor does. Critique groups engage more with the story. They bring their whole personalities and tastes to the work. That interaction is fascinating to watch because they do not have the emotional distance an editor has. The best groups have fans of a particular genre, people who have spent years arguing about fictional characters. People who have strong opinions and know that those are opinions and not holy writ.

In order to get something out of a critique group and to know when a critique group is toxic, the writer needs to have a good sense of themselves, their goals, and what they are trying to do. They need to recognize that all of the comments are a matter of taste and that different genres have different expectations. The writer needs to be confident enough to say, “Well sure, Dawn says that my protagonist makes her sick to her stomach, but what does she know? That’s just her and her taste.” And then, be humble enough to admit that Dawn may have a point.

That’s a delicate balance and one it took me a long time to get to. If I could give advice to myself in my early days as a writer, I would tell myself to avoid critique groups for awhile. I wasn’t ready for them. On the other hand, some skills you have to learn under fire. I toughened up my skin in my workplace where bosses and clients commented on my writing.

One more thing, I am in several writing groups because each brings something different. Your critique group isn’t necessarily your brainstorming group or your accountability group or your publishing group. It’s ok to be part of several groups.

Good luck with your stories and art. May your critiques be useful and good. Be well, friends!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. My MFA writing classes use a very similar rule set, dependent upon the teacher and their style, who serves as the moderator sometimes and sometime takes a back seat entirely. I certainly hated my first two classes in creative writing. I dreaded going. The other students never understood the complexity of my work and nit-picked anything they perceived not to be PC, though usually it was their misunderstanding or ignorance of the story which caused them to think this. The last writing class I was in was better thankfully, and I also had a friend in the class. So it made all the difference having an ally. But Right now I am not in a group at all though, just too afraid to have the toxic environment again.

    1. It’s better not to have a group than to be in a bad one. Creative writing classes often have a competitive vibe because they take place in colleges where people compete for grades. This, plus inexperience, turns them into snake pits. At least sometimes. But a good critique group is honestly helpful once you know what it is that you need.

      Also there are other ways to get critiques.

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