• 3 Common Critique Group Flaws

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Strategies     Comments 40 comments
    May
    19

    Critique groupA couple of weeks ago, [redacted] from [redacted] emailed to ask us if a critique group was right for her. “I’m in the early stages of writing my first thriller,” she wrote, “and I don’t really have anyone I trust to read my first few chapters. But there’s a writing group listed on Meetup that I am thinking of trying, and wondering if you can tell me some critique group flaws and if you think critique groups are a good idea or bad?”

    I hate to say this, but the answer is … shoulder shrug. Critique groups are like snowflakes; every one is different, and don’t drive your car through a pile of them unless it’s an emergency.

    Whether or not a specific critique group is right for you depends entirely on three things: the group’s format, the quality of its humans, and what you’re hoping to get out of it.

    Since it’s more fun to poo-poo than to woo-hoo, today we’ll discuss three common critique group flaws.

    If you have the time, it’s not a bad idea to join a few groups and attend a session or two of each. And then winnow ’em down. As soon as you spot more than one of the following critique group flaws, bounce.

    [Tweet “As soon as a critique group displays more than one of these three flaws, bounce.”]

     

    In-Session First Exposure

    Ah, the old ISFE. An ISFE group is one in which those being critiqued bring copies of their work that same day/night to pass around, or, even worse — far worse — bring only one copy and then read it aloud.

    This is not ideal. Very few people can offer worthwhile off-the-cuff feedback. Especially if that feedback comes after hearing a writer read his/her work aloud. Expecting quality commentary on written work delivered orally is nonsensical. It’s like an orchestra passing out sheet music to the audience and saying, “Does this sound nice?”

    To provide the most helpful feedback, a reader needs to spend focused, quality time with your work, ingesting and processing it at his/her own pace and comfort level.

     

    Look for: Groups in which the writers scheduled to be critiqued pass out or email their work the week before.

    Complaint: “I don’t have time during the week to read other people’s work.”

    Response: Yes you do. It’s just that sometimes it will feel like just one more chore, or like homework. But putting in the time for others will always usually often sometimes mean that they’ll do the same for you, and because of that, you’ll get richer, more helpful commentary on your work.

    [Tweet “Expecting quality commentary on written work delivered orally is nonsensical.”]

     

     

    I found a typo on Page 4

    Many critique groups operate at the line level. Which is fantastic! If the critique group is for poets.

    Most prose writers in critique groups are working on book-length projects. At the very least, they’re writing short fiction or journalism or essays. These writers need feedback on larger-scale issues: structure, plot, character, ideas, setting, tone, style, mood.

    And that type of feedback is super hard to find in critique groups.

    Most groups ask writers to submit only a couple or a few pages at a time, in order to squeeze in as many writers as possible per session. Therefore, group members don’t get the chance to read your work in context. They can’t comment on the arc of your novel, or they have no idea where this 600-word section of your essay fits into the 5,000-word whole.

    Because of that, many critique group members fall back on line-level commentary. Typos, grammar, insignificant word choice.

    This is end-stage stuff. Unless a writer says specifically that he or she is giving the group a final draft and that he/she will be submitting this work immediately after the group ends, discussing writing on a word or line level is a waste of time.

     

    Look for: This is a tougher one, due to the very nature of critique groups. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a very dedicated, and likely very small, group of people willing/able to put in the time to read more than two or three pages of work at a time, and willing/able to dig deeper than “I think an exclamation point would work better than a period here.”

    Complaint: “But more pages means fewer writers per session get critiqued.”

    Response: I get it. But would you rather have six sessions of “I found a typo” or one session of “I no longer understand your character’s motivations, and here’s why”?

    Complaint: “But pointing out typos will save the writer time in the end.”

    Response: Maybe. More likely, the line in which you spotted a typo will be cut from the final product long before it becomes a final product, due to helpful feedback from someone else.

     

    Dingbatz, Dipshitz, “Experts,” ME ME ME

    Any critique group made up of randos will contain a handful of members who really want to help you improve, understand how to give helpful feedback, and know how to behave well in a social setting.

    The rest of the people will be crummy. That’s part of the package.

    Some of them will be lunatics. Some will love nothing more than the sound of their own voice. Some of them will believe themselves to be writing geniuses, and will likely begin each sentence with “Well, actually.” Some of them will only turn up when it’s their turn to be critiqued, and then will disappear again like a fart in the wind.

    Any group of people contains a sizable percentage of shitty people. Critique groups are no different.

     

    Look for: I guess try to find the group with the lowest percentage of shitty people. A little bit of math goes a long way here.

    Complaint: “I’m not crazy, I’m quirky”; “I monopolize conversations because I have a bajillion great things to say”; “Well, actually, I am an expert, and I’m simply trying to share my wisdom so that you can improve”; “Peace out, suckers.”

    Response: You know who you are, and you know how to behave otherwise.

    [Tweet “Many of the people in your critique group will suck. That comes with the territory.”]

     

    Discussion

    Already I have far exceeded my (and, without a doubt, your) desired word count, and I’m only about halfway into these critique group flaws. There’s a lot more to talk about: whose advice to consider and whose to ignore totally; how to deal with attendance problems; oral vs. written feedback; online vs. in-person groups; working within genres.

    And I also don’t want it to seem like I think critique groups are a bad idea and/or a total waste of time. A critique group — if it’s the right one for you — can be beneficial and fulfilling. And even fun.

    But I’ll have to cover that ground in a future post, because I’ve gone far overboard here.

    In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments, let us know below.

    And I’ve got a couple of questions for you: What’s your hot take on critique groups? Helpful, harmful, or both? What kind of format is your ideal? What sorts of, uh, personalities have you run into?

     

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2016 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coaching, private instruction and writer’s block counseling services. And join our mailing list, over in the right sidebar, for once-per-week writing goodies in your inbox. 

    Linked2WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and contributes regularly to the Dallas Morning News, Publishing Perspectives, the Observer and other publications.

     

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    Mark H

    First!

    Ajax

    Ugh, I’ve tried SO many. Never found one that has stuck.
    You’re right, each and every group I’ve joined has had too
    many of these “personalities.” The talkers, the pedantic
    “Well, actually’s,” the “You clearly don’t understand what I’m
    trying to do” defensives. Not to mention the people who sit there
    silently, week after week not contributing, clearly just passing
    idle time until it’s their turn. But boy, when that turn comes,
    THEN they’re ready to talk!

    I should just form my own. My rules, my way, with my kind of
    People.

    J. Sommers

    I’ve had the same problems in groups I’ve entered. Definitely “I found a typo on page x.” And reading the work aloud, I never understood that. It goes directly against purpose, doesn’t it!? And most of the feedback I remember getting was just worthless. 90 per cent of it, at least. Some people were actually tried to be helpful, but most of them were just looking out for theirselves, and had no interest in helping the rest. It haven’t tried a new group in some years, but maybe I will again and look for these things you suggest, or look… Read more »

    Yi Shun Lai

    So much of this can be helped by setting of some ground rules if you are setting up your own group, like Ajax suggests above–what a great idea!
    And I think it behooves writers to suss out some of these really important things ahead of time with some targeted questions.
    This is a fabulous list, David. Thanks for the reminders about what’s good critique behavior and what is…well, crap.

    Lori

    Two things tie for the craziest. 1. In a group run by a MFA candidate, the leader literally rewrote my entire story submission, adding his own dialogue (It was memoir) and referencing sounds that a horse would not make in the circumstances (a friendly nicker from a terrified animal). He said – I looked up what sound a horse makes. 2. I applied to be admitted to a group once and the leader, by mistake, sent her critique of my writing sample (and my choice of genre) to me along with the other members of the group.– “Not a terrible… Read more »

    Marie L.

    I laughed at some of these, and I agree for the most part. But here’s a question: In a perfect world, what kind of critique group are you in? These are the flaws, but if you were forming your own group, how would you prevent them? What rules would you set? That’s a post I’d like to see. Also, maybe a post on how/where to find groups? Meetup, Craigslist, websites for writers, library postings, etc. Or what to do if you don’t live in New York City! I’m in a medium-sized Arizona city now, so it’s not a problem, but… Read more »

    Raymundo

    Yes, the “instant critique offered from a reading” flaw struck me right off at my first group meeting. At best, all I can offer is an initial impression. Now there’s value in that so long as everyone understands it. But I think some kind of “pre-reading” format where the critiquers have at least a week with a piece is necessary if more in-depth critiques is what you want. In truth, I would prefer a “writer’s group” over a “critique group” because I get more from the interaction with people who are trying to produce literature, understand the challenges of the… Read more »

    Raymundo

    (LOL) on the falling asleep. I’m sure it was with the best of intentions. Regarding writing groups, personally, I like the idea of how I think Mr. Tolkien did it–sitting around the fireplace with some author friends discussing your work over brandy and cigars. Of course, smoking will kill you and after a few brandys the value of the discussion tends to slip. But it’s a neat image. Ron had some interesting ideas and I’m very interested in what you’ll have to say about structuring a group. If I ever start a writer’s group, it’ll be of the informal, Tolkien… Read more »

    Ron Seybold

    Nothing is better than a professional group: Operated on a paying basis (about $40 a meeting) so people show up. With a trained moderator (Amherst Writers & Artists is a good model) who will keep the experts quiet, discourages talk that fixes a MS, and quashes copyediting notes when something deeper is what everybody seeks. A person who will reel in the sets of pages one week before the monthly meeting, then ship ’em out. No ISFE. No typo talk. Oh, and never mind about 12 people. It’s a crazy number. 20 minutes per MS works out to, well, do… Read more »

    Jo V.

    Some great observations, David. Many thanks! One bit of advice that I received several years ago from a multi-published mystery author friend in terms of a critique group was: “Listen carefully to suggestions from folks you trust, but in the end, trust your gut. BUT – if several people are telling you one thing, and your gut says something different, start to question your gut.” That has served me as a really helpful approach.

    Mark

    Fascinating discussion … our Writer’s Group is of the read-it-aloud-same-evening variety, including “I found a typo.” There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to the format … it’s great for giving focused constructive criticism of shorter writing samples, though larger story arcs can be missed. But many of us find that reading it aloud enables us to notice things that we didn’t notice before. And we do have a variety of personalities (we don’t turn anyone away), but work to keep the meeting focused and positive through appropriate facilitation. Personally, I find that I’m a much better writer as a result.… Read more »

    Mark

    David — that’s exactly right; having a moderator makes a huge difference. The group I’m part of has been meeting for about 25 years. I joined about nine years ago, and became the moderator about six years ago, continuing the group’s tradition and strategies for keeping the meetings positive. One of the things we try to do is focus on the writing itself, not the content — partly to avoid distractions and potentially unnecessary and unhelpful debate about issues social, political, religious, whatever, and partly to economize on time. I try very hard to be accommodating, to make sure that… Read more »

    Mark

    Almost — we meet at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in a mall, then walk over to a nearby Red Robin for Happy Hour.

    And if I may be forgiven for a small bit of self-promotion, we’ve just published an anthology with contributions from many of our writers. Here’s the Facebook page for the anthology: https://www.facebook.com/Grand.Writers.Anthology/

    Glynis Jolly

    Trying to find a critique group in a town where more interest leans towards sports has got me searching online. Although there are several at Meetup, I’m not in a financial position to pay for the group if I should find one I think fits. And there’s to question of trust. Who should I trust with my work that’s so dear to my heart? I doubt I’m the only one who has these problems. However, the perplexing dilemma of how to receive worthwhile feedback before taking that finally plunge to the publishing house still remains. Sure, a professional editor is… Read more »

    Renee'

    I want to offer a little feedback about the ISFE groups. We have some very productive groups of this type in the Tulsa area. And there are great reasons to read your manuscript out loud to others for the first read. Sometimes, what you wrote isn’t how you mean it to sound. If we hear a longer intended pause, it’s possible that a comma isn’t right, or there might be a better way to convey the pause. There are a good number of writers who have had their whole novel critiqued ten minutes at a time at these meetings. You… Read more »

    Mark

    Renee — that’s exactly how our group works, and that’s been exactly my experience as well. When done right, it seems to be a formula for success. Do these groups in your area also have moderators?

    Maria Zobel

    Great job, David. I belong to three critique groups in my area, two with moderators. There are the punctuation mavens, and the “this word is better than the one you used” participants. Bottom line, though, my experience has been a positive one. Your gut has to be the final arbiter, but as someone noted earlier, when two or more fellow group members make the same point, you’d best have a hard conversation with your gut. All three groups encourage emailing manuscripts before the group meets. Quick and on-the-spot critiques are often not helpful. I am interested in the comments regarding… Read more »

    […] weeks ago we had a fun conversation about critique groups and what to watch out for when scouting for a new one — flawed formats and flawed people in […]

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    Deb Palmer

    David, I confess to being the “shady” guest at my first critique group. Being the only published author (ink still wet), I had a hard time trusting them to the eager critiques. So… I secretly posted a piece that had been previously published and well-received. I purposely left a couple of typos to make it look less professional. The typos were called out immediately. But then my opening paragraph was questioned as to its necessity and suggestions were made that I get to the point quicker and so on. Afterward I wondered what would have happened to this story which… Read more »

    Ebs

    Shopping around for a good critique is hard and I agree with a lot of what you had to say. I do disagree with not believing people may not have time to read at home. I barely have to write and I have also been in crit groups where I took time away from writing to read and put in my feedback, only to come to group and find that no one devoted the time I spent on their stories on mine. I only do groups where I read ahead of time with people I know or have vetted. I… Read more »

    anon

    And sometimes that super annoying ‘expert’ actually does know what they are talking about. I critiqued a motorcycle chase scene one time. I have been riding 20yrs. The writer didn’t even have the basic anatomy of a motorcycle correct. Had no idea where the clutch, brakes and gear lever were. I probably came across as a total asshat because I spent all 3,000 words correcting her about where the various bike parts were and how a bike behaves while you are riding it. I’m certain quite a few eyebrows were raised. If you’re going to write a highly detailed motorcycle… Read more »

    anon

    The irony is I came to this article because I for the most part agree with the premise of the article. Critique groups can be a massive waste of time but not for the reasons in this article. Which appears to centre upon the writer’s particular distaste for certain personalities. I stopped attending them because I discovered for the most part, I’m better at finding holes in my own work than others. Other writers are often focused upon the conventions of their own favoured style or popular taste, which isn’t what I write. So I got a lot of. advice… Read more »




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