• Writing Critique Groups–Yes or No?

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    I went to a writer’s conference at the University of Houston in 1985, and the topic of critique groups came up.  A very successful published author made the comment, “I think the people who are really serious about their writing are at home writing, rather than sitting around criticizing each other’s work.”  Granted, this was a polarized opinion, but it was something I’ve remembered over the years.

    Critique groups can be a vital part of a writer’s process.  I know several writers who have had enormous success by gathering small and safe groups of writers to help each other develop their works-in-progress. When asked, the writers indicated that they had been cautious in inviting members to form a group, and encouraged a positive and supportive atmosphere. If there was different direction suggested on a piece, it was done gently and politely.

    I’ve also heard of cases where criticism wasn’t so lovingly dispensed. I saw an online forum where two poetry “experts,” without invitation, suggested changes to a poem which had been shared, and even in one case told the person how the poem needed to be improved to strengthen the ending.  I personally believe poetry is so individual and subjective that it’s best left to the author to change.  I later talked to the person, who said she felt “ganged up on and beaten up.” That person never returned to the group.

    I was a member of a creativity group years ago.  We had many types of creativity shared, and some people were bringing forth their efforts for the first time.  One of the rules of the group was that we did not criticize, but just listen in a supportive manner.  Then one night a new person raised her hand and said that she was an editor at the University of Houston, and if we’d like, she’d be glad to critique our work for us.  I watched the room go deathly silent, the momentum flagged, and the group dispersed not long after.  The woman had not offered to share any of her creativity–but just wanted to act as a professional critic to review our work.  The way the group pulled back helped me see how vulnerable we are as writers when we decide to share our writings.

    The point is that while allowing a group to review and critique my work can be a positive experience, it’s up to me to make sure it’s a safe and supportive environment.  I would much rather be involved with a group with some person who is a professional who can moderate the activities.  I took a creative writing course with a very successful writer where we would write thousand-word pieces, which she would read and critique in class.  I liked that format because we at least had an arbiter to rein in someone who might have a personal reason for attacking the work of another person.  Being in a group like that, or with a small but dedicated group that understands and works within a supportive environment, can lead to a very positive experience.

    I’ve watched groups gather for purposes from Sunday School lectures to business meetings about software, and I’ve noticed that some people just take pleasure in putting down the thoughts and ideas of others.  I love the line from Robert A. Heinlein’s book Have Spacesuit-Will Travel: “Some people…delight in clipping wings because they themselves can’t fly.”  Those are the types of experiences I hope to avoid with a critique group.  I had a writer at a conference offer me a local critique group that was “run by Machiavellian principles, with no holds barred on how we judge each other’s works.”  The gleam in her eye when she said that made it very clear to me that I would never attend her group.

    For me the bottom line is “caveat emptor”–let the buyer beware.  If my gut says something doesn’t feel right about a critique group opportunity–honor that intuition!



    Lost creativity and the effects of family alcoholism are just two of the elements of the story Dan L. Hays explores in his first published book, Freedom’s Just Another Word, which chronicles events around the time of his father’s death. It is the first of a cycle of seven books about healing old wounds with his father. That cycle will culminate with Nothing Left to Lose, written in 1993, about a critical turning point in his father’s life, depicted from a perspective of forgiveness and admiration.

    Dan has been pursuing his craft for more than 25 years. His passion has always been writing, but he had a writing block that he could not understand for many years. He wrote two books that publishers were interested in, but he backed away and the books were never published.

    Read more of Dan’s work on his blog and at Life as a Human, or follow his various radio features.  You can also catch him on Twitter and Facebook.


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