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Jan
26
2013

Critique Groups: To Join Or Not To Join? -- by Missye Clarke

That is a personal question.

Critique groups—or peer writing, writing groups or informal workshops—have been around perhaps as long as writing. But since Peter Elbow’s 1973 book Writing Without Teachers, the “teacher-less” writing classes are the basis of most critique groups today. Here’s a few notes, tips and tweaks to make the crit group you have a more solid one, or to affirm your need to not join one.

 

WHY JOIN A CRITIQUE GROUP?

Writing is a lonely business. Every one in this industry can use a comrade-in-arms, a place to show their work to receive solid, constructive feedback on writing basics, grammar, and punctuation. Intermediate writers can join for story structure, character arc, sagging middles, metaphor, and form. As one advances, one can get into more nebulous aspects of the piece like theme, dramatic arc, style, voice, story and plot feedback, and overall consistency. Once you’re comfortable in where you are as a writer, and you like the group you’re with, find other avenues, be they online or face-to-face meetings, to socialize, grow and get to know one another.  It also affords the writer to find an agent, editor, an organization or website to un-kink their project idea they couldn’t find on their own, or churn a simmering plot idea with a simple question, conversation overheard, or even a smell to trigger a scent memory. You. Just. Never. Know.

One can also receive feedback on their work to not just tighten sloppy areas, but to grow a tough skin when the rejections, not-so-nice comments, comments that leave you wondering what the reader read in that, or just confusing, murky comment will come the writer’s way in exposing their work (trust me, it does happen). Critique groups, in theory, are around to help a writer grow in confidence of their skill, craft, expertise, talent, and ability. And best of all: the feedback from established editors and authors that would go for a tidy sum out of pocket costs, are generally free to minimal subscription costs.

The best peer critique groups are those who have in their memberships published authors and editors with green, young writers. Here, you can hone your skill, look more with a critical eye at your work and learn the insider track in what to do and not to do while working on your projects—and how best to offer feedback to those who have you looking at their offerings, too.

 

WHY NOT JOIN A CRITIQUE GROUP?

The general rule went when your favorite grandmother, aunt or mother said, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all?” Critique groups are a cross-section of life. Those who write well aren’t the best editors and are terrible communicators; conversely, those who edit and critique well are lousy writers and creative types. It’s rare to find the best of both worlds. Ultimately, it’s up to the writer to either develop their editorial side if this is a vocation they see themselves in, or find an editor they trust, have faith in, and are confident this part of the process will help the author’s work shine.

But hurt feelings, personality conflicts and—yes, I’ll say it—writers are in critique groups with a Moses Complex, even if they swear they’re not (meaning what a writer or two offers comes from On High, so you MUST follow said opinions or your work isn’t worthy of the time). If you find yourself in an online or face-to-face peer group with all or any of these aspects in it, you have a choice to stick with it, or find a group more suited for your needs and your works’ solid foundation to build a strong read on.

Another reason not to join a critique group: when amateurs peer review another amateur’s work, it’s a huge waste of time. They wouldn’t know what to do or not to do anymore than you do; you’re there to learn what to build on and what to avoid. They mean well, but it can set your work back ten steps unintentionally. Everyone’s time is precious. So is your work and confidence in its young stages. There's nothing selfish at all in protecting yourself and your work, no matter how awful it could be at the time. Some writers aren’t good critiquers, or don’t care for a specific genre you happen to write. The best thing to do is for this potential reader to mention to the critiquee, is that this genre or style, or plot, etc., isn’t their field of expertise, and therefore, should recues him or herself from offering opinions, suggestions, and comments. If the writer wants them anyway, how they’re received by the writer is solely on them.

It’s also okay you don’t become part of a crit group. The late Ray Bradbury and Katherine Porter didn’t; they sent out their stuff, had it rejected, tried again, and the process went on. There’s nothing written in gospel a writer must join this or that group to hone their craft. Some benefit from it, others who know themselves well enough—or are too household named enough, perhaps—wouldn’t find it a benefit for them because it pulls from their writing time. Or you just want to work with an editor, publisher or an agent. Or you don’t offer helpful, supportive feedback. If you know you enough, you also know well enough what your time is best suited for, and a critique group, no matter how advanced or Big Sister or Big Brother you’d like to be, isn’t for you.

Sometimes, writers were exposed to critique groups where members have or had a personal agenda, personally dislike a member or two (or you), they refused to find something nice to say in a well-polished work (or refused to phrase an unpleasant something tactfully to a not-ready-to-publish work), or would dog pile on an author’s work. This shakes a writer’s confidence and is a lose-lose for both parties: this reflects poorly on the moderator’s group or website, the fellow writer might be a published author; and it’s not in their benefit to do this unless they want bad word of mouth to their book sales, and not ever be read in future based on their acerbic, acrid ways; and this shoots the raw, young writer’s confidence down the drain. And nobody wants that. This business isn’t the touchy-feely type and no one likes a crybaby, but there’s room for everyone, and no need for backbiting, drama, spite or maliciousness known from some authors and critique groups—which have discontinued as a result of said egos smashing it into so much proverbial dust. As my Granny said: "You’re grown. Act like it." Great advice.

 

RULES OF THE ROAD:

If you elect to join a critique group---and there’s no hard and fast rule saying this is what you must do—here’s a few suggestions to make sure your experience goes as smoothly as possible. Think of critique groups a lot like dating: you’ll kiss some frogs, and might face a divorce or two before finding your true Princess or Prince Charming. Or you may never marry (never enroll in a crit group, ever). But in the end, the time and effort in finding what you and your writing seek is worth the effort down the line.

DO find the right group for your genre, temperament, time, commitment, and experience level. If a group takes all genres—from the paranormal to the erotic paranormal and everything in between—go for it. But if a group only takes romance or horror writers, don’t expect solid feedback from a reviewer of that genre to be kind with your Western or YA, even if it has a romantic element to it. Know your genre and story well enough to find it in the best constructive home it deserve. And don’t be afraid to seek a critique group that will challenge you to write and think out of the box. Use your best judgment, instincts, and take the time to make sure you and your work for that group are a solid fit for you.

DON’T get defensive with your work. You’re there to learn and grow. Every idea isn’t gold and everything put  out there should see the light of day. This isn’t art on your mom’s fridge from when you were six; this is life. If your stuff’s garbage and if a peer critiquer has to hunt to find the gold in it, chances are, it’s worth deleting, especially if you know a writing weakness of yours won’t get any stronger by you working on it (if you’re strength isn’t in fiction and never will be, stick with what you are strong in, and make it ever stronger).

DON’T suggest a writer write the story how YOU’D write it . . . nor should you, the critiquer, be offended if they don’t take any of your suggestions. Your job is to be helpful, encouraging, supportive, and engaging, not to mother, smother or suffocate. This is the writer’s story, not yours. Let them tell it how it needs telling, even if it goes against every grain of your creative being.

DO be engaging and helpful.

If you’ve suggested every way possible, in the most helpful, engaging, supportive way possible, and the writer comes back with a curt thank you, or finds offense in everything you write and crit, then don’t crit. Instead, read the story with an open mind—maybe, Writer, you’re putting this ornate phrasing because this IM is necessary for the character to grow here or later, etc.—and crit, perhaps, like this, could be received better. Chances are, if you’re being engaging and encouraging, it’ll be well received.

DO ask questions in your crit.

Why? How would the writer know what you, the reader, are thinking? It churns the writer’s thought process, makes them question, object or sustain the writer’s  reasons why what is in the story, is in the story, and shows you’re being interactive in the read unlike ever before. When did you, the critiquer, ever get to crit Poe, Twain, Emerson, personally, before Huck Finn, “The Raven,” or Representative Men were published, and interact with these greats? This a definitive moment for you, the reader and the author alike.

Bottom line: you both want a great product to feed the reader’s imaginative mind. Both sides need to respect that process, and trust the other’s intentions behind it.

Happy Critiquing!

Posted by Missye Clarke 26 Jan 2013 at 04:33
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Responses to this blog

Etyrrell 27 Jan 2013 at 09:54  
I like to think of myself as a responsible critique r. CC members all have two things in common. We are all writers, and we all struggle.
For those on the receiving end of a critique it can be a bitter pill to swallow, having our poor, exposed and perfect baby, examined for flaws.

A serious writer has to cultivate a rhino skin if he wants to expose his work to Joe Public. Rejection and criticism come with the territory.
Every time I click the 'critique this story' key, I remind myself of the above, and I try to keep it in mind as I go along. I learned a lot when I was publishing my first novel. One of the biggest lessons was repeated advice I was given to edit my own work. 'Go through it with a nit comb' I was advised.
The many books I read on editing taught me to look for single items during each read through; it's the only way to do a reasonable job of self-editing.
Yesterday, I completed the fifth edit on my second novel, which I finished writing in 2011. For me, writing is the easy part. It's the searching for grammatical errors, overuse of small words, like, 'and' and 'that', (which are almost invisible to us because we use them so often) that drive me mad.
Then there's the run through for sentences that are too wordy or elongated; convoluted, or obscure. The list of corrections is horrendous. We fail to keep in mind that any publisher today, in this tight economical climate, will reduce any client's work as much as they possibly can, because, hello, most of them pay by the WORD.

The lower the word count, the better they like it, and the more likely they are to take the work on.

Whenever I log on to the Story Queue, my eyes are drawn to two things; word count - and genre.

I refuse to submit a piece to the queue if it has more than 2,000 words. Any more than that is an insult to my fellow writer, and I feel as though I'm taking advantage. Let's face it- our work is seldom ready for a publisher. Why burden a fellow writer with 4,000 plus words?
Any work that hasn't seen an editor's pen stands out like a sore thumb.

So I make this plea. Don't send in anything that hasn't been edited at least once. Don't expect your fellow writer to do 'free' corrections of your work, and don't be so presumptuous by sending in complete first drafts of novels and stories, unless they are of moderate length.

Remember, while a writer is looking at your submission to the Story Queue, he or she is kept away from their own efforts.
Make the precious time they give worth their while, by checking through it first, to make sure it reads well, is properly punctuated, and has been checked for typos.

Oh, I almost forgot research. If you step into unknown territory or your work is set in another time period make sure of your facts.
Purplek 28 Jan 2013 at 16:48  
Great post. And response.
Spiritrose 28 Jan 2013 at 17:19  
If you don't ask questions in your crit - how is the Writer to know awhen character appears out of the blue? How does the Writer to find plot holes invisible to him/her? I want people to ask questions, I want people to challenge my plot structure. Questions improve my writing. I say ask away.

Spiritrose 28 Jan 2013 at 17:28  
Damn this tablet and premature posting.

As for "burdening a fellow writer with 4000 plus words" I don't agree, and I sincerely hope those authors who need second opinions on their novella, or novel, or their 5k short story don't feel discouraged by that comment.

Now I can't help but feel obligated to apologize if and when I begin posting works over 2k.
Bean60 29 Jan 2013 at 03:26  
As a fairly new member, and probably have no real voice here, I do feel compelled to speak. 'My page' tells me I have spent an average of 50 minutes on each critique I've done. I don't know whether that includes the time I spend reading each piece before I actually clicked the button to start the cirtique. I do read each story I critique at least twice, once before I start the critique, then again as I go through the cirtique; sometimes a third time, just to be sure I have hit all the salient points.

Several times I felt that the writer posted their work from their first draft and my job was to point out all the errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar. I grew up, and went to school, in an era when teachers were much more concerned with those issues than content many times. So, I find myself being the grammar nazi, which I don't enjoy! I much prefer to read for enjoyment and would rather read for content. It's like these folks would wear jeans and flip flops to a five star restaurant. They should be putting their best foot forward to us, just as they would to an editor or agent. It doesn't matter to me how long the piece is, but it should be cleaned up, just as a person would clean up to go out to eat at a very nice restaurant. We all miss things ocassionally, but at least put some effort into making their stories presentable.

Does anyone else agree with me, or am I being too critical?
Demonqueen 29 Jan 2013 at 14:01  
I don't agree with some of this blog. I'm no expert, but I say DO ask questions - it's important for the author to know if the reader is asking the questions the author wants at the right time in the story. Like: did they get the clue that was dropped in that chapter? Do they want the MC to live? Is he going to go after the girl? DO ask questions in particular about character, because it gets the author thinking deeper about them and maybe from an angle they hadn't before considered.

And to say that receiving feedback from amateurs is a waste of time?! Amateur writers are still readers and readers are what you are trying to attract. If their opinions don't count, you're in the wrong game. If you're only after non-amateur — professional — crit partners, pay for a course or an editor, don't go to a writers group.

When it comes to spelling and grammar, etc. if there's too many mistakes I simply say that those areas need looking at. I don't see it needs to be perfect if it's an early draft. But it just goes to show how important it is for the author to state what areas they do NOT want feedback on. For instance, I may want to know how the pacing flows and if my characters are realistic, well rounded. Punctuation might not be a concern for that draft.

The only stipulation I would put on giving critiques is that with ongoing works people prepare a short summary of what's important to know for that particular chapter, otherwise I'm put off.

Just goes to show, everyone wants different things from feedback and there are no rules on how to do it other than: be polite; be constructive.
Spiritrose 29 Jan 2013 at 19:51  
You know, now that I reread that section about not asking questions, I think it's a typo. Do not not ask questions? Then they talk about interaction between writer and reader.

Perhaps we misread. In any case, that segment is a tad difficult to read.
Aggiecwby 2 Feb 2013 at 20:07  
I have to agree that it's fine to ask questions. I will often ask questions if I don't understand a section or what a character is doing or if I just want the author to think about something. I'm dyslexic so I catch some spelling (particularly homonyms, because they royally throw me as I'm reading) and grammar, but I miss a lot of that as well, so I rarely concentrate on that.

Sometimes I will give an example of what I'm trying to describe, and while I try to use the author's Voice, mine invariably wanders in.

As for amateur peer review being a waste of time. I don't agree with that. However, the onus falls on the author to learn how to separate the dross from the chaff. It's rare that I find a crit completely useless, and those that I do usually come from a person who's ego far exceeds their skill.
Maverik 9 Feb 2013 at 01:42  
Always love a spirited debate, that's for sure!

Spiritrose, Demonqueen,
Absolutely ask questions; ask as many as need. That should've read DO]/b] ask questions, but I blame nerves for that oversight. My apologies. I'll be sure to not be careless in future postings.

That said, ask as many or as few questions on your notes, projects as you wish. However, as one recent Facebook post I'd seen said, "I'm responsible for what I say; you are responsible for what you understand." Makes perfect sense, and here's why: When you do ask questions, clarify beforehand what you're seeking from the person giving a critique. Be as specific as you can be with the Qs you need answers for, and as many as possible to as many as possible until you get the right answer from the right person. Case in point: you might get the right answers + wrong person in a gruff, authoritarian delivery so rotten = you feel two inches tall for days. Or you get the wrong answers + right person / cheerleader = you'll feel seven feet tall, but it's short-lived. Wrong answers + wrong person = toss all around; right answers + right person = a story that's stronger and a writer's confidence boosted a tiny bit more.
That's what I meant in discernment, and as a whole, IMHO, not many people exercise that in others or themselves..

Or I could be too much old-school, LOL.

Aggiecwby, Demonqueen
The reason I say most—and not all—amateur critiques are a waste of time: frankly, they are. And it's not politically correct to say, but it's the truth. One might have a nose for something in your story (character, plot, descriptions, etc.), but how they convey it matters as much as what's being conveyed. Honestly, how many critiques have you received that made you go, after you've left this or that person's presence, going, "Um . . . okay, can't see what you got that from this, but thank you just the same." This isn't to mean be rude, but you and they have a precious commodity no one can reclaim: time. Everyone's an amateur at first, but as mentioned above regarding discernment, there are some critiquers who will never get better, shouldn't be critiquing, don't know your work or won't benefit your work in any plausible way, in the name of you being nice. You have to pick and choose which of the best of the best critiques that'll benefit your story constructively, and keep your writer's bloom protected. Trying to say, with all due respect, "Gee, your note do help, thanks," when they don't benefits no one, and might do more harm than good. And in that, you built the poor critiquers hopes up over nothing in some capacity they're not beneficial for; that's not fair to them either. So my position still stands. If you've a weakness level of one in crits, delivery or both, and improve both to a three or four, while it's improved, it's still a weakness until it's either stronger or remains a critique and/or critiquer weakness. That's up to you if you choose wisely which notes to take (weaker getting better) or which to ditch (weaknesses staying as such), and moving on.

Bottom line: it's about both sides being discerning enough to know what to ask, what crits to accept or not and when to move on or not. It's like trying to find a perfect outfit: not every piece of clothing will look good on you, no matter how much you like it, love or and if you hate it, have to wear it. It's just part of the process we all face.

And yes, I think I'm right: Parker and Bradbury just worked with an editor or close friends who knew them well, and it worked for them. And, writing by committee isn't always a good thing at certain times. Boy . . . I'll bet they sure didn't get this much of the "it's complicated" in the writing process. .
Jlgifford 17 Feb 2013 at 10:19  
I've been a critiquer for a long time, both here and on Critters, among a few other older forums as well. I'm an editor, and have been for the last seven years. Everyone is hitting on great points here. I just want to take the time and offer my two cents on the topic of critique groups, yay or nay, and why. My bottom line summary is this: Critique groups and their place in a writer's world is like Jedi training, there has to be balance and harmony. There needs to be a balance about asking questions that are relevant to the plot, character, and general overall theme to the story itself. It also depends on how a writer writes. Some, like Dean Koontz for example, will write and rewrite a page several dozen times until its perfect. Some just write the rough draft, like Stephen King, and then put it away for a few months before taking a stab at editing. I fall somewhere in between myself.

But there are benefits to joining a critique group and asking questions. The critique group should support the writer, help their writing and grow as a writer. But more importantly, the writer should find (if they haven't already) and develop their style of writing, and critique groups are great places to find their ideal reader-that person representative of their style and their voice in the fictional world, which to me makes writing much more personal when I can see and measure my own growth.

Yet I give caution as well. As writers, we have to develop and have a thick skins. But there are those writers who live quote rules, rules about writing, rules about structure, character and plots, and then proceed to rip apart your work. Be cautious of these types of writers because their only goal is to be petty and create self doubt. As writers, we've all questions a peice of work, and I'm sure a lot of us can relate. Don't be afraid of critiques, they should be helpful suggestions to make your work polished, cohesive, and complete. But remember, they are just suggestions. Don't change your style or your piece to satisfy one or two people.

Critique groups can motivate a procrastinating writer, but writing to please a specific group of individuals isn't always a good thing, like Maverik mentioned. But above all, never, EVER, stop writing.

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