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The Pros and Cons of Writing Groups -- by Lily Iona Mackenzie


Being part of an on-line writing group for several years has provided many benefits. But with the positives come a few negatives.

The Positives:

Over a period of time, one learns to recognize each reader’s style of critiquing and approach to writing fiction/non-fiction. I’ve discovered that, usually, all of our critiques collectively add up to one excellent response. Each person brings a different angle, a new take on the material. Some focus on character development more than story arc. Others seek deeper meanings in the piece and how they are revealed by imagery, metaphor, etc. And there’s usually someone who is good with punctuation or grammar or style. Rarely are comments duplicated, and, if they are, then they add weight to whatever is being discussed. So while responses can be predictable at times, they also are dependable.

I’m always astonished by the ways in which these multiple readings push me into deepening my revision process. I don’t submit anything that hasn’t gone through multiple (and I mean MULTIPLE) revisions. By the time the piece reaches my readers, it has been examined from every angle and I can’t find anything more to change. It’s a surprise, then, when the comments start dribbling in, and I learn all of the things I’ve missed or overlooked in my own editing process. Without those extra eyes and minds, my work would remain incomplete rather than being enriched by the perspectives these readers bring.

Okay, the Negatives:

Some readers are not sophisticated in their literary knowledge. Therefore, they often don’t get it if the writer is experimenting, trying out new approaches to the genre. I’ve learned to recognize who these individuals are in my group and to read their comments discriminately, recognizing their limitations.

In a similar vein, most of the critiquers have been through a writing program and bring some of the problematic, standardized workshop advice that can limit rather than liberate a story. Show and don’t tell is one approach. In certain instances, it’s valid and helpful counsel. But at its worst, it becomes a blanket response to all writing, the reader not taking into account when the narrative is more attuned to the character’s inner state than what is happening externally. Creating “scenes” also can fall into this trap. Sometimes a scene can vitalize a fading passage and dramatize what’s happening, bringing conflict and tension into the piece. Other times, it’s not appropriate.

The greatest negative for me is when a writer sends off a really early draft that he/she hasn’t taken the time to hone him/herself. It’s essentially a freewrite containing all of the original grammar and punctuation errors, the assumption being that the messier the better—the more “emotional” or “authentic.” It’s not. It’s simply a very early draft that is difficult to read because of all the surface errors. Then I feel the writer is putting the responsibility on me to rescue this effort and do the actual writing. I don’t want to deal with early drafts because they are usually in the exploratory stage and haven’t really congealed yet. The writer hasn’t discovered the heart of the story and is relying on his/her readers to do this hard work for him/her. I resent being used in this way. But I also feel that responding too soon to an exploratory draft inhibits the writing itself, shutting down rather than opening up possibilities.

The positives clearly outweigh the negatives. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have remained with this group for so long. Not only do I learn from the responses to my own submissions, but I also get insight by reading comments on other members’ work.

Lily Iona MacKenzie

Posted by Lily Iona Mackenzie 7 Aug 2013 at 05:05
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Responses to this blog

Intpsych 7 Aug 2013 at 18:53  
Thanks, Lily. Well thought-out and written. I especially liked your comments about showing versus telling and creating scenes. Writing style is fluid and so are the rules governing it. Good luck!
Sussu 7 Aug 2013 at 18:58  
Another positive:
We get to make friends. That comes with nice gifts like free indie versions of the final story. Also, it comes with someone we can count on to return our critiques.
Advice: return all critiques and say so on top of your submissions.

Another negative:
Some people do not know how to take a critique and need a scape goat to their frustration.
I always accept any comment gracefully, no matter how wrong I think the critter is. Anyway, no one can be completely wrong. Actually, the worse critiques may be as helpful as the best ones. If only we listen.
Advice: do not respond to a frustrated writer.

Ashdavis 8 Aug 2013 at 05:43  
It's comforting to hear from someone is isn't afraid of being good at what they do and doesn't easily suffer fools.
I asked for advice on my second critique yesterday because I could sense something was wrong. Now it seems so obvious. I was doing what I always do - taking on someone else's burden, in its entirety. Taking all the responsibility, doing all the thinking and all the research. Now I know why I felt so conflicted about putting my heart and soul into that, and the previous review.
I'm glad you can feel when you are being stretched, and can name it. So feel free to decline this request. If you have a moment I would appreciate your wizened eye cast over my critiques (2) so far.
I think what you're saying here is a really useful insight for all writers as it can be expanded in the direction of the rejection we all inevitably face. If we can appreciate our own boundaries, our own attachments, then we can see rejection as a statement on the boundaries of others and perhaps even begin to appreciate it.
If you say to me: 'No, I don't feel inclined to review your critiques', I might be able to feel some degree of gratitude - 'thanks for being honest about your limits and not mucking me about; I have to be economical with my time too.' I'll still feel rejection and the pain of it I think, but perhaps be able to respect the feeling for what it is.
Rhodes 8 Aug 2013 at 19:51  
Great post, Lily. I notice the positives you mention only really come into play once a level of comfort is established with the others in the group. In a way I guess this is true. Showing your work to people you don't know well can be terrifying, as anyone on this site can probably agree!

You make a good point about "show, don't tell." That rule gets harped on so much I get tired of seeing it. But that's for another blog post.
Jcall 8 Aug 2013 at 20:03  
Insightful food for thought. Thank you, Lily! As a novice fictionwriter, I gladly welcome the constructive critiques of others, readers and fellow writers alike, generally preferring those that take the time to tell you what they didn't feel or didn't like and why. Ideally, their opinions can help us learn and most importantly grow as writers and authors. I can say however that, as a writer whose been through the betareading process with most of my pieces to date, I still find it difficult to gauge when it's my story that needs the tinkering/fine-tuning or the fact that I've stepped outside the formulaic expectations of my genre - or both - provoking the less than stellar comments and critiques.

Even in those times when you know improvements can be made, it can be difficult to decipher the missing ingredients.

My 2 centavos. : )
Rijsy 11 Aug 2013 at 10:27  
Hi Lily,
I haven't been on Critique Circle for very long but I agree with the negative about writers using it as a "send it and let's see what happens" approach. While this is a negative, there is also a positive for me because I am learning to be more discriminating.
I'm also beginning to realise that it is possible to build strong and meaningful writing relationships through the critiquing process. This can lead to me seeing crits and submissions more realistically. It also opens up wider possibilities for creativity and strengthens the desire to produce one's best.
Thanks for your insights.
Breeze 11 Aug 2013 at 12:17  
Lily, I envy your ability to analyze and find the best advice in critiques. You sound like a seasoned writer. I'd like to read your work, so I'm going to trot out to your website. Thanks for posting!

Chaine 11 Aug 2013 at 21:26  
Members of the Critique Circle submit our pieces to be subjected to critique. According to the online Oxford Dictionaries, this is exactly what we should expect:
Critique: a detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory.
This will entail criticism on the part of the person who writes the critique. Criticism is defined by the online Oxford Dictionaries as follows:
Criticism: the analysis and judgement of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work.
The person who writes the critique is a critic. To be clear we should also have the Oxford Dictionaries definition of Critic:
A person who judges the merits of literary or artistic works, especially one who does so professionally.
Some critics complain that a piece has been submitted that has not been properly checked over by the author before submission. The piece is not well thought out, it is full of spelling, punctuation and grammar mistakes. It is consider that the piece is not fit for submission. What if this is the best piece that the author can achieve at this stage of his development as a writer? Can he not benefit by the experience and wisdom of the critic? Some members may feel that the writer has dumped responsibility for his work on the critic. The writer is not putting responsibility on the critic. By writing a critique the critic is accepting that responsibly. If he accepts it, how can he then go on to complain about having that responsibility? If you don't want to write a critique, you don't have to. You have a choice.
Why do members of Critique Circle avoid using the words criticism and critic? If we are writers then we should understand and accept that these words do not have negative connotations. These are the grown up words that we should use rather than crit or critter.
We should be expected to give our honest opinion when we write a critique. To do less is to do a disservice to Critique Circle. The criticism that we give should include all of the points shown in the definition of criticism shown above.
We are urged to give constructive criticism, but what if the author has got things wrong? Are we still morally obliged to write an honest critique? If so how do we do it? Follow the advice given in the FAQ section on Writing a critique. Here is what is said:
Just because we stress the importance of constructive critiques doesn't mean we don't want honesty. You can easily be honest and constructive at the same time. It's all a question of phrasing. "Your plot sucks!" or "I think your plot needs some work" - similar messages, but one is destructive, the other is constructive.
The critic has worked hard to give the benefit of their opinion to the author, and he reports, "I think your plot needs some work". The reasonable author of the piece should be able to accept this at face value. It's not negative; it's a person's opinion.
Now think about this. A critique is submitted that says, in the opinion of the critic, that the author has used too many vague words in his story. The critic goes on to say what is meant by vague words and provides online references to help the author to combat what he sees as a problem in the piece. The author assumes that the critic avers that the words that the author uses are too obscure. The author hasn't read the critique properly. He knows that he has used words that are not obscure, he would expect his reader to be able to understand the words that he has used. He, therefore, thinks that the critique is unwarranted, and negative. The critic has wasted his time writing it, and the author's time is wasted because he does not understand the points that the critic has made. All is lost here unless the author contacts the critic and politely explains that he doesn't agree with the critique. The critique is then re-explained by the critic and the author sees the critique in a new light. Now there is no misunderstanding. They still may not agree, but there is no misunderstanding.
What if the critic is wrong and has pointed out something in the story that he thinks is incorrect that is not incorrect? If the author contacts the critic and shows him his error the critic has been helped by the author. If the author fails to contact the critic then the critic is under the illusion that his assertion is correct, and he learns nothing. The author may have a feeling of superiority, but has missed an opportunity to give his help someone who needs it.
If the author accepts that he has a role to play in the critique process everyone will benefit. What we need is for all authors to understand what the critic is saying? Again help can be found in the FAQ section >Receiving Critiques>Accepting criticism:
It can be hard to accept criticism. Don't argue with the critic, but if there is anything in your crit that you don't understand, by all means, ask him about it.
In fairness, I would urge all writers to ask any questions they may have before they rate critiques.
Finally, more wisdom from FAQ section >Receiving Critiques>Accepting criticism:
Bear in mind that the crit is only one person's opinion. He isn't necessarily right, but his views are examples of how readers might see and interpret your story. That is useful to you, whether you agree with his opinions or not.
Be critical about what you want to use of the critique you receive. Remember, you are the author and this is your story, your style. You decide, others suggest. Some authors get lost trying to please everyone. Don't let that happen to you

Ashdavis 16 Aug 2013 at 08:21  
Chaine: I agree with you, but here is one of my problems:

1. The problem is what you say about clarifying Critiques. I have had 3 people write to me about my critiques saying they don't understand or don't agree. So I replied in the nicest way I could and offered them any help and any support I could give them. I've never heard back from them. Now you may counter with 'that's their choice' and I would say, that simply isn't enough in the real world. We need a better approach. Saying it's their choice is just a way of killing a reasoned discussion. It doesn't lead to any solutions for the writer or the critic. They can still choose to write badly if they want, but a continued discussion would at least make the critic feel less like they have wasted their time on a lost cause who just wants to churn out pulp.
Chaine 18 Aug 2013 at 11:47  
Ashdavis: I agree with you.
Getting the best possible outcomes from the system relies it being used in the spirit of friendly co-operation.
There is an old English expression:
You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink

The best thing that you can do in these circumstances is find another, more co-operative, horse.
Don't beat yourself up about it, move on.

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