The First Rule of Critique Club

About three or four years ago, my writing group set out to create a system for sharing and critiquing each other’s work.  It was a disaster.  Someone gave us an excellent plan to follow and it should have been a breeze.  In the corpse-riddled fall-out, a few numbed survivors were left roaming around with blood running down their faces, asking: What did we do wrong?  I know the answer now. 

Everything.

The first rule of Critique Club is talk about Critique Club.

One thing we should have asked ourselves before beginning but didn’t, is this:  Are we going to be a good match if you put all of us together, or are we going to start tearing off each others’ limbs and eating them when the going gets tough?  What I want out of a critique group and what you want, might be vastly different things.  I decided I would need to think hard about my personal objectives before trying this again.

My Dog has Genital Warts too

So first, find a group of like-minded people to work with.  Second, keep in mind a few more general things, like the importance of making your critique group a priority in you life.  It’s success or failure must rest on your shoulders because it is a group and you owe it to the others to be reliable.  This, above all else, was the reason for the demise of the first group I joined.  Yes, unexpected things come up in life.  That’s to be expected.  But it irritated the snot out of me if I was reading someone’s work and carrying their story problems around in my head with me while having my teeth cleaned and falling asleep at night, and then that person turned around and told me that they couldn’t read my stuff because they were going through a busy time right now.  Guess what.  I have kids too, and a sick dog, and a grandmother who needs a ride to the doctor’s office.  I’m going through a busy time right now and I will be going through a busy time next month as well.  There are bound to be occasions when people genuinely need to take a pass on their critiquing responsibilities, but this should be reserved for emergencies or special situations and it should be handled as considerately as possible.  Also, I really need to not have an emergency until after my group has come to trust my loyalty to them.  Discourtesy with respect to agreed upon deadlines should be a deal breaker when choosing and participating in a group.

Please Don’t Cry

Another thing of the utmost importance in determining your happiness and satisfaction in a critique group is something you’re not likely to know about ahead of time.  Assuming you’ve expressed your opinions sensitively and offered constructive criticism on everyone’s work, none of your fellow members should be getting their feelings hurt.  If you have to spend a lot of time soothing egos or apologizing for offering your honest thoughts, your critique group will get old fast.  By the same token, don’t be that guy.  That guy is a whiner and he’s no fun.  If you want someone to read your work and love every single thing about it, don’t join a critique group.  Give your stuff to your mom.  She thinks you’re fantastic.

Obama Murdered My Writing Group

No diatribes please.  I can’t stress this point enough.  Do not, under any circumstances, post your political emails on a critique board.  Mixing personal agendas with a critique group is like dropping Mentos into Pepsi.  There will be an explosion.  A critique group is not the place to trigger debates by posting unrelated controversial topics.  We’re all writers and it’s hard enough to find the time we need for that.  When contention springs up over non-writing matters, it wastes everyone’s time.  If you’re considering joining a critique group on line, ask to see some sample posts.  My new group has set up their board with a place for posting and responding to each other’s work.  No off-topic chatter goes on there.  We’ve since added a section where people can share publishing news a separate section for general discussions.  If a member chooses to drop in at either of these places, that’s something extra.  We do not share email forwards anywhere and we probably like each other a lot more because of that.

Why Waste Time on Messy Bargain Brands

If you’ve looked around and can’t find a group that meets your needs, consider starting your own.  That’s what we did.  I knew of two other people in search of the same things that I was after; one being an editor I’d worked with in the past, the other being a fellow member of the organization that started the failed critique group I’ve mentioned here.  I have never met these two people in person but we’d been swapping writing news and reading each other’s work for years.  I knew them to be professional, trustworthy, and capable of offering intuitive advice.  We discussed our hopes up front and organized our system accordingly.  We also carefully considered all of the above factors.  We have since added a fourth person who enhances us greatly.  It’s been a dream come true.

8 thoughts on “The First Rule of Critique Club”

  1. The writing group that helped launch my career included our own John B. Rosenman and our mutual buddy Richard Rowand. Richard used to begin his critiques with the line…”Keep in mind that all criticism is subjective.” He was very pointed, very opinionated, and he wasn’t the only one. We had a woman in the group for a while who was obsessed with obliterating ALL INSTANCES of passive voice…

    A thing to keep in mind about criticism: If one person tells you something, you might look at it and see what YOU think. If five disparate readers tell you the SAME THING…you should listen, no matter what you think. And never rewrite your vision to match someone else’s…many times, instead of a personal critique, what you get is a lesson in how someone else would have written your story. That’s interesting to know, but not a great idea to follow unless it feels right.

    Good topic…a lot of people want / need / are curious about writing groups.

    D

  2. Started laughing at “corpse-riddled fall-out.” You do cynicism with a dry understated humor that connects very well — if you won’t get upset at my critique here! Very on the mark. Have seen people — good writers — come out of something as brief as a writer’s retreat with their heads in a basket and never be the same thereafter. The Ninja experience did ‘em in. Thanks for highlighting those stereotypes that haunt most such groups and must be invalidated for their ulterior agendas. I suspect that your voice in such a setting would be tactful but objective and insightful. It’s too bad that so many writers pass on the opportunity to really hear when that combo of response comes at them. When and if a writer gets a more universal audience after publication, they are apt to discover that the need for one-on-one dependable reaction is even harder to get. I just spent a good part of this morning trying to figure out how I could get some feedback on something and came up blank. Perspective is everything.

    — Sully

  3. This is exactly how I found my writing group. The original group had no direction, but a few of us wanted more. We formed a smaller, more focused group and it’s been a fantastic experience.

    Thanks for making me feel like I’m on the right path.

  4. This is sound advice. I currently attend a writers group in Paris; it’s quite far away and not always very focused, though the person who chairs it is very helpful. I’m interested to know if you still have an on-line critique group, as I’d be very interested to join. I have a few short stories which I’d like constructive criticism on, and I find the process of critiquing other’s work very informative and enjoyable. Do let me know of a good on-line group I may join – if you know of one it’d be much appreciated!

    Best, Phil

  5. I am just getting back to work after the Easter holiday and wanted to thank all of those who shared their critique stories.

    I enjoyed hearing how influential your critique group has been to your career, David. I think I might like to explore this subject further because giving, taking, and using criticism is really Part 2 when it comes to any discussion on how to make the most of your group, don’t you think? Once you’ve found the right people to work with, your job has only just begun. As you mentioned, figuring out what to do with all that advice is really key.

    “Perspective is Everything” would have been a better title for this post. Because it really is. You nailed it better than I did, Sully. I don’t know if it’s just me, but sometimes I write something that seems perfectly fantastic when I re-read it, and then I hand it to others and find out that it makes sense to no one else on the planet. I might only need to alter a word or two to make it all come together, but I couldn’t see that on my own. I needed another set of eyes on it for me to see things clearly. For me, that extra set of eyes is so important.

    Andrew, you hit on the one thing I edited out of my post. I started to get into the fact that a smaller membership has worked out best for our group. I re-thought including this simply because I would guess that big groups work well for some people too. The important thing, I think, is just finding what works best for you. “Smaller, more focused” is serving us well at the moment and I hope it continues to work for your group too.

    And Phil caught something that was totally missing from all this – I really should have included some links. I actually thought about it and just ran short on time. The group I’m in has all the work they can handle at the moment. I plan to do a little research and post some links for people who might be shopping around for a group. If anyone knows of something of interest in this regard, please share it. Word of mouth is probably the best way to learn about a good opportunity. I really hope you can connect with the right people, Phil. Thanks so much for commenting!

  6. I’m surprised that some people need to interject their political and/or religious bent on a critique group, but I suppose it takes all kinds. I’ve been fortunate enough not to experience that yet. I will cringe in the proper manner when I do, though. :)

  7. On occasion as I wander about the web, I leave little notes reminding people that most of the great writers of the last 100 generations or so had no critique group and that most professionals are not in a critique group today.

    As a book doctor I see hopeful submissions from people who say “I’ve done six drafts of this with my critique group and it’s not getting any better.” Invariably, it has gotten worse, even if everyone in the critique group has had the best of intentions, considerable skill, and all kinds of tact and talent. The reason for this is that writing isn’t for our buddies; writing is for people we don’t know, audiences we imagine out in the void. (That’s why we write instead of phoning that guy going back to college in the Greyhound station in Fargo at 3 a.m.) If you write for an audience of six, you’ll never have much more than that. Write for the void.

    As for any given critique group: If it works for you, groovy. Stay till it doesn’t, and if it never doesn’t, extra groovy. If it doesn’t, get out, and drop it the way you would a live grenade or a dead skunk. And if finding something that works for you takes a great deal of effort, ask yourself whether the effort couldn’t be better applied to your writing.

  8. Hello Gef and John. It does seem rather like common sense, doesn’t it? Insinuating political stuff into a professional setting is sure to be risky business. Personally, I’m not a fan of email forwards in any context.

    Critique groups are just one of the many tools that are out there, like book doctors. I don’t guess book doctors were very prevalent back in the day. I have to disagree about former generations making their way without critique groups. The Bloomsbury Group, comes to mind. It certainly had its influence. That doesn’t mean a critique group is right for everyone. As a parent, I’ve often wished for one good rule that would work for every child. I’ve searched and searched but that one rule isn’t out there, darn it. Ultimately, I believe, the responsibility falls on each of us to discover and utilize the things that will be the most helpful to us in our writing. In the world of critique groups, that is going to mean different things to different people, but there are a few things that it seems wise to look for, or avoid. Like you, I don’t see much point in joining a group with buddies, but that might work for some people. Anyone serious about their craft is going to be looking for a professional setting, in any case.

    Here’s a few interesting links I’ve come across on the subject:

    http://writing-genre-fiction.suite101.com/article.cfm/how_to_pick_the_right_critique_group_or_workshop

    http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifestyle/how-to-start-a-writing-critique-group.html

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