Sunday, February 26, 2012

What Do You Really Need From a Critique Group?

by Mike Duran

Not long ago, I was contacted by an unpublished author who was looking for a crit partner. They had acquired my addy from a mutual friend and was wondering if I’d be interested. I was flattered. Really. Nevertheless, I emailed this response:

Thanks for the consideration. I’ve kind of given up the crit partner thing, mainly because of my own schedule and perfectionist tendencies. When I’m not working (which is full-time), I’m writing or editing. I’ve found that I tend to overwork so many things — nit-pick, second-guess, obsess over detail — to the point that critting just takes far too much time and is often frustrating for whomever happens to be on the receiving end. My apologies, but I’ll have to pass on the offer.

Okay, so I’m anal retentive. When it comes to critiques, I am just too hard on myself and others…

And I think this is a good thing.

Maybe that’s why me and critique groups don’t always get along. You see, some of the critique groups I’ve come in contact with are just way too nice. Perhaps this is what some writers want — they want encouragement, they want to be told their stuff is good, they want to feel they’re on the threshold of publication, they want a pat on the back. The problem is, that’s not what they need.

Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, in a piece entitled “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” provides some wisdom on what we need in a critique group:

I believe the [writing] teacher’s work is largely negative, that it is largely a matter of saying, “This doesn’t work because …” or “This does work because …” The because is very important. The teacher can help you understand the nature of your medium, and he can guide you in your reading. I don’t believe in classes where students criticize each others manuscripts. Such criticism is generally composed in equal parts of ignorance, flattery, and spite. It’s the blind leading the blind, and it can be dangerous. (emphasis mine)

Two things stand out in this quote in relation to critique groups. One is the nature of the task. O’Connor notes that “the teacher’s work is largely negative.” No, she’s not implying that good critique is intentionally harsh, nor that it should be without encouragement or positive reinforcement, but that critique, by its nature, must be rigorous and address what is wrong with a work. In this sense, the work of a good critique group is largely negative.

Equally insightful is Ms. O’Connor’s suggestion that student-led critiques are unhealthy, “generally composed in equal parts of ignorance, flattery, and spite.” Which is a bit of a problem. Nowadays, most online writing groups are comprised of “students [who] criticize each others manuscripts.”

Clearly, many online critique groups do not seem to meet either of Flannery O’Connor’s specs. Whereas some groups exist primarily to provide support and encouragement (rather than correction and hard critique), other groups suffer because of their make-up (too many students and not enough seasoned authors), resulting in what O’Connor calls “the blind leading the blind.”

Of course, I’m not suggesting that a good critique group is without “support and encouragement” or that it cannot involve “students” swapping advice. The important thing is getting “trained” eyes on our work, receiving hard critiques without swooning, and being willing to absorb and make changes as needed. It is natural to need encouragement and, occasionally, a shoulder to cry on. But ultimately, if we are unwilling to seek honest criticism and unable to weather the toughest scrutiny, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and potentially capping our artistic growth.

Several years ago, the authors at Charis Connection (a group which has since disbanded) were asked if they belonged to a writing group. Of the ten that responded, only a couple spoke favorably of crit groups. At the time, I was incensed. “Of course crit groups are a good thing!” I protested.

Now I’m not so sure.

The question isn’t IF you need critique partners. The question is WHAT KIND of critique partners you really need. How you answer that question may, in the long run, determine a lot about your growth and longevity as a writer.

Question: Do you agree that there is an inherent danger in being critiqued by unpublished and beginning writers? Do you see the role of a critique group as primarily “negative”? What advice would you give a new writer who is seeking to have her work critiqued?

Mike is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket. He is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary. Mike's debut novel, "The Resurrection," is in stores now and his novella, "Winterland," is available in e-book formats. Mike's sophomore novel The Telling releases May 2012. You can visit his website at


Jenni said...

I, too, am very hard on myself and others in critiques. I usually have to remind myself to be sure not to give a completely negative critique. To my mind, a critique is a critique - not a time for general encouragement.

I stopped putting most of anything I write online because I was getting too many positive critiques. So I reserve the internet as a publishing venue. (Excepting my friends, of course, who I trust to give me actual critiques)

I'm finding that this is a problem in college too. In my Freshman English class, we have to do peer reviews on each others' first drafts of their papers. I usually don't get anything back that's actually helpful because either the other student didn't understand the assignment or simply listed off all the things that I did 'right' in the paper. Teeny bit annoying when I spend good time writing a thorough critique on each of my classmates' papers.

For new writers getting work critiqued, especially under the age of 18 - don't look to your peers. Look up several years older than you. Look for people who are good at English. Look at samples of their work. See if you can find any critiques that they've written before. Establish whether you are looking for validation or critique. Each has its place, but you need to separate the two.

I don't have anything against unpublished writers - there can be brilliant unpublished writers who simply haven't pursued publishing yet. There's a difference between 'new', 'young', and 'unpublished.'

I do think that a group should never consist of any more than two new writers (less than 1 year of serious writing) at once.

Gina Holmes said...

I see "seasoned" writers give out as much bad advice as unpublished writers. The best critique/editing I've received is from a yet unpublished writer. I was a good editor before I ever earned my first contract and am no wiser now than I was then, but suddenly I'm more of an authority in the eyes of others. I think the best critique partners are other unpublished writers but not just any. You find people who aren't afraid to speak up. The people who tell it to you like it is no matter what. Descriptive detail wasn't my strong area, but it was for one of my critique partners who, over years, ingrained it into me so well that it's now one of the things I'm complimented on. There are plenty of published writers who aren't all that great. And plenty of unpublished writers who are extraordinary. I think the main thing in a critique group is to hook up with talented, serious, dedicated, teachable, truth tellers. Find out what books they think are great and what they choose to read. Even with amazing editors, I still use my critique partners, because they still challenge me and improve the work.

And two new writers critiquing each other can be a great thing. So long as they're both learning, attending conferences, paying for a critique now and then, reading how to books... then they will share their knowledge with each other, and grow together. That's how I learned. Give yourself permission to cut off from groups that aren't working for you or that you outgrow. I outgrew quite a few but clung to the individuals that challenged my work to dig deeper, aim higher, push harder.

Mike Duran said...

Jenni, I appreciate your honesty. Many writers would not see getting "too many positive critiques" as a bad thing. I applaud your desire to grow. The biggest obstacle to growth is often our inability to see (much less concede!) our own flaws. Sadly, many critique groups bolster our delusions by being way too nice. Thanks for commenting!

Kat Heckenbach said...

The key, in my opinion, is discernment on the part of the writer being critiqued. One of my crit partners is an awesome writer--unpublished, but very talented. She writes mainly nonfiction though, and often times her suggestions for my work are stylistically incompatible. Yet, another member of the group is, shall we say, at the very beginning stages of learning to write, but she has *nailed* issues in my stories before that no one else could pinpoint.

I find critique from other authors very valuable, but I've learned to be selective. I give this kind of story to one person, and that kind to someone else. I have specific writer friends who get to evaluate my novel writing, while others are the ones I turn to for short stories. It's taken some time to build these relationships, though. I would not just walk into a crit group and take everything the members say at face value.

I have attended a crit group or two that was so exactly what you are talking about here when you say the blind leading the blind. At one, I spent the entire time giggling with another writer friend at how ridiculous everyone was being. Arguing over the tiniest points, getting caught up on rules, getting all bent out of shape over the least little criticism. One guy even got up and stormed out. It was a fiasco. And none of them knew what they were talking about--most of their writing was downright awful. But they each acted like they thought they were a writing expert. Other groups are just all nicey-nicey, good job--even when the writing needs real work.

There MUST be a level of MUTUAL respect. And functional communication. You need someone to whom you feel comfortable saying, "This so totally doesn't work, and this is why." And it must come from *love* of the other person and their writing, a true desire to see them succeed, and an understanding of their style and voice. And you have to find someone who can give the same thing back to you. When you find that, you protect it passionately, too :).

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Totally agree with Kat--it requires discernment on the part of the WRITER. Every crit group is going to have people who get/don't get where you're going w/your story and writing style. Conversely, your critiques on their stuff might be just the thing they needed (content crits? grammar crits?).

Some critters have those strengths in grammar (even novice critters), some know what dialogue is supposed to look like these days, some are great at poking holes in your historical details...You have to find the critiquers that make you grow the MOST as a writer, then discern the things they tell you that will work for your vision.

But crit groups also eat up vast amounts of time, if you're swapping crits. You have to be willing to give quality crits to receive them.

If nothing else, it's a great way to find those one or two critters you truly need throughout your book editing process. I was totally happy w/ONLINE critique groups--they cut out the drama that Kat described above!

Mike Duran said...

Gina, I'm definitely not suggesting unpublished writers can't be good critique partners. While I agree with you that it's important to "to hook up with talented, serious, dedicated, teachable, truth tellers," it's also important to have critique partners who are more advanced and farther along than us. When everyone is virtually on the same writing level, it's hard to be pushed to "the next level."

Mike Duran said...

Heather, you're totally right that, if you're swapping crits, "crit groups [can] eat up vast amounts of time." I had to leave a crit group once because I just couldn't compensate all the crits I was getting. Now I'm in a crit group with four other people and that size seems to be perfect.

Ane Mulligan said...

I have to jump in here. When I started writing, I found others who were fairly "new" to writing. I had a couple of more seasoned writers critique me, but the most came from others, who like me were learning.

The difference is that we were very serious about publishing, so we absorbed all we learned and put it to use. Gina Holmes, Jessica Dotta, and I have been CPs since we started out. And we've been tough on each other.

Another thought about having a "seasoned" writer in a crit group of newbies, unless that writer is mentoring and has her/his own crit partners, how id he/she getting any tough crits from newbies?

I know in the beginning, I would have been totally intimidated to critique a seasoned writer. I tend to feel we're better with our own level of writer -- as long as they're as serious about growing as you are.

Mike Duran said...

Ann, you're right that being "very serious about publishing" can change the complexion of a group of unpublished writers. But I'm not sure I agree that we're "better with our own level of writer." I think us published authors can gain tons of insight from unpublished authors, whether or not they're intimidated to give it. Just because I have two contracted novels does not make any reader's opinion less valid. But I also need prodded forward by more seasoned, accomplished writers. That's why I think a spectrum of critiquers, rather than a circle of equals, is a better balance. Thanks, Ann!

TheQuietPen said...

I'm in this place right now. I've been writing since I was ten (yes, consistently and thoughtfully, though far from a prodigy--just stubborn because I enjoy writing) and have always been more dissatisfied with my work than others. At the same time, I have enough talent to pull things out at the last minute, both in creative and informational writing, that have been considering "good enough", "good", or even "excellent."

Other writers haven't always been helpful, often because they're busy working on their own stuff. They're helpful for brainstorming ideas, but not in measuring the implementation of those ideas.

My best critics so far? Teachers and readers. My high school English teacher was really good at seeing through my smokescreen of writing tricks, and never stopped pushing me. My college writing professors were the same way. The downside? They're overworked as it is and aren't as familiar with some genre conventions.

My other harshest critics? Avid readers with analytical minds. I know a few who are very good at pointing out overused plot devices, shallow characters, and unconvincing scenes--and they have no patience for them! The downside? They're not good at pointing out specifically what doesn't work with a scene. And they don't always have the patience to wade through drafts.

Right now, I'm basically back at square one, using my own highly self-critical tendencies to push along. It is what it is.

Mary Hawkins said...

Many years ago I agreed to be a mentor for an unpublished writer. When I received her first few pages I groaned and did not know where to start telling her what she was doing wrong. So I told her a few things she had done wrong. She re-wrote and sent it back and then I told her more. This went on for a while and as I pointed out something she went to "How To" books and learnt as she re-wrote until she had finished the whole manuscript. Today she is a multi-published author. We became friends over the years and when we shared a room at a writers' conference once I asked her what she would have thought if I'd told her that first time everything that was wrong with her manuscript. She laughed and said, "Wasn't it aweful, Mary!" Then she added that if I had she would NEVER have written a full manuscript.
I share that because we do need to be so careful not to completely discourage a beginner writer with everything we have learnt - and often the hard way - over the years.

Ane Mulligan said...

Mary, that's SO TRUE! I remember when I had that same experience. I emailed Deb Raney, asking what do you do? She gave the same advice. And that's how I learned, too, one aspect at a time. :)