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Friday, November 01, 2013

Clues Your Critique Group is Going TOXIC

by Edie Melson

I’m a big fan of having a writing support team. I know I’m a much better writer because I have a small group of writers I exchange critiques with. I believe there are very few writers who produce high quality work in a vacuum. These groups may be set up formally, with specific meeting dates and times. Or they may be less structured.

But occasionally the dynamics change, and today I want to share some clues your critique group is going toxic. These are warning signs that not addressed, may destroy valuable relationships forever.

One caveat before I begin, although I have been in situations where these have happened, they haven’t all happened to me personally. And, I’m ashamed to say, I’ve unintentionally been the perpetrator of a couple of these. We need to be as vigilant about our own motives and actions as we are of others.

Symptoms of a Toxic Critique
1. The critique becomes personal. If someone is attacking you, with comments that cross the line, beware. Comments may include, “You really don’t know how to write, do you?”

2. The volume level gets loud. This one gets me occasionally. I’m passionate about writing, and although I try, sometimes I make people uncomfortable with how loud I get. I don’t mind this one (probably because I tend to be confrontational at times) but I’ve learned to respect how it comes across to others.

3. The person who argues with every suggestion. I’m the first person to stand up for an author’s rights. I believe you are the master of your story. But none of us is right one hundred percent of the time. I’m perfectly happy if you decide not to accept my suggestions, but if you’re going to argue with every single one then we’re both wasting valuable time.

4. There’s nothing positive shared. I’m a big fan of the sandwich critique. In this method, I share something positive about the manuscript, then something that may need work, followed by something else positive. Let’s face it, critiques are difficult enough without it always being all about what someone is doing poorly. And this one leads me to number 4.

5. Frequent use of the word WRONG. In the publishing industry there are lots of gray areas, and very few hard and fast rules. Grammar is where you find most of the rules, but even those may be broken, if there’s a compelling reason. When someone tells you something is wrong, it’s a clue that there are deeper issues involved.

6. More talk ABOUT writing than actual words produced. If you find yourself in a group where all you do is encourage each other to overcome life and sit down and write, you’re not in a critique group, you’ve morphed into a support group. There’s nothing wrong with support, we all hit times when life gets the better of us. But be careful if it’s happening every week.

7. The person I like to call the, FOOD CRITIC. This is the one member who has all the answers, but almost never brings anything to be evaluated.

8. A lack of respect. This can show up in 3 main ways.
  • Those who are habitually late and/or don’t let the group know when they can’t make a scheduled meeting (online or off).
  • It can also be seen when the one giving the critique tries to force the writer to make changes. No matter how good I think my advice is, ultimately the manuscript belongs to the one who's writing it. I have to learn to respect that and move on.
  • The final one is a variation of the argumentative person seen in number 3 above. But this disrespectful person has a superior attitude about every suggestion made. The attitude is one of, “I hear you, but I’d never take advice from the likes of you.” Their demeanor drips with the resolve to be nice, but with obvious undertones of I’m better and we both know it.
Our industry is a living and growing entity. It’s changing almost daily, especially with the advent of ebooks and digital publishing. What used to be a rule, now is a viewed as a quaint tradition. To stay relevant, we NEED to band together. It’s a huge advantage to connect with others who are seeking to grow and put out the best possible product we can at a given moment in time. 

So if you've seen some of these symptoms, don't hesitate to address them. A little diligence now can save a valuable relationship. Now, I’m curious. What symptoms would you add to this list of toxic symptoms? 

Edie Melson is the author of four books, as well as a freelance editor with years of experience in the publishing industry. Her popular blog, The Write Conversation, reaches thousands of writers each month, and she’s the co-director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. Her bestselling ebook on social media has just been updated and re-released as Connections: Social Media & Networking Techniques for Writers. She’s the Social Media Mentor at My Book Therapy and the social media director for Southern Writers Magazine. You can connect with Edie through Twitter and Facebook.


  1. I'm so thankful for my critique partners. We met early in our writing careers and grew up in the craft together. We trust one another 100%, and I know their suggestions are made to make me better. I take 99% of them. Not everyone is as blessed, I know.

    But I can remember times a few years ago when I would kick some cabinets before I was ready to take the advice. :)

    What a writer, one who is serious about publishing, needs to do is grow rhino skin and develop a relationship with their crit partners. You have to believe they are there to help make you a better writer. If you don't have that belief, you'd better look for new CPs.

    But you can't have mine!

  2. I notice that often critique groups get people spinning in circles and they end up not improving. I use a few hand-selected critique partners. Most of these are women in similar genres who I noticed were on the verge of breaking through to being published around the same time as me. We send manuscripts back and forth via email. And they aren't necessarily partners with each other. This system has been very productive.

    And actually, I ended up becoming an acquisitions and content editor for WhiteFire Publishing because of one of these relationships :) The owner knew my ability as an editor because I had been critiquing her writing for some time.

    1. Me, too. That's what I meant about trusting your Cps. You have to. And it takes time to develop those relationships. I always tell new writers to find their Cps when they're still new and grow together. The problem rises when some aren't' serious about publishing. They don't want to change or admit they need to. :)

      My Cps and I were reading craft books and going to conferences. And we all grew from raw newbies to published … together. :)

  3. Critique groups are kind of like music bands. 9 times out of 10 the chemistry just isn't there. I've found that I just don't have time for a group. I can easily spend my one or two hours a night reading everyone else's material. So I just have one partner. And both of us agree on a level of critiquing that won't consume our time. My advice is not to let your group write your novel. If it doesn't sound like you any more, something's wrong. You don't have to accept every recommendation.

  4. Thanks, Edie. I'm sharing with my critique group just so we can be mindful, but also so we can celebrate that we're on track (and not toxic). I appreciate the guidelines.

  5. This is one area that has troubled me. I haven't found a group that is willing or knowledgeable enough to stretch me. Critique groups tend to include writers who merely want to have someone tell them how wonderful they are as writers and can't conceive they have areas they need to improve. I need someone who is brutal (with kindness) and helps me to become a better writer. I want to be published--because I deserve to be published. Now, how do we find the perfect CP?

    1. Karen, it's hard to find a really good one, but it's worth the effort. When I found mine, we were all very serious about publishing and wanted to do what it takes. The last think I want is a pat on the head. Same with my CPs. We started out in a large online group and gravitated together. The thing is, most people want this process to happen too fast. We took nearly 18 months to decide to leave the large group and form our own small group. We grew in that time to trust one another completely. That can't be done in a few weeks.

  6. Good stuff - I tweeted about it. A comment on #6, as faculty at writer's conferences and as a participant, I've met lots of people who just talk the walk. From one year to the next they've not written a chapter. All talk.

  7. Excellent post, Edie!

  8. Thanks for the guidelines and help Edie. One of the things I've noticed about being in a critique group is that often the participants don't feel confident about saying anything, whether positive or negative. It's a bummer and has been discouraging to me personally. Personally, I also wanted to note that your picture on this site is absolutely gorgeous!


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