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A FINE LINE

May 22, 2012

There’s a lot of discussion about the value of a critique group.  Those who don’t favor the idea ask: “Do you really want your work critiqued by a bunch of amateurs?” Other familiar questions are: “Are you willing to submit unfinished work for someone to pick holes in?” “Won’t that nip in the bud any spontaneity it might have?” “Is there a risk of turning out something that reads like a book by committee – a book that has nothing wrong with it, but which is completely lacking freshness or originality?”  All are valid observations, but . . .

On the other side of the fence are those who insist they need all the help they can get before they subject their manuscript to the scrutiny of an agent or an editor. A fresh set of eyes can spot weaknesses you, as the writer, are too close to see. They can point out gaps that are not apparent because you, as the creator, know the back-story. And they can tell you when you’ve added too much back-story and need to let the reader have the fun of using his imagination. 

Both arguments have merit. In the end, it depends on the individual writer – and the group.

I had the good fortune to meet a wonderful group of writers when I was writing my first book.  In addition to the writing advice I received from these people was the unexpected bonus that came with having to meet a deadline. We met every two weeks and knowing that I needed something to submit imposed a discipline I had been lacking. And discipline is a huge part of writing.  But the real value of the group came from the feeling of being part of a fellowship of kindred spirits.  In that group, I was first and foremost a writer.  Writing was not something I did in addition to my real life.  I believe this is vitally important, especially to someone just starting out. You have to learn to think of yourself as a writer, to make time to write, not merely find time.

When I said I was lucky in my first experience with a critique group, what I meant most of all is that I was fortunate to fall in with the right people.  Though we were a diverse group and were each writing a different type of book, we were all at about the same level of competence. We analyzed and advised, but not too much. Often there was agreement that something wasn’t working, but disagreement about how it could be made to work. I found that a good thing. It told me that I needed a new direction, but left me free to find my own path. Perhaps most important, we treated one another with respect.  Enough respect that we did not give false praise.  We were honest in our criticism, but not so critical that we were crippling. There’s a fine line there–but an important one.

How about you?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. May 23, 2012 10:49 AM

    I couldn’t make it without my crit groups! I don’t think any writers is her own best editor. I’ve been fortunate enough to fine excellent editors in my writing groups over the years. Of course, there have been some experiences that were not ideal, but on the whole my writing is much better because of my critters. (And they’d probably edit that last sentence.)

    • May 23, 2012 12:32 PM

      Kaye, I couldn’t agree more that writers all need editors. I, too, have had a couple of bad experiences after that original group broke up, but knowing what works for you is all part of the process. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  2. May 23, 2012 12:12 PM

    Respect: good. False praise: not so good. Developing a thick skin: priceless.

  3. Catherine permalink
    May 23, 2012 12:21 PM

    I am happy for all you folks who have wonderful critique groups. My advice is that if no one has sold anything after a reasonable length of time, consider that something might not be working. I bailed from the critique group scene over two years ago, after a decade in critique groups, and I just sold my first short story. Coincidence? Granted, it might be that I don’t work well with others, but for some of us, critique groups cause more damage than benefit. IMHO

    • May 23, 2012 12:34 PM

      Good advice,CAtherine. We all have to find what works for us. Congratulations on the sale of your story. Care to tell us where we can find it?

      • May 23, 2012 10:01 PM

        I agree with Sandra, I am finding that the comments and the so called networking has done more damage than good so far for me. Who I thought was going to be a great writing critique partner turned out to be looking to get an in with my publisher and when that didnt happen, thrashed out at me. Very uncomfortable and certainly didn’t help my writing.

      • Catherine permalink
        May 24, 2012 7:27 AM

        Hi Sandra,
        Thanks for asking. My story will appear in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, but I don’t know which issue yet. A final thought on critique groups – they are a part of our learning process as writers. You won’t know whether critique group is right for you until you try. And if it doesn’t work for you, don’t be afraid to walk away. The most unproductive thing a writer can do is keep doing the same thing even though you’re not getting positive results.
        Catherine Dilts

  4. May 23, 2012 1:10 PM

    Good points, Sandy.

    I think a critique group is essential to help us become better writers.
    But, as you say, it’s terribly important to find the right person/group.

    We’re all different. Some of us don’t want to show our work until we at least have a first draft finished, others are okay with being critiqued as they go.

    It’s also important to keep an open mind when listening to other people’s suggestions. But they are just suggestions. The ultimate decision to change something or not stays with the writer.

    The following advice from the SCBWI PA chapter at http://www.scbwiepa.org/critiques.html is, IMO, priceless.

    Giving Criticism

    Criticism should be constructive not destructive. “I didn’t like the way you wrote (or illustrated) that” is never valid criticism. It always helps a fellow writer or artist to know the strengths of a manuscript or illustration as well as the weaknesses. A compliment offered first softens a “constructive” negative to follow. Try to tell your fellow writer or artist why something doesn’t work for you and offer possibilities for change. Always be encouraging. Not everyone will respond to a manuscript or illustration in the same way. Those receiving criticism should remember that any suggestion offered can be accepted or rejected. The author or artist has the final word.

    Remember that you are in a critique group to get feedback. Your words or pictures can surround you so you can’t see flaws in your work. Try not to be too defensive when you’re criticized; be good-natured about it. All creators feel protective about their “children.”
    A critique group can remain strong only when the sanctity of that group is respected. It is never okay to use the ideas or the research done by another member, to impose upon their contacts in the publishing world, or to reveal to others outside of the critique group the work-in-progress without the author or illustrator’s express permission.

  5. neptune1021 permalink
    May 23, 2012 4:56 PM

    I feel that I need all the help I can get especially when I’m struggling with a difficult story. I once heard a motto that rhymes like this:
    Say what you mean
    Mean what you say,
    but don’t say it mean.

    That sums my feels on the writers groups. False praise never did anyone any good. In my group, we try to point out the positives first, then go into where changes might be needed.

    Thanks for a great post.
    Barbara (Popple)

  6. May 24, 2012 5:36 AM

    To terrifore (above): I’m really sorry that happened to you. It’s a shame that someone used you to further their own career without trying to help you in exchange. I’m afraid, no matter what field you’re in, you have to watch out for bad apples. Better luck next time!

  7. May 24, 2012 8:08 AM

    To Catherine (above): Please let us know when you find out which issue of AF. I’d love to read it. You’re right about walking away from anything that doesn’t work for you.

  8. May 25, 2012 10:53 AM

    The first critique group I belonged to didn’t work for me. A few years later I joined another Gruppy critique group, and they’ve been great. We’ve been together going on three years now, and I’m so happy we found each other. We were supposed to be a group of four, but one never showed up so there are only three of us. We each write different type mysteries. One of the nice things about them is they find and suggest changes without trying to change my voice. Many of their suggestions are right on, and they don’t stint with the praise when I write something they like.

    • May 25, 2012 11:06 AM

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Gloria. It’s valuable to know that critique groups have their own personality and sometimes it takes a few try-ons to find the right fit. I’m glad you’ve found a helpful group. It can make a lonely process much less so.

  9. May 26, 2012 4:25 PM

    Good points, Sandy. The main thing for me is that the critiques should be constructive. If only 1 of several finds a problem, it may not be one, but if 2 or 3 people comment on the same thing, give it careful consideration. You may not accept their ideas for improving it, but you do need to figure out why it stopped them. Critique groups who encourage, whether amateur or pro, can be valuable. I’ve had good experiences with mine.

    • May 26, 2012 8:03 PM

      I agree, Ellis. Other people can tell you when something doesn’t work, but it’s up to you to figure out how to make it work. Thanks for making that vital point.

  10. May 31, 2012 2:50 PM

    Thanks for this informative post! I agree that it is all about finding the right group! I was very lucky to find a helpful and supportive group years ago–one such as you describe in your post. The fellowship was so comfortable–who understands a writer’s mind better than other writers? We encouraged one another and yet were honest in our appraisals, while being kind and constructive. We were always excited at one another’s successes. Even though we don’t meet as often now, we do keep up by email and sometimes send out something via email and ask for informal opinions.

    But I have also been in not-so-helpful groups! And quickly left! So it is a matter of where you are in your writing, and finding the right group! Crit groups are *not* for everyone, and are helpful only if you find folks you click with!

    Thanks,

    Marina

    • May 31, 2012 8:07 PM

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Marina. I was also in a group that proved to be negative – almost to the point that I was convinced that I wasn’t cut out to be a writer.

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