Beware of the Wrong Critique Groups

In my last post, I shared the positive experience I had with a critique group. But not every critique group works so well. One of my writer friends almost gave up writing because she had such a negative experience in a critique group.

How can you avoid the pitfalls of a bad critique group?

First, get to know the other potential group members before you commit to participating. I met the other members of my critique group through a local writing group and knew them for several months before we ever talked about forming a group. A writers group, local or online, is a good place to meet potential critique partners. You will know the person is serious enough about writing to participate in the organization, and you can observe how they interact with other people. Look for writers who are enthusiastic and upbeat; a negative person is probably not the best choice to critique your work, and a writer who thinks/acts like they know everything there is to know won’t be fun to work with.

In my experience, the most effective groups are made up of writers with similar levels of experience. For a brief time, we tried to add another person to our group – a woman who had already published several books while the rest of us were still unpublished. The group didn’t benefit the experienced writer as much as she would like, and we unpublished writers felt somewhat intimidated. Experienced writers mentoring new writers one-on-one is great, but a critique group works best if all the members have similar levels of experience.

Set some ground rules that all members are comfortable with. In our group, each member brought copies of a chapter for the other members every week; we read and marked the manuscripts during the week, then discussed them at the meeting. Some groups do all the reading at the meeting – reading and discussing when the manuscript is presented. Other groups divide up the work, so each members reads only part of the manuscripts. Any of these ways can work, but the group members need to decide in advance so everyone has the same expectations.

Groups can vary in size, but all the members should be satisfied with the size of the group. We found a small group of four was best for us; we couldn’t have spent as much time on each person’s work with a larger group. But for some writers, especially those just beginning or trying to fit writing into a hectic schedule, may prefer a larger group so they don’t have to have work ready for every session. We can learn as much from reading and evaluating someone else’s work – and from listening to the advice of others – as we can from having our own work reviewed.

The way criticism is given and the personalities of the writers are also important. In our group, we always tried to find something positive to say before pointing out any problems. Although we were thorough in our feedback, we tried to be considerate in everything we said. A friend of mine belonged to another group during the same time, and they described their critique sessions as ruthless. They thought it was a waste of time to talk about what they liked; they were there to improve their writing and wanted to spend their time finding out what didn’t work. Listening to them talk, many people would be offended at their ruthlessness, but the writers in this group found this was effective for them. Again, either way can work, but all the members have to be comfortable to avoid hurt feelings and damaged egos.

One of the strengths of our group was the variety of talents; we complemented each other and each of us benefited from skills of the others that we lacked ourselves. Without that diversity of abilities, your group will have less value than a group of people with a wide range of talents.

The recipe to avoid a critique group horror story: Get to know the members of the group before you decide to evaluate each other’s work. Make sure everyone is compatible and has something to offer. Agree in advance on how the group will work so everyone is comfortable with the structure and the critique style. Enjoy the friendship of fellow writers, and take advantage of the opportunity to learn and improve your writing.

[tags]writing, critique groups[/tags]

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