Critique Groups Reexamined

Don’t all pile on at once. I know you love your critique group, and maybe you’re right–but I have a few concerns, and a contrarian view of what such groups really accomplish.

I’m not going to paint all critique groups with one brushstroke. Writers at different career stages need critique groups for different reasons, and depending on where you are in your writing, you’ll be able to put together different constellations of members.

What Critique Groups are For

The usual wisdom for assembling a group of writers to regularly consider each others’ writing is:

  • to get constructive criticism of the members’ work
  • to suggest ways to solve problems (many groups say they don’t allow this, but in practice, it happens)
  • to gain the support of a small social network

What could possibly be wrong with this? Well, plenty, especially when the group considers your novel. Most of my caveats about writers’ groups pertain to novel critiques, but I’ll start with things to watch for in general.

  • The group may be too nice. This gives you a false sense of the quality of your work. Folks in the circle know we’re there for validation, though this is never admitted. So they don’t tell the truth.
  • They focus on the small stuff: false notes, confusing moments, bad word choice. This tends to focus the writer on the small stuff instead of the usual problems with beginning work, which relate to concept and structure.
  • The group becomes your stand-in for your own big rewrite. You become dependent on the group, avoiding your own responsibility to assess your work. You have a false consensus: “My writers’ group loved it.” Comforting, but not what you need.
  • You are unable to get members who have more experience than you; therefore your members do not likely have the analytical skills to help you in your most important issues. If you have five novels published and your writers’ group is composed of other journeymen authors, then please ignore most (but not all) of what I’ve said.

None of this takes away from the power of critique groups for support. If you understand the limitations of groups, you can still get much out of such meetings. Hearing from group members “what bumped them out of the story” is valuable as long as you don’t lean on it too much. Commiserating on rejections and celebrating successes with your group can mean the difference between giving up and keeping on.

Critique Groups Aren’t For Novels

I understand the desire to start reading your novel to a group. But admit it, it’s for validation, right? I am so tempted to read my work in progress to someone. I’m hanging out there all by myself. It’s scary. And I want some comfort feedback. Hm. Wrong reason to go to a critique group, though.

Here are some problems with novel feedback:

  • The group focuses on the small stuff. It deflects the writer from doing the hard work on structure, character, pacing.
  • They can’t get a big enough picture, reading a scene at a time. And by the time you get to the characteristically saggy middle, some of the members have missed the meetings where you read material needed to critique the middle.

Getting Real Feedback

My suggestion is to prevail on the best reader you know to read the entire manuscript. If you have a relationship with an author, so much the better. However, most published authors receive dozens of requests a year to read manuscripts; they simply do not have time. The protocol is never to ask unless you consider this author a close acquaintance. (Also, bear in mind that many authors are shy of the push-back they get from needy and disappointed aspiring writers who become defensive about tough feedback.)

Once you’ve identified the proper individual, give them the third draft. Never show your first draft material, no matter how good you think it is. Remember that the thrill of composition can blind us to the quality of the page. (Plus, if you love it that much it is probably overwritten!)

In other words, I am suggesting that you undertake a large rewrite entirely on your own. Look at structure, theme, concept and character. Look at pacing, style, and diction. Fix the big problems and small. You are the best person to know your vision for this work. Most likely your first draft did not achieve this, so you are the best person to undertake a muscular, productive rewrite.

I know this is counter to every natural instinct. You want others to tell you what’s wrong. Unfortunately, they don’t have a clue.

It is your painful duty and high privilege to make critical judgments about your writing, to paraphrase a famous author. If you know who said that, please let me know.

Because they were so right.

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