Monday, July 19, 2010

Taking the "Eek" Out of Critique Groups

     Writing is the best job in the world. . .most of the time. I enjoy writing in my pajamas with the cat on my lap (or keyboard, depending on her mood).  Solitary soul that I am, there are times when I wish another writer was in the next room. Someone I could ask "Could you take a look at this? What do you think?"

   Enter the critique group. I have been allergic to the word "critique" after a bad experience with a college acting class. Every monologue, improv, or scene was subject to the opinion of the rest of the class. This would turn into a free-for-all, where the "critiquing" was mostly negative, and often downright personal and mean. No way would I ever subject my writing to that kind of abuse.

On the other hand, I desperately need meaningful feedback. I learned pretty quickly that editors don't make suggestions in a rejection letter. (Now you are lucky to get any sort acknowledgment from an editor.)  When I first started submitting, I racked up quite a collection of form rejections. Every now and then some kind soul would scribble at the end of those letters,"like your style, try again." Those meager words of encouragement would keep me going for weeks.  Still, these cryptic messages didn't give me any idea what I was doing right or wrong.

    Years later I learned about critique groups. By then I had learned that editors did not offer suggestions to a newbie out of the slush pile. I also learned that a good critique group is not the literary equivalent to being burned at the stake. A critique group is a small group of writers of the same genre (both of my current groups consist entirely of children's writers.), who meet on a regular basis to read and offer feedback on each others work. Unlike that awful acting class, the criticism is specific and non-judgmental. "I love this" or  "I don't like this kind of story" are not comments you hear in a good critique group.

    I am lucky to be a member of two terrific groups; one that meets monthly, and the other, quarterly. Why two groups?  For me, the monthly group nurses me through a novel, from chapter to chapter, revision after revision, asking questions, pointing out inconsistencies and cheering me on. The quarterly group is able to read and comment on larger amounts of work...say, entire novel...and can concentrate on "big picture" issues of characterization. plot structure and pacing.  I couldn't survive without both of them.

   Like my awful acting class, there are not-so-efficient critique groups. A good critique group requires a considerable investment of time and commitment. In my monthly group of six writers, I spend an average of 12 to 15 hours a month reading and commenting on their writing. Additionally, both of my groups meet an hour or so away. Given Atlanta traffic, and the time I've already invested in the work of others, it would be disappointing if the others in the group weren't offering me the same sort of commitment.

It is an understood rule that a writer should not try to "defend' his work during a critique. I feel everyone is entitled to their opinion. I have learned to not run home and immediately change everything everyone mentioned as a "problem." Unless I have a major brainstorm in the middle of a session, I won't even re-read the critiques for a week or so. By that time I can view the comments more objectively.

Another understood rule is that you should not criticize something unless you can also offer a specific suggestion for change.  Knowing that a character is "not believable" is not very valuable to a writer unless he is also given an idea of why the character is unbelievable and solid ideas of how to fix this.

I have been in critique groups where the people have all been perfectly lovely and polite, and they all just loved everything everyone had written.  This is not a critique group; this is a support group. It's always nice to hear when good stuff about your work, and we do support each other, cheerleading and backslapping is not the primary purpose. We are there to help each other to become better writers. Or in the immortal words of my husband, "No one ever learned anything by being told how great they are." Not exactly how I would have said it, but he's write. Writing is an evolving process. You never come to a point where you can say "I've learned it all."

You're critique won't let you. They'll be there suggesting, arguing and advocating, right up until the day you bring your newly published book to group.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Angie said...

Good thoughts on critique groups. It's so true that you need a balance between negative and positive feedback. I don't have the time to give to an in-person group, but I have found some online groups helpful.

Carmela Martino said...

Mary Ann,
I love the idea of two different groups. I belong to only one that meets twice a month, but can see how a group that critiques longer sections would be helpful.
By the way, your post title is terrific!

mary ann rodman said...


Thank you for reminding me about online critique groups. They are especially useful if traveling for an in-person group. I personally haven't had a lot of luck with online groups, unless I am communicating with people I already know. One of the things both of my groups have learned is to email manuscripts to each other well in advance (the longer the ms, the more lead 10 needed). Sometimes we make notes on the original email, and send it to the writer AFTER we've discussed it in person. Those of us who miss a meeting can email their thoughts. (I can hear my fellow critiquers clearing their throats right now, because I am one of those crazy schedule people) But because I am a naturally suspicious person, I would be wary of hooking up with a bunch of cyberstrangers, unless you knew at least one other member of the group.

Cathy Ogren said...

Mary Ann,

You have made some excellent comments about critique groups, which I will happily share with my critique group.

Unknown said...

I've tried both online and in-person critique groups for 5 years.Some would only make one or two comments and then someone in the group would be extremely opioniated and extremely critical. I've finally found one where we feel comfortable with each others critiques. They see things that need to be changed that I never would have picked up on. I've also learned not to be so sensitive. I know they want to help make my story better. Pam Matar

Mary Jo said...

Thanks for this post, Mary Ann. With my writing and teaching commitments, I've fallen away from my local critique group, but am reminded how important they are. I also just became a member of yalitchat with online critique groups and really like the animosity of it. Comments aren't sugar-coated because of the writers' friendships with each other.
Do any of you have suggestions for making a young writers' group critique time run more effectively? Right now I have them offer soemthing they really liked and at least two things that were unclear to the reader. Like pulling teeth!

Carmela Martino said...

I know what you mean about young writer critique groups, Mary Jo. I have the same problem in my classes. I tell my young students to try to come up with a specific question about the piece, and I model examples, such as "Why did the character do what she did?" or "What does the place where she ran away to look like?"
By the way, do you really like the "animosity" of online critique groups or was it supposed to be "anonymity"?