Dangerous Critique Groups

“How can I find a writing group?” As a teacher and conference chair this is the most frequent question I receive. New writers hunger for connection with other writers, hoping they’ll find a group that will help them mature and lead them toward publication. And for the most part this is true.

A healthy group provides a safe place to share your creations. They give honest, constructive critiques and encourage you through rejection. They celebrate your successes and cry with you over bad reviews and books taken out of print. No one feels your pain like another writer who has been there and done that. I’m a real proponent of critique groups. I’ve belonged to one for nearly twenty years and the members are as close to me as family.

However, not all critique groups are positive experiences. If you get entangled with a bad one, they might be detrimental to your career. Here are some questions to ask yourself to see if you are involved in a dangerous critique group.

Do they nitpick?

Maybe you’re looking for someone who knows the Chicago Manual of Style by heart and can help you put those commas in the right places. But misplaced punctuation marks won’t keep you from getting published. An article that isn’t focused, characters that are one dimensional, or nonfiction books that need anecdotes to illustrate your principles will.

A group that tells you to “show don’t tell” in every scene, wants you to make every verb active, and corrects your grammar may make your writing workmanlike. Literary agent Wendy Lawton defines this as writing that is perfect in every sense of the word but has lost its flow.

A healthy critique group will offer this kind of criticism sparingly and only if you ask. Most writers can write. What they need is feedback on the overall project.

Do you leave feeling discouraged?

Yes, we want to be critiqued, but we should leave group feeling encouraged. Sure there will be times when we are flummoxed and even challenged by an ending that isn’t working. But for the most part, we should feel the group believes in our abilities and are rooting for us to succeed.

If instead you leave week after week feeling attacked, discouraged, and ready to donate your computer to your church, maybe it’s not you. Maybe something is wrong with your group.

Jerry Jenkins, author of the Left Behind series, is not in favor of writing groups. In his book Writing for the Soul, he says this, “Someone with a strong personality could say something about your writing and crush you, right or wrong.”

When you’re just starting out, you don’t need that kind of “constructive” criticism.

Do you rewrite to please the group?

Best selling author James Scott Bell recently told of a writer he helped. He advised her to start her novel with chapter two. The author said that’s where she had originally begun her book, but her writing group had told her she needed this new chapter one.

Other writers don’t always know what is best for your novel or your article. You have the vision and you should be strong enough to trust your voice, your instincts, and your style.

Sometimes I try what my group suggests and then go back to my original; other times I recognize the change makes my writing stronger and clearer. But I made the decision—not the committee.

Do you get fluffy feedback?

As bad as a group that over critiques is one that doesn’t give you honest feedback. Nick Harrison, editor and author, belongs to a group made up of excellent writers, not just Christians because he feels they will call him to a higher level of writing.

Writers who only say positive things can be encouraging, but they may not help you grow as a writer.

Are the other writers stuck?

Not everyone in your group needs to be published, but you should see growth in the members. When I first joined my group, only one member had won a major award and published a couple of children’s books. The rest of us were fledglings. Over the months and years, we all grew. Now most of us have published at least one book, and several have won awards. We share marketing tips, help with each other’s book signings, and brag about each other’s successes.

Is group time eaten up by a person or other activities?

If you find your time in critique group is being eaten up by chatter over marketing trends, gossip, counseling, or prayer every week and there’s no time left for reading of manuscripts, then there is a problem. These are all part of group dynamics, but they should be controlled. In my group when one member’s critique went on and on, we solved the problem by dividing up our time by the number of readers and setting a timer. Sounds rigid, but the problem was unmanageable—and it took only a few weeks for all of us to become more disciplined.

Another problem is one person who dominates—he or she tells you all about her latest book project, runs her never-ending ideas by you, or insists her way is the right way. More than one group has been ruined by this type of personality.

If by now you realize you may be in a dangerous critique group, then you are probably wondering what do you do now?

Extract yourself as soon as possible. This may not be as easy as it sounds for nice people who are afraid of hurting others’ feelings. You could fake your death (just kidding), stop attending, or be honest about why you’re leaving. The later may help the group to take another look at themselves and make some changes.

Most authors I know who are in groups they love had at least one bad experience before they found the group that was right for them.

Some authors have found alternatives. James Scott Bell passes his first drafts off to people whom he refers to as readers. These are not writers, but lovers of books who he trusts to give him honest feedback. Another writer I know pays a substantive editor to go over her manuscript before submitting it to her publishing house.

Finding a writing group may seem like the most important step in your writing career, but as you can see, finding the right group is probably more important. You don’t want to let a dangerous group derail you from your dream of becoming a writer.

©Judy Bodmer 2007 All Rights Reserved

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