Why I’m wary of critique groups

As I have ventured out into the world as a writer–and now as a soon-to-be-published author–I have been astounded again and again by how many people in the world think of themselves as writers. I wish I could have a dollar for every time I hear a phrase like, “Yeah, I’ve thought about writing a book…” By now, I would be rich.

There is a vast leap between those who have a story in the back of their head, and those who actually commit their great work to the page. And of course, there is another vast leap between those aspiring writers and a published author.

In the effort to make that leap, many aspiring writers turn to critique groups and other such circles for feedback on their burgeoning masterpiece. There are critique groups of all sizes and all calibers. Many writers have found success this way. However, there are several things to be wary of when considering where to turn for feedback.

1. Ego

Unfortunately, ego is hard to avoid. Writers seem to be especially prickly. In several of the critique groups I have tried, I found people that relished in being harsh and incredibly critical because it made them feel more writerly. It is easy to be harsh. Even with your favorite, most successful writers, if you are out to find flaws and pick it apart, that is still what you will do. It is much more difficult to let go of your ego and give honest feedback.

2. Lack of experience

Depending on which kind of critique group you attend, you will have varying levels of writing experience. That will affect the value of your feedback. Be wary of feedback coming from inexperienced writers. (Including well-meaning friends.) While everyone may come up with a gold nugget, those occasions are rare, and first you have to pick through the slush to even find it. But no matter what the level of experience, you should never take feedback at 100%. No matter who is giving advice, it is still another person’s ideas, not your own. Always take it with a grain of salt, and carefully determine what the best direction is for your story.

3. White noise

In any critique group, the people you are working with are writers. That means they have their own ideas, their own perspective on how to write a story, their own voice, their own methods. Unfortunately, these have the tendency to distract from your own version of those traits. In a critique group, surrounded by other writers’ voices, it is difficult for you to maintain your own identity and your own story.

Readers over writers

Over time, I have found readers to be far more effective than writers in the effort to refine my writing. The craft of writing you can learn elsewhere–classes, books on craft, and by reading extensively, to name a few–but when it comes to my own work, I prefer to entrust my words to people who are not out to prove themselves, but who are focused entirely on making my work better. Choosing your readers carefully is critical to your success. Select people who will be honest, frank, and detailed. Some authors will tell you to avoid close family and friends. No matter who you choose, make sure that you are entrusting your writing to people who will truly be able to make it stronger.

In the long run, you have to learn your craft well enough to be your own critic as well. You will always know the ins and outs of your story better than anyone else. Ultimately, it is up to you to create your work to its utmost potential. It takes practice, learning, and experience that only you can gain for yourself. Your success is up to you!

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About vmech
Writer, Taekwondo instructor, and adoption advocate. Author of THE TALE OF TELSHARU and THE SCOURGE OF NARAK.

7 Responses to Why I’m wary of critique groups

  1. I’m a total believer in critique groups, but perhaps that’s because the ones I’ve been in are made up of folks who studied with the same teachers, learned a specific way to discuss the work on the page and have been trained over months and years to be respectful and to honor each other’s voices. I’m so lucky! That being said, I just posted an interview with one of my writer-community members, and after doing the writing group rounds, she handpicked readers just like you’re talking about. Some were experts in her novel’s topics to give that extra technical edge. I thought that was brilliant, and next time I have a finished novel, I hope to do the same thing. “Honest, frank and detailed” is a great combination to aim for when choosing someone. Thanks for the post!

    • vmech says:

      Laura, it sounds like you are incredibly lucky! Even in my university fiction classes, I never felt entirely comfortable with the critique group setting. I hope that you continue to find success.

      • I definitely credit our original teachers in setting the right expectations and tone for critiquing effectively. The writers I work with now all sat at the table together in a seminar format, and now that we’re on our own, we’ve kept that level of respect and yet we’re really comfortable with each other so we have free-flowing conversations. It allows me to push boundaries because I know they’ll tell me what doesn’t work. I have been in other groups that didn’t work for the three reasons you point out.

  2. As a fellow-soon to be published author, I know what you mean about critique groups. My biggest challenge is that I can’t bring myself to critique other people’s work. I feel like I’m throwing mud in their face. I tried a writing group once, but finally gave up. I couldn’t give my honest feedback. It felt too cruel.

    The funny thing is, I LOVE getting critiques of my work. I’m not offended or suspicious of anything anyone says – sure it “feels” better when people say it’s awesome, but I’m genuinely grateful for even the negative feedback I get (maybe I just haven’t had enough success to get substantial negative feedback :D). I do agree that you have to take everything said with a grain of salt. I think my role is to consider any honest feedback given, and knowing I do and should have the final say, make appropriate changes.

    As for those who claim to be writers, but never get around to writing a book, I tend to disagree. Anyone who writes, be it essays, blogs, or a even a personal journal, is a writer. True, some never put in a serious effort at it, and will never become known for their writing, but if a person writes, that person is a writer.

    I’m a driver, though I only do as much driving as I need to in order to live in this modern world. But I see what you’re saying. I would consider it a stretch for someone to call themselves an author who hasn’t written a book – or at least something substantial. But maybe maybe separating a writer from an author is just messing with semantics, I don’t know.

    Anyway, very much enjoyed the post!

    • vmech says:

      Chas, thanks for your comment. In an earlier post, I talked a little bit about the difference (as I see it) between a “writer” and “someone who writes”. It comes from one of my college professors who really impressed me with the need for diligence with my writing.

      I understand completely about your love of critique, but hating to give critiques. That is something that’s growing stronger for me, moving toward publication. I love getting a good critique, especially when it comes with constructive advice on how to make it better. That’s why I’ve had to find people I trust to read my work. As far as giving critiques…I suppose I fear that my suggestions will be taken too seriously, or not heeded at all. At this point, I would need to feel that I am one of those trusted people before I would really invest my energy in a critique.

      Anyway, thanks for your comments!

  3. Amanda says:

    I, like Laura, feel very fortunate in my writing circle experience so far. Possibly because most of us fall more into the “people who write” category; we have a good mix of those who are INTENSE readers that sometimes write and those who are more dedicated writers. I’ve been impressed and grateful for the feedback they’ve given so far.

    I definitely can see where you’re coming from, though, Valerie! I nearly laughed out loud at your description of the “ego” problem! Don’t we all know people who over-critique in an attempt to appear more experienced or well-educated!? As you can attest, I have no problem holding back if I feel like something should be said about a work I am reviewing. But, like Chas, I relish the feedback I get (good or bad), and try to phrase my own critiques in the format in which I’d like to receive them. (Read: civilly.) ;D

    I feel like keeping our group small has narrowed some of the “white noise” and “slush” problems, too.

    ….. So, is anyone else intensely nervous about commenting on a post like this…? Excuse me while I go reread this *again* before posting…

  4. Lisa says:

    Found this article so helpful. My experience is that readers who aren’t writers or wanna be writers give the best feedback – so long as you choose honest like minded people.

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