Some Strong Opinions on Critique Groups

Note: This is not meant to be the final word on critique groups. This is just my particular reflection on critique groups. Period.

Pros and cons of writer critique groups seems to be a popular discussion at the moment. While it’s a perennial writer conversation, I’m seeing enough dialogue that I’ve mulled over their various features. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, there’s definitely strong feelings on the subject—and stories abound.

I’m no exception, of course. I fall in the camp of no to critique groups but yes to critique. Part of this opinion on critique groups has to do with my writing process and how I work. Other people process in a different manner.

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So let’s get my stories out of the way. Besides convention and conference workshops, I’ve participated in three organized critique groups. I’ve had good experiences and bad—and, for me, the bad outweighed the good.

My first group was the best, in part because it was limited to three people. While I was the furthest along the publication route, my fellow critiquers had strengths of their own. We combined reading aloud with marking up printouts, exchanging manuscripts for the next meeting every time we met. Because it was intimate in size, it was easy to explain the differences in genre—one person wrote memoir, the other wrote literary fiction, and I wrote speculative fiction.

Alas, that group fell prey to the hazards of real life. One member became a father. The other one lost his job. Neither had time to keep writing. But I remember images from the literary writer as being heart-breakingly good, and the issues that the memoir writer grappled with as being moving.

The second group was big and strictly read-aloud. There weren’t many constraints on critique. Some stories sounded really good when read out loud…but fell apart horribly when I saw them in print. Plus there were a couple of those writers who never seemed to improve.

The third group shut down my fiction writing for ten years. It was genre-specific; marked-up manuscripts and not read-alouds; Clarion rules transitioning to Turkey City Lexicon; and downright vicious at times. I left that group when it got to the point where I couldn’t write a paragraph without hearing their critique of what I had just written in my head. I could not complete a first draft.

The convention workshops in that era weren’t all that helpful, either. At the writers’ conventions, I’d frequently hear “You’re professional level, and here’s what doesn’t work.” I appreciated the assessment but—and rightly so—the professionals were less interested in me than in those who were not as far along, because those short sessions were designed for beginners.

The science fiction workshops were hit and miss, depending on the participants. I stopped submitting to them after one session where one of the critiquing pros had to be hauled out of the bar to issue his pronouncements. His lack of respect and professionalism in his critiques really frosted my cookies. The bar was clearly more important.

The other piece was that some participants were so wedded to a particular story that they would keep writing and rewriting on a particular project, instead of polishing and submitting it and moving on. It was their baby, their magnum opus, and they apparently had no other stories to tell. I got tired of hearing the same story rehashed over and over each year.

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Well, that was my ‘90s. I ended up writing and selling nonfiction political pieces to Portland ‘zines instead of writing fiction. Never making it big, but I did have a respectable following.

In later years, as a critiquing pro, I participated in some excellent convention workshops where I learned as much from my fellow pros as the writers being critiqued. After retiring from the day job, I was able to participate in a writing conference focused on actual production of work, with weeklong morning workshops with a single pro. Those workshops were productive and useful. They worked because they focused on writing technique using mutual prompts and exercises, and not works in progress.

But. It took participation in a NaNoWriMo for me to get past the inner editor lurking from that last, disastrous critique group. It also helped to be part of a part-online, part-in person writer gathering which measured number of words being produced per day. I learned how to produce a lot of quality words in a short period because I had a demanding day job. I also took an online class and worked with a writing mentor for several months. As a result, I started looking more to beta readers and editors rather than critique groups. That fit my process much better.

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And that’s the key, really. Writers need feedback. They need to know what does and doesn’t work. They need to hear when they’ve started the story in the wrong place and when they’re right on the mark. But each writer has a different process. Some writers do best drafting in a white-hot fury, racking up 2000-10,000 words a day. Others are lucky to squeeze out 1000 words that they hone carefully.

Critique groups work well for people who need regular, consistent feedback on every word they write. Because of time requirements, they particularly benefit short work or writers whose process is such that they can handle chapter-by-chapter critiques of longer work, unless they’re meeting on a weekly basis. They’re not particularly worthwhile for a faster writer, or a writer who does not do well with critique of a work in progress.

Some professionals advocate running ideas about what to write through a critique group. For me, that’s a hard NO. Their argument is that it helps decide which idea is most marketable. If someone writes that way…well, maybe. For me, I’ve found the support of other writers works best in hashing out the elements of an idea I’m already working on and need help with worldbuilding or plotting. But determining which idea to work on? Uh-uh. The time for group help is brainstorming how a project unfolds, not determining which project to work on.

Then again, that’s probably why I’m not a big-name commercial writer (I’ve heard this approach advocated by some better-known writers). But if I can’t decide which idea to work on for myself, then I’ve got a problem as a creator. And that’s me and my process.

Alternatives to critique groups include either paying an editor to review a finished draft or engaging beta readers to review it. I actually find this approach to be most useful for my process, especially since I tend to write quickly and can turn out a novel-length rough draft in 2-5 months.

But…one lesson I took away from that disastrous last group was that critique of work in progress just doesn’t work for me. During the revision phase, once the work is completed—yes. I want someone to dive into my work and point out continuity problems, plot holes, awkward language, and more. That level of critique for a work in rough draft shuts me right down.

However, some writers do benefit from that level of support with work in progress.

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As I commented at the beginning, this is strictly my opinion about critique groups and their usefulness. They don’t work particularly well for me and my process, but they can be quite helpful for other writers.

The key for any writer is to learn how they draft their works in progress, and at what stage critique fits with how they work. Try that critique group—and if it doesn’t work, then experiment with beta readers. And once a writer knows their process—then, for better or worse, stay consistent with it.

But above all else, do have that manuscript reviewed, whether by a critique group, a beta reader, or an editor. What matters isn’t how that critique happens.

Just get the feedback.