by Anne R. Allen
Joining a good critique group can be the easiest (and cheapest) way for new writers to learn the nuts and bolts of writing and keep those cringe-making first drafts from gumming up slush piles or becoming part of the infamous “tsunami of self-published crap.”
Whether online or in-person, critique groups can give new writers a chance to learn their craft and help working writers polish first drafts and save time for their long-suffering editors.
Critique groups can also provide emotional support as we go through the query and publishing process.
I personally belong to a fantastic in-person group that has become like family to me. I trust them with everything from nurturing my sucky first drafts to polishing final copy. We’re veteran writers with a long history together. Critiquing is a craft, like every other aspect of writing, and abilities grow with practice. After nearly 20 years together, these folks are pros.But I lucked out. Not all groups are useful. They can succumb to “Groupthink,” a phenomenon where the the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in irrational or dysfunctional behavior.
Groupthink can be dangerous. One or two empathy-challenged control freaks can goad a group of mild-mannered scribblers into a verbal Lord of the Flies attack-fest that will drive out the most faithful muse.
Somebody will say something with an air of authority and everybody will chime in and agree…even if they would never say such a thing themselves and the comment is misguided or wrong.
Unfortunately less assertive personalities seem compelled to agree with mean people more often than kind ones. Probably an atavistic instinct left over from the days when following the biggest, meanest alpha meant survival.
Mean people can show up anywhere. Not everybody needs the anonymity of the Internet to behave like a troll or a bully.
I was reminded of that last weekend when I was leaving a concert carrying a heavy folding chair when my gouty knee started to give way. I hung onto a nearby car to break my fall and called to a 30-something man in the parking lot to ask if he’d mind helping me carry the chair to my car—less than 100 yards in the direction where he was headed. He flatly refused, shamed me for being old, told me to go to the gym, and pointed out I had two hands.
He was a horrible person and proud of it.
A critique group with a member like that can morph into a nasty gang of bullies via Groupthink, even if the rest of the group are otherwise non-sociopathic. So watch out for the warning flags:
10 Things that Can make a Critique Group go Sour
1) Dogmatic PC/Religious Policepersons.
Critiquers who think you should only write about people exactly like them—or that all writing must support a narrow political or religious world view—are useless in improving your work. And they can be toxic in a group.
I once attended a workshop where a critiquer shredded a writer’s story “because none of your characters have taken Jesus Christ as their personal savior.” I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
But what’s even more troubling is the book-banning movement coming out of academia today. The Atlantic covered it recently in a piece called The Coddling of the American Mind.
Certain people now believe any writing that might “trigger” an emotional reaction in somebody who has experienced trauma should be banned.
Since pretty much all of us have experienced some kind of trauma, and, as Salman Rushdie said on Morning Edition yesterday, “we live in an era when absolutely everybody is upset about absolutely everything” this has allowed students to bully and terrorise their professors and turn universities into minefields of political correctitude.
Being offended has become a blood sport.
From Ovid to Sylvia Plath, any work of literature that depicts violence or racism or sexism—or any other yucky stuff that might upset the tender psyches of helicopter-parented young persons—cannot be allowed.
And they want books that disclose sexism or racism or other bad stuff existed in earlier eras to be issued a fatwa too: young people might be devastated to find out that history happened. (So yay! They get to repeat it!)
I assume these book-banners see the same racism, sexism, and violence that’s on all our screens 24/7, but they are apparently only traumatized if that reality is reflected in art—especially the written word. Books are dangerous and must be censored.
As an Ivy League graduate and child of two college professors, I find this academic neo-fascism terrifying. Not only are we losing our literary canon and abusing our educators, but the movement is making college education irrelevant and creating a generation unable to grow up. (Or help an old lady carry a chair across a parking lot.)
Small minds create small books. If you see his kind of stifling of artistic expression in a group, or there’s a member of the Permanently Offended Community onboard, run for the nearest exit and don’t look back.
2) Misinformed and outdated “writing rules”.
People who are full of false or outdated ideas of what constitutes good writing can ruin yours.
For my tips on bad advice to ignore, check out my post on “Why You Should Ignore Advice from Your Critique Group”. And I’ll be teaching about “How to Write for the 21st Century Reader” at the Central Coast Writer’s Conference on September 18-20.Rules for writing have changed with new technology. Outdated and pointless dogma can keep your writing stuck in the last century…and buried in the slush pile or Amazon’s worst-sellers.
3) Unenforced Rules (or None)
Any writing group, whether in person or online, needs an agreed-upon set of rules of etiquette and procedure.
- Page or word-count limits
- Genres that are accepted (explicit sex and violence: yes or no?)
- An agreed-upon way to respond to a critique (silence? thanks? general discussion?)
- How are personal remarks dealt with?
- How are new members recruited and vetted?
- When does the group close to additional members?
- How can a disruptive member be removed?
In-person group rules should also address:
- How long a critiquer should speak.
- If the piece should be presented on paper or read aloud.
- Cross-talk, direct questions of the author and general behavior.
- Attendance, late arrivals and serial no-shows.
Without following standard protocol—like no cross-talk and no arguing—in-person meetings can turn into shout-fests that leave everybody feeling battered.They also waste valuable time.
4) No moderator (or a bad one.)
Somebody needs to be in control and make sure egos are kept in check, conversation stays on topic, and emotional arguments don’t derail the proceedings.
Without a strong moderator, one or two dominating people can bully the rest, or the meeting can turn into a free-for-all gabfest where nothing much gets done.
This can happen online as well as in person. We’ve all seen online bullies make a mess of forums and social media groups. And one troll can hijack a conversation thread and make everybody defensive and angry.
That kind of activity can be even more destructive when our “baby” manuscripts are at stake.
A good moderator should be able to warn, then remove, a habitual bully, disrupter, or babbler.
5) The grammar militia
If you belong to a group with a resident grammar maven, you’ve lucked out. They can help a whole lot with getting your ms. in shape and save you money in editing fees.
But be wary of a group where everybody is focused on grammar rather than big-picture stuff like story arc and characterization. Often groups that use a written text instead of reading aloud will focus on punctuation and tiny grammar issues and not look at the overall picture.
Critiquing the written text is great, but be careful the group isn’t missing the forest in favor of focusing on a couple of tiny trees.
Also, you’re not going to be helped much by critiquers who are always complaining about sentence fragments in fiction (even Shakespeare used them!) And do ignore people who say you should never use a preposition to end a sentence with.
If you pay attention to this stuff, all your work will end up sounding like a high school term paper.
6) Power-trippers and divas
I’ve been in critique groups where one member would go into a rage when it became obvious the writer being critiqued wasn’t going to make the changes the diva thought were required.
People with serious control issues or a compulsion to be the center of attention at all times need therapy, not a writing group.
If you see evidence of unwell behavior at your first meeting, you can be sure it will only get worse. Move on.
To a certain type of people-pleaser, any string of words typed onto a piece of paper is genius. Nothing is ever wrong and nothing can be improved. They might even get angry when you come in with a second draft, because the rough draft was “perfect.”
These people are not going to help your writing. If you get into a whole group of praiseaholics, it can feel great, but you’re going to be in for a nasty reality check when you send your work into the real marketplace.
Yes, we all love praise, and basking in a little admiration can be good for the soul. But effusive, unbalanced praise is only going to waste your time and set you up for future disappointment.
Some critiquers are so “helpful” they try to rewrite your story entirely—to sound exactly like one of theirs.
Even if this person is a successful professional author, you don’t want to be a copy of anybody. You want to be YOU.
Smile sweetly and ignore everything that doesn’t resonate with you.
9) Know-it-Alls (Who Don’t)
They know everything about everything and they’re never wrong.
Except they mostly are.
These are the people who live to prove the Dunning-Kruger effect, which states that the least-informed people are generally the most confident in their opinions.
The Dunning-Krugers always need to “correct” other people’s work with their remarkably clueless opinions.
They’ll tell an ex-nun she knows nothing about the Catholic Church and a former truck driver that he’s totally ignorant about truck stop food.
They will say with absolute certainty that Africa is full of tigers, fast food hamburgers are made of rat meat, and “everybody knows” you have to pay an agent up front to get a “real read”.
(BTW, NEVER do this! Only bogus agents charge reading fees…people who could never sell your book. I hear these scammers are making a comeback, so beware. Also, “submission services” and “submission coaching” are scams too. Real agents can spot them in a nanosecond and the queries are auto-rejected.)
I once had a critiquer spend ten minutes telling me I could not have a character sit on the stump of a eucalyptus tree in a local park, because the park had no eucalyptus trees. The Groupthinking members all agreed in shaming me for “not doing any research.” On the way home, I drove through the park and sat on a eucalyptus stump, getting out my anger by throwing eucalyptus pods into the ocean. I didn’t go back to that group.
10) The Empathy-Challenged
We were all newbies once. Critiquers need to learn to “temper the wind to the shorn lamb”. If a writer is a newbie, critiques shouldn’t hit them with everything that’s less than professional about their work all at once.
A good critique uses the sandwich technique. Put your criticism between two items of praise.
Praising a fledgling writer’s strong points can help guide them to better writing as much as pointing out their faults.
People can’t hear 100% negativity. They will feel they’re under attack and simply shut down.
How to Find a Critique Group
A great way to find a local in-person writing group these days is through Meetup.com. You can also find groups through your library or bookstore or sometimes through a local chapter of a genre writing organization like RWA or Sisters in Crime. You can also look in your newspaper or entertainment weekly for meeting announcements.
Online groups can be great too. CritiqueCircle comes highly recommended. Other recommended sites are YouWriteOn, and Critters.org. The Writers Forum also has moderated groups (there is a membership fee.) For more info check out Jami Gold’s blog.
But don’t join too many. Some new authors make the mistake of getting critiques for one piece in many groups. This can result in what Sheila Kelly at Paperback Writer calls “Death by Critique.” If you keep rewriting a chapter or story to please too many people, you’ll end up with something nobody likes, especially you.
Critiques: Good and Bad
A good critique has only one purpose—to help writers improve their work. It’s about the work, not the author or the critiquer.
Bad critiques are generally negative, personal, unhelpful and—more often than not—they’re about the critiquer, not the work.
I first met superstar author Catherine Ryan Hyde in her pre-Pay it Forward days when she got some terrible critiques at a local writing group.Her story was brilliant. Scenes from it are still vivid in my mind. But the critiques were 90% negative—they all agreed with the man who said a woman who has never been in combat shouldn’t be “allowed” to write about a male character fighting a war.He was waving flags #1, #2, #9 and #10.
He was also making the critique be about him. He was writing a military memoir and craved the attention Catherine was getting.
I was only a guest, so I wasn’t invited to speak, but on the way out, I stopped Catherine and said I thought the critiques were silly. She shrugged and said she’d learned to listen to a few smart critiquers and ignore the Groupthink.
But not every new writer has such tough skin.
That night I tried to write about that awful scene. In my story, the critiqued writer was so damaged by the bullying that he killed himself.Of course my story was way too melodramatic, so I later changed it to a murder with the appearance of suicide. Then I added a few more murders (I had to kill off that workshop leader!) plus some romantic sizzle, a couple of ghosts, a crossdressing dominatrix, and a lot of laughs.
I think all writers who have been in critique groups or workshops can relate to my scene of the out-of-control writers goaded into bullying by a narcissistic workshop leader.As helpful as critique groups can be, they can be truly toxic when they go bad. So watch out for those red flags!
by Anne R. Allen, September 6, 2015
What about you, Scriveners? How do you feel about the “emotional trigger” people who believe in strict censorship of the arts? Do you belong to a critique group? Have you ever been in a bad one? Do you have any horror stories to share? Any other warning signs you’d like to add to my “red flag” list?
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Ghostwriters in the Sky is a spoof of writers conferences, full of funny situations most writers will identify with.”Janet Evanovich for English Majors”
Meanwhile, a hot LA cop named Maverick Jesus Zukowski just may steal her heart.