by Anne R. Allen
I recommend that new writers take advantage of critique groups in order to learn about the publishing business and the craft of writing. Writing courses are expensive and often not as helpful as a good critique group.
But there are bad critique groups too. Really bad. I’ve seen authors stop writing because of harsh treatment or even bullying in a writing group.
The trick is to find a good one that works for you. That means paying attention to the red flag warnings that show a group has gone over to the dark side. In-person groups seem the most susceptible to bad behavior, but I’ve heard of some pretty nasty stuff happening in online groups as well.
Groups of any kind can fall into bad habits. It happens in volunteer organizations, church groups, charities, community theaters, offices—pretty much any group where humans get together.
One or two members with control issues can change the nature of the group and create a toxic environment for everybody else.
If your critique group wants help, or you need some healing after a brutal critique, you can find it at The Critique MD. I highly recommend Christine’s advice!
Here are a few common deviations from the solid critique group we’re all looking for. Some can be repaired. But sometimes a group is so entrenched in bad behavior, you simply have to move on.
1) Zero Tolerance Critique Groups
These people never met a writing rule they didn’t love. They want to enforce each one with the zeal of a school expelling a 1st grade girl for a plastic butter knife.
For them it’s all about finding and shaming the rule-breakers, not improving their fellow writers’ work.
They’ll tell you the word “was” is taboo. (For more on this see my post on the “was” police) And no prologues are allowed, EVER. They’ll tell you a book can’t (or must) be written in the first person or present tense. They have a search-and-destroy policy concerning adverbs.
Humor sometimes helps (although the zero tolerance crowd won’t get it.) Mostly you have to put up your personal deflector shields and let a lot of the nonsense bounce off. For more on the nonsense, see my post on Stupid Writing Rules.
2) Group Therapy
One of the most common pitfalls for writing groups is the tendency to slip into psychotherapy. This happens most often if there are several memoirists in the group who are working on their break-up, wartime, or health issues through writing.
The line between creating and confessing gets very thin. (And some people may use their writing to dump their troubles on the group for attention and sympathy.)
Critiquers often feel they should give supportive, “attaboy” feedback, no matter what the quality of the writing.
There can also be an element of the “suffering contest,” if two or more memoirists are using the group to detail the horrors that tragified their lives.
When you’re hoping to get a little help with the plotting of your thriller or breezy romance, you can feel like you’re crashing the pity party.
You’re also going to get terrible advice from the tender-hearted members who have fits whenever your protagonist makes bad choices. They want you to stop every character from dancing with the judgemental aristocrat, fighting the fascists in Spain, or accepting the owl’s invitation to wizard school (who would be dumb enough to do that?) Plotting is not their strong point.
3) Literary Salons
These are usually dominated by readers and writers of literary fiction. There will be a couple of poets and a memoirist or two. The members may write brilliantly and have a vast knowledge of literature, but their critiques can be less than helpful.
They often veer off topic to discuss a recent article in The New Yorker.
Members tend to be old school, so won’t consider self-publishing. They may send out a few half-hearted queries comparing their work to Kerouac, Joyce, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, but probably don’t attempt to get published outside of small literary journals.
You may learn some useful things about character and setting here, and you’ll get a lot of help weeding out clichés. But on plot and structure, this kind of group can be pretty useless.
4) Golden Girls Critique Groups
A group that consists mostly of an older demographic can sometimes be dominated by people with memory issues. (Hey, age happens to all of us, with any luck!)
But this means critiques of longer works like memoir and novels can be difficult because people don’t remember what they heard in the last installment. Half your critique time is spent outlining what happened in the last chapter, and it can be tough to move forward.
What my “Golden Girls” decided to do is come prepared with a short recap of the previous chapter, so we don’t spend so much time refreshing each others’ memories.
5) Punctuation Police
Some groups ask that members bring printed copies of their work to hand out to everybody in the group. This can be super-useful if you need help with proofreading, but meetings that use printed pages can often devolve into drawn-out arguments over use of the Oxford comma.
Groups that focus on grammar will do very little to help with your overall storytelling skills, but if you want to brush up on basic skills or need a proofreader, they’re great.
6) The Moveable Feast
This is the group that never quite gets around to more than a couple of critiques per meeting because so much of the time is spent enjoying elaborate refreshments.
Providing the refreshments can become a competitive sport. If the group meets in the evening there may be some lovely wine.
Groups like this can be a godsend to a writer who’s been holed up in a writing cave for years and needs some human contact, but their feedback is usually skimpy. Critique groups that focus on food can be made up mostly of hobbyist writers who only want to share a few written reminiscences or verses with the group, but aren’t on a path to publication.
7) Reality Checkers
There are groups where the fact-checkers hold sway. These are super detail-oriented people who want a novel to be as close to real life as possible.
They want everything to be “realistic” down to knowing when and where your heroine goes to the bathroom when she’s running from the mutant raccoons on Mars. Their most scathing criticism is that your scene is “like something out of a (insert your the latest blockbuster) movie.”
They will be sure to point out that your Regency duke will have terrible B.O. after fighting off those ruffians, so the kiss the heroine has been anticipating for 30 pages would not be the glorious experience you describe.
They will never let you use the word “gun”: you must give the make and caliber every time anybody gets off a shot during the battle between the sentient sea lions and the Norwegian mafia Lutefisk-smuggling ring.
8) Performance Artists
Whether or not the members are actual poets, some groups turn out to be less like critique groups and more like competitive poetry slams. These groups can be full of people who want to perform, but tune out when anybody else is reading.
Their critiques may careen from lavish praise to savage criticism, or they may order you to write an entirely new plot, which they will outline for you in detail. That’s because they will say anything that allows them to hold the floor as long as possible.
These people can build you up one week and say devastating things the next—anything that comes into their heads—entirely without empathy. You are not real to them: you are just a bit of warm protoplasm that makes up their “audience.”
9) The Mutual Admiration Society
This group is all about schmoozing and bolstering flagging egos. It may be hard to get the meeting started because everybody is catching up on each other’s news.
Everything brought in for critique is always wonderful! Marvelous!! And every piece is worthy of publication so YOU MUST SEND IT OFF RIGHT THIS MINUTE!!!
Don’t change a thing. Whatever you write is perfect.
10) The Vicious Circle
This group is dominated by a handful of Dorothy Parker-wannabes who are waiting for the right moment to slip a verbal dagger into your heart.
They may have published a few things—which they feel makes them “experts”—but it was probably some time ago.
Maybe in their college newspaper. When they got some harsh feedback from the writer-in-residence, who may have used words like “puerile”, “self-indulgent”, and “derivative.”
Since then, they’ve been honing their bitterness till it cuts like a samurai sword.
They have a way of sighing before they deliver their scathing critiques that shows how much pain your very existence is causing them.
It only takes one or two of these—plus their devoted (and fearful) minions—to turn a critique group into one of the darker circles of hell.
A workshop like this at a well-known writers’ conference was the inspiration for my comic mystery, Ghostwriters in the Sky. I got to kill off the workshop leader who created vicious critique groups. Very satisfying.
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) September 1, 2019
What about you, scriveners? Have you ever been in one of these critique groups? Did you make it work for you? Or did you have to make a strategic escape? Have you experienced any other kinds of critique groups that can be hazardous to your writing health?
For More on Critique Groups: here’s my post on 6 Ways Critique Groups Can Help Your Writing, and 6 Ways they Can’t.
On my book blog this week, I talk to Debra Eve of the Later Bloomer about how much reality goes into my fiction and also who I’d invite to a fantasy dinner party. Stop on by and list your fantasy dinner companions!
Update: Kudos for my book The Author Blog: Easy Blogging for Busy Authors
The Author Blog made it to the Best Blogging Books of All Time
“The Author Blog: Easy Blogging for Busy Authors”, made it to BookAuthority’s Best Blogging Books of All Time:
BookAuthority collects and ranks the best books in the world, and this is kinda cool.
The book is available for purchase on Amazon.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
The first book in the Camilla Randall comedy-mysteries is only 99c!
GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY: Camilla Mystery #1
Murder and mayhem (and a bogus agent) at a California writers’ conference.
After her celebrity ex-husband’s ironic joke about her “kinky sex habits” is misquoted in a tabloid, New York etiquette columnist Camilla Randall’s life unravels in bad late night TV jokes.
Nearly broke and down to her last Hermes scarf, she accepts an invitation to a Z-list Writers’ Conference in the wine-and-cowboy town of Santa Ynez, California, where, unfortunately, a cross-dressing dominatrix named Marva plies her trade by impersonating Camilla. When a ghostwriter’s plot to blackmail celebrities with faked evidence leads to murder, Camilla must team up with Marva to stop the killer from striking again.
Available in e-book at:
Available in paper at:
Dogwood Literary Prizes. 3 prizes of $1,000 each and publication in Dogwood for a poem, a short story, and an essay. Submit up to three poems totaling no more than 10 pages or up to 22 pages of prose with a $10 entry fee Deadline September 5.
IWSG Anthology Contest 2019. NO FEE! Middle Grade Fantasy stories 3000-5000 words. Theme: Voyagers. Judges include well-known authors including Elizabeth S. Craig. Payment in royalties for the anthology, published by Freedom Fox Press. Deadline September 4th.
ROMANCE WRITERS! Avon Books (a Big 5 imprint) is accepting unagented submissions for a short time. All subgenres of adult romance fiction are welcome, with one mandate: “HEA (happily ever after) or HFN (happy for now) conclusions are required.” Send manuscript, a three-to-five-page synopsis and 100-word author bio via the HarperCollins website by September 15.
Red Hen Press book award Cash plus publication. A prize of $1,000 and publication by Red Hen Press is given annually for a short story collection or a novel. And Cai Emmons will judge. Book of at least 150 pages $25 entry fee. Deadline September 30
7 PUBLISHERS FOR MEMOIRS! You don’t need an agent. From the good folks at Authors Publish
This is an expanded version of a piece that appeared on the IWSG blog on October 22, 2018
Featured Image: ‘An Outdoor Literary Salon’, French 19th- century illustration.