Monday, October 22, 2018

Critique Groups: The Good, the Bad, and Run-for-Your-Lives! 10 Kinds of Critique Groups that Can Drive you Batty

By Anne R. Allen

Critique groups are a great way to get feedback on your writing. But groups can fall into bad habits. I've been in dozens over the years and I've seen how one or two dominant members can change a group’s tone and direction.

Here are a few common deviations from the helpful critique group we're looking for. Some can be helpful in spite of flaws, but often you have to move on.

1) Enforcers

They’ve never met a writing rule they didn't love and enforce each one with zero tolerance. For them it's all about shaming rule-breakers, not improving a fellow writers' work.

They have a search-and-destroy policy for adverbs, and insist the word "was" is taboo. (For a rebuttal, see my post on the "was" police.) They allow no prologues, EVER.

Put up your deflector shields and let most of their “advice” bounce off.

2) Fact-Checkers

Some groups are dominated by detail-oriented people who want a novel to be as close to real life as possible.

Everything must be "realistic" down to knowing when and where your heroine relieves herself when she's running from mutant raccoons on Mars.

One will say your Regency duke would have terrible B.O. after fighting those ruffians, so the kiss the heroine has been anticipating would not be the glorious experience you describe.

Remember your genre’s norms and ignore the noise.

3) Group Therapy

The tendency to slip into psychotherapy is a common pitfall, especially in groups with memoirists writing about divorce, wartime, or health issues.

The line between creating and confessing can blur. Critiquers often give supportive, "attaboy" feedback out of compassion, no matter the quality of the writing.

When you come in with your breezy rom-com, you feel like you're crashing the pity party.

Plus these tender-hearted folks may try to stop your protagonist from making bad choices. She mustn’t dance with that judgmental aristocrat Darcy or accept that owl's invitation to wizard school.

Conflict-free stories are not what you’re aiming for.

4) Golden Girls

A group dominated by an older demographic can have memory issues. (Hey, age happens to us all, with any luck!)

Unfortunately, members often forget what they heard in the last installment, so they’ll ask you to repeat yourself. Often. Which can make for some unreadable prose.

Give them a separate recap before you read your chapter, and DON’T put it in your WIP.

5) Punctuation Police

This happens in online groups or in-person meetings where readers bring printed copies. Critiques can devolve into drawn-out arguments over use of the Oxford comma.

Groups that focus on grammar and spelling will do little to help with big-picture storytelling, but if you want to brush up on basic grammar or need a proofreader, they're fine.

6) Literary Salon

Usually dominated by readers and writers of literary fiction. They may write brilliantly and have a vast knowledge of literature, but their critiques can be…less than helpful.

They 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 or Karl Ove Knausgaard, but probably don't attempt to get published outside of small literary journals.

They can have useful things to say about character and setting, and are fantastic at weeding out clich├ęs. But on plot, structure, and pace, not so much.

7) Coffee Klatches

These groups never get around to more than a couple of critiques because so much time is spent chatting over the elaborate refreshments. Providing snacks can become a competitive sport. If the group meets in the evening there may be some lovely wine.

These groups can be a godsend to a writer who's been holed up in a writing cave and needs some human contact. And wine.

But feedback can be skimpy and useless to a writer on a path to publication.

8) The Literary Death Match

Whether or not the members are poets, meetings can be like a competitive poetry slam. The dominant member (s) want to perform, and tune out when others are reading.

Critiques careen from lavish praise to savage criticism. Somebody will probably order you to write an entirely new plot, which they’ll outline for you in detail. Their goal is to establish dominance, not improve your WIP.

These people can build you up one week and crush you the next—saying anything that comes into their heads.

Find another group. Narcissists are dangerous.

9) The Mutual Admiration Society

Like the Coffee Klatch, this group is all about schmoozing. Also bolstering flagging egos. To give them credit, they’re not focused on the ginger-pear Linzer torte and imported Gew├╝rztraminer. They are actually interested in the work.

Unfortunately, everything brought for critique is always WONDERFUL and worthy of publication. They don't want you to change a thing.

You’re not going to grow much in this environment.

10) The Vicious Circle

This group is dominated by a handful of Dorothy Parker-wannabes just waiting to slip a verbal dagger into your heart.

They may have published a bit—which makes them "experts"—but it was some time ago. Maybe in college. When they got harsh feedback from the writer-in-residence, who used words like "puerile" and "derivative."

Since then, they've been honing their bitterness till it cuts like a samurai sword.

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 this Vicious Circle.

Run before you resort to real-life homicide.


Anne R. Allen is a multi-award winning blogger and the author of 13 published and forthcoming books, including the bestselling Camilla Randall Mysteries. She’s the author, with Amazon superstar Catherine Ryan Hyde, of HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE. Her latest book is THE AUTHOR BLOG: EASY BLOGGING FOR BUSY AUTHORS. Her next Camilla mystery, GOOGLING OLD BOYFRIENDS will launch in December 2018 with Kotu Beach Press. You can find her, along with NYT million-seller Ruth Harris at Anne R. Allen’s Blog…with Ruth Harris.

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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Ann, thanks for the comprehensive list of groups to avoid. Fact checkers would have a field day with my work although they'd have a heck of a time finding facts on my made-up science fiction.

Tyrean Martinson said...

This made me cringe, laugh, and nod my head. I've been to a few of those, but I just met with a new-to-me critique group and so far, they've fit in critique and encouragement without all the crazy.

Juneta key said...

Yup, what everyone else said. I have found a couple of good ones or at least suite me, so guess I got lucky.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I've been a part of a literary death match before. It wasn't long before I quit that group.

Anne R. Allen said...

Alex--Thanks for inviting me! Don't you love it when the Fact-Checkers tell you what your space alien puppies "would" or "wouldn't" do? Like they've been to the planet Zog and know everything about the flora and fauna. LOL.

Tyrean--Congrats on finding a good critique group. I think they are the best way to hone your craft once you find the right one.

Juneta--A good critique group is golden and can save you a ton of money in editing fees, so congrats on the good luck.

Diane--The Literary Death Match types can be devastating. And often they don't have a clue how to critique genre fiction.

Jemi Fraser said...

Love your descriptions - so many of these groups can cause writers to run for home or give up. It's so important to find people you can trust. I haven't tried an in-person critique group yet but I've encountered a few of these types online!

Anne R. Allen said...

Jemi--I don't want this to discourage anybody from trying an in-person critique group. They can be a wonderful source of support as well as help with your writing. People in my critique group have become close friends. The social aspect of groups is very valuable. But that's IF a group is compatible, and not like these. :-)

Tonja Drecker said...

This made me smile and laugh. It's so true! But there are plenty of great groups out there too. Thanks :)

CS Perryess said...

Great stuff! I'm with Tyrean -- "cringe, laugh, and nod my head" -- what a crazy world we writers have thrust ourselves into. Thanks for the great post.

Computer Tutor said...

You are so right about these. I nodded the whole way through!

Mar Preston said...

I'm terrified I've been guilty of every one of these things over many years.

Digital Dame said...

This is why I've never had the nerve to join a critique group. I expect most of us get enough unsolicited "daggers" from people online, I don't need more IRL!

Pat Hatt said...

haha have seen a few of these. The fact checkers who want to know even where they pee can go get lost in an outhouse.

Anne R. Allen said...

Tonja--You're right that there are some great groups out there, so it's worth it to keep looking.

CS--And some really great groups can have somebody join who will try to change the whole nature of the group, so existing groups have to keep on our toes. :-)

Jacqui--If you've been in this business a while you have to run into at least some of these. They're everywhere!

Mar--When we start out we tend to imitate the people around us who have the power, so it's easy to fall into bad patterns.

Digital Dame--Most critique groups are great. Don't let this put you off. IRL people are a lot less likely to be snarky than people online. After all you know where they live. :-)

Pat--Fact checkers drive me bonkers!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Alex and Anne - this could be used as a checklist for character ideas ... an I can even see links with day to day life - obvious I guess ... but to have them all in one place is just wonderful - thank you ... cheers Hilary

Anne R. Allen said...

Hilary--I never thought of that, but you're right. These could be great characters for fiction. The member of one of my critique groups was writing a mystery set in a critique group where a "Literary Death Match" character was murdered. Everybody had a motive. :-)

Lynda Dietz said...

This is a terrific list, funny and true to life at the same time. It provides some genuine guidelines, though, if you're not getting what you want out of a group and can't quite pinpoint why. Nice post!

Anne R. Allen said...

Lynda--Exactly! I wrote this hoping to help writers who are dealing with a less than helpful group, but don't know why it's not working for them.

Ornery Owl of Naughty Netherworld Press and Readers Roost said...

I'm not much for critique groups. The few times I tried one, I found them much more discouraging than helpful. I appreciate this blog because it isn't mean-spirited.

cleemckenzie said...

Oh, so good! I've met a few of these, and work very hard at not falling into any of your categories, especially as I age! :-)

Elizabeth Seckman said...

Perfect post! I have joined a few of those groups too. That's why I prefer to beta online. LOL

Anne R. Allen said...

Cara--Don't let this post put you off critique groups. Even though you've had a bad experience, it's worth it to look for a good one.

Cleemckenzie--LOL. I do the "Golden Girl" thing all the time.

Elizabeth--A good beta reader can be a godsend!

Nilanjana Bose said...

This made me chuckle, thank you! Each of these groups can form the core of a flash or a longer story...

Anne R. Allen said...

Nilangana--These groups can generate a lot of dramatic tension, that's for sure!

Sherry Ellis said...

That's a pretty good list of critique group descriptions. It's nice when you have a group that can point out both your good points and those that can use improvement. I've been lucky to have been in two such groups.

Patsy said...

I belong to a No 9 group. At least it used to be. I'm slowly getting them to admit that in some cases a story could be improved with a few little tweaks, and to realise it is possible to make suggestions along that line without having to rip work to shreds. We're all benifitting.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

You hit on a couple of the reasons why I quit critique groups. This was entertaining and made me smile as I pictured some of my experiences fitting right in.

Anne R. Allen said...

Sherry--I think most groups are great, and they can be a huge help in polishing a manuscript, but it's good to be aware of the other kind.

Patsy--A good group can fall into a pattern of not voicing criticism, because you become friends over time and you don't want to hurt their feelings. Good for you to push them to be more honest.

Susan--A bad critique group can sour you on the whole process, so I understand. Sometimes one great beta reader will be more useful.

Mac said...

I haven't ever joined a writer's group, and it's this kind of thing that makes me wary of ever trying. :D Group dynamics have never been my strong suit, and I'm worried I just won't have the patience. I think it'd be worth trying, I'm just not sure how to find a group that would be welcoming for me either... I'm a queer author writing quite a bit of queer content, and I live in a highly religious and conservative state. Is there an online equivalent to these types of critique groups, where I'd be more likely to meet people who'd be interested in reading my work (and not offering any sermons)?

Shah Wharton said...

Oh crikey, I've experienced at least one of all of these in the past couple of months by giving out my MS for critique online. I've been convinced I write Marmite; some have no critique - it's perfect and ready for publication. Others are cruel and useless--one guy deleted the lot and said he was doing me a favour!!

This is soul destroying but I need the feedback so have to dig through the rot to find the value. Somewhere in there, I've received great tips.

Great list. I'll be sharing this in my beta reading group on FB. :)

Anne R. Allen said...

Mac--Oh, deliver us from sermons! I've never been in a group where we had to deal with bigotry, but I can imagine there are plenty. Online groups would be safer if you live in a place where backward religions prevail. There are plenty of online groups of every description. used to have groups for various genres. I'd just Google around to find LGBTQ author groups and ask them to direct you to the right place. You might start with Best of luck!

Shah--Oh, my. That sounds worse than the in-person groups. I guess that makes sense. Some people can't interact online without being trollish a$$hats. They'd hate anything. Yeah, we need feedback, but not like that. I hope you can find some better beta readers. Those people sound useless. Have you tried They have a good reputation. You have to sign up to get any info though. But it's free.

Anne R. Allen said...

I just left this comment, but it didn't show up, so I'm posting it again. If the other one shows up, just delete this one, Alex.

Mac--Oh, deliver us from sermons! I've never been in a group where we had to deal with bigotry, but I can imagine there are plenty. Online groups would be safer if you live in a place where backward religions prevail. There are plenty of online groups of every description. used to have groups for various genres. I'd just Google around to find LGBTQ author groups and ask them to direct you to the right place. You might start with Best of luck!

Shah--Oh, my. That sounds worse than the in-person groups. I guess that makes sense. Some people can't interact online without being trollish a$$hats. They'd hate anything. Yeah, we need feedback, but not like that. I hope you can find some better beta readers. Those people sound useless. Have you tried They have a good reputation. You have to sign up to get any info though. But it's free.

Elizabeth Mueller said...

Haha! I, being a critiquer, often am a bit of everything in your detail description of what those groups are! I prefer the nice one-on-one with a writing buddy who is my soundboard. Nice. Quiet. Taylored. Perfect. :P

Anne R. Allen said...

Elizabeth--A one on one with a reader you really trust is the best. I'm lucky to have a fantastic editor at my publishing house who really "gets" me. But for many years, I relied on groups. Some were spectacular, and really helped me learn the ins and outs of the writing biz.