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.
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.
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 clichés. 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 Gewürztraminer. 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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