Critique Groups: The Good, the Bad, and the Coyote Ugly

Back in 18th-century Paris, the literati and the culturati had their literary salons. I'm sure they were fascinating, if crammed full of pretension. In Greenwich Village in the early 20th century, the Dadaists formed tightly-knit groups of artistic weirdness or genius, depending on your viewpoint.

Many modern commercial writers gravitate toward critique groups, a working (or aspiring-to-be-working) stiffs' variation on the theme. Like-minded members gather to share pages of their drafts-in-progress, praise the good in them, and offer helpfully-meant criticisms of anything that might impede the authors' path to publication.

A good critique group is not only a great place to learn but also a real joy. The critique group forms an alliance, with every member helping every other member achieve his/her potential. Members respect the fact that good writing, characterization, and story transcend market slots such as genre, and snobbism, pettiness, and competitiveness are all checked at the door. Members are also mature enough to realize that a high tide floats all boats and one member's successes do nothing to diminish their own chances. In fact, these group successes help to add to the collective wisdom and experience of the hive. (Bzzzz, Bzzzz!)

I've been blessed with a terrific critique group called The Midwives for more than ten years now, and in it, I've formed some of the closest friendships of my adult life. We laugh (a lot), we share triumphs, and we cushion one another's disappointments. Plus, we can talk writing and publishing all we like with watching the other party's eyes glaze over (as often happens with our longsuffering family members.)

Unfortunately, not all critique groups are created equal. From the snarky and condescending to the hierarchical to the vicious, critique groups sometimes get a bad rap. Some of the worst of these, in my opinion, run like some college creative-writing workshops, where English majors and black-dressed Sylvia Plath wannabees try to impress the prof by slicing-and-dicing the other students' work and jockeying for position in More-Erudite-Than-Thou-Land. (I sincerely hope there are kinder, gentler college creative writing workshops than the ones that I remember from my own days in such classrooms, but I've heard from many writers who have also been there and will know of what I speak.) These types of groups drive undermine the confidence of some and drive others completely away from writing... or at least from attempting to find the Nirvana of a group that is a better fit.

Before I joined the Midwives, I participated in several unhealthy critique situations. Almost as bad as the Lord of the Flies, "gotcha" type (aha! I found a missing comma! And look, here! A -- insert gasp -- dangling participle. Indicating that, clearly, you suck and I rule!) were those in which members offered nothing except praise... to everyone for every effort. Either they were so inexperienced they couldn't see the problems or too nice to mention them, but no one in either type of group every progressed.

If you find you're in such a group, don't waste your time (or risk your ego) hanging with it. Just politely distance yourself and keep trying, because I guarantee a perfect fit is well worth the trouble it takes to find or form one.

For a great article on how to start your own critique group, read Life and Creativity Coach Lisa Gates' article here. (Warning: this link takes a while to load, but it's worth reading.)


Tessy said…
It's hard to find the right mix sometimes, and everyone needs to know what they want from a critique group or partner...otherwise it can sometimes be very hard for everyone involved! I've had awful luck before with cps, but have now found some wonderful cps!!!
Glad you dropped by, Tessy. I think you're right that it's important to establish mutual goals and expectations in the first place. If you're seriously pursuing publication and your crit. partners are hobbyists (nothing wrong with that, it's just a whole different mindset), nobody's going to be happy. Setting ground rules for number of pages per meeting, manner of criticism, what to do about non-producing members, and even things as simple as refreshments can smooth the path for a much happier alliance.

Glad you found a group that fit!

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