The time has come for me to say goodbye to one of my critique groups.
Not because I’ve landed that multi-million dollar book deal (I wish!). Not because I’ve moved. And not because it is disbanding. I’ve just come to the realization that, like Janet Jackson asked all those years ago: what have you done for me lately?
Critique groups can be extremely beneficial. I don’t have family members or friends asking about or wanting to read my writing. I used to resent that. But in a group, I get honest feedback from strangers who could care less about hurting my feelings when they don’t like or understand what I’ve written. Critique groups force me to produce a “shareable” piece on a regular basis. I also learn techniques and styles from the other members. I’m exposed to other genres of writing.
But when that give and take isn’t there, it is no longer a critique group, but a social gathering.
The yearly Midwest Writers Workshop in Muncie, Indiana has this session called Buttonhole the Experts, where conference attendees sit in a small group for about ten minutes talking with a published author, editor or agent about a given topic. Last year, author DE Johnson headed up a discussion on critique groups. He stressed how important they are, but also warned us about wasting time in a group that doesn’t do what it is meant to do: provide constructive criticism. This is especially important if, like me, one wants the piece or manuscript published. Better to have someone tell you to your face that there’s something wrong than to wonder when those form rejections start pouring in.
I’m finding that, with the group I’m leaving, we’re spending entirely too much time discussing the provenance of the idea. While it can be interesting to hear the story behind the story, that’s not what I came for. Fewer and fewer members of the group are even offering critiques. I don’t know how many times I’ve printed fifty-plus pages to share, only to have them come back with no comments. Such a waste! I’m not saying one must be proficient with critique terminology or understand story structure, narration, dialogue, etc. But I would like to hear whether you did or did not like something AND can tell me why. Otherwise, what’s the point?
With that rant concluded, here’s what I’m hoping my other critique groups will continue to do:
1. Everyone actively participates, either through sharing a piece and/or providing feedback on what is read. I can read my stuff out loud in a vacuum at home. Why would I waste gas going someplace else to do the same thing?
2. The group facilitator encourages participation and keeps the discussion on track. I think hearing crickets after you’ve shared a piece is worse than getting a bad critique.
3. Set aside time for casual conversation. I’m waiting for my turn to share just like you. And until I do, I don’t really care about the time your mother experienced the same exact thing as the protagonist in your piece. I’m just saying…
4. Encourage members to publish what they’ve written. Misery loves company and I’d feel better knowing I’m not the only one with a box of rejection letters stashed somewhere. But I also want to know the secret behind your acceptance letter and don’t want to feel bad when I’m sharing mine.
So don’t be afraid to break up with your critique group if it’s not helping you become a better writer. I’m thankful that I have two other groups where I can get the honest feedback and encouragement I need to continue to write and publish. I know that we all write for different reasons and that not all of us are looking to share our writings with the world.
But since publication is always my goal, I need to surround myself with like-minded people.
Dear Michelle, I’m sorry if I have let you down. You know how precious you are to me and I am very proud of you as an author. I’m not a very good critic as you have probably figured out. I don’t recall receiving many articles to read. I’m also not very speedy at opening my e-mails. I hope to find the original story that you sent me to read and have Maria show me where she saved it for me on the computer. Don’t get discouraged or give up. Keep on writing! God bless you. Love always. Your Godmother, Helen
Good explanation, Michelle! I completely agree with you. 🙂
Well 50 pages does sound like a lot. Maybe shorter stories would work better?
(But if it’s not working anymore, maybe it’s just time to move on…)
Some gatherings can sort of turn into coffee shops or cafés after while.
Thanks for your comment. The fifty pages were not one whole story (I’d quit if I had to listen to someone else read fifty pages!) just the total number of copies made. I wonder, have you had any similar experience?
I just spoke about how I (myself) would feel if I got 50+ pages from one (or even many) people and then had to give some thoughtful response. I mean… A critique isn’t just about reading. It’s also about being aware, paying attention, and figuring out why you think and feel what you do (about something). And even to think about why something works or not, etc. So a critique can be a rather bigger investment than just reading a few pages. At least if you want to do it well.