Monday, May 28, 2012

How do you feel about critique groups?

Frankly put, most critique groups are a waste of time.

Here are three reasons why you shouldn’t join a critique group.

1 - Members aren’t experts. Most professional writers don’t have the time or inclination to join critique groups; they’re too busy making a living writing. As a result, critique groups are typically made up of aspiring authors, many of whom are unpublished (or self-published), or have maybe written material for someone’s website or the church newsletter. They’re not in the group because they have something to offer, but because they have something they need. It’s nothing against them personally; they simply don’t know enough about writing to offer you good advice. Which leads to #2:

2 - You get bad advice. There are a myriad of forces that shape the way your story should be told—believability, escalation, voice, characterization, inevitability, causality, mood, and so on. Without taking all of these into account a person will end up offering you advice that, in the end, is detrimental rather than helpful. To ask someone who doesn’t understand the intricacies of story to help you with your novel is like going to someone who’s never been to medical school to try and get advice on how to perform heart surgery. It’s going to be bad news for everyone involved.

Think about it this way: novice carpenters don’t get together to critique each other’s carpentry, they have a master carpenter teach them. Novice swimmers don’t get together to critique each others’ strokes, they have an expert swimmer teach them. Writing is the only field I know of where we encourage people to let the blind lead the blind. If your group has a master carpenter in it or an expert swimmer (I’m trusting you to know what I mean), then go for it! But if not, I’d stay away.

3 - The material being critiqued is out of context. Here’s a typical scenario: One person says, “You need a better hook for your story,” but she doesn’t know the rest of the story so she doesn’t know if it really sets up the novel well or not. So then you go home and rewrite the hook and then bring it back next week. But really, you should have probably moved on to develop the broader context of your novel instead. Who knows, you might need to discard that opening anyway.

If you have writers in your group who are professionals, who make a living writing, then have at it. Otherwise steer clear. You’re going to unqualified people giving you bad advice that wastes your time.

There’s nothing wrong with getting together with other aspiring novelists to have lunch, to encourage each other, to develop your friendships, or to keep each other accountable, but find someone who’s qualified before asking others to critique your work.

Instead, hone your work, study the articles on this site and on Writer’s Digest’s site, and put the stuff into practice. Keep critically analyzing your writing and try reading a book like Self-Editing for Fiction Writers or The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them).

You can improve. You can do this. And you can do it without the pitfalls of being part of a critique group.

4 comments:

  1. I agree with you almost completely except, "to everything there is a season." There is a time, early in a writer's development, when there's benefit in reading aloud his/her work for others simply to sense the reaction. There almost don't have to be words spoken by the hearers when the reading is through. Most people are sensitive enough to tell, as they read, what's capturing people's attention and what isn't. This is one way for a young writer to explore his/her voice and to sort through their own ability to make story decisions (much as famous comedians play smaller venues to work up their material before taking it on the road.) There is a season where building confidence is key or most of us wouldn't survive the closeted season of solitary work. Perhaps rather than classifying that as a critique group, it's simply a gathering of critical listeners but there's a time for that kind of learning just as there's a time to shut out all the other voices and simply write. I will grant you, though, it should be a shorter season than most people make it. It's risky to get hooked on the quick validation because novelists, especially, must survive long periods without it.

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  2. I agree with a portion of your post. Taking advice from those without fruit can be a mistake. Overall, my critique group has been a blessing. We have several published authors, and editors who give freely of their time and talents.

    By the way, what happened to item #3? lol

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  3. Very important honest words in this post.

    Thank you,
    Paula

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  4. Thanks - this makes me feel a bit better with my own thoughts on the subject.

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