Critique groups: They are “evil”… or are they?

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— Photo by Kennedy Library

Originally posted at: http://www.timothyafenner.com/

Search the Interwebs for “critique group” or “writers group” and you will undoubtedly find an assortment of content on the subject, from the benefits of writer collaboration, to what groups are available, and even how to find the right group for you. You will also find, however, strongly voiced opinions on how “evil” critique groups are and the dangers of joining them.

So are critique groups good or evil?

Personally, I feel the truth lies somewhere in-between. When I first started my journey into the wilds of writing, I took a few classes, read some “how to write” guides, and followed a number of “experts” online who professed to know the secrets of getting published. All of this accumulated “knowledge” convinced me that I could write a story reasonably well and didn’t need much input from others to get it ready for prime time — or at least, not have it come out like a steaming pile of $#1+!

After writing two full-length novels (both that will likely never leave the dungeons I’ve thrown them into), I decided to take the plunge and actually show my work to other authors in order to see how great my writing truly was.

(Spoiler alert — my greatness wasn’t so great at all. Quite horrendous, in fact. Shocker, right?)

Using a myriad of online critique groups, I unveiled my greatness to a varying levels of writers — from professional writers to fellow amateurs. While nervous, I still felt relatively confident that my work was pretty solid and worthy of being read by the masses…

Sadly, it only took the first round of critiques to realize I was no writing prodigy. I would need a lot of help if I wanted to make a go at this “writing thing.”

I continued with the online critique groups for several years, uploading content every now and again as my schedule or muse would allow. Overall, I found the experience generally positive, though a few people had gone to the dark side when providing feedback (e.g. your work is drivel), which made me seriously question the value of critique groups. This is where I feel most negativity towards critique groups comes from and why there are a lot of people who despise them so passionately.

Thankfully, I didn’t let the negative stop me. I forged on, confident that the more eyes I had on my work, the more likely the work would turn out better overall. And more importantly, I was learning an absolute TON about what works and what doesn’t.

Critiquing the work of others is FREE TRAINING!

After awhile, I found the impersonal nature of online groups prevented me from receiving the level of engagement and feedback I desired, such as taking into account my style of writing or engaging other writers in topics beyond the small chunks we get to critique. Nor did it push me to keep writing, to overcome the procrastination that so often took hold over me.

I decided to throw caution to the wind and join a local writing group. THE HORROR! Searching the Interwebs, I found several groups that fit the bill for me (Sci-Fi, easy driving distance, regular meetings, and no reading stories aloud — YICK!). However, every one of them had closed their doors to new members.

Undeterred, I used an online tool to find other authors and setup my own damn writing group.

Not that it’s an easy choice, as it takes a bit of promotion to draw in other authors of your ilk (if the tool you use doesn’t draw them in automatically). You need to create a format and schedule that works for the group, not just you, and you have to be willing to lead when the time dictates (ie keeping people on task vs allowing a meeting to squirrel all over the place). You have to be willing to cut those who are hurting the group.

The benefits, however, outweigh those negatives without question. You and your group control the entirety of the experience. If something doesn’t feel right, you work together and change it. It took several months before my group really hit its stride. During that time, we locked in several committed members, those willing to attend as many meetings as possible. We had to work through some rough areas in order to smooth out the process of getting the authors WHAT THEY WANTED vs just griping about what we didn’t like about an author’s work (which sadly is what some groups do).

In short, I get to attend a critique group that meets every single requirement I have, gets me feedback from people who know me and my style, and provides me with in-depth critiques vs the half-ass jobs you get from those who are not invested in your success (like anonymous online critique groups).

In short(er still) — Critique groups can be evil. If you don’t like what you are finding, consider creating your own and work hard to prevent it from turning evil.

Best of luck to you in your critique group search!

— Timothy A Fenner

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SIDE NOTE: In a future post, I plan to lay out the format, tools, and strategies my writer’s group uses in order to create positive, productive, and engaged meetings. If you have success stories on how to make a critique group work, please add them to the comment section below.

For those who wish to gripe about bad experiences or just hate on critique groups for whatever reason, please feel free to skip the comment section.  😉

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