Last post, we talked about what to look for in a critique group. However, clear organization doesn’t mean smooth sailing. Here are several obstacles your group could encounter (and a bit of advice on how to respond).
Those first awkward meetings
My critique group’s first meeting was awkward and terrifying. We were college freshmen who had been assigned to a group by email and barely knew each other, but here we were, manuscripts in hand, afraid of what people would think of our most precious works. My friend Sam said the only reason he came back was because someone liked something about what he wrote, and it felt good, so he was willing to face the terror of our opinions again. Take critiquing easy at first, particularly if you are starting a group from scratch. Don’t focus so much on what’s wrong as on what’s right: what you enjoy about each other’s writing. It might take a bit of time for trust and thicker skin to develop, but don’t worry, it will happen.
Members will go on hiatus because of weddings, job transitions, family emergencies, health troubles, etc. Sometimes, that hiatus becomes indefinite. It’s sad to build a fantastic group and then lose important pieces of that group. I’ve had many different people in my six-person group over the years, and only two of them were with me the whole time.
Most of the people who have joined my critique group over the years were people I didn’t know well (if at all) before they joined. They all became awesome additions to our group. The group dynamic changed a little, but each time I ended up building more friendships. I’d encourage critique group leaders not to stress about this. Adding one or two new members isn’t nearly as hard as starting from scratch.
A “bad” member
It’s always possible you’ll end up with a “bad” member. But even after critiquing with a few dozen different people over the years, many of whom I barely knew beforehand, I have yet to deal with that situation. With that said, because of my professional writing degree, I had a strong network to recruit from, so not every critique group will be as fortunate. If you as the leader notice issues with a member, here’s some brief advice: talk to them directly and talk to them privately. They may not be aware of how they are coming across, and you may be able to resolve it without calling them out in front of the group.
Sometimes, a critiquer might misunderstand a grammar rule. Sometimes, they will pressure you to change the story to fit their style of writing or ideas. There is a variety of bad advice out there, and it can even come from members who are generally good editors.
For instance, one time, I was pushing for a certain approach to my friend Tucker’s first chapter. This approach built the suspense well and I could visualize it all in my mind, but Tucker told me he didn’t usually write in such a distant third person. That’s when I realized my mistake. There may be many good ways to write a scene, but the style and skills of the author who is writing it determine the best approach. Take all advice with a grain of salt—an editor often edits from their own style preferences.
Defensiveness and arguing
Of course, sometimes the issue is people not taking advice. I know I’ve been resistant to changing aspects of a story and doubted my critique group’s judgment—only to find another audience reacts in much the same way. It’s not good to squander good advice, but that’s not necessarily a group problem. On the other hand, if two members get into a low-stakes debate that squanders meeting time and causes group tension, that’s a group issue. Both authors and editors need to be discerning about which hills they are willing to die on, and they should also be aware of the emotional state of the person they are arguing with. A manuscript is an author’s baby, after all.
Sometimes, critique group members write in different genres. That can be helpful, especially if you want the freedom to experiment, but it often means your critiquers will have skewed advice. Sometimes, a critiquer might assume conventions from one genre apply to another and give off-target advice. Descriptiveness, pacing, and conflict are very different depending on if you’re writing poetry, a rom-com, or a thriller (read more on that in this article from Anne R. Allen). In-genre critiquing isn’t a make-or-break issue. You’ll still benefit from many general critiques. However, your critiquers will not represent your intended audience particularly well. Be aware of that.
Too many cooks in the kitchen
Art is usually best created by an individual so their unique style and flavor is maximized. Imagine being unsure of whether you want to cook a sweet, sour, or savory dish, so you just blend three recipes. It won’t be any of the above, and it probably won’t be any good. If critiquers disagree and you try to please all of them, you will end up pleasing nobody. By all means, learn from your critiquers. They are your readers. If they don’t enjoy it, you likely need to change it. But also remember: this is your story. You are the author, and you will write this story best when you write it in a way that fits your passion and your style.
This is something I’ve seen (and done) often. Instead of completing a project, I might write half of a short story, or maybe a few chapters of a novelette, then submit it to get feedback. After learning all the less-than-perfect pieces of it, I try to fix what I’d submitted the first time and submit it again. Then I edit that again. About this time, I lose interest in the project and never finish it.
Don’t do that. It is often best to complete a first draft and to let that creativity flow before you start seriously editing it. Don’t let your desire to impress your critique group with a perfect scene prevent you from creating an imperfect—but finished—story.
The struggle of ego
In any group, writers will vary in talent and style. It’s good to learn from other writers’ strengths—that’s what a critique group is for—but don’t feel discouraged if you can’t match another author’s talent in a given area. That doesn’t make you a bad writer. Each writer brings something different to the table, and each reader has different needs. If every writer wrote the same, some readers would be left out.
Conversely, you may see mistakes and shortcomings in others’ writing and allow yourself to start feeling smug about your own writing. Sometimes, this happens when I haven’t submitted a story in a while and I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have my own writing critiqued. Sometimes, it happens when I’ve submitted a few good stories in a row. In either case, fight it and just keep writing. Eventually, you will write a piece that misses the mark in some way, and you’ll receive a gentle reminder that even the best writers need editors.
Your critique group isn’t your competition. They’re your teammates. You’re pursuing the path to publication together. Your goal is not to create the writing that gets the loudest applause. Your goal is to create writing worth reading—to benefit readers. If someone gets published, celebrate that contribution to your common goal and be thankful you were among the first to experience that story.
Yes, it’s worth it
Just like any relationship, a critique group can be messy—but it can also be incredibly rewarding. My critique group has done more for my publishing career than any individual writing class I’ve ever taken. Better yet, I’ve made lifelong friends. I pray that you, too, will stay the course and reap the benefits of a critique group.
Once upon a time, Tim Pietz thought editors were gray and joyless people who quenched their thirst with authors’ tears. Now, Tim Pietz is the managing editor of InkSword Editing and to his knowledge, he mostly drinks tap water. Tim graduated summa cum laude from Taylor University with a B.S. in Professional Writing and a B.A. in Strategic Communication, and since then, he’s had the privilege of editing for various authors and publishers, including Tyndale House. A teacher and encourager at heart, Tim enjoys collaborating with authors at every stage in their publishing journey.