The dangers of critique groups

Here’s a post from Jane Friedman: The 4 Hidden Dangers of Writing Groups

I don’t think they’re hidden at all, though I suppose that makes for a more interesting title. I think three of the four are super-obvious. Here they are:

1) No one tells the truth and no one really wants to hear it

How can anybody expect otherwise? Perhaps some (few) of you would not have trouble saying to someone: This is terrible in these ways. But I can’t imagine being comfortable saying that — and I mean, saying it in much gentler and kinder terms, not flat out like that. Which I also cannot imagine, though I hear it happens in some toxic writing groupls.

This is one reason I have never joined a critique group, though not the biggest reason (the biggest reason is I live a zillion miles from anywhere and also I am pretty antisocial by nature). I assume this is not a hidden danger, but a ubiquitous and probably unavoidable danger. If I could believe that everyone’s writing would be pretty good, joining a group would be a good deal more attractive.

Now, Friedman does suggest several ways to fix this issue, all of which seem like they would help, I guess, to some extent. She emphasizes kindness, for example, and suggests not allowing meanness. I do think the solution to group members offering mean-spirited attacks on other members’ writing is simple: throw out the mean ones. That’s the kind of confrontation with which I would have no trouble.

Okay, I suspect that’s the biggie when it comes to Problems In Writer’s Groups, but let’s see what else Friedman picks out:

2) Struggling writers are not the best judges of struggling writing.

Well, that instantly reminds me of Incompetent People Have No Clue, Study Finds, which of course refers to the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Here Friedman does offer very workable solutions:

Make each note follow his format [What is wrong, what is missing, what is not clear, what doesn’t make sense] and don’t allow any other commentary. That means never saying, “Ohh, what if your character is from another planet instead?” or “I think you should start at Chapter 5,” or “You’re the best writer, I’m so jealous, I wish I could write like you.”

3) Struggling writers are not often the best judges of struggling writing, Part 2.

If the people in your group don’t have the knowledge and expertise to diagnose problems, don’t do it. Seriously. Don’t. Consider skipping the editorial analysis completely and make the group be about accountability, camaraderie, support, and information-sharing instead of about the words on the page.

That seems very sensible. There are a lot more specific suggestions if you click through.

4) Failure is not an option in a writer’s group, but failure is a part of the writing process.

This immediately strikes me as weird, since as far as I can tell failure is ALWAYS an option, and sometimes an extremely easy option, too.

But that’s not what Friedman is talking about. She says: Writing groups, however, tend to exclusively celebrate forward progress, and clean, linear thinking….This happens because writing groups focus on only on one tiny slice of work at a time. If that slice happens to be logical, chronological, clear and well written, you get a thumbs up. Problems related to how that slice fits into the whole sweep of the story, or how it supports the premise, or how it aligns with the overall structure are largely ignored—and yet many of the most common problems I see are the result of flaws in these areas.

This may be less utterly obvious, but it certainly seems like a plausible issue for writing groups to run into.

It’s true that for me the rough draft tends to get messy before it is possible to neaten it up. In fact, my WIP just got so messy that I am taking a break and working on something else while hopefully the back of my brain sorts out the problems. My inclination to show this WIP to anybody just at the moment is waaaaay negative; I would NEVER let anybody see such a ridiculously messy 75-page fragment, and if I did no one could possibly say anything helpful about it.

So, lots more practical suggestions if you click through. If you do want to join or start a writer’s group, or possibly breathe new life into a group that has started wandering away from a helpful form, you might well want to read through the whole post.

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4 thoughts on “The dangers of critique groups”

  1. I think the danger of critique groups is that they can steal your voice. With the best intentions in the world, enough people saying “that’s not how I would have written it” can turn an original work into pablum.

  2. It would probably be helpful to have members with extremely different voices and with wide experience in reading different work. That might help derail any push toward The Generic Novel.

  3. I was just reading something where they mentioned critique partners as being a way to see how readers respond to your work in progress – it seems like thinking of them as readers first, writers second, would be a less issue-prone approach.

  4. Yes, and you could probably structure a writer’s group more like that, but then you might not want to call it a critique group or suggest that anybody can make helpful suggestions about what exactly went wrong after saying “I lost interest here.”

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