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Digging your Way out of Critique Group Pitfalls

Posted: October 5th, 2010, 9:53 am
by Hyaline
Critique groups are pretty much the best thing to happen to a writer since the invention of moveable type. A communal effort where you gain on both sides of the exchange--your writing is improved when others look at it, and lo and behold, you improve your writing by looking at others' work! Incredible. Many writers utilize local in-person groups or online groups--in either case, however, there can be pitfalls. As is so often the case, those pitfalls are usually people.

My experience is with an online crit group (my nearest real-people group is over an hour drive away, and though they are super-helpful and supportive, I can't make that kind of time and gas commitment). It's been incredibly helpful, and the comments have driven some of the best revisions I've made. However, in reading others' critiqued works and my own, I've identified some potential trouble-makers in the ranks.

Before we begin--standard disclaimer. These are all made-up examples. No critiquers were harmed in the making of this post. And always, always thank a critiquer, even if their crit was not helpful to you. The person doing the critique most likely spent time and effort on it, so it's your job to wring as much use from it as you possibly can, even if it feels like there's not much there of substance. Depending on the culture of the group, do whatever else is polite, whether that's returning a crit, submitting a positive rating for hard work even if the advice didn't work for you, whatever.

The Over-Eager Grammar Helper : This little sprite can cause more mischeif than good when their comments go awry. They tend to fall into two categories--the Know-it-All and the Missing-the-Mark. The Know-it-All may correct your grammar assuming that you don't speak the common language of syntax. That is, s/he spots a mistake and launches into an unwelcome lecture about the correct usage of the past participle (when you had, in fact, merely made a typo). How to Deal: For the most part, best ignored. If it really irks you, try slipping some grammar vocab into your message of thanks or your next critique of this person's writing--but don't expect him or her to take the hint. Falls under the 'toss what isn't useful' maxim of critique groups. The Missing-the-Mark is a bit more insidious. S/He purports a facade of deep grammatical knowledge, but scratch the surface and it's all wrong. This person may chide you for "passive voice" when in fact s/he would like to see more actual action (having nothing to do with active voice). They may berate you for using "had" in a legitimate past perfect context (because you don’t need. In short, their comments, well, miss the mark. How to Deal: Assume the golden rule of revision--even if the critiquer couldn't accurately describe what was wrong, there may very well be something off about the passage. Do a bit of searching and see for yourself what it is. Sometimes, of course, the individual is simply missing the point...and as long as you can identify that, ignore what isn't helpful.

The Over-Optimist : This person's work isn't all bad--s/he mounds praise on the parts of your passage that work well for him or her, heaps blessing on your word choice and plot structure, gushes that s/he would be best friends with your very likeable characters. In many ways, with most critiquers veering toward the negative, an optimistic voice pointing out the positives is a welcome--and needed--addition. Not just for morale, either--it helps to have feedback about what is working to compare to what isn't. But there are pitfalls... How to Deal: Avoid getting a big head. Yes, bask in the praise that is very likely well-deserved (heck, you had the courage to post work that you wrote for others to read--you earned the praise!), but don't assume that because one person loved the work that it's done. S/he very well might just be cautious about ever saying s/he doesn't like something (and likely spends a life eating anchovies on pizza because s/he never could get up the chutzpah to tell others s/he doesn't care for anchovies). Also, don't let one person's positive praise overshadow issues raised by other critiquers. If one person loved the passage, but four others had problems, weigh these carefully.

The Just Didn't Get It : Sometimes someone just doesn't get your work. This can be hard to ferret out at first, but it may become quite clear after several traded crits that the individual is expecting something out of the story that just isn't there, doesn't appreciate your writing style, or that you have some other irreconcilable difference. The over-sensitive might assume that any critiquer with a negative comment doesn't get their work, but this simply isn't the case. The Just Didn't Get It is much rarer, and usually speaks to an innate difference between what the critiquer cares to read and what you care to write. A Just Didn't Get It crit, for instance, might demand more internal monologue and deeper connection to the characters' troubled childhoods out of your cyborg sci-fi thriller (and fewer cyborgs), or suggest throwing some "action" in on your character-driven literary love story--and s/he really means action. As in "flaming car explosion building collapse" action. And sometimes it simply speaks to careless reading or misplaced expectations. How to Deal: Take what you can use, as always. S/he may not get it, but might still have good comments about details like awkward phrasing or poor word choice. Consider it an exercise in trusting your revision intuition. And avoid developing a long-term crit partnership as well as you can.

The Editorial Expert : This self-important poster will dispense bucketfuls of seemingly sage advice on the state of publishing, what editors and agents are looking for, the keys to success in the writing world. The problem? S/he probably has no real publishing experience--and even if s/he does, it's likely limited to his or her own journey to publication. It's highly unlikely that agents are hanging out, incognito, on online crit group sites to let you know that "editors don't like it when you use the term 'popsicle.'" This person is often identified a tendency to include block quotes from favorite industry blogs or books that may or may not be relevant to your particular issue. When looking at your story, this person will point out things that could prevent getting your work published--and though some may be true, others may be way off the mark, especially if s/he doesn't know your genre or your intended market. Remember that this person gained their knowledge in the egalitarian ways that we all can--reading industry blogs, books on writing, trial and error. How to Deal: Become your own expert. Read the blogs, books, and keep up with the news that affects you. Read current releases in your genre, and see which ones do well. When someone says your use of flashback, multiple POV, or the use of the term "popsicle" is "a detriment to getting published" you can have the breadth of knowledge to know if this is something to change--or a comment to ignore. Be suspicious of "always" and "never"--few things are always or never the case. And of course, remember that sometimes a person will assign the wrong diagnosis to something that doesn't work--they may be saying "Flashbacks aren't common to this genre" as a wishy-washy way of saying "Look, this flashback is not working for me and really needs to go."

It goes without saying but...I also try to avoid being any of these Crit Group Crabapples when I'm critting! I'm sure I'm not always successful, but being a better critiquer, I truly believe, helps you to be a better writer.

What experiences have you had with crit groups? Do you prefer online or in-person groups? Any run-ins with these usual suspects? Have you--gulp--been one of them?
hyalineblue079 at yahoo dot com

Re: Digging your Way out of Critique Group Pitfalls

Posted: October 5th, 2010, 11:10 pm
by sylvallenfisher
This post had me smiling because although you take a lighthearted look at critique critters, I've seen these in my neck of the woods as well.

I've been a "Just didn't get it" recently, and I found I had to rip the Band-Aid rather than draw things out interminably. I gave a writer one last thorough set of what I hope were constructive comments, then let her know that it just wasn't my thing. I felt really bad, but it all boils down to time. You either click with people or you don't, and we don't have the vast reserves of time necessary to devote to stuff that doesn't hold our attention or brings us down. That said, I belong to two in-person writing groups that have helped me immensely. I heart feedback.

P.S. I'm a former Bloomington Hoosier, too! I was just there last week.


Re: Digging your Way out of Critique Group Pitfalls

Posted: October 6th, 2010, 12:48 pm
by Hyaline
Thanks, Sylvia! Great point--time is better spent working with writers you feel like you can actually help. I know I've felt that--not that a potential partner's work wasn't good (even really good) but that I just couldn't help them, because I Just Didn't Get It. Are there "it's not you, it's me" templates for critiquing?

And Hi! to a fellow Hoosier :) Hope you enjoyed your time in's turning out to be a beautiful fall!