The Critique Group Conundrum

ImageYou hand over the copies you’ve made of your chapter even though a hitch rises in your belly.  You might be smiling, though it is a masking one that doesn’t quite cover up the anxiety. As they begin to read, the tickling may be rising into the back of your throat, especially when the pens come out and the notations begin. The minutes drag into what seems like hours as the silent judgment continues. And then, it’s the moment of . . . Subjective feedback.

Ah, the critique group. That great get together of writers helping writers. Don’t get me wrong, it can be very helpful, but can also be a nightmare. Why? People. We join these groups because we are looking for mutual support, but writers are people and people have different reasons for doing things. Meet some of the folks that you might show up to a critique group.

The Grammar Nazi – Yes, they are everywhere, and despite rules that may try to keep this to a minimum, they just can’t help themselves, furiously circling, striking, and correcting any and all grammatical issues that they can see. If a red pen appears, watch out.

Now, if your group thinks that this is an important aspect, then by all means, do it. However, grammar is something that should be taken care of by the author and an editor and really should have no business in a critique group. The flip-side to this, of course, is if you are suffering from a horrendous form of ‘grammaritis’ and that is all a reader can see, then, well . . . .

Backseat Authors – This is the person that rewrites for you. He or she will scratch out entire sentences and write a different one in the free space. Or, they may focus on individual words, changing them from one to another. Some will even attack complete paragraphs in order to ‘help’ you become a better writer.

This can be helpful, but keep in mind that whenever someone actively changes your writing, they are doing it based on their rules, experience, and especially how they write. This is generally a control tactic that means the person feels superior in some way to you, or your writing. Instead of making a suggestion, they take it on themselves to ‘correct’ your writing rather than help you get better.

Caveat. When this happens to me, I do take a look at what the person did and see if it makes sense. If it is indeed better, I will consider changing, but I do not think that someone who specifically changes your work is really being helpful. Someone being helpful might point out what they think needs changing and have a valid reason why they think it should be changed. Think of it like this, if you are a painter, would you want a fellow painter to come by and start working your canvas?

Tit for Tatter – Oh . . . It’s over now. You are going to suffer the wrath of retaliation. If you made a suggestion about their writing, he or she will find two for you. It could be a slight form of passive aggressive behavior, or they can entirely annihilate your work, leaving you a dumbfounded wreck questioning if you should ever write another word.

People are people, and we are programmed to meet certain reactions with mirrored reactions. If someone smiles at us, we are very likely to smile back, even if we don’t feel like it. If we feel attacked, it is natural to want to attack back. In many cases, a revenge critique is more than likely unconscious and the person may not be aware of it. That is why you should train yourself to look objectively at what is being offered up as a critique.   However, some people are conscious of this and are just critical when it comes to others. Whether they do this from the start or as a retaliation, they do it to make themselves feel better by bringing you ‘down’.

The Great Defender– Like a knight with a great shield, this writer will defend every critique or suggestion with one rationalization or another. If sufficiently frustrated, they may even draw their sword and start swinging at your writing.

Being defensive is a common reaction for most people. For writers, it is no different. Writing is a very personal activity and other people questioning each other’s work can bring up this anxiety. It is a natural response, but can cause problems in the group and, if you are the culprit, can impede your growth as an author.

The Askhole – (Yea, yea. I borrowed this term) This is the person that constantly seeks feedback, but then doesn’t take the suggestions given.

Granted, as a writer, you are under no obligation to take any suggestions that are given to you by others. This person, though, is someone who consistently and actively seeks advice about his or her writing. It may be from you, or it might be from others.  Typically, people who are doing this are looking for people who will validate their writing as it stands and doesn’t think it should be changed. This is mostly a covert way of looking for compliments or they are simply looking for socialization and does not consider him or herself a real writer.

These are just some of the people you can meet in a ‘critique’, or similar group. Generally, I stay away from these people once I identify these behaviors. They usually end up wasting my time and that is something that is too valuable to me. Then again, I not only have a lot of writing experience, but I also have a background in psychology. Now, I’m not suggesting that you necessarily avoid folks like this. What I would advise, however, is that you always, always, take criticisms with an objective, critical eye. If you don’t have one, develop it. Be open to suggestions that are not outright offensive, and weigh them with your knowledge and experience with the craft. Your writing is your writing and if something makes sense, do it. If it doesn’t, don’t.

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