The Problem with Critique groups

This week you guys get treated to another rant. Yes, I know I complain a lot. I’ll think of a happier post next week. This post, however, is about online critique groups.

While trying to get my second novel published I had one particular publisher give me a lot of feedback. She said she liked my story, but thought it needed some polish. After a couple failed attempts at getting a satisfactory rewrite she recommended I join an online critique group. I’m not going to name the website because that’s just not nice.

So I join this online group and read some decent stories and do my best to hand out some helpful information. In return I get some good information back, along with some not so helpful information and one terrible person. I had one reviewer tear my story to pieces after declaring that he wasn’t even very proficient with my genre. None of the review was helpful, it was just a bashing that concluded with him telling me I am unoriginal…ouch. I took a deep breath and moved on.

I ended up meeting a fellow writer who was looking to exchange an entire story as opposed to just segments on the website. We exchanged a few chapters before calling it quits and her advice was well worded. The only problem was she didn’t seem to grasp my story or my humor. She didn’t understand a lot of the jokes and she said so. That wasn’t a bad thing, but it wasn’t as helpful as it could have been. She did have a couple very good suggestions that I used though.

I think critiquing was helpful to a point, but as a new writer struggling to find my own voice it seemed like I had too many other people telling me what to do. Too many other people that were, in some cases, just as inexperienced as me. I have a couple test readers now, and would be open to adding a couple more if the opportunity presented itself. I think this works well for me, but everyone is a little different.

Fellow writers, how do you feel about strangers critiquing your work?

Beloved readers, live prosperous and long live the ace of spades…or something like that.

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12 thoughts on “The Problem with Critique groups

  1. It kind of sounds as though your first venture into a critique group wasn’t of the same standard as mine. I think critique groups are pretty much what you make of them, to a degree.
    When you first join up, if you don’t already *know* your own voice, then it will become frustrating and confusing, and can even take you a whole lot longer to figure out how YOU want your writing to sound. Because there are an awful lot of critiquers out there all too willing to tear up your work and pretty much rewrite it how THEY would’ve written it. Newsflash: This is NO help to ANYONE.
    I actually fast learned that the quickest way to educate yourself on how YOU want to write is to be the critiquer rather than the critiqued.
    This is what I did.
    The site I utilised work on a karma-earning system (it would take the work of GIVING 2 or 3 critiques–depending on word length of your feedback–before you earned enough karma points to post a piece of your own). This is how much of a critiquer I was in ratio to the critiqued: I had around 150 karma points for a very long time, and the only reason I remained that steady is because I donated them to other members so they could post their work.
    Because the art of critiquing is a serious learning tool. Studying the works of OTHERS with that critical an eye will help you understand what does or doesn’t work, what sentence structures work better than others, how to find the flow in narration and also how to create that flow, the difference between natural and wooden dialogue, how much description is too much or too little; I could name more but you get the picture–but most of all, it helps you to understand HOW YOU WANT TO WRITE by teaching you how you DON’T want to write each and every time you analyse a sentence that isn’t sitting right for you.
    Admittedly, I don’t critique anymore, but that’s down to just not having the time (used to be around 3-4 hours for a good critique because I’m one of those tearer-uppers you mentioned). However, I DID find some awesome and committed writer buddies who I can chat to when I need, some of who I STILL swap my novels with via email, and who all support each other with vigour during every step of our publishing journeys, and that’s worth its weight in gold.

    (disclaimer: my tearing up wasn’t horrible. I used to be sort after for my crits by those who could handle my bluntness)

    • This is true. I guess I did learn a bit from critiquing others. I’ve actually started trying to get in the habit of figuring out why I don’t like certain writing when I come across it. If I get a book I don’t like, I try to ask myself what I don’t like about it. I’ve always heard the best way to learn is through teaching. Kind of the same idea, I guess.

  2. Alex, I agree with you. I do believe that there is way too much emphasis on critique groups. In fact, until A-Z I had only vaguely heard about them in passing.

    There is nothing worse than someone who does not read or understand the genre in which you are writing and who then gives you their opinion on how turning the story into more of a modern horror/ murder/ adventure/ love story would greatly enhance the story. Oh, and please only use names like John and Jane to which readers will relate and which they will remember…

    As an (as yet) unpublished fantasy author with no more qualifications than having majored in English Lit; having industry and career articles published; being an avid reader and a good editor, I’m more than prepared to read your story and give you my honest assessment of it, if you’re prepared to wade through mine in exchange and are prepared to wait to read the last few chapters as I complete each of them. Whew – a sentence from hell but it says exactly what I mean… 🙂

  3. I’m on the fence with this one. A crit group can be a lot of help for some but not others. This industry requires a thick skin, and until someone is able to ‘chew up the meat & spit out the bones’ of a critique then these groups might not work. Then again, sometimes it takes diving in & learning how to accept criticism to get our heads truly in the game & in gear.
    I remember the first crit I ever got. I was offended, but that’s because I thought I was a writing goddess. Yeah. Not so much. Learned a lot and implemented what she had to say.
    As time passed, I realized that everyone has their own voice, and while I appreciated help with grammar / sentence structure / plot issues, I won’t sway who I am OR who my characters are for anyone. If a crit focuses on that I just ignore it & say thanks.
    I’m still on a crit site, but I don’t crit anymore. Like JAB, I don’t have time, and my 2nd novel hasn’t been posted for crits. Unless someone knows me – and the characters / story from book one, there’s no point in getting … well, pointless crits.
    Rambling. Need more coffee…

    • There’s never enough coffee. Sometimes I wonder when authors replaced alcohol with caffeine, but it definitely happened at some point 🙂 I consider myself moderately thick skinned-ish on a not bad day when the sun is shining and I’ve had a good breakfast. Honestly, its not the changes people pointed out that bothered me. It’s when there were no suggestions made. “This was not good” is not a helpful critique and after getting a “This is really awful” I was really turned off to the whole thing. But that was just my one experience, I’m sure it could be super helpful for others.

  4. What I love about the one real critique partner I have is that she *gets* me. …or, if not me (let’s face it, neither of us understand me), she gets what I’m going for in my writing. This isn’t to say that she let’s me get away with everything. Far from it; she questions me left and right, sometimes to the point where I want to beat one of our heads against something solid. But when she offers a suggestion, I know it’s meant to help me move toward where we both want the story to go. She doesn’t try to change the writing to suit her style, she tries to push me toward a purer version of the story I’m trying to tell. I’m hoping that’s not a rare thing in crit partners, because it would be sad if I were one of only a handful of lucky ones.

    • Yes, you should consider yourself lucky. Or maybe I shoulder consider myself unlucky. Although, I do have my wife who has to put up with me on a daily basis and happens to be my number one fan. She’s definitely the best critique-er I’ll ever have. Yeah, I should probably just quit my complaining now. I never really thought about it this way. Thanks Ship, you fixed me!

  5. I think that first of all only you know what you want to say and how you want to say it. The rest of us, reader or writer, can only guess. Anyone will look at a story from their point of view using the standards they have at hand. This again may be very different than the writers’.

    No matter what anyone says about my work I take away only the parts that make sense to me. What helps me succeed at telling the best story I can. When someone, excluding trolls, goes the such depths to rip my story apart, it means two things to me. They took a lot of time and effort to crit my work.

    Oh, I might not agree with 80% of what they say and they may be off the mark, but they did put effort into helping me. I don’t forget that. I say thank you, put my ego in my back pocket and try to understand what they are saying.

    If more than one critter says the same thing, I fix it. That said, the first reader is the writer. Remember what you want to say, and let the critters help you get there. 🙂

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