What Makes a Critique Group Good (or Bad)

Hi there fellow writers! Sorry for being absent over the past month, my life got crazy busy. I wrote seventy-thousand words for Camp NaNo, and I found a new job, so I barely had any free time. Over the past month, I’ve been thinking of topics, and I’ll be posting more regularly now that April is over.

Something major happened in my writing life over April. I got in with a new critique group! While this was a boon at first, I ultimately recognized that the group was more destructive than constructive and decided to leave it behind. I wanted to write about what a good critique group looks like and why you should be selective when picking one.

Critique is an incredibly important aspect of improving the craft. Only so much objectivity is possible when writing in a vacuum, and you need to let people in to improve your work. The hard part is finding the right people who give the right kind of critique. What is the right kind of critique? I have a few thoughts on this.

First and foremost, you want critiques to be honest. Honesty is paramount when working with someone to improve your writing. Without honesty, there can be no improvement. You may be trying to improve in the wrong areas, or you won’t know where to improve because the critique says there’s nothing to fix.

Secondly, you want critiques to be detail-oriented. Seek out critiquers who apply specific examples to your work, and how they could be improved. You want to hear “I don’t like this word choice in this context,” with specific examples, or perhaps “I would like more depth from this character, all they ever talk about is cheese.” What you don’t want to hear is “the character sucks” or “the character is good” without any concrete examples. Tying big picture feedback to specific details opens a path to improve your writing. Receiving big picture input without specific details to back up the point isn’t helpful to anyone.

Thirdly, I strongly believe you want a critique partner who highlights what you’re doing well. This is a hard one. I mentioned a lack of objectivity in the vacuum of composition, but I didn’t exclusively mean what you’re doing poorly. You also get blind spots on what you’re doing well. Having a critique partner who can point out what you’re doing well is what separates a critiquer from a critic, and it’s very valuable information. If a critique partner only wants to point out what’s not working, they’re missing an important part of the job. Now, some people might say there’s nothing working, but that’s complete and utter bullshit. I’ve done plenty of critiques and there’s always something the writer is doing well. Pointing out the positives helps because it pushes us in the right direction and gives us an example of something we can try to replicate.

Fourth, the critique should always be about the work and never about the writer. If you have a critique partner who points out your prose in a given piece isn’t jiving in certain spots, or perhaps you’re using purple prose, that’s great. That’s helpful and applicable in the context of the piece being critiqued. If you have a critique partner who connects their critique to you as a writer, that’s bad. Not only is it not helpful, it’s a touch arrogant, and very disingenuous. Just because a writer does something less than perfect in one draft doesn’t mean that’s a universal problem with them as a writer. I’ve seen this often in critiques, and I believe it’s a form of toxicity more than anything else, which leads me to my last point.

Avoid toxic people. No matter how honest or brilliant the overly negative critique pretends to be, you don’t want a toxic critique partner. When someone puts more effort into how they critique rather than the content of their critique, that’s toxicity you don’t need. Drop them like a live grenade. When someone regularly criticizes your work without offering a single thing you did well in any of your pieces, drop them. They’re not worth it. This kind of behavior speaks to a deep form of dysfunction, quite possibly insecurity. There’s nothing wrong with feeling like you’ve been wronged by a toxic critiquer because you have been. Critique is not criticism, and many people often confuse the two.

What are your experiences with critique groups and problem critiquers? Have you had any amazing critique partners? I’m lucky enough to have a small group of excellent critiquers who I love working with. I’d love to hear your experiences.

I also want to mention that my experiences with a toxic critique group have inspired me to write a short story. I’ll be posting it on the blog sometime in the near future.

Happy writing everyone.

One thought on “What Makes a Critique Group Good (or Bad)

  1. Lots of good information. I wish “individuals” would tell me yes or no on my little stories. Yes, one person said I use too many “,” and although she like one special piece, I never heard anything again. I do enjoy humor and yes, I am a visual person.

    Like

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