When A Critique Group Doesn't Fit--And When To Leave

Writing groups can be so frustrating. Or, they can explode. 

Here's what I have learned that I need in a writing group: 

1. Each member should already understand the pillars of writing, which I would think of (at the moment) as:

Story or plot--in other words, causality.


Character development or psychology.

How to take your ideas and present them as people. In scenes! 

Overall structure--which of course, relates to plot.

Scene structure--ditto.

The writer's distinctive voice. 

Okay, okay, grammar, but I'm far more willing to bear with problems with grammar as long the other stuff is there. 
Hey, maybe I've forgotten one-if so, go ahead and point it out. I'm sleepy. 

This point is, you can't write what you haven't mastered and you certainly can't critique it. Line edits don't mean much on a section you should chop from the book.

If you haven't mastered one skill, it affects all the others. A character who is unbelievable or one-note will screw with your dialogue. Clumsy dialogue makes for an unbelievable character. Sloppy characters make plot unbelievable. An unconnected plot makes characters seem either witless or lacking drive. If each scene doesn't have internal tension, a reader will skip it or stop reading. If the overall tension isn't there, the reader will skip to the end and quit reading then. 

All these skills can be acquired, if you're willing to do the work. If you're not, and you're in my group, I'm going to get irritated. 

It's tough when someone lacks, say, an ear for dialogue, but won't hang in a coffee shop with a notebook eavesdropping so they can hear how people really talk.  I remember a case like this. The group leader took me aside and said, "You have to stop giving note x to member y [a fairly rudimentary note about dialogue]. She's not capable of understanding or implementing that note. It just feels like harping." 

I didn't believe her. Why give up on a fellow group member? The very idea felt patronizing.

And even if it was true, it clearly pointed to a mismatch of group members, which leads to constant chaffing. Those with less ability or knowledge can think that those with more are showboating. Those with more can struggle not to patronize those with less. And everybody gets impatient. 

In these circumstances, take my word for it. It's okay to quit. Even if you think this group is the best you can do, it's not. You can do better, if you find people more within your skill range. Up or down. 

2. Sometimes the problem is a psychological block. And here's where the other set of skills comes in, those lovely social, grownup skills, like: 
Being willing to do the work necessary to grow as a writer. 

Knowing your strengths and weaknesses well enough to not take criticisms personally. 

Not giving personal criticism. 

Having the ability to speak up when a problem arises--what I call the "ouch, you stepped on my toe. Back off," rule of assertiveness. Speak up, calmly, the moment it happens, and problems are quickly and easily taken care of without festering. Otherwise, later on, kaboom!

Having the ability to non-defensively listen to others when they are discussing a problem with you. 

And to admit when you're wrong without feeling that this makes you a failure. 

And sometimes, a writer's block is bigger than not writing. There is no shame in having a problem, or in getting psychological help. 

I'm sure I'm not the only person who has had a group that struggled with those lacking these latter skills:

  • Such as the other group member who leaps in to contradict your notes or shakes their head in disapproval every time you open your mouth.
  • The neurotic person, the one who is using writing for therapy (and don't we all use writing for therapy to some degree). It can be dang hard to hear constructive criticism about a character's idiocy if that character is you, right now, messing up your life.  And yet. . .you are there for a critique, right? 
  • People who don't know how to critique beyond, "I hate this and I wouldn't read any more." Or "This upsets me. I'm leaving." 

The group might explode because someone didn't speak up about a repeated irritant; or took a correction personally; someone refused to own up to a problem; or a member who said, "My emotional issues are delicate so you can't ever tell me if I've done something wrong."

Or of course, it could be drinking and drugs. 

I'm a big believer in talking things through. And listening. I'm not going to dissolve in tears any time we wind up in conflict. I think we should all be kind and give people a second chance. 

But--and this is a huge but--I hereby give you permission, if you encounter any of these psychological issues, to quit. Just quit. Be kind, but quit. There are times when I have wisely done so and times when I have hung in there long after I should have left. It's okay to leave. You will find/create/stumble onto another group, and chances are dang good that it will be a better match for you. 

Let's be friends

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  • Oh, Nancy. Put on some Spirituals. You are free. It may take awhile to find another group. You may need to troll some classes (in the sense of dragging a fishing net behind you, not of being a stubby, irritable mythological creature lurking under a bridge.) Our group met again yesterday, and they are so damned grownup and so damned helpful! Good luck. 

  • Nancy E. Devine

    Thank you--I needed that kick in the pants to quit a group, and i feel so much better! 

  • Thank you, auto correct. That sounds like the white-shirted White Mormon kids in Book of Mormon singing, "I Am Africa."

    How about, I live in the Midwest?

    Much better.

  • I am now Midwest.

  • Mardith Louisell

    Great post, Sakki. You hit all the pitfalls and also provided of list of possible expectations. Loved it. Where do you live?

  • Oh, Miriam, how I feel your pain. I was stuck in a small town that couldn't even vote to support building a new library. (The old one, a converted grocery store, leaked.) But I found it rough in Los Angeles, too. Oh, in L.A., there were groups for screenplay writers, sitcom writers, (we left before internet writing took off) and groups for romance, thrilled, mystery and sci fi writers. But the only groups I found for literary fiction were either closed protectively around themselves (which I completely understood--who wants to mess with something that worked, or--and I think this might be specific to L.A.--the best, most interesting writers would quit mid-stream, to, I don't know, go race car driving, or marry some millionaire from the United Arab Emirates. (These examples are not actually satire, but real.
    Please, please don't give up hope. Try starting a group in She Writes, or drive hours to take a class as I sometimes did. Or start a lonely arts club in your town, some speed-dating event where people pitch to one another in search of a critique-worthy mate. Yes, you'll waste time down many blind alleys, but eventually, you'll at least find a friend or two who'll read what you write and vice versa. I wish you the best of luck.

  • I recently moved to a new area and found a group held in the local library where they only purchase literary fiction on request.  (This should've been a clue.) The leader of the group was, shall I say, awful.  She praised everyone's work as though it were a therapy session.  No one handed out hard copies so one couldn't really critique properly.  The writing was amateurish and I could tell by the reading--poor grammar plus no story line.   I tried it twice and gave honest opinion and was greeted with smirks and silence.  There were about eight people present only and the leader had a file of over 200 other writers who had once attended.  When I questioned this, she said everyone comes in with their book (all self-published) and when we don't buy it they don't come back.  I tried to tell her it had to be more professional but I obviously insulted her.  It was such a waste of precious time.  Still hoping....

  • Hey, Joanne. Yes. I lived in a small town, and was writing literary fiction. It was impossible to find a serious critique group unless one was writing Christian fiction. (My fiction seems to involve a great deal of Jewish ethics.)

     I guess that's where something like She Writes can save the day. I have made a couple of friends on here with whom I have shared work and one who I hope will be a buddy forever, though I have never met her face to face! When we moved, I researched literary centers and we aimed for one of those. 

  • Yeah, Bridget, in the last group, we had a member who didn't write. For years. I loved this member's writing--on those rare occasions when she brought it in-- and worried about the lack of it. She was a founder, and organizer and co-leader. She was not easy when anybody else took on leadership roles.

    One day, I went over my notes and realized she had brought in about four pieces in six years. Six years! I brought it up at the next meeting, asking how we could support her to get past this block. What tools could we brainstorm? How could we help?

    After group, she greeted me with angry tears. She felt I had publicly attacked her by bringing this up in our writing group. She listed all the messy, awful things that had happened in her life over those years, which she felt were the reason why she wasn't writing. (I had been there; i remembered) I publicly apologized at the group's next meeting because--why not? I had hurt her and she had felt ambushed. 

    But, like you, I am so happy now to be in a  group where we are all equally excited to be there, and equally busy getting our writing in each week. 

  • Hi, Nancy. I would feel very badly if this post made you feel that you were "less than" as a writer. I strongly believe that everyone should find the group that suits them--except for those who prefer to work without a group. More power to them, too. 

    In my experience, having people who are at very different levels into the same group leads those with much less experience to feel "unsupported" by the critiques given by more experience writers, and those with much more experience to feel frustrated and as though their needs aren't being met. 

    But that's just my experience. If yours is different, like I said, trust your gut. 

  • Bridget Burke

    One of the most frustrating things I encountered was when a member of a critique group I was in  DIDN'T write. In the two years she was in the group she wrote the same paragraphs over and over again and only presented when pushed to. but was very happy to critique others. So in the current group I'm in, we made a rule you must present something you have written every other time the group meets which is monthly. The current members present every time we meet.

  • Your post on writer's groups was good and informative. For those who are experienced writer's can or should be able to do as mentioned. A lot of writer's groups invite others who are interested in doing some writing and are not experienced at writing, so the group becomes a learning tool for the new writers which I find fun to work with in getting them started off.  I agree there are some groups who do not have enough experienced writer members especially small town groups, which can invite other authors to come in and put on workshops. I belonged to such a group at one tine and it worked out well. 

  • I appreciate your candor as a result of your experiences with writer groups. I found your statements - that you can't write what you haven't mastered and you certainly can't critique it...if you haven't mastered one skill, it affects all the others - a little harsh. Your expectations for writer members are high. I haven't "mastered" anything. If I did, I wouldn't need a writers group to help me with the "pillars." I would hope that members' writing strengths would help to support and instruct fellow writers' weaknessess. Not every writer is on the same level of "masterdom." I think I would feel like a loser writer if I hadn't meet certain writing criteria.  I agree ....know when to say when a group is not for you, not because members are beyond your writing level and you lack understanding of a few writing concepts but because there may be a lack of support from fellow members.

  • Laurie Harper

    Well said and appreciated.

  • Terrific, Kristin, I hope it helps others waste less time. 

  • Great post, Sakki! I've grabbed it for a newsletter feature next week!