Critique Groups: Etiquette

My Pal The Meerkat (wouldn’t that make a swell title?) made a very useful post a couple of week ago on writerly support: that is, beta readers vs. writing groups vs. going it alone.  Which made me think about writers’ groups in general, and how to go about using them.

I attended Clarion back when it was still in East Lansing, MI.  It was wonderful for me, not just because I learned a huge amount from my teachers and colleagues, but because it gave me a chance to hang out with people who were concerned about the same things I was, from character arc down to the order of words in a sentence.

But most of us may not get the time/money to live for a week or two weeks or six weeks in a hothouse of writerly advice and gossip.  For ongoing critiquing, we will more likely use local groups with scheduled meetings. Sometimes there are members of the group who have experience with critique groups; sometimes not.  For those without experience, here are some important guidelines.

  • Assume the playing field is level.  Just do.  You don’t want to speak up to some of your colleagues or down to others.  It can make for hard feelings.
  • Everyone’s story/book/epic poem is her baby. People may deny it, but I’d venture to say that, no matter how eager we are for feedback and critique, none of us wants to see our stories lying bloodied in the streets.  Be kind but firm.  Critique groups are not the place to show off how smart you are by being snarky.
  • When possible, even when a story makes you want to be snarky, think in terms of how to improve it, not how bad it is.  If necessary, go home and write a snarky review in your Sekrit Diary (and leave instructions with your executor to have the thing burned after your death).
  • Remember that you’re not writing the story, the author is.  Which is to say, except maybe on a grammatical level, don’t say: this is how to fix it.  It may be the author will see the problem and come up with a way to address it that you’d never have imagined.  This is a good thing.
  • If a story pushes your buttons, say so upfront.  “I have some issues with the torture of penguins that aren’t related to the writing,” is a lot better than being upset and taking it out on the story or the author.
  • Similarly, if you are pretty sure you’re not the target audience for a work, say so.  For example, I read almost no epic fantasy; it’s not a genre that grabs me.  This can make me a useful reader, as long as both the writer and I are clear on the point.
  • When it’s your turn to be critiqued, try not to flinch.  It’s natural to want to defend your child (there’s that metaphor again), but if you leap in to explain, you won’t hear the very thing you want: explication of where the problems lie.
  • Listen.  As a critiquer and as the critiqued.  Especially when you’re being critiqued, don’t let a comment start you constructing a response rather than listening to more comments–you’re only shorting yourself by doing so.
  • When discussing the work of your fellow workshoppers publicly, never say anything slighting.  Seriously.  If you love something, spread the word.  If you hate it, stand mute; what would be the upside of bad-mouthing the work of a writer you’re going to see every other Tuesday night?
  • Make a good faith effort to engage with the work rather than the writer.  I’ve been in groups with people who I would personally have liked to hit with a shovel.  Don’t think about them: think about the story that’s on the page. There are plenty of writers with loathesome personal habits and bad clothes, but we don’t know those things if we encounter their words on a page.  Divorce the work from table manners or how she treated her last boyfriend, and look at that.

Which all comes down, I guess, to: treat your colleagues as you wish to be treated, and then add 10% more kindness.  Treat the work as you wish your own work to be treated, and add 10% more thought.


Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone WarPoint of Honour, Petty Treason, and a double-handful of short stories which are available on her bookshelf.  She has just finished The Salernitan Women, set in medieval Italy, and is now working on the new Sarah Tolerance novel, The Sleeping Partner. Her early Regency romances are coming soon to Book View Cafe.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Critique Groups: Etiquette — 13 Comments

  1. Some groups I’ve been with forget that they can audition new members and divorce old members.

    Not ever personality fits every group. There is always 1 who can only make their own work look good by beating down everyone elses’. Unless you are willing to spend a great deal of time and energy building this person’s ego and critiquing their work very lightly until they can handle more, suggest they look elsewhere for a better fit.

    Finding the right mix of skill and personality is a gift. Treasure it.

  2. A good mix, or fit, is crucial.

    Actually, the problem I’ve seen that has led to “divorcement” a couple of times has been intractability: a workshop member who submits work, receives critique with every evidence of interest, and pays no attention to it. After a while (a year, at least) you wonder why you’re spending your time coming up with honest comments for someone who simply cannot/will not absorb them. These “divorces” weren’t done lightly, but it was amazing the sense of relief that went through the group when that person was gone.

  3. I’ve never been part of a critique group, per se, but I do belong to an online group of authors who occasionally read each other’s work and make suggestions. Since I’m the Queen of Revision, if I treat their work like my own, I ruffle a lot of feathers. I guess that prevents them from ever asking me to look at their work again “G”, but I seem to look at story and character arcs more than many of the people in this group. So being nice isn’t enough. I think I’m nice. But telling someone to eliminate the first ten pages seems to fry wires. Which leaves me going it alone. More power to you if you find compatible partners!

  4. “Intractability: a workshop member who submits work, receives critique with every evidence of interest, and pays no attention to it.”

    Frankly, this sounds like a person who gives a gift and next time looks to see if the recipient is wearing/displaying it. If the workshop participant keeps bringing the same piece unchanged (or complains about publication troubles), that is a problem. But if s/he brings new pieces, what s/he does with the critique is her/his business.

  5. I’m not entirely certain that the analogy holds up: it’s more like, someone asks you to make a sweater. You do so, using materials and skill, and give it to that person. Asker says it’s wonderful. The next month they ask you for another sweater. You make another sweater. The sweaters are never worn; in fact, you begin to get the feeling that it’s the idea of the sweater rather than the sweater itself that the asker wants.

    In one case, the participant kept bringing in the same piece with the deck chairs slightly reordered. It became clear to us–not so much that we were wasting our time or the participants, but that our group was not going to be able to give the assistance the participant said was wanted, in a way s/he would be able to use it.

    In the other case, gradually the participant made it clear that what s/he was looking for was a rubber stamp.

  6. The analogy of the sweater is the same as mine of a gift, unless you assume that people put no time or thought in selecting gifts (or even making them).

    I think your stance on critique acceptance depends on what you want out of the critique group. If the goal is to get useful feedback for your work, how the rest take the critiques is irrelevant as long as they’re polite, do not bring back old work essentially unchanged and give constructive critiques to others.

    Also, if someone says, “You should make your protagonist a man because space operas with women central characters don’t sell,” I am not going to incorporate that critique, even though I acknowledge it’s valid.

  7. Pat–being “nice” isn’t required. Being useful is. But being nasty, under the mistaken impression that this shows how tough and smart you are, is a huge waste of everyone’s time.

  8. If I have to Vent about the mss rolling by in my workshop, I go to a safe (password protected!) place to wail in frustration.
    A group is useful purely because it is a group; if you complain of the trite plot it is because you are a grouch, but if the entire meeting is struck by its overdone quality then the critique tends to penetrate.
    It is also astonishing how very clear flaws are in That Other Guy’s novel. You then turn back to your own darling work and are able to see it.

  9. Making several suggestions about how something can be fixed, depending on the effect wanted, can help neutralize the effect.

    Also, when criticizing grammar — well, you know the rule there are no absolutes in writing? That’s true. But there are absolutes in critting. If you say that, say, the sentence before this one is in the passive voice, you are wrong. Also, a sentence that goes on and on and on is not a run-on sentence. And while those are the two most frequently grammatical errors in critiques I’ve seen, there are plenty of others. Never criticize grammar unless you have it down cold! — especially since most such things can be criticized on other grounds.

  10. Athena, I don’t think we’re as far apart as all that.

    “If the workshop participant keeps bringing the same piece unchanged…that is a problem.”

    And this is close to what I mean by intractability. I’m not talking about disregarding suggestions as to how to resolve a plot problem. I’m talking about more technical issues. And I’m talking about writers who listen to a critique, say they agree with most of it, and then turn virtually the same material in the next time.

    The problem, long-term, is not so much with the person being critiqued as it is with the effect of this, over time (by which I mean several years), on the critiquers: if I put time and effort and thought and maybe even some talent into fashioning a critique, and over and over I get the sense that the person I’m talking to is not hearing me, may be willfully not hearing me, this begins to have a withering effect on my ability to critique. Get a whole room full of people feeling this sort of frustration and it’s bad for the health of the workshop as a whole.

  11. Pingback: Writing vs. critiquing | Jamie Todd Rubin

  12. I have made the mistake of calling things I thought were grammatical errors and had to apologize later for my blunder, so I agree we should use caution in labeling those. (I’d always thought you were supposed to limit sentences to one “comma + conjunction” and thought if one used multiples it was called a “run-on sentence”, for example, but when I looked it up I found my error.)

    I participate in a monthly group whose feedback I haven’t found overly helpful (but whose members have expressed appreciation for mine). I feel like I get more attagirls and not enough suggestions for improvement, but I haven’t found another group yet. We have an old member who has returned after an absence, and I have hopes he (as a former magazine person) will provide more substantive critique.

    Online I’ve been participating in a couple of “last author standing” LiveJournal communities, the voting for which requires you (1) to vote both for the “best written” *and* the “least well written” pieces presented *and* to give a reason for each or your votes don’t count. We had a discussion about what criteria we used, and some people liked my list (which included grammar, punctuation, spelling, having a beginning-middle-end, and emotional impact), and while some expressed they liked and wanted to ador my list, some were vehemently opposed to the latter two. Diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks, as they say.

    Perhaps we need to tell people up front – whether a beta reader, a critique group or other – exactly what kind of feedbakc we’re looking for. (Sorry, I know I ended that sentence with a preposition!)

    Pat Sikora wrote a booklet on critique groups and came to our group to talk about what makes a good one. I think I need to dig that out and reread it!

    Good discussion here, and what I really appreciated seeing was the article writer participating in it, not just leaving the readers to hash it out in the comments! Good on you

  13. Why, thank you!

    Jill–when considering what you’re getting out of a writing group, don’t forget to consider what you’re learning as you critique. At Clarion I got a fair share of “attagirls,” which began to feel like I was being passed over for the needier students and the more talented ones. Afterward, I realized that one of the many benefits I’d gotten was a much much better sense of what I was looking for and at in a story.

    And yes, definitely: making it clear at the outset what you’re looking for (“I don’t need crit on my manuscript prep, really; tell me what in the story works and doesnt’, and flag typos when you find them”) can head off a good deal of frustration on both sides of the table.