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The critique group experience

I've just joined a writers' critique group. I don't think it's a great fit for me, but before I go shopping for something different, I thought I'd ask here.

Have you ever been part of a critique group? How about other writing groups (like beta partners, writers' organizations--places where you work on your writing "out loud" as it were, with other people)? What kinds of writerly interactions have helped you become a better writer? Finish something? Polish something? Has a critique group been valuable to you? In what way? Or in what way did it fail expectations?

I'd love to hear about it.

My new group, of which I'm the fourth member, follows the Clarion method: everyone emails a chapter to the group by Sunday night, and receives both written notes and discussion from the other three members at the Tuesday meeting.

The meeting is businesslike and lasts two hours. I've actually cranked out two chapters in the two weeks since I joined, just to have something to turn in. So clearly that structure is good for me.

Trouble is, I'm not sure how much it's going to help me improve as a writer. Possibly the skill disparity in the group is too marked. My manuscripts are full of faults, but they aren't the kinds of faults the other members know how to spot and analyze.

It seems to me that the least-skilled person this situation gets the most good out of it, because they get feedback from more experienced writers. But I could be wrong.

Tell me about your experience. (And feel free to ask other writers you know to weigh in. I'm really curious.)

Crossposted from Dreamwidth, where there are comment count unavailable comments.



( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 6th, 2015 11:56 am (UTC)
Any group I've ever been a part of has been most helpful in getting me to write so I have something to bring to the group. Often the critique hasn't been too useful, but getting myself to carve out some time regularly to focus on writing is what I need most anyway.
Aug. 6th, 2015 04:24 pm (UTC)
Thanks. Yeah, that was the immediately-obvious benefit of my joining this one. I think I just needed some insights like yours to help me triangulate on what's really valuable in the practice, versus what my expectations were.

Was the Clarion method the coin of the realm in groups you've been in? I have a hard time imagining anything more efficient, but then, I've never seen any other approach in action.
Aug. 7th, 2015 09:49 am (UTC)
Yes, it's always been that method. I can't really imagine anything more efficient, either.
Aug. 7th, 2015 03:40 pm (UTC)
Good to know. That method argues for small groups, too. The burden of commenting on more than three or four pieces would be immense.
Aug. 6th, 2015 02:01 pm (UTC)
I've never been in a critique group, but very often, really obtuse comments can be helpful, because you have to think about *why* they're obtuse and what you should do other than the unhelpful suggestions they've given.
Aug. 6th, 2015 05:08 pm (UTC)
Good point. It was very helpful to me (though not in the moment) to get a kind of blank look, and my manuscript handed back to me with "I don't really have any comments." Since it was clear that she wasn't saying "This is perfect!!!" I had to step back for a couple of days and really think about my own assumptions. Who's my target audience? How much do I care about that? Am I under "the curse of knowledge" that Steven Pinker devotes a section to in The Sense of Style?

I don't know the answers yet. Meanwhile, in order to get at least some feedback, I tried making my second submission more generally accessible, and behold! It actually did improve the damn thing.
Aug. 6th, 2015 04:56 pm (UTC)
I never had good experiences with a group. Most seemed way too focused on ripping a work apart than actually being helpful. :(
Aug. 6th, 2015 05:40 pm (UTC)
Ack! Bad group! No cookie!

I wasn't too worried about that with this group. One member is friend of long standing, and all are women in my age range, so there was a certain expectation of politeness. They also specify in their group agreement that comments must be constructive and polite. It's pretty well-regulated, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of ego floating around the table.

I was so anxious about being seen as the mean girl myself that I bought (and drank a bunch of) an "Anxiety Calm" herbal tincture before my first meeting! LOL. So I was pretty mellow when I got there. But my (notoriously incisive) comments had already been committed to the printed page.

Happily, it seems the other members found value in them. And, on review, my notes weren't mean at all, or "critical" in the bad sense. I guess, over the years, I've learned the vast difference between "This is bad! Don't write like you write! Write like I write!" and "This puzzled me. Can you clarify?"

Do you think you might ever try a beta or critique group again in any form?
Aug. 7th, 2015 03:55 am (UTC)
No, I won't. I send my stuff off to a few friends to read over. They are really good at catching the grammatical errors and making sure the plot makes sense, that dialog works, etc. I can always trust them when they say something does not work. But I was way too traumatized by the malicious glee that some of the people in the groups I tried took in ripping my stuff apart to ever participate in a group again. I am too introverted to play well with others, I guess.
Aug. 7th, 2015 04:00 am (UTC)
That's horrible! I'm sorry it happened to you. I applaud you for continuing to write after those kinds of experience: I know at least one writer who gave up.

Policing other people's creativity is just wrong. I'm glad you've found compatible beta-reader friends.
Aug. 6th, 2015 05:27 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this interesting post. I've never been part of such a group, but I think that I'd probably profit immensely from it, since there are so many basic aspects of writing that I still struggle with.

Looking forward to everyone else's thoughts and experiences!
Aug. 6th, 2015 05:45 pm (UTC)
Hi. Thanks for stopping by. As always when I Ask the Community, I'm getting some really good points back, and they're helping me triangulate on a solid way to think about group-based writing help.

One thing was clear from the start: nobody writes well in complete isolation. Even the greatest prose stylists need an editor. It's not nearly as lonely a profession as the cliche would have us believe!
Aug. 7th, 2015 04:38 am (UTC)
Hi there!

Off and on, I've been in a few critique groups in my day. In fact, I just joined a virtual critique group that focuses on historical fiction. By and large, I have found it helpful. There's just nothing quite as valuable as getting the opinions of unbiased people. There have been two drawbacks though - 1. It's time consuming because I need to read other people's work too. I'm also rather disorganized so that probably makes it take longer than it should. 2. One member of the group is rather abrasive and stated multiple times that she 'didn't like my story.' And then failed to give suggestions about how I might improve said story. When I asked for them she told me that it would take too much time to give me suggestions. I won't be exchanging critiques with her anymore.

If you think my group might be a better fit for you let me know and I'll request that you can join. It's rather nice not to have to physically go somewhere.
Aug. 7th, 2015 05:15 am (UTC)
Very tempting! May I hold this offer in reserve while I give my own new group a chance to gel? Historical fiction is, broadly speaking, what I'm working on now (and I'm excited to hear that you are too!). Tell me a little more about it--how many members, what level of critique are they looking for, etc.

Your number 2 drawback is a big one. Wow, how rude! I can't help thinking that the in-person meeting format (though fraught with logistical drawbacks) at least prevents that kind of counterproductive stuff. The peer pressure to behave decently would be too great, I think.

But transit time to my local group is going to become a problem for me before too long, I think, and there's one additional drawback that I didn't harp on here: they insist on working from paper copies. (As the kids say on Tumblr, I can't even. I haven't owned a printer for 15 years and I don't work in an office anymore!) So I'm potentially very interested in your group.

Aug. 8th, 2015 05:30 am (UTC)
Of course, take all the time you need. There are 13 members of this group, although a few aren't active right now. Most of them seem to write het romance which could have been the problem I had with that one member. My story is romance too but it's quirky and strange and I guess she just didn't know what to do with it. Most members seem to give general critiques, which is good.

LOL paper copies? That is rather archaic!
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )



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