Why I Avoid Writing Critique Groups


When recently I told a neighbor that I was a writer, her eyes lit up. “I am too! I just sent a manuscript to an agent. Do you belong to a group?”

I told her no. I could have said why, but I decided to keep my thoughts to myself.

“Well, I go to a group where we critique each other. We help each other, tell each other what we are doing right or wrong.”

She was not telling me anything new. I had been to critique groups. My first critique experience had been dispiriting. I was in college and had just become a member of a local group that met on weekends.

Not wanting an ego throttling on my first critique, I wanted to present a proven success. I selected a humorous essay I was proud of. I wanted to see how the critique process worked before I entrusted a vulnerable work-in-progress to strangers. Two college professors had already raved over the piece I had chosen. It had received an “A” grade and I was confident in it.

The critique group was made mostly of retired senior citizens who sat around in a prim circle. When it came to be my turn, I read my piece aloud. I looked up expecting, if not applause, at least amused smiles.

Instead, I met silence. Frowns had appeared, foreheads had furrowed. Finally one lady spoke. “What is your point?” she said. “Does the story have a moral?”

Her question confused me. Moral? The stories I read had not had morals since my introduction to Aesop at age 6. My essay had been a simple narrative describing a childhood experience. It had a humorous satiric edge; at least, so I had been told.

Another lady pitched in. “Maybe it would have been better if you had started your story with a date, said something like, in 1972 I was on the playground at my school.”

A date? I could not imagine anything more boring as a hook to entice readers. I had begun my story in mid-action, a time-honored technique called “in medias res.”

More group members chimed in, throwing out advice for what I could have done differently to make my story “work” better. The lady who had suggested I begin my story with a date said, “The story may have some potential.” Afterward, the group moved on to other readings, and the rest of the session was group members gushing over each other, regular attendees, for their W.I.P.s.

Had I not gotten such glowing responses from my college professors, I am sure I would have gone home thinking that my essay was tripe. It might never have occurred to me that the elderly critique members were simply not my audience.

I never went back to the critique sessions, but I continued to go to the non-critique meetings, which often featured speakers who wrote professionally. I entered some of the contests, which were judged by outsiders like college professors and professional journalists. I won many of them and felt vindicated. But, other than some ego boosts from winning contests, how much did I really learn or benefit from being a member of a group? Not enough to continue.

I later discovered that critique groups are not necessary for becoming a better writer, but writing a lot is. I found that I could learn far more through my own experiences than from people telling me what to do or not to do.

After moving to Florida a couple of years ago someone persuaded me to attend a writing group as a way to meet other writers or “network.” But I soon learned that the local group was a critique group only.

Reluctantly I attended but this time I did not bring a written piece to share. I wanted to gauge the group dynamic before paying my dues to join. It turned out that the new group was not much different than the other one. In general, the critics focused on the trivial. Much of the advice they gave was useless and some of it harmful.

One woman shared a humorous crime story. Her fresh and lively writing style was enviable. Her humorous voice, with its subtly ironic undertone, was her strength. The biggest problem with the story was that the motive for the murder seemed insufficiently compelling.

But to my surprise, group members went after her writing style, telling her that she should “tone it down.” Other group members chorused agreement. The writer did not argue but accepted the criticism as mature people are expected to do.

I had seen enough. I did not go back.

Despite my personal dislike of critique groups, some people find them helpful. Some acclaimed writers swear by them. The popular science fiction writer Brandon Sanderson uses group critiques as a routine part of his editing process. Before becoming famous, Anne Rice also attended critique groups even though group members panned her stories.

After the meetings, she would go home and cry. Then she would do what she wanted to do anyway, which is no doubt is why she was so successful. I admire her for staying true to her vision despite majority opposition, but I wonder why she continued to go back to critics that had made her cry.

Many writers see critique groups as a way to get honest feedback for their work. I completely understand that. I treasure criticism that sheds light on a way to make my writing clearer or more engaging.

I always have someone read my blog posts before I publish them, someone I trust to be honest, who will tell me when something is truly wrong, unclear, or untrue but will not make criticisms just for the sake of them. Not everyone has someone to do that, so critique groups may be a solution for some feedback seekers.

Although my personal experiences with critique groups have led me to shun them, I imagine they could be useful if the writer has clear criteria for knowing what kind of criticism to listen to and what kind to disregard.

Some professional writers have advised that if only one person makes a criticism, it is okay to ignore it, but if a lot of people are saying the same thing, you should probably make changes.

But art is not created by consensus. Besides, even assuming the majority is always right, which majority? The critics consulted might all be part of the same demographic, such as those who dislike a particular genre or the elderly group who snubbed my essay at my first critique. In that situation they were the “majority,” yet my professors who were outside it had loved my story.

So how can you tell good criticism from bad? For me, good criticism is the kind that comes with an “aha” moment. When criticism is useful, I am able to look at my text and see that, yes, my writing is more vivid when I use more active verbs; or yes, I can see how that passage might be confusing; a clearer image would make my prose easier to follow.

The advice that I should begin my essay with a date was arbitrary. There was no intelligence behind it. No reason was given. Following the advice would have hurt my writing.

I have had more “aha” moments from individual rather than group responses. Group critiques are a game in which a main objective is to find fault with writing, while also supplying praise to soften the blows. A passage of Moby Dick could be submitted to a critique group, and if no one knew where it came from, the darts of criticism would still be thrown because the game is to throw them. To say that any work presented is fine the way it is would be heresy. But sometimes it really is.

When I apply the “aha” test to criticism, the decision to modify my own artistic expressions remains where it belongs: with me. Ultimately writing has to be about what the artists envisions and likes or the writing will be indecisive and lacking in authority. It will not be art but a production job.

The ultimate goal for any writer should not be an improved ability to please and obey rules. The true goal is mastery. A unique, fresh, and coherent vision comes from the stubborn ability to say “I like this better than that,” whether anyone else does or not.

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19 thoughts on “Why I Avoid Writing Critique Groups

  1. I don’t belong to any critique groups either. I always feel nervous admitting that, because I feel the word on the street is that all writers must join one. But I already know it wouldn’t be my thing. On the other hand, I rely on beta readers and find them invaluable. Some of their advice I take; some I don’t. I think knowing which advice to take and which not to becomes easier the more confident we become with our writing. I worry early on in a writer’s journey, an overly critical critique group could cripple the budding writer and make him or her never dare to pick up the pen again. I guess I’m of the mind set that if a critique group works for a writer, then he or she should go for it. If not, then he or she shouldn’t feel guilty for skipping that route.

    • Thanks so much for the share and this thoughtful response Carrie! 🙂 Nice to know that I am not the only one who has no interest in being part of a critique group.

      I agree with you that Beta testers are essential. Constructive feedback is a good thing. But I think that the group dynamic can change how people behave. Critics can team up on writers and end up crushing what is fresh and good about their work.

      There may be groups where this never happens but I have found that I can learn a lot by my own experimenting. A group is not essential and sometimes it does harm.

      But as you said, I have no problem with other people going to critiques if they feel strongly that it benefits them.

  2. Hi Lisa & Carrie:

    I feel your pain, Lisa. From your account of the two groups you tried, it sounds like what was missing in both were clear objectives & a strong leader. I’m in a critique group & frankly, I love what it does for my work. The group has been together for nearly three years, now & I think it holds together for the following reasons.

    1. Congruent objectives. We’re all serious about our work & publishing.
    2. We approach the process differently. Rather than the author reading his/her work aloud, we email our next snippet to each other & take the time to review it before we meet, emailing it back to the author to consider. We function more as editors than consumers of literature.
    3. When we meet, we discuss it further & the author has ample opportunity to ask questions. We also brainstorm different approaches the author might take.
    4. Last but not least, each member recognizes that letting someone read your work before it’s “ready” is inherently courageous. We handle each other’s work (and egos) accordingly. We see the mission of our group to facilitate & refine art, not stoke our own clever egos @ the author’s expense.

    I think the “moral” 🙂 of your story, Lisa, is while anyone can form a critique group, not everyone should or has any business trying to run one. Your observations about the sophomoric comments in your example have altogether too much truth. It sounds like you had people trying to play literary critic rather than serious writers attempting to help each other bring out the best in each other’s writing.

    • I really enjoyed reading this comment Dirk! Thanks so much for sharing your insights about what constitutes a beneficial critique group.

      I particularly appreciate your alternative to reading work aloud. That would counter some of the knee-jerk reactions I have seen. If people have time to give real thought to a piece I can see how that could be tremendously helpful. It would also prevent mindless “teaming up.”

      But it sounds like your group members are not prone to that anyway. It is awesome that you have a group you are comfortable with and that brings noticeable improvements to your writing! From some of the comments I got on this post from Twitter your experience appears to be all too rare!

      Because I have other ways of getting feedback I feel no need for a group right now and I would have trouble after my experiences putting my work in the hands of strangers to critique. But it is awesome to know that groups can be intelligently conducted.

      Thanks so much for the sympathy! And enjoy the benefits of honest and tactful feedback that comes from people who are thoughtful in their criticism. 🙂 That is extremely valuable.

  3. I loved this post! I’m not afraid to gush, ha ha ha!!!

    While I don’t envision myself ever joining a critique group, I’m attending a writers conference and a workshop taught by a memoirist whose book I loved. My instructor Frances Lefkowitz’s acclaimed memoir To Have Not” is about growing up poor in San Francisco. It’s a four-day-long summer camp for writers and I couldn’t resist applying for a fellowship. That included submitting a writing sample for their review, and I didn’t think I had a chance in hell. When I won the award, I took it as a good omen that I needed to go. I’m very excited (and nervous) about it! Hopefully it will be a tear-free experience!

    That total digression aside, you are truly lucky to have someone who you trust be willing to read your blog posts before you publish them! That’s awesome! I’m used to just taking a wild leap by myself and sadly, my posts suffer for it, but perhaps someday I’ll find someone too. Maybe Lucy? 😉

    I’m so sorry you received such vapid “criticism” from the 1st group – that would completely undo me. I’m glad you honored your intuition and found what works best for you!!!

    Again, this is truly an outstanding post! :)))

    • Thank you so much for your awesome comments Dyane!!!

      I love the word you used to describe my critics: “vapid.” That is so apt.

      I am excited about your fellowship and looking forward to learning how it goes. From the description in your blog it sounds like you will be working with a knowledgeable writer and not a vapid one.

      I am so happy you enjoyed the post!!! Your comments always rock!!

  4. The best writing group I’m part of is where we do quick 10 minute sessions of on the spot writing. Either guided by prompts, random ideas, or just writing in a journal type of way.

    We then read it back to the group after 10 minutes. There’s no negative critique with the group we are all talking about what we enjoyed about eachothers writings and it flows into deeper discussions about feelings and the deeper meanings behind things.

    It’s so much fun.

    • That does sound fun. It sounds like the process Natalie Goldberg describes in one of her books where people could just write without any fear of criticism and members focused instead on just understanding each other. It is not the standard model but fear of criticism is the source of most block. Mark Twain wrote that if people learned to speak the way they learned to write, everyone would stutter. 🙂

  5. My “critique group” – aside from mandatory workshops for my creative writing degree (in which I sign up for workshop in the middle of the semester, so I get a chance to read others’ writing, and decide from there whose feedback I’ll value more) – is always writers I’ve connected with on Twitter, strangely. I choose (that’s a weird word, but hey) writerly friends whose writing I’ve read and respected, because if I feel their writing style has something to offer, then odds are they’ll have something valuable to say.

    I think going to critique groups – particularly when the audience is full of strangers – is a great way to practice sifting through the “good” feedback and the “bad.” As in: how to decide whose feedback is best for your work. And if nobody’s is best? C’est la vie: ultimately you’re the writer and you know what’s best over everything.

    I completely agree with you when you say the best practice might not be critique groups (although if you find the right group: fabulous!) but simply writing. A lot. And reading. You’ll never get better if you don’t persevere. I’ve also found it incredibly useful to learn and grow and improve my writing by critiquing others (again: thanks to the mandatory workshops; I tend to listen to the professors more, but not every single time). By critiquing others and pointing out potential flaws and missed opportunities, it helps you hone your own sense of what you want out of a short story and allows you to find potential flaws in your own writing, following your own rules.

    Sorry for the long comment, but this is a great post! Thanks so much for it; I think sometimes people put too much stock in critique groups and insist that any feedback has to be right – it’s not. Thanks for putting it out so eloquently!

  6. I feel like such groups enforce the giving feedback because you have to. It seems that they enforce being the competition of giving feedback where quantity counts. I think having such a dynamic changes how people look at a story: they look at details instead of the broad picture.

  7. Excellent post. I’ve been to only one critique group and had a similar experience to yours.
    I think you hit it on the head when you say that the best thing to help you become a better writer is to write a lot.
    Every time I think about trying another group, I remember that the couple hours a week attending the group will cost me is a couple hours more I could be writing.
    I’ll take the writing.

    • I agree about taking the writing over a critique group any day! I think part of the appeal of critique groups — or at least what attracted me to them originally — was that it was an activity related to writing that wasn’t actually writing. I went through a long creative drought and thought the group would inspire me but now that I’m not blocked I would much rather write.

      Thanks so much for reading and good luck with your writing! 🙂

      • “Related to writing but not actually writing.” Bingo!
        That’s writing groups gone wrong in a nutshell. It’s a way to feel like we’re doing what we ought to do without having to do it.

  8. Thanks so much. I needed to read this today. I’ve been participating in an online group and have started to feel like the walls are closing in on me. Inherent within a group, especially a large one in which critters critique in large quantities in order to get enough points to present their own work, conformity appears to flourish. I’ve felt like a lot of the suggestions I’ve been given would, if heeded, actually diminish the quality of my prose and my unique voice. One thing I have gained from the group is to notice plot holes. I also learned I needed to ratchet up the conflict more, although usually the ways in which critters suggested I have rejected, in large part because they came across as formulaic. My struggle, however, is that I know I need feedback. I am a beginning fiction writer, but it’s just so hard to know which feedback is good and what feedback I should throw in the trash, especially because I’m a beginner to the whole process.

    • Sorry for the frustration! I know it must be hard being a beginner. Writing is terribly subjective so advice can end up being confusing, especially when advice varies from one person to the next. But, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, some techniques in general work better than others.

      When I say “in general” I really do mean “in general.” In writing there are really no hard and fast rules — just rules of thumb. It can be valuable to learn what the rules of thumb are, but ultimately you are in charge.

      There are many good books on writing that can teach you the rules of thumb, but the best way to learn to write is to write a lot. Critique groups aren’t necessary for artistic growth, and they have never helped me.

      Write what YOU like! If people give you advice, feel free to ignore it if it doesn’t make sense to you or doesn’t appeal to you. You may be a beginner but you are still the artist and you have an idea as a reader what makes writing good Write what is interesting to you and you’ll probably find that others are interested in it too.

      Thanks so much for your comment! Glad you found my post helpful! 🙂

  9. I don’t think I would join a critique group at this point, but it was one of the best first steps I took as a younger writer. As somebody already mentioned above, not all critique groups operate like the one you went to. In my first group, we brought new chapters to each meeting to be looked at and thought about until we met again. So we discussed work we had thought about quite a bit, and we never read our work aloud. Also, it helped that we were all similar types of writers, looking to publish mysteries and thrillers. I would cautiously recommend the right kind of critique group to a new writer, but they are (IMO) a waste of time for mature writers who need to put their work before actual readers instead of other writers. On the other hand, re my recommendation, I don’t think critique groups are necessary. They are just one way to practice at meeting deadlines and critiquing and editing text. If you have to edit others’ work, you will grow in editing your own.

    • Thanks for commenting Jill! I’m so glad your critique experience was better than mine. Many writers have told me that there are good critique groups and if they help some writers, that’s awesome. But they’re not for me. 🙂

  10. I went to a critique group yesterday, they made me want to quit writing. I spent 10 years writing this 16 chapter novel and they just tore the first chapter I submitted to bits. Wish I could find somwhere online to get better feedback.

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