The Elephant and the Critique Group

IMG_0837A national writers’ group I belong to periodically attempts to set up critique groups for those members who are interested. All or most of this is done online. Recently, I was given the names and emails of three other writers and we were on our own to get in touch and figure out how to construct an online group. This could have been an exercise in group dynamics or problem solving ability!

In short order we had the rudiments worked out, or at least partially worked out, for a trial run. We began with a ten page critique. I submitted first. The comments I received back were extremely helpful and insightful. Of course I did not agree with all of them, nor will I incorporate all of them, but overall, I was very pleased. What I wasn’t so pleased about was the apparent lack of interest in discussing/analyzing comments by the other members. There also appeared to be a restriction on the writer from asking questions.

This first short submission probably wasn’t something that would generate much controversy. The only comment I would have liked to analyze in-depth was one that would have generated a divide in the group. It is a topic that polarizes readers, as well as writers, and is mostly a matter of personal taste. Even though it is a debate I’d love to have, I was willing to ignore it for the sake of harmony. It also seemed like a topic to pursue once we knew each other better.

Because the others seemed to think that discussion would be detrimental to the group, I decided to poll the members of my in-person critique group, which has been meeting for twelve years. I asked what was the most valuable aspect of the critique process? Three of them responded. (The fourth was at work.) I stated that for me, the discussion is often the most helpful.  Here is what each said:

1. I agree that discussion is valuable for helping to clarify points for the writer. I also find that receiving a variety of opinions is helpful, both for content and line edits. And suggestions that others have can be useful as well if they fit the writer’s vision of where the work needs to go.

2. Helping me see blind spots by editing/pointing out word choice; helping me with the logic of plot or character choices; helping me brainstorm endings; reminding me that writing is a valuable act to engage in; arguing over stuff.

3. Showing me when something I’m trying to do or convey isn’t coming across or working. Showing me weak or confusing spots in my story.  Pointing out holes and logic problems.

When I explained that I thought some members of the online group were worried about arguments, #1 added, “It’s easy to manage if members are willing to just move on when it happens. Agree to disagree sort of thing. I think the benefits of discussion far out weigh the fear of an argument.”

#3 said she understood the point of not wanting to waste time and then added, “I can see how some writers would want comments from each reader and move on, mulling it all over later, rather than hear counter-comments.”

#2 said: Discussion is fun. Though not for the subject of, I suppose.

Yes, I very much value the line edits, and everything my partners above mentioned, but for me, listening to them debate points they might not agree about often gets to the crux of the issue. I know I have seen writers reach an epiphany when group members question them closely. Often this happens when a writer explains what they were trying to say or do, or why they said what they said. Then the group members say, “Oh? Now I get it, but why didn’t you tell us the baby elephant has been sitting on the coffee table the whole time?”IMG_0926

For those of you who have been in a critique group, either in person or online, what do you think are the most important aspects of your process? What rules do you have to govern how you approach a critique?

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