Why You Need to Recognize a Good or Bad Writer’s Critique Group
Last week I shared Why Every Writer Needs a Genuine Critique Group. By “genuine” I mean a good, effective writing group. Not all critique groups are healthy or right for you. By learning the signs of a good and bad critique group, you’ll save yourself time and heartache as you develop your story.
5 Signs of a Good Critique Group
1. Constructive Feedback
A good critique group will provide constructive feedback. This means they will point out areas of your piece that need improvement and suggest ways to make those improvements. For example, if your piece needs more of your character’s internal thoughts, critique members might point out places where you could insert those thoughts. Constructive feedback focuses on what a writer is trying to do or say and how to make that effect or story as clear and impactful as possible.
In addition to what is not working in a piece, good critique groups point out what is working. They celebrate each other’s strengths while addressing their weaknesses. Praise encourages writers to continue writing and revising and can buoy the spirit of the group or session. Critique groups function like a writer’s support group because they help writers improve and keep going.
3. Big and Small Picture Comments
A good critique group will have more to offer than a spelling and grammar check. They are more like developmental editors than copy editors. They will offer advice on your piece’s characters, structure, setting, description, dialogue, plot, and pace where needed. They will recognize when something might be ten page syndrome – when something they need clarified was covered earlier in your story and doesn’t need to be repeated here. Good critique groups know there is more to editing and writing than moving commas.
4. Thick Skin
Each member of a critique group should be able to take critique. They should sit quietly and absorb the feedback they are receiving. They might ask questions for clarification or to see if a certain aspect of the piece was clear and might explain what they were attempting to show, reveal, or develop so the group can help them with that part. Basically, members need to have a thick enough skin to understand a critique is not an attack and their writing is not perfect.
A good critique group also needs chemistry. The group is composed of people, so personalities need to mesh and the members need to have similar goals. If one person wants a writing career, one person just wants to write, and another is a seasoned professional, their goals for feedback, finished products, and productivity might be too different for the group to work. However, if everyone is hoping to publish and wants to learn, the group will likely be successful.
5 Red Flags of Bad Critique Groups
1. Destructive Feedback
A bad critique group does not give constructive feedback. They point out everything that needs to be changed without offering any advice on how to make those changes. They also let their own personal opinions and biases color their critique. For example, if someone brought in a Cli-Fi (climate fiction) piece, and another member only comments on how global warming isn’t real, that is not constructive feedback. Those comments don’t tell the writer how to improve and aren’t addressing the current piece; instead they are rewriting the story.
Critique groups should not write your story for you. They should respect your vision as a writer and offer new ideas or suggestions on the direction you are headed, not tell you what they would do if they were writing your story.
2. All Negative or Positive
Only pointing out what is wrong with a piece is not supportive or encouraging. Writers can quickly become warn down when everything they hear about their writing is negative. Critique groups centered around negativity tend to not last long or have members constantly rotating in and out.
Only pointing out what is working is just as harmful. Writers can’t grow if they are told their writing is perfect. When they go to a critique group, they want to improve, not only be told how wonderful they are. (Even though every writer secretly hopes for the day their critique group will only have minor suggestions and love their submission.)
3. Focus on the Inconsequential
Bad critique groups can get lost in the small aspects of a piece and forget to offer feedback on the big picture. They will take up most of the meeting pointing out missing commas or an overuse of exclamation marks instead of the glaring plot hole or complete lack of setting.
When a member becomes argumentative and defensive every time someone offers constructive feedback, they are not ready or right for critique. These people are often overly harsh when reviewing other people’s pieces, but can barely handle anything more than “you need a comma here” on their own work. They often create tension within the group and have been known to cause group disintegration.
5. Egos and Attitudes
When group members don’t get along, are overly arrogant, or can’t communicate effectively, you have a bad critique group. While the members don’t need to be BFFs for life, they do need to be able to interact respectfully and with a certain degree of professionalism. Talking down to each other or not being able to articulate what you mean in a way everyone else understands leads to a bad critique group. One way to avoid this is to make sure everyone in the group understands critique terminology. The Dictionary of Fiction Critique by Kate Jonuska is an excellent place to learn what is meant by phrases like ten page syndrome or seeding.
Why a Professional Editor Recommends You Give Writers a Chance
Now that you understand the difference between a good and bad critique group, I want to point out that no one starts as an amazing critiquer. There is a learning curve. If someone is eager to learn and improve and meshes with your group but doesn’t quite have good feedback skills, give them a chance. Think about how quickly you learned to be a good critique group member and how you can help them. The same goes for trying a new group. Even if you don’t click the first time, attend at least two meetings. Maybe the first day was an off one for the group.
At the same time, don’t feel obligated to remain in a bad critique group. They have the potential to harm your writing, your critiquing skills, and your confidence. You have to do what’s best for you and your writing. When you’re trying out critique groups, look for the good signs and be wary of the red flags, so the group you pick will help you Ignite Your Ink.
What are signs you look for to decide if a critique group is good or bad? Share them in the comments below. For more articles helping you improve your writing and a free Revision Checklist, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.