Oh my gosh, it’s been so long since I’ve written a blog post! As some of you know, in addition to freelance editing and writing for others for a living, I also pursue my own creative endeavors. This spring, I took a few months off to spend time on two main projects—revising my new zine Pigtail Girls, and organizing the first Santa Fe Zine Fest in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Now that Santa Fe Zine Fest is behind me, and my work on Pigtail Girls appears to be on autopilot, I’ve started thinking again about you all—the other writers in my midst, and what tidbits of information I might be able to pass along to help you.
After taking time off to focus on my own writing, I feel closer than ever to the concerns and struggles of making creative work. Each time in the last few months that I’ve come up against an obstacle, had a breakthrough, or experienced a potent “ah ha” moment, I’ve made a little note to myself to write it up in a future blog post or newsletter.
So here’s July’s pearl of wisdom, which I gathered while going through an exhaustive beta reading and developmental editing process for my own work, a dark, strange, and non-conventional feminist fairy tale called Pigtail Girls that I’ve been writing on and off for 3 years.
You don’t need a critique group.
You really, really don’t.
In fact, giving your work to a critique group may do more harm than good.
(If your critique group is working for you, by all means stick with it. But if you’ve been having doubts or frustrations, and wondering how else you might get the feedback you need on your writing, read on!)
Reason #1: Critique groups encourage critique
Um… This one is pretty obvious. But since critique groups exist to give a writer feedback on how to improve their writing, many participants feel compelled to find something wrong with a story, even if it’s quite good.
It’s the old if-all-you-have-is-a-hammer conundrum.
I’ve seen some excellent work go in front of critique groups. After 10 minutes of praising the piece, inevitably an awkward silence falls over the room… until someone starts a chorus of nit-picky criticism that slowly wears away at both the story and the writer for the next 20 minutes.
In this scenario, everyone walks away feeling crappy—the writer, surely, but also the members of the critique group, who were so completely flummoxed about how to react to a solid piece of work that they ended up flailing around, subconsciously aware that they were not offering anything helpful yet not knowing what else to do.
This particular reality of critique groups is part of what leads writers to submit work that’s not finished yet—they know that the group will tear the story apart either way, so why submit a story that the writer is convinced is flawless? Which leads us to the second reason critique groups are problematic…
Reason #2: Subjecting a story to critique too soon can constrict creativity, ignite the inner critic, and lead to paralysis
There’s not too much to elaborate on here. If you submit work that’s in its tender sprouting stages to a critique group that rips it apart, it can be very difficult to shut up the critical voices in your head as you move forward with the story. Again, I’ve seen early drafts with tremendous potential be abandoned by writers who got steamrolled at their critique group.
Reason #3: Critique groups encourage “story by committee”
Imagine this (if you haven’t already experienced it first hand): You give your story to a critique group of 8 people. 6 of them think it moves too slow in the beginning. 2 of them say the opposite—they wish you would’ve slowed down in the early chapters. 4 of them don’t understand your protagonists motivations, while the other 4 feel like they’ve been hit over the head with them. 3 of them absolutely insist that your story is historical fiction and that you’re not adhering to the conventions of that genre, while the other 5 have no opinion on the matter.
Clearly, everyone can’t be right. So who do you believe? Do you try to please everyone? Defer to the majority? Ignore everyone’s advice and go about your business without changing anything at all?
In the worst cases, critique groups—especially for beginning writers—can quickly become a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. Writers find themselves trying to please everyone. Alternately, they weigh the group’s opinions based on the numbers, aka majority rules.
Not only does this strategy leave the writer overwhelmed and frustrated, it holds the added risk of cutting them off from their most powerful writing tool, the writer’s own self trust and intuition about their work. Which leads me to…
Reason #4: Critique groups can squash a writer’s fledgling sense of self trust
In the best case scenario, getting feedback on your writing from the right reader can help you cultivate and learn to trust your own intuition about your work. But critique groups sometimes do the opposite. Writers can get overwhelmed with feedback that seems to go against their own gut feelings, causing them to question whether they can trust themselves.
Reason #5: Critique groups can proliferate bad writing advice and discourage innovative work
This is a big one. Because critique groups have many members and are often populated with inexperienced writers, they tend to encourage conformity. Unless the group is being led by an experienced and well-read writer, experimental work that pushes boundaries or blends genres may be corralled into something more traditional and lackluster by writers who don’t appreciate, value, or like anything too “different.”
Another reason groups discourage experimental or innovative work is out of a belief that the work with never be published or received well by readers “out there.” They might think they are protecting the writer from inevitable rejection.
But ironically, this is exactly the kind of work that gets recognized by editors, publishers, and agents, and is most likely to be honored with awards later on. So not only can the critique group discourage a writer from producing something truly daring and interesting, they may also inadvertently sidetrack their success with misguided beliefs about what sells.
Last but not least, critique groups are often full of people who just straight-up give bad writing advice.
What To Do Instead
So if critique groups aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, what should you do? Abandon the idea of feedback all together?
No, of course not. You need high-quality feedback on your work from trusted sources in order to grow and improve as a writer. With critique groups, you can get your work reviewed by a large sample of people, anywhere from 5-20 depending on the size. You’d think that would be an advantage—more opinions, and a bigger sample of opinions. More is always better, right?
Well, as we’ve seen, not always. I’d argue that what you need to improve your writing is not more feedback but better feedback. At this point in my writing life, I have just a few readers who I really trust—readers who like my work, who get me, and who are able to give laser-sharp criticism that aligns with my own gut instincts rather than going against them.
If you’re like me and you’ve felt frustrated, overwhelmed, and constricted by critique groups, I highly recommend this strategy.
Where do you find these trusted readers? That’s the one thing a critique group can actually be useful for!—finding and connecting with individuals who you actually click with. Just be sure, once you find these people, not to succumb to the temptation to give your work out to more and more readers. You don’t have to prove yourself by making sure that 15 or 20 people approve of your work before submitting it for publication! Trust yourself, trust your one or two carefully selected readers, and move on.
Hope this helps!