A Tale of Three Critique Groups

Be so confident in knowing what you bring to the table you’re willing to eat alone until you find the right table.

Warning: This is not going to be a happy post.

I’ve been in three critique groups from the end of 2020 to now. One I formed, two I was invited to join. There were two more I helped form and turned over to others (both are non-US based and there were timezone and language issues which made regular exchanges with them challenging).

Let me be blunt.

  • Most people calling themselves writers have no hope of becoming international bestselling authors.
  • Most people calling themselves authors have no hope of becoming anything more than self-published wannabes.
  • Most people in critique groups want a pat on the head, a hug, and a rousing cheer of “Good for you! You put words together!” and not a serious critique of their work with the goal of improving their craft.

Some people proudly tell me they never pay for online courses and only take the free ones.

“How long you been doing that?”

A few years now.

“You been taking courses for a few years and your work still sucks this much? Put your money on the table now, honey, otherwise your work ain’t going nowhere.”

(you may enjoy the complete “Can I Be Honest About Your Writing?” series starting with Can I be honest about your writing? (Part 1 – Oh, the Vanity of it all!). I also talk about what makes a good critique in my interview starting at about 1:35m in)

What Makes Writing Worth Reading?
That’s a question I pose in my interview. What makes writing worth reading is being well-written. Well-written transcends genre, style, tropes, et cetera. If your writing sucks and even if it’s read, chances are it won’t be remembered and won’t have meaning in people’s lives.

And there you have what is penultimate writing TO ME! Writing stays with people regardless of its subject matter when it is well-written. Barry Lopez‘s work has stayed with me for decades. Ditto Farley Mowat‘s. Derek Bickerton, (some) Craig Johnson, Truman Capote, Charles Frazier, Brian Fagan, (most) James Blish, Clifford Simak, (some) Stephen King, (some) Michael Crichton, (some) Robert Silverberg, James Dickey, Walter Mosely, Langston Hughes, Mark Twain, Jean Toomer, Octavia Butler, Ursula LeGuin, (some) Chip Delaney, (much and not all of) Ray Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Julio Cortazar, Stanislaw Lem, Ayn Rand, Tim Wu, Carson McCullers, …

Look these authors up and you’ll note they span fiction and non-fiction, genre and poetry, and all write amazingly, uncommonly well.

Genre is irrelevant to me when it comes to reading material. Well-written is extremely relevant to me.

So when I critique my work and the work of others, I strive to find weaknesses in the writer’s craft which create bad writing and make suggestions for improving their craft.

Critique Group #1

“I think I have critique envy.”

The above is a quote from a member of Critique Group #1 after I gave a critique of a submission. We met once a month.

One person had three comments on an eight page manuscript. Another had 15. Another had four.

I offered 46. Not including suggested rewrites to tighten the manuscript and make it a better read.

Another manuscript garnered 19, 11, and I came in with over 70 on 20 pages, again not including suggested rewrites.

I noticed as the months went on everybody agreed with my suggestions and comments but they weren’t rewriting past work to bring it up to snuff. They seemed to be sending through stuff already written for me to edit.

I also noticed the quality of my critiques went down. I stopped caring because a critique group isn’t where people rewrite other people’s work, it’s where people work to improve their work.

I took a sabbatical. The group stopped meeting the next month in.

Critique Group #2
I mentioned to a friend I was looking for a critique group. She put me in touch with one. One of the people in that group was (at one point) a TV scriptwriter.

The format was a variation of The 20 Page Whack in which every member with work to critique read their work (five pages max) and the others, who received a copy ahead of time, offered comment.

Others offered 2-3 comments on each piece. I came in with a paragraph by paragraph (and at times sentence by sentence and word by word) analysis of what worked, what didn’t, why, and suggestions for improvement.

Dead silence when I was done.

I also read something.

Not quite dead silence as there were lots of “Wow”s and “That’s amazing”s and “You sure can write”s.

Flattering, but not helpful re improving my craft.

I left after one meeting.

Critique Group #3
I lasted two sessions. I was invited in by a friend. The usual flurry of book-reading-group type comments (“That’s nice.” “I like that sentence.” “Shouldn’t there be a comma there?” “I love the way you do your hair.”) . I came in, as usual, with suggestions and comments. I didn’t read past the first page on most the submissions because the mistakes were repetitive.

I asked one fellow what his story was based on. Did he have any actual experience in the subject?

No, he didn’t.

But he’s Jewish.

Huh? I swear that was his opening response.

I mentioned technical inaccuracies in his writing. No, he read books in his genre and watched movies and TV shows (see above re TV scriptwriting) so he knew his stuff.

I emailed him my critique explaining some massive technical errors he made, suggested a rewrite to solidify the action and remove the exposition, and he wrote me back explaining that my parents must have been closely related.

That was the first meeting. I submitted something for the second. The usual round of book-reading-group comments.

Except from two women who stopped reading my submission after the first few paragraphs because they…well, I don’t know. I contacted them asking for clarification. One never responded, the other responded with

I was confused. You are telling the story in the first person but I didn’t know who you were talking to. I was looking for quotes or something that would help me follow the story. I felt you were expecting the reader to fill in the blanks and I was unable to do that. You lost me in the first few paragraphs.

Curious what she read?
read the first page

I’d truly appreciate knowing if you agree with her.

I wrote the group I would be leaving: “Howdy,
I don’t believe I’m a good fit for the Tuesday night group at present and won’t be returning. I do appreciate the critiques you offered on my work. Likewise, I hope my critiques benefited you.
I wish you all every success in your writing.
Feel free to reach out to me if you wish. I’m always willing to work with people at improving their craft.
Stay warm, well, and safe.”

Some folks wrote my perspectives will be missed.

Punching in your own weight class
I don’t blame the folks mentioned above. I blame myself. Truly. My work in several disciplines taught me to

  1. work with people at your level or above
  2. share and discuss with people at your level
  3. teach people at your level and below.

And this brings us right back to

Be so confident in knowing what you bring to the table you’re willing to eat alone until you find the right table.


4 thoughts on “A Tale of Three Critique Groups”

  1. Joseph, I learned a great deal about critiquing techniques and writing approaches from being in one of the groups. My (and my co-author’s) writing improved from the various perspectives of others in the group. You specific detailed was invaluable and provided references for me. I wish I possessed your vast ability for consise, deliberate writing. Thank you for including me in one of the groups.

  2. I appreciated the bluntness of this post! I feel your primary points are widely applicable to humans generally, and certainly not just critique group members. I also continuously observe those behaviors among my work peers and employees, friends, family etc. I myself spent a great deal of my life seeking pats on the head, so I can understand some of the reasons and have empathy for those who do the same. Empathy aside, in my experience most people don’t want to do the work of learning. Even the reader of your excerpt obviously didn’t want to focus enough to read what, to me anyway, is a clear bit of prose. So many people (me often included) want everything to be easy and exactly what they expect. I’m not sure if that’s modern laziness or if it’s people wanting to stay safely in the cocoon of what they already know where they feel confident. What do you think?

    1. Bluntness…Thankee!
      I don’t remember ever telling me they were unsure of my meaning during conversation. Perhaps a desire to be clearly understood.
      Are the points I mention applicable to humans in general? Yes. Evidently we’ve stopped evolving. Or perhaps we find no need to better ourselves? Isn’t that what learning and practice are all about?
      I’m happy to give out pats on the head and am sensitive to other people’s abilities to receive criticism. Except when people present themselves as one thing and are clearly something else. Then we’re encountering wannabes. I’m happy to help wannabes to full being and that requires the wannabe wannabeing taught. The last three words in the previous sentence is where the breakdown occurs.
      (thanks for writing the excerpt is a clear bit of prose. I work at it)
      Safe cocoons and confidence:
      Insisting on perfect safety is for people who don’t have the balls to live in the real world. – Mary Shafer, NASA Dryden
      Nothing is safe except what we put at risk. Nothing works except what we give our souls to. – the next voice
      Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, cigar in one hand, favorite beverage in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and screaming “WOW – What a ride”
      A recent spate of stories announces that guns will soon kill more people than do cars, the present number-one cause of injury-related deaths. The two graphs are projected to cross each other in the mid-1990s when, it’s to be imagined, some safety-engineered car will function just long enough to participate in a drive-by shooting. – John Allen Paulos, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper Sept ’95
      They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. – Benjamin Franklin

      (and thanks for commenting)