What Do You Really Need From a Critique Group?

by Mike Duran

Not long ago, I was contacted by an unpublished author who was looking for a crit partner. They had acquired my addy from a mutual friend and was wondering if I’d be interested. I was flattered. Really. Nevertheless, I emailed this response:

Thanks for the consideration. I’ve kind of given up the crit partner thing, mainly because of my own schedule and perfectionist tendencies. When I’m not working (which is full-time), I’m writing or editing. I’ve found that I tend to overwork so many things — nit-pick, second-guess, obsess over detail — to the point that critting just takes far too much time and is often frustrating for whomever happens to be on the receiving end. My apologies, but I’ll have to pass on the offer.

Okay, so I’m anal retentive. When it comes to critiques, I am just too hard on myself and others…

And I think this is a good thing.

Maybe that’s why me and critique groups don’t always get along. You see, some of the critique groups I’ve come in contact with are just way too nice. Perhaps this is what some writers want — they want encouragement, they want to be told their stuff is good, they want to feel they’re on the threshold of publication, they want a pat on the back. The problem is, that’s not what they need.

Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, in a piece entitled “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” provides some wisdom on what we need in a critique group:

I believe the [writing] teacher’s work is largely negative, that it is largely a matter of saying, “This doesn’t work because …” or “This does work because …” The because is very important. The teacher can help you understand the nature of your medium, and he can guide you in your reading. I don’t believe in classes where students criticize each others manuscripts. Such criticism is generally composed in equal parts of ignorance, flattery, and spite. It’s the blind leading the blind, and it can be dangerous. (emphasis mine)

Two things stand out in this quote in relation to critique groups. One is the nature of the task. O’Connor notes that “the teacher’s work is largely negative.” No, she’s not implying that good critique is intentionally harsh, nor that it should be without encouragement or positive reinforcement, but that critique, by its nature, must be rigorous and address what is wrong with a work. In this sense, the work of a good critique group is largely negative.

Equally insightful is Ms. O’Connor’s suggestion that student-led critiques are unhealthy, “generally composed in equal parts of ignorance, flattery, and spite.” Which is a bit of a problem. Nowadays, most online writing groups are comprised of “students [who] criticize each others manuscripts.”

Clearly, many online critique groups do not seem to meet either of Flannery O’Connor’s specs. Whereas some groups exist primarily to provide support and encouragement (rather than correction and hard critique), other groups suffer because of their make-up (too many students and not enough seasoned authors), resulting in what O’Connor calls “the blind leading the blind.”

Of course, I’m not suggesting that a good critique group is without “support and encouragement” or that it cannot involve “students” swapping advice. The important thing is getting “trained” eyes on our work, receiving hard critiques without swooning, and being willing to absorb and make changes as needed. It is natural to need encouragement and, occasionally, a shoulder to cry on. But ultimately, if we are unwilling to seek honest criticism and unable to weather the toughest scrutiny, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and potentially capping our artistic growth.

Several years ago, the authors at Charis Connection (a group which has since disbanded) were asked if they belonged to a writing group. Of the ten that responded, only a couple spoke favorably of crit groups. At the time, I was incensed. “Of course crit groups are a good thing!” I protested.

Now I’m not so sure.

The question isn’t IF you need critique partners. The question is WHAT KIND of critique partners you really need. How you answer that question may, in the long run, determine a lot about your growth and longevity as a writer.

Question: Do you agree that there is an inherent danger in being critiqued by unpublished and beginning writers? Do you see the role of a critique group as primarily “negative”? What advice would you give a new writer who is seeking to have her work critiqued?

Mike is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket. He is represented by the rockin’ Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary. Mike’s debut novel, “The Resurrection,” is in stores now and his novella, “Winterland,” is available in e-book formats. Mike’s sophomore novel The Telling releases May 2012. You can visit his website at www.mikeduran.com.