Writing

The Truth About Critique Groups

Before I get started, I want to make it clear that I believe writing critique groups can be a fantastic resource for bettering your craft if you’re in a group with the right people and dynamic. The key word is if. I should also specify what I mean by critique group. Other names for this might be a beta reading group or workshop group. I use these in my creative writing classes and participated in them in graduate school while getting my MFA in creative writing. Overall, I really enjoyed getting feedback on my work and I find my students get some valuable input regarding their pieces, but outside of a scholastic setting (and inside it if your professor isn’t actively working to keep it from going toxic), they can be very hit or miss. I have put rules in place in my classes to maintain order and keep the participants in my workshops happy, or at least, I try to keep them from leaving workshop dissatisfied. Here are some factors you may want to keep in mind if you are trying to create a workshop group of your own:

Find people close in skill or career level.

The problem with critique groups is that, ultimately, someone always get screwed over if the group dynamic isn’t perfect. To have a successful critique group, you need to have people who are of a very similar level in terms of skill. This means skill as a writer and skill as an editor. Sometimes you have someone who is a better editor than writer, which means they can be a very useful feedback partner, but if you have people of very different skill levels, the lower members of the group might feel like the feedback they get is harsh (especially compared to the feedback others are getting) and the higher members will get useless feedback that strokes the ego but doesn’t really improve their work. As much as I love a good ego pat in a workshop group, it’s demoralizing when week after week, you get told, “great job!” and nothing more. The highest people aren’t getting anything out of it. The lower people are made to feel bad if they aren’t accustomed to feedback or the other members are harsh/rude/not focusing on big picture issues. Often a lower writer will get a shit ton of knitpicky feedback, which is overwhelming but not useful if what they really need to focus on are big picture issues like character development or pacing. The people in the middle who are all close in terms of skill level or are in a place where they’re upwardly mobile with their skills gain the most from the group.

Be selective and expect change.

At some point, people will come and go from the group. That is just a fact of life, but as people outgrow the group or stop writing due to whatever reason, the group will change, and you will need to be careful about maintaining the dynamic within the group. It sucks because many of us in writing groups become friends or start to depend on people within those groups to give good feedback. At the same time, if you are in a group and find you aren’t getting anything out of it, don’t be guilt tripped into staying. The whole point of a group like this is that everyone should benefit. If you find you’re giving good feedback and getting nothing or if you find that your personalities aren’t meshing, leaving is probably for the best. For those creating a workshop group, I highly suggest being at least semi selective. You want people who are of similar skill levels, so you might want to ask to see their work and/or have them give feedback on a piece. I wouldn’t focus on grammar and such, as that is an easy fix, but check if their level of craft would meld well with the rest of the group. Some might think this is being elitist or exclusionary, but in order for a group like this to work, you can’t have a brand new writer stumbling into a group of seasoned writers where they are completely out of their depth and vice versa.

Rules, rules, rules.

The other issue is that you really need some sort of mediation or rules to keep the group structured. What I’ve seen happen online is that there’s one eager person who posts A LOT of material and asks for feedback while others post less often. Resentment grows for the frequent poster and the responses to their work dwindles, especially if they aren’t as eager to give feedback. Basically, the give-and-take balance needs to be maintained. With a workshop in a class, it’s fairly easy to maintain that balance because workshops happen at regular intervals, everyone [hypothetically] posts their work to their group, and those group members [hypothetically] respond to everyone within the group. There’s equal give-and-take and a fairly standardized amount of work that can be submitted. This keeps one person from completely overwhelming the group or being the only one giving feedback all the time. My suggestion would be to make subgroups if the group is decently large (keeping groups to 4 or less people) or create some sort of posting schedule with page limits to keep one person from monopolizing the group. Trust me when I say that in grad school, the person who handed in 10 pages when the limit was 5 got many a resentful eye roll during class. Don’t be that person. You also need admins to enforce the rules fairly and maintain some semblance of order. Toss out those who don’t pull their weight or repeatedly break the rules.

Use virtual meetings apps for workshops.

Something that I am very adamant about with my students is that they give feedback face-to-face or at least voice-to-voice. The problem with leaving feedback without explaining it aloud is tone. It is so easy to get bent out of shape because you think someone is being harsh when they don’t intend to. On top of that, people are less predisposed to casual nastiness if they know they have to say it to the person’s face. I have gotten myself in trouble as college student because I posted feedback to a classmate that they took issue with. I was too blunt and they took it more harshly than I intended. Face-to-face allows for tone or clarification along side written or in-text feedback. I have used Google Meets with my students, which has worked well, and I would imagine something like Discord would work as well. If you are able, I would suggest setting a time that works well for the group and holding it at the same time at regular intervals.

Don’t be an asshole.

I stress to my students that criticism really means constructive feedback, not strictly negative feedback. Constructive feedback instructs the person on what needs to be fixed, is specific, and possibly suggests how to fix it. If you just say, “it sucked,” or “I hate this character,” or “I liked it,” that isn’t helpful at all. Don’t be the person who is needlessly harsh to others. As someone on Twitter once said, “When you’re brutally honest, people remember the brutality, not the honesty.” Make sure your feedback is helpful and coming from a place of instruction and wanting the person to better themselves. How would you feel if someone gave your best friend that feedback? Would you be mad for them? I know we all think we can dish it and take it, but consider if you would be pissed hearing your bestie get the feedback you’re giving others. If you find someone in your group is giving feedback that is harsh (but not offensive), have a discussion to correct them. It might be difficult if they struggle with tone as some people do, but if they can give extra explanation/context with their feedback, it may smooth things over.

At the same time, expect to get criticized.

The inverse of the previous issue is that some people cannot handle getting non-positive feedback. If you’re one of those people who is easily wounded by criticism, don’t join a critique group unless you are purposely working to modulate those feelings. Otherwise, you’re going to resent the people in your group or tank your mental health if you take every bit of criticism as evidence your work sucks. The best writer still has room for growth, and if you join a writing group, you should expect that others might point out where you need to work on your craft. Positive feedback only isn’t going to help you grow. That’s just a fact of learning. I think it’s important to be told what you’re good at, but too much only grows the ego. I find people who reject all feedback as a personal attack particularly annoying in a workshop group, usually because they’re very willing to critique others (hypocritical) or all their feedback is praise (useless). They’re usually the hardest to correct. If you see yourself in this description or take personal offense, you may want to work on your ability to take feedback before you start asking for it. It only gets worse once strangers on the internet read your work.

Those are my tips for how to best deal with a workshop group. If you’re starting your own, please consider the logistics ahead of time, if you’re able to put in the time and effort required, and if the people you invite to join are as committed as you are.