The Truth Behind Critique Groups

Critique Red lineGetting your work critiqued can be hard. I joined a once-a-week writing critique group in September, when I submitted a story of mine to be critiqued. Well, apparently nearly everyone else had the same idea, and they beat me to it. Come February, five months later, my work is finally printed and in the hands of the eight-to-ten members of my group.

The hardest part of getting a piece critiqued is probably the reading. My critique group requires the writer to read his or her work aloud after everyone has read it in their head. I submitted a short story, which, at four pages long, is apparently “longer than usual.” I have always known I can never write anything in less than 2,000 words, but apparently, most people can. I think it took me at least ten minutes to read the entire thing out loud, and that was apparently “fast.” For me it was normal speed. Critique groups don’t seem so bad when you first approach them, but when your work is the stuff in the spotlight, it’s just a tad bit nerve-wracking.

I’m out of breath from reading my work aloud for ten whole minutes, a tad shy because I’ve never really shared my writing with anyone before, ever, and, frankly, scared out of my wits but thinking repeatedly: The worst part’s over now, it’ll all be better from here. And to further help my slowly-disintegrating confidence as a writer, the first comment I get is: “The way it was read definitely conveyed a totally different sense of personality than was written on the page. With enough work, we can definitely make this have the same personality it was read with.”

And that was how my half hour began.

I had submitted the piece because, though I liked the central theme (and the font; Gill Sans for you fellow font-lovers), I was never really in love with it, and wanted to fix things such as word choice and grammar. To be fair, the people in my group pretty much focused only on word choice (the bad stories get a plot focus, too), which is really what I asked for, but I didn’t get a single nice comment. Everything I got was criticism under a mask of politeness. And really, that’s what a critique group is, but nobody wants a half hour of constant, “Your story sucks because…” under different guises.

And yes, I know, critique groups are supposed to help your piece, but honestly, I think they also tear at the fringes of your stability and faith as a writer. What they do, in essence, is point out every single tiny mistake you’ve made, and as a writer, especially for the first time, they leave you a bit shaken and unwilling to write lest it comes out “as bad as the previous piece,” when in reality your writing is as good as it’s ever been, and for most writers, that’s pretty good.

My critique group especially mostly focuses on poetry, because that’s what most of our group writes. And personally, I think they just don’t do as good a job of short stories, which is the majority of what I write, both writing them themselves and critiquing them. Since September, I’ve seen but ONE other short story… about a man named John Johnson. The poems, however, from this group are amazing, don’t get me wrong. But… I feel like there should be a specifically short-story critique group, separate from this one. Short stories are so dynamic and different from poems that they really can’t be viewed and analyzed the same way.

In fact, in my critique group, after the reading comes the summary. In poems, the summary is often “this happens, which seems as if it could be…” but they don’t seem to understand that short stories, too, can have a deeper meaning. Just as in poems, nothing is set in stone about them. A bird can turn into a fish which can turn into a fly which can be a figurative meaning for human nature. Short stories, just like poems, can be anything the writer or the reader wants them to be, except that they are differently structured, often grammatically correct, and longer.

The problem with my story, really, to them was probably the idea, and therefore the language used in accordance with the idea. Let’s just say that while this idea won a contest, it utterly confused my critique group. But I have a couple more meetings with my piece… Let’s see where this goes.

In short, a critique group is a good tool to have in your writer’s arsenal, but sometimes they can have a detrimental effect on the writer. You must find the critique group that works the best for you as an individual, and your writing style.

– S

One response to “The Truth Behind Critique Groups

  1. Pingback: The Results Are In! How Did Others Do With Their Breathless Critiques? | Jennifer M Eaton·

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