- Karina Sokulski
Knowing When it's Time to Leave You're Critique Group
It's happened, the giddiness of sitting at the table with the rest of your critique group has gotten stale. You begin to notice the once extensive list of notes you scribbled on the back of your copy now has shrunken down to a chicken-scratch list of grammar advice and non-plot related typos. You try to hold on to that optimism that it's all in your head but can't seem to fight off the nagging feeling that things have changed somehow. You're becoming more critical of the criticism you receive because, well, it's just not challenging you to take your writing any further.
So when did this happen? How did this happen? Well, there are plenty of factors that could have led to this point, but the burning question you inevitably have to consider is, is it worth it to stay? Or is there change on the horizon indicating that it's time to find a new group? This is definitely not an answer that always comes easy or right away because let's face it, your critique group was your campfire of love, trust, and community. Leaving won't be the most comfortable choice you make but will be a necessary one as a writer who puts their writing first. Before getting to that big decision; however, let's state the most essential aspect of this emotional time:
It's no one's fault
It's not your fault, it's not your critique group's fault either. Things change, challenges are overcome, and sometimes we grow out of what once felt right. The most important aspect of this change is to no longer waste any time. Don't waste your time or your critique group's time either. Life moves on and so should you--but only if you're sure. Let's get to the factors and see if we can't cement your confidence regarding whether it's time to move on or not.
Practice, Not Perfect
It's always important to bring a piece that is legible and edited to the group so as not to present your group with an impossible task of critiquing your work. The expectation of bringing perfectly polished work, free of any mistakes or plot holes, however, should not be the standard your group upholds. This could potentially be your first factor to consider with any group. The point of a critique group is to improve what needs work. It should be noted that critique groups tend to clearly state their expectations, especially when it comes to what level of "polishing" group members should bring. This ultimately leads to our next point but what the group expects of polish in a piece should be clearly stated, otherwise you could find yourself listening to grammar-exclusive critique.
What is Your Critique Anyway?
Here's one of the very first signs that not all is going as planned. Is there a "no-grammar" rule in the group? If not, there may be where your problem lies. For those who don't know, the "no-grammar" rule is when the members of a writing critique group agree not to discuss grammar errors during the discussion and only focus on the content of your story (the characters, plot, clarity of setting, etc.). When this rule is violated, it is usually reprimanded by the leader or any member of the group. The worst-case scenario you typically look at with this factor is when the group gets into the unfortunate habit of forgetting this rule when it comes to your piece.
As stated previously, seek out a clear understanding of the level of "polish" the group expects from the work you bring. If you find yourself in the situation where you are meeting the group's standards, but you're notes consist of, "too many had's," "reword your sentence," or "this one sentence is forty words long," your group may just not be interested in looking past your grammar despite the established rule.
Are We All Trying?
Here's a crucial question to ask. Leading off of the previous point, be sure to pay close attention to the critique you are giving your group members versus what you are receiving. If your notes are consisting of just grammar advice and nothing on your plot or characters, it is entirely possible you may be doing the same thing. It is prevalent for people to mirror one another even when they are not intentionally doing so. Your worst case scenario in this factor is that you are avoiding grammar critique but are not receiving the same courtesy. For example, if you are offering advice such as,
"I didn't quite understand how your character got here. Maybe we can spend more time in this moment? I somehow keep overlooking the character moving in this section,"
but on your turn you are met with:
"There are a lot of repeated words and run-on sentences. In one sentence, you had twenty words. You used the wrong word here."
Then you're facing a dilemma where even trade is not occurring. Even worse, if you notice this uneven trade becoming a pattern, it's time to begin considering your commitment to the group.
Are We on the Same Planet?
Another factor to consider is if your group can mix their genres. Some groups specifically want to be one genre only because the members are very aware of not being able to mix well with others. There's nothing wrong with this as this just means you're encountering a group of people who are responsibly self-aware of what they can and cannot work with. What they are and are not willing to work with. Time not wasted. There are many groups out there that do offer themselves as mixed-genre groups who will look at anything and everything. Once in a while though, this well-meaning intention of the group may not actually be "one-size fits all." What this means is, even though the group is open to any genre, not all the members may know much about specific genres and thus become less confident in being able to provide critique much further than grammar.
Understandably, high-fantasy can be a challenge for some while other writers may not have a full understanding of the inner workings of a noir detective story. This can once again land you in the "grammar-rule-only-for-you" trap that is difficult to get out of since the trap can be sprung for various reasons. If you're noticing that your feedback isn't challenging you, consider what genre the other members are indulging in versus your own and if maybe this is causing a barrier. Then consider if that barrier can be broken through by your critique group members or not.
Are We on the Same Level?
Another aspect every critique group needs to be clear on, and every member needs to have a clear understanding of, is what level of writing the group wants its members to be at. Some groups state they want only published writers, others indicate mixed levels are invited. Many will say beginners are welcome while others exclude beginners all together. Once more, these expectations are usually stated with groups to not waste anyone's time. The "one-size does not fit all" can sometimes creep its way into this factor.
Though beginning writers or less seasoned writers have been invited, there seems to be uneven trade between a more experienced member versus the less seasoned one. The latter is caught in the "grammar-rule-only-for-you" trap, and the former begins an unintended pattern. If you're facing a problem like this, you may need to consider a new group.
Here's a less common but important factor to consider, especially if you are a writer in need of accommodations. What kind of accommodations you ask? Well, believe it or not, there are writers out there that may depend on a group's ability to accommodate individual needs, both in the physical and learning sense. In terms of the latter, some writers have worked hard at their craft despite learning disabilities (present company included). For any writers that are in this situation, finding the right group can be difficult as this can also lead to the inevitable "grammar-rule-only-for-you" trap because the group may not know how to accommodate your writing disability.
This factor takes a little patience as there is a "perfect fit" out there for you, it's just a matter of waiting until you happen upon the right one (my perfect fit came in the form of the group leader once being a teacher familiar with my learning disability). If you find yourself in a group that is having difficulty overlooking this aspect of your writing, it may be time to take another look.
Silence isn't golden in a critique group. If you're remaining silent during the critique of another member's writing, you're not doing anyone any favors. Worse than this, this may be another case of someone in the group mirroring your lack of speaking. Are you always offering something on someone else's turn? Are you not saying a word during someone's turn? Or is the worst case scenario occurring here where uneven trade is causing members to remain quiet during your piece? Pay very close attention to your level of participation versus everyone else's. If you keep noticing silence on your turn that isn't being mirrored, you'll have to consider the possibility that members of your group aren't interested in critiquing your work.
What About that Other Thing?
Here's one I consider a warning sign. Scenario: You bring two very different pieces to the group, each a different genre. You start getting more interested in one, but your group members keep asking about the other. They're not interested in what you're bringing, but you're not interested in working on what they're asking about. Here's a stalemate that can lead to just the right amount of friction, especially when this can be a damper on confidence in your writing.
It Can't Work This Way
All critique is valid, and ultimately as the writer, you have to decide which bits of advice you keep and which you will need to discard because it's your project. A project you have the most intimate understanding of...and then your group members somehow seem to know better. It is essential to clearly state to your group when you do and do not wish for an aspect of your story to change. Failing to do so will be on you rather than your group members. Your worst case scenario on this factor relies entirely on having your group members developing a pattern of telling you what you can and cannot do with your story, rather than help you find ways to make aspects of your story work.
A critique group should above all else have the intention of making your story the best version of itself it can possibly be but if you're noticing a trend developing where other members of the group are attempting to write your story for you, be prepared to make a decision about remaining in your group.
That Golden Rule Goes Without Saying
This one is two-fold. On one end, be sure you're not taking critique too personally when it comes to the work you bring. "Take everything with a grain of salt" and try to see the validity in what you receive. Even in the suggestions you know you have to toss, there's creativity in them as well. Be respectful to your members who are offering you help and always provide advice with a genuine intention to see a better version of the work.
On the other end, pay close attention for your worst-case scenario in this factor as you may have noticed not all members are respecting you. The first aspect to consider is if it's actually the work you brought that is being critiqued instead of you as a writer. Or have you noticed a back-hand comment or two that have been tossed your way? Scenario:
"Your writing reminds me of this one author. [insert name here]. I hate this author and their writing."
Another aspect to consider is an even trade of the time. Be careful not to get off topic on someone else's turn and eat up that member's time for critique in doing so. This is another opportunity to have members start to mirror the bad habit of chatting during someone's critique time. Your worst case scenario when this happens is: are people suddenly starting to talk during your critique time? Precious minutes are ticking away as the group begins to discuss politics. Don't be afraid to remind the group of your critique time and see their reactions. If this is another pattern that has formed during your critique time, then you may be facing yet another excuse to start finding a new group.
Goodbyes are never easy and more often dreaded because it means new people with new sets of eyes looking at the pages of writing you hold close to your heart. A new group also may feel like you have to start all over again from square one. You can't help the unsettling thought that you've wasted your time until now and feel lost. Once this moment of despair has passed, take another moment to gather everything you learned from your previous group and how much you've accomplished. So you got through one complete draft of your book? I promise you were going to have to do it again with a developmental editor. Hold your head high and welcome new perspectives on your writing because chances are any new aspect will only challenge you to go further than you already have.
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