Steven James is the prolific author of more than 30 books, including the popular Patrick Bower thrillers, which I have mentioned before on the blog. He was the guest of honor at the 2012 OWFI conference, which I was able to attend. In a Friday night "rap" session with many writers, including me, James told us he doesn't use a critique group. When we asked how he improved his writing, he said (paraphrased since I can't recall his exact words):
"I send it to my editor."
His editor is a professional editor-for-hire that he respects, works well with, and yes...pays...for her services.
(To paraphrase again, more loosely this time), James also said some things about critique groups that many people that Friday night found to be very controversial:
- that critique groups do more harm than good
- that you can't rely on critiques to improve your writing
- that many critique groups leave writers confused, making their writing worse
- that you'd be better off hiring a professional editor, who makes a living helping people improve their books than talking to people at your level
- that no...no, really...you don't need a critique group.
His thinking was reasoned. He wasn't just spouting off at the mouth, and he was definitely firm in his opinion. And I've come to think that in certain circumstances, at least, James is right. You might be better off skipping the critique group.
Now, I'm not saying your work needs no editing. In fact, no matter how good a writer you are, you still need an editorial eye to catch the things you can't see anymore because you're too close to what you're writing. (This applies to both fiction and non-fiction, by the way.)
But critique groups can be tricky. To make one work for you, I think you have to be sure you have good writers, smart readers, and people who are mature enough to set competition and jealousy aside, as well as the stubborn voice inside that tries to scream, "You just don't get it! My writing is perfect as it is!" And that group, trust me, is kind of hard to find.
In just the past few weeks of meetings with two different critique groups that I've been attending, I've seen:
- A strong disagreement between a writer and two critiquers (including me), who gave that writer very good feedback, and two follow-up emails from that writer insisting that I didn't get what she was trying to do. I did get what she was trying to do, and it wasn't working, which is why I gave her feedback. Feedback she clearly didn't want. So, why was she even present at a critique group, whose purpose is to critique?
- An author insisting that the "clever" little joke with which she'd started her novel was consistently making her novel funny all the way through page 40. (I disagreed on the principle that no story functions on a single joke for more than a few minutes, and after those few minutes, you have to do something else to keep it funny, or the joke gets old and people stop reading.) Again, this was unwanted feedback.
- A freelancer who always writes wonderful stuff admitted to me that she was a little jealous of my work because it was so strong. This was a compliment, even though it came in the wake of sharing something of mine that was apparently weak and needs some work. I admire the things others write, even and especially when it's something I don't do well. Am I the only one who feels that way? Is everyone else jealous, and I'm just too nice not to feel that way?
- A couple of people whose writing needs significant edits, but they received only positive feedback even though they could benefit from more honest feedback. I'm not talking about ripping something to shreds but pointing out the things that do strengthen a piece (like adding more sensory detail here to a scene). Did they get only praise because they're favored, or because people secretly don't want to help them improve?
- Two writers, who apparently are also friends, came to our group to visit and proceeded to talk mostly between themselves for the entire meeting. Being polite, I asked them to join us afterwards for drinks and snacks at a local restaurant. They agreed to come, walked in, and then immediately ditched the group. Rude!
I know critique groups can be good, especially when they function as they are meant to...as honest places where writers can hear both what they're doing well and what they're doing poorly. Where you can share something with people hearing your piece for the first time, as paying readers will do. Where you'll get questions that you suddenly realize you forgot to answer in your piece, but you need to. Places where you can really learn to improve your technique and really help others, with integrity, truth, and respect.
Some people seem lucky enough (or smart enough) to be in a group that is truly able to be excellent, supportive, and challenging. The writers of the Writing Excuses podcast, for example. They're all published, and they know how to critique each other effectively.
But for those of us who find ourselves in groups with people who only want to be heard without listening, who want to take without giving, who don't know how to offer feedback and aren't working hard to learn how... Yeah, I think maybe Steven James has a point. Maybe a professional editor is a better option in some instances.
So, what do you think? Controversial topic, controversial viewpoint... Surely you have an opinion, so go ahead and share it below. And if you have a critique group that's really working for you, let me know how you found it, or how you formed it.
Until next time, happy writing!
Copyright (c) 2013 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.