Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Crit Group Pitfalls and Digging Your Way Out of Them

Critique groups are pretty much the best thing to happen to a writer since the invention of moveable type. A communal effort where you gain on both sides of the exchange--your writing is improved when others look at it, and lo and behold, you improve your writing by looking at others' work! Incredible. Many writers utilize local in-person groups or online groups--in either case, however, there can be pitfalls. As is so often the case, those pitfalls are usually people.

I've been posting chapters of December on an online crit group (my nearest real-people group is over an hour drive away, and though they are super-helpful and supportive, I can't make that kind of time and gas commitment). It's been incredibly helpful, and the comments have driven some of the best revisions I've made. However, in reading others' critiqued works and my own, I've identified some potential trouble-makers in the ranks.

Before we begin--standard disclaimer. These are all made-up examples unless I state otherwise. No critiquers were harmed in the making of this post. And always, always thank a critiquer, even if their crit was not helpful to you. The person doing the critique most likely spent time and effort on it, so it's your job to wring as much use from it as you possibly can, even if it feels like there's not much there of substance. Depending on the culture of the group, do whatever else is polite, whether that's returning a crit, submitting a positive rating for hard work even if the advice wasn't great, whatever.

The Over-Eager Grammar Beaver : This helpful little sprite can cause more mischeif than good when their comments go awry. They tend to fall into two categories--the Know-it-All and the Missing-the-Mark. The Know-it-All may correct your grammar assuming that you don't speak the common language of syntax. That is, s/he spots a mistake and launches into an unwelcome lecture about the correct usage of the past participle (when you had, in fact, merely made a typo). How to Deal: For the most part, best ignored. If it really irks you, try slipping some grammar vocab into your message of thanks or your next critique of this person's writing--but don't expect him or her to take the hint. Falls under the 'toss what isn't useful' maxim of critique groups. The Missing-the-Mark is a bit more insidious. S/He purports a facade of deep grammatical knowledge, but scratch the surface and it's all wrong. This person may chide you for "passive voice" when in fact s/he would like to see more actual action (having nothing to do with active voice). They may berate you for using "had" in a legitimate past perfect context (and, again, call this passive voice, the cureall label for all things perceived as wrong in writing by the Missing-the-Mark). In short, their comments, well, miss the mark. How to Deal: Assume the golden rule of revision--even if the critiquer couldn't accurately describe what was wrong, there may very well be something off about the passage. Do a bit of searching and see for yourself what it is. Sometimes, of course, the individual is simply missing the point...and as long as you can identify that, ignore what isn't helpful.

The Over-Optimist : This person's work isn't all bad--s/he mounds praise on the parts of your passage that work well for him or her, heaps blessing on your word choice and plot structure, gushes that s/he would be best friends with your very likeable characters. In many ways, with most critiquers veering toward the negative, an optimistic voice pointing out the positives is a welcome--and needed--addition. Not just for morale, either--it helps to have feedback about what is working to compare to what isn't. But there are pitfalls... How to Deal: Avoid getting a big head. Yes, bask in the praise that is very likely well-deserved (heck, you had the courage to post work that you wrote for others to read--you earned the praise!), but don't assume that because one person loved the work that it's done. S/he very well might just be cautious about ever saying s/he doesn't like something (and likely spends a life eating anchovies on pizza because s/he never could get up the chutzpah to tell others s/he doesn't care for anchovies). Also, don't let one person's positive praise overshadow issues rasied by other critiquers. If one person loved the passage, but four others had problems, weigh these carefully.

The Just Didn't Get It : Sometimes someone just doesn't get your work. This can be hard to ferret out at first, but it may become quite clear after several traded crits that the individual is expecting something out of the story that just isn't there, doesn't appreciate your writing style, or that you have some other irreconcilable difference. The over-sensitive might assume that any critiquer with a negative comment doesn't get their work, but this simply isn't the case. The Just Didn't Get It is much rarer, and usually speaks to an innate difference between what the critiquer cares to read and what you care to write. A Just Didn't Get It crit, for instance, might demand more internal monologue and deeper connection to the characters' troubled childhoods out of your cyborg sci-fi thriller (and fewer cyborgs), or suggest throwing some "action" in on your character-driven literary love story--and s/he really means action. As in "flaming car expolosion building collapse" action. And sometimes it simply speaks to careless reading or misplaced expectations--I confess that I once had a critiquer who, after multiple chapters had been posted of the WIP and s/he had critted several, did not get that this was a multiple-POV story and kept demanding to know who the main character was. How to Deal: Take what you can use, as always. S/he may not get it, but might still have good comments about details like awkward phrasing or poor word choice. And avoid developping a long-term crit partnership as well as you can.

The Editorial Expert : This self-important poster will dispense bucketfuls of seemingly sage advice on the state of publishing, what editors and agents are looking for, the keys to success in the writing world. The problem? S/he probably has no real publishing experience--and even if s/he does, it's likely limited to his or her own journey to publication. It's highly unlikely that agents are hanging out, incognito, on online crit group sites to let you know that "editors don't like it when you use the term 'popsicle.'" This person is often identified a tendency to include block quotes from favorite industry blogs or books--one might feel that this person very much likes to hear him/herself type. When looking at your story, this person will point out things that could prevent getting your work published--and though some may be true, others may be way off the mark, especially if s/he doesn't know your genre or your intended market. Remember that this person gained their knowledge in the egalitarian ways that we all can--reading industry blogs, books on writing, trial and error. How to Deal: Become your own expert. Read the blogs, books, and keep up with the news that affects you. Read current releases in your genre, and see which ones do well. When someone says your use of flashback, multiple POV, or the use of the term "popsicle" is "a detriment to getting published" you can have the breadth of knowledge to know if this something to change--or a comment to ignore. Be suspicious of "always" and "never"--few things are always or never the case. If they were, nothing would be fresh! And of course, remember that sometimes a person will assign the wrong diagnosis to something that doesn't work--they may be saying "Flashbacks aren't common to this genre" as a wishy-washy way of saying "Look, this flashback is not working for me and really needs to go."

It goes without saying but...I also try to avoid being any of these Crit Group Crabapples when I'm critting! I'm sure I'm not always successful, but being a better critiquer, I truly believe, helps you to be a better writer.

What experiences have you had with crit groups? Do you prefer online or in-person groups? Any run-ins with these usual suspects? Have you--gulp--been one of them?


GentlewomanThief said...

I LOLed at quite a few points (especially the cyborg sci-fi with less sci-fi) both due to funniness and recognising the characters.

My MA course was very writer's group-y. The Just Didn't Get it is well known from there! The same person was also an Editorial Expert and Missing The Mark-er! (Unfortunately he was also generally a bit of a know-it-all and Not a Very Good Writer. Poor guy.)

Luckily a few of us broke off from the main group and formed our own little writing group of more like-minded people. Unfortunately I don't live in the area anymore, but we're still in contact by email, they still meet up and when I visit the south coast, I get to see them. We also email work to each other, so I'm a kind of online member of the group still. Anyway, it's a great group, very honest, very supportive and very dear to me as friends, too.

Lua said...

Rowenna I LOVE this post- I was part of a critic group for two and a half year here in Istanbul and would you believe me if I say that I met every one of these ‘critic types’? :)
The Just Didn’t Get it is one of my favorites along with the ‘something just doesn’t sound right.’ which I had to deal with a lot when I was with the group, they won’t tell you what’s wrong, or what is it that’s bothering them but just say, ‘it sounds off’
Great tips on how to deal with them, it shows how experienced you are with the critic groups :)

Rowenna said...

GT--sounds like a great group of friends to have--once you, ahem, edited it down a bit.

Lua--I know what you mean about vagueness...sometimes I don't mind because "this sounds off" confirms a suspicion I already had and I get to play with improving it. But sometimes I need more--what's off? The word choice? The characterisation? The font choice? Anything!

kimberlyloomis said...

This post was seriously awesome. I actually had some judging critiques from a contest I entered that did some of these things. Needless to say I will never enter that contest again. Ever.

It always comes down to the wisest words we as authors hear: Take in the good stuff, let go of the bad stuff, and honor the story as you know it best. Good words to remember and thank you for recalling them. :)

Smander said...

I couldn’t stop reading this. I had a little chuckle about the Over-Eager Grammar Beaver because that's me in a nutshell. I have tried to overcome this by shoving my fist in my mouth whenever I feel the urge to blurt something out about syntax. It's annoying, isn't it? There was one of each of these in the last group I went to. SO ANNOYING! Some great tips.

Rowenna said...

Kimberly--so true. All critiques should come with the caveat "you know your story best" attached! I love getting second (thirdfourthseventeenth) opinions, but ultimately, writers control their story :)

Smander--I've been a grammer-hammer myself...sometimes I do think it can be really helpful when someone is patient enough to explain a grammar foible in a kind way. Takes a special person to be able to do that, though--and I'm not that person, I don't think!

missbluestocking said...

A very, very intuitive and well written article, Rowenna! This should be published under the title of: How to write and deal with critiques, 101.

Hmmm I'm getting the feeling I should favorite this post and refer to it often....!!!!

Rowenna said...

Thanks, June :)

Ax said...

Sounds like the English department alright. Why haven't we ever done a critique group? Oh yeah, I'm crap for a correspondent. :p There's some good crit groups online. Right now I like

Rowenna said...

Ax--would happily trade thoughts with you anytime :) And now that I think on it, sounds like the history dept. too!