I am a firm believer in critique groups. Critique buddies lend encouragement, keep you accountable to a writing schedule and see flaws in your work that you can’t. Nevertheless, group dynamics can be difficult. Even though writers are stereotypically considered to be introverts, that doesn’t mean we are immune from power plays and politics. Like any relationship, your relationships with your critique buddies are bound to have ups and downs. There will be weeks when you want to quit but, I suggest once you’ve found a group that works for you, stick with it. (We’ll talk about groups that don’t work another day.)
In any group of more than two people, group dynamics come into play. It’s interesting how we can each fall into a role within a critique group. Some of the roles I have witnessed are:
- The Bully speaks first and speaks loudest. Their opinion is the only opinion they care about. A bully isn’t mean, they’re self-centered. In my experience, bullies can be handled. I don’t think they even realize they are dominating the conversation half the time. if you have a bully in your critique group, you may want to set up your meetings with a structure where everyone gets a distinct turn to speak and who gets to speak first rotates through the group.
- The Meanie takes pleasure in making other people feel bad about their work. They find fault in everything they read. There is no praise or constructive ideas in their critiques. If you have a meanie in your group, kick them to the curb. Nothing kills a critique group faster than negative energy.
- The Devil’s Advocate doesn’t necessarily give very detailed critiques but asks insightful questions that stump you. Cherish this person because their questions will niggle at you until you come up with an answer. Your work will be improved by their insights.
- The Thwarter can make you never want to write another word. They are subtle. They don’t come right out and say, “This is crap.” Their critiques make you feel like your work is insignificant or not worth the effort. If you have a thwarter in your group, figure out of they are projecting their own insecurities on your work or if they are a meanie in disguise. You may want to keep your distance from this person and think twice about trusting them with your work until it is completed.
- The Logician pays attention to the nuts and bolts in a manuscript. Every writer needs a logician friend. I rely on my friend Bob to point out when my characters move locations and I’ve neglected to tell the reader they’ve walked through the door.
- The Copyeditor does not comment on plot or character development. They catch your missing commas and misspellings. An entire group of copyeditors would be useless. One or two are invaluable.
- The Mouse sits on the sidelines and doesn’t contribute much to the conversation. Sometimes this person enjoys the conversation but doesn’t feel comfortable speaking up. They may give excellent written critiques. If that’s the case, give them space and appreciate their gifts. If, on the other hand, this person doesn’t contribute much in any form, give them a nudge. They’ll lose interest and stop coming after a while.
- The Gabber tends to get off topic. They want to socialize more than critique. Structure your meetings so there is a short social time at the beginning while people are getting coffee and settling down or state that social time is at the end of the meeting. Everyone likes to catch up for a few minutes. If the gabber repeatedly gets the meetings off topic, you may need to speak to them in private about the problem.
- The Slacker does not submit their work very frequently and does not put much effort into critiquing other people’s work. Everyone has busy periods in their lives when their writing is not a top priority but, if you have a perennial slacker in your group, you may need to ask them to leave the group. Once one person slacks off, the rest of the group can lose momentum.
- The Secretary manages when you the group meets, who will submit their pages, and makes sure everyone gets a turn to submit. Every group needs someone to manage their schedule. If your group doesn’t have a natural secretary, you may need to share this role.
A critique group can be invaluable to your development as a writer. I suggest you be an active member of a group but do be careful.