Thursday, July 8, 2010

Critique or Criticism? by Charmaine Gordon

You meet in a creative writing class, and when the twelve week class ends you’ve formed a few friendships. It’s like when you were kids. “Hey, let’s put on a show. My mom can make costumes and I have a barn we can use. . .” You start your own renegade group. “Hey, we can write, meet every week and critique our work better than sitting in a big class and listening to…” Sounds good so far.

Everyone is equal. No one is published – yet, and you like and trust each other. Everyone works diligently and one day, you write The End to your first story. You are the one to write the first query and come to meetings with rejections but it’s your nature to survive and thrive. So you begin another story. The friends seem more interested in what you’re doing than in their writing and they become more critical. You keep writing and incorporate their ideas because you trust them.

Your first book is PUBLISHED! The women want to expand the group-a good idea-new blood-fresh input and you’re the first one with a real live book and now you’re not just a person who writes. You are an author. They purchase your book, you sign, so excited to be doing this, and continue writing the second story.

The expanded group has grown to ten. Not everyone brings pages to read to meeting. They eat lunch, talk about health and grandchildren, and finally get down to reading pages because it’s getting late. Lots of attention is paid to every comma you do or don’t use, and many questions about who, what, why have you written this and that. You drive home shaking your head. It’s getting to be a struggle. When book two is published, the congratulations slows to minimal and some of the women don’t purchase the book. Hmm. No biggie but hmm. You’re not looking for a standing ovation but it’s a huge accomplishment to be published. Ah well.

It’s unpleasant to discover friends can change and no longer be true friends. The sky is filled with stars; there’s room for all if us. If they feel my star has outshone theirs, perhaps it’s because I work and focus. I have the fever to express, to tell a story. And I’m not afraid to cry and laugh as I write. I’m not in competition with anyone. I write for the passion of writing.

I thought all this behavior was left behind when you grew up. I guess not.

If you’ve had similar experiences with critique groups, I’d sure like to hear about them. Just a snippet to let me know I’m not alone.

P.S. The VHP family welcomed me with open arms a few months ago. I thank all of you for making me feel at home.

NOTE from Kimberlee: I thought this might be a good place to add Smoky Trudeau's Critique Group Guidelines she uses in her classes, so thanks, Smoky!


When You are Reviewing Another Student’s Work:

* Try to always begin with a positive comment. It is as important for writers to know what works with their writing in addition to what doesn’t.
* Be specific and objective. Offer suggestions, not just criticism. “I don’t know, I just don’t like it,” or “It was good, I liked it” are not specific, objective, or helpful.
* Direct your comments to the writing, not the writer.
* Don’t focus on grammar or punctuation—that’s the job of an editor, not of critique group members.
* Don’t repeat what others have already said.

When Your Work is Being Reviewed:

* Stay out of the discussion unless you are asked a specific question. This is hard, because you will want to defend your work. But you need to let the work speak for itself. If asked to clarify something, limit your response only to what is asked.
* Don’t take negative comments personally. No one is judging you—they are critiquing your work. Critique is NOT the same as criticism. Writers who don’t learn to distinguish between the two can rest assured they never will be published.
* Remember, ultimately you are the only one who can judge whether or not you take the advice offered by your peers. If you have doubts about their input, or need further clarification of comments, talk to your editor or publisher.

The dance of life continues with all steps forward-no slip sliding as in the past. I am excited,over-joyed,ecstatic. Get the picture? This author is one happy woman. To Be Continued, my first book with Vanilla Heart Publishing, has gotten good reviews. Women write that they cheer when the straying husband gets what's coming to him. My latest novel, Starting Over, romance/suspense has just been released, and Now What?, my paranormal/psychic romance is due out soon.


  1. I was in a critique group about 20 years ago and read them sections of GARDEN OF HEAVEN (just now published) which they were very helpful with in terms of comments and ideas.

    There were some folks in the group who had had short stories published or who wrote columns in local newspapers. When they read or handed out material for critique, I think the people in the group of 15 were tougher on it than on my work or on that of others with no formal credentials.

    Even now, I can say for sure whether the group gave the unpublished amongst us more clack; perhaps they thought being too critical would kill our hopes and dreams. I do think, though, that they were overly critical of the material from the published authors. Maybe they were being honest and thought the published authors could take it or needed to have their stuff examined more closely--as though the bar had been raised.

    One always suspects there's jealousy involved, but one can't say that in a group or even privately to any of the members. It's too bad this happens: maybe it's a signal though that it's time to move to a new group, one in which everyone else has been published, too.

    Nice post. Tricky issue.


  2. Oops: my comment above should say "even now, I CAN'T say for sure..."

  3. Smoky, I need and editor. Obviously I have no clue what "clack" might mean other than being the sound of a typewriter key. That should be SLACK.

    I think I'll log off before finding more mistakes in my comment

  4. (LOL, love it Malcolm!)

    Never was a fan of critique groups for so many reasons: (1) destroys "friendships"; (2) egos certainly can get bruised; (3) while I appreciate input, I don't want my chaacters (since they decide their own actions) questioned when I, as writer, can be swayed; (4) not everyone understands the meaning of CONSTRUCTIVE criticism.

    I have also found it common for many UNpublished writers (mainly folks who haven't made genuine efforts) to be able to offer to "re-write" your work so it is "better" - I often counter with, "Wow, great ideas, why haven't you tried to get published?" The "deer in headlights" response is often enough to change the topic. It is much easier to tell someone what they should do than to actually get off your arse and do it yourself.

    Personally I am not shy anymore about telling someone who is giving UNsolicited and NON-constructive advice that it is not being considered & have a nice day. (Well, there goes my nice-guy rep...)

    Great post Charmaine, very thought provoking.

  5. Malcolm--I was listening to what you were thinking and not what you were writing!

    Charmaine and others: One other rule I always had for my student critique groups was, if you don't contribute something to be critiqued, you kept your mouth shut. Otherwise, it is too easy for people to come to a group to vent their frustrations by cutting others down but not have to worry about paying the piper. And it also is very important to learn the difference between critiquing and criticizing. They are NOT the same thing. I did not allow criticizing in my groups.

  6. Great post, Charmaine! I belonged to a critique group years ago. It was extremely helpful at the time, but I no longer do them.

    However, I love to judge contests and consider myself a more than fair judge. I'm honest, but always mindful of my comments.

    Have a great weekend!


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