• Ian Kirkpatrick

How To Be In a Critique Group (Part 3)

Updated: Dec 14, 2019

You know, I tend to think there’s a lot of good etiquette that critiquers need to know when they’re part of a crit group, but there’s also a lot of etiquette for the author being critiqued. I feel like it’s generally a lot of common sense, but then you get into a group and you see people breaking these rules — especially new people.

A couple weeks back we had a woman join us for her first critique. I believe she said she’d never done it before, she had simply been working on her YA novel in solitude for a while and was looking for the responses people might have. But she hit a pretty common pitfall as her piece was critiqued.

Most writing groups have a rule:

When Your Work Is Being Responded To, Your Remain Quiet

There are a number of reasons the author needs to stay quiet while her work is being responded to. One of the major reasons is that it slows down the critique and when you have multiple stories to go through, you cannot stop to talk to every individual who has something to say.

When a writer becomes responsive to every comment that is made, it also comes off as defensive — and maybe it is. Being critiqued is hard. Everyone’s work is personal. Everyone put heart, soul, time, feeling, experience — themselves into the work they’re presenting. Whether you’re writing prose or poetry, fiction or nonfiction, there is something very revealing and sensitive about presenting your creative work.

The president of my writing group said she received emails all the time from first-time submitters who said they’d rather show up to the meeting than have their work critiqued — Granted, I think that’s a bit too hyperbolic considering submitting your creative work is 100% voluntary.

We all want to believe our stories are unique — and in general, they are. I saw this image quote the other that read something like, “Every new writer things everything there is to say has already been said, but you haven’t said it yet.” I echo this idea when I’m talking to people about writing.

There’s this guy in the group that is SO QUICK to jump on people when their idea may have some elements as another that he can think of. In an earlier workshop class this year, we were working on taglines and I mentioned a story I’m plotting about a journalist who feigns mental illness to get into an asylum so he can get the scoop on this ten-year-old who “killed his twin brother.” Immediately this guy goes, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. You’re literally writing something that’s already been written.”

The only thing that story and mine have in common is that someone fakes mental illness to enter an asylum. That’s it. But he was so ready to jump and say, “You’re uncreative” in his own way.

Reminds me of that episode of South Park:

I’m digressing though.

When we present our work in a group and people are responding, especially with less than positive responses, I think it’s pretty natural to want to defend it and tell everyone why we’re so brilliant and why they just don’t get it. Doesn’t that go back to last week’s guy who told people who don’t get his writing to “just not read it”? Isn’t that sort of a way to filter out people who might not respond with praise? It’s not weak to feel upset after your a critique — or maybe even a little demotivated, but above all, you should try to isolate or insult your readership.

God willing you ever get published and get national attention, you will receive negative attention as much as positive attention. All the “greats” have haters, you will too and the best thing you can do is be modest and gracious and not go on the attack because someone didn’t like your story.

Start practicing this in the writing group by learning how to sit quietly in the cone of silence. Whether you agree with the critique or not, being able to hold your tongue and listen to what other people are saying is a valuable skill. So is being able to sort out the unhelpful crits from the meaningful ones.

On this subject, I’ve seen one other thing happen… and that is…

Having Friends Talk For You While in Cone of Silence

Aside from the author defending her work during a critique, I’ve also seen the author bring her friend to the critique so when someone starts giving a response other than, “This is amazing!” the friend starts making the defensive notes for the author because they spend a bunch of time together and of course she’d know what her friend would say.

Just don’t do this.

Everyone should be at a critique group to get better at what they’re doing. If you can’t take critique, then don’t look for a critique partner or a crit group, you might not be ready for it. And if you do want a critique group, but you don’t want to hear the critiques on your work, reading and responding or just reading and listening to what others have to say can actually really help you as an individual. I will often read things I used to do in works and see why those things are bad.

I continue to learn from other peoples’ mistakes (and successes).

Critique groups are super helpful and there’s more than one way to grow and benefit from them.

Just… know where your limits are and don’t be the stick that comes in to fight everyone because your work is obviously already perfect and you only submitted it to show off…

If this is you, hint hint, people probably don’t even want you there. Just saying.

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© 2019 by Ian Kirkpatrick