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Friday, August 3, 2018

It’s not me. It’s YOU by Warren Bull

It’s not me. It’s YOU.
Image from

I wrote a blog about what a great critique group I am a member of. Shortly after that two people who came to the group for the first time stopped me after the meeting to say how arrogant I had been in criticizing the work of one of them. They added the group (led by a woman by the way) was sexist. The men told all the women presenters what to do as if they were the experts. The men were much nicer to each other than they were to the women.

I listened. I apologized for coming across in a way I did not intend. I assured them I would share their concerns with the group leader, which I did. My perception of what happened differed considerably from theirs. The group leader also said she did not see things as they did. She said at first when I contacted her, she wondered if I was joking with her.

So maybe the universe wants me to talk more about how to be a contributor to a great critique group. Here goes:

This is going to hurt YOU a lot more than it hurts me

It takes real courage to present something you’ve written to other people for comment. Writing comes from the heart and soul. Sharing it strips away the facades we don every day to ease through the social world around us. And yes, when someone criticizes the work of our essential being, it stings.

Experienced “critique groupers” have been on both ends of that equation many times. As I unsuccessfully tried to explain to the first timers, we try to use tact, but the critiquee has to remember that the feedback does not reflect upon the writer’s financial well-being, social desirability, or personal value in the grand scheme of things. The remarks are about the writing not the writer.
If some event is still an open emotional sore, you might consider waiting a while before writing about it. People who hear your submission have no way of knowing how much emotion is attached to it.

Leave it or take it 

The writer decides what use to make of the feedback. So arguing with a reviewer is pointless. In some groups the presenter cannot respond to any reviewer until all reviews have been given. Sometimes when I get reflections on my work from another person, I wonder if that person listened to what I presented or if their attention wandered into some fantasy unique to them. It happens. When it does I try to just thank the person and hope the next reviewer will have something to offer. Shoot, sometimes I don’t pay the attention a work deserves.


I once told a new member of the critique group that his submission was not worth reviewing. Sounds arrogant indeed. Let me explain the sequence of events. This writer presented his work. Seven serious writers each commented with thoughtful responses. After all the feedback was done, he laughed and said he had thrown the piece together in five minutes. Then I made my arrogant remark. I explained he had used the time and skills of seven writers; each put of whom put in more time and effort into reviewing the piece than he had in writing it. I said that showed a serious lack of respect for group members and was very unlike other times when he submitted. I believe it is better to not submit work until it is ready for review. Besides, giving thoughtful critiques is an excellent way to improve writing skills.

It is possible, I suppose, that I could have thought of a more diplomatic way of sharing that thought.

Shut up and Critique
Finally, in my arrogant, never-to-be-humble opinion, the most important thing a critique group does is critique. If you want to discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones or your arthritis or the prospects for the Cubs baseball team to make the playoffs, by all means, feel free to do so and do so excessively…. Somewhere else. 

That was tactful, right?


KM Rockwood said...

Seems like it's the "new" people who primarily want support, not criticism, who have problems with critique groups. I tell members of my critique group that I usually have brought parts of a work that are giving me problems, in the limited time we have available, I don't want to hear about the strong points, I want to hear where they think the problems are.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Good point, Kathleen.

E. B. Davis said...

That's true, Kathleen. As time goes by, we learn to not take things personally and also to appreciate writers taking the time to read our work--even if we don't like what they say. I liked your humorous perspective, Warren.

Ramona said...

Tough love is still love.

Jodi Rath said...

I taught HS for 18 years and recently joined a critique group. I let my team members know that I would tend to take a lighthearted tone due to being a teacher for so long, BUT I would be honest. I don't expect that in return-the lighthearted tone, but I do expect honesty. I will be truthful in saying that there are days when I feel more emotional than others, and I hurt more when I see certain comments. That's when I have to force my logical self to overpower my emotional self. Truth is if we want to be writers then we have to figure out how to get the tough skin if we don't already have it. I look at my critique group as my team, and I'm on their team. The point is, to be honest, and to stretch the mind and try to find what others will find first. In doing that, we are supporting each other. I appreciated this post!

Anonymous said...

I LOVE this blog, your POV. So true, arrogant or not, absolutely on the money! Loved it!

Gloria Alden said...

I have been with my critique group for years. Some members were there when I joined, but over the years new ones have come in and others have left. The one thing I like about my critique group is they very carefully critique the work and do so in a nice way. I am the only mystery writer in my group and don't read chapters of my books. Instead I might read a short story, some poetry or an essay or maybe my latest blog. We have ten minutes each to read our work. Once we had a man who went on and on and on talking about something other than what he had to read. Now we have a timer to let us know when our time is up. We have such fun together laughing and joking and sometimes some of us go out to lunch after our meeting. I so much love my writers group. The only criticism I do of one of our writers who writes chapters for her books from the Civil War Era, is that she needs to submit her work to an agent or a publisher because it's so beautiful. Everyone loves her work. Our meetings are the highlight of the month for me even more than the two book clubs I belong to.

Kait said...

Great point Kathleen. While yes, I appreciate hearing what s working when I present a chapter or scene for critique, what I need to know most of all is what isn't working for the reader and where I've fallen short.

I've noticed newer writers often pushback when offered gentle advice or suggestions. Sometimes become defensive, but often they come around when they realize that the group as a whole has problems with the same areas of their book or story.

When I joined my first critique group through Guppies, a chapter of Sisters in Crime that was at the time geared toward to unpublished writers, I was lucky to have a well-seasoned writer in the group. She explained that all the questions our critique partners were asking were the same questions our readers would have and our only chance to answer the questions would be before our books were published. Readers were not going to e-mail us questions, they were simply going to put the book down and not buy another. It took the sting out of those early critiques.