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When Critique Goes Wrong: Crit Group Calamities | With Janice Hardy


Janice Hardy writes fantasy and science fiction for teens. She also blogs about ‘taking your story from idea to novel’ over at The Other Side of the Story. Today she is guest posting about what happens when critique goes wrong, and what writers can do about it.

 

I’m very pro critique group, so folks often ask me to write about them. This time, I was asked to write about any negative experiences I’ve had. While I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid truly horrible critique experiences, I have had some situations that were less than ideal. Even in a great crit group, problems can arise, and how you handle then can mean the difference between fixing an issue and moving on, or a group falling apart.

 

Getting Personal

My worst experience was actually my fault. I was new to critiquing still, and I let my personal feelings into the critique. I had finished reading the final chapters of a novel, and the author had done some things I felt seriously hurt an otherwise good book. I was so disappointed and so frustrated about the ending that I said something like “Had I bought this book I would have thrown it across the room in disgust.” (I still cringe remembering this.) My goal was to tell them how strongly it affected me. I went on to explain why and offer suggestions on how the author could fix what made me so angry, but do you think they heard anything beyond “you’re work is disgusting?” Not a chance. I offended that author a great deal, and even if my feedback had been just the thing to make their work shine, they’d never hear it. I couldn’t apologize enough for my mistake, but I learned a valuable lesson.

 

Be careful how you phrase things. The written word doesn’t have the benefit of intonation to convey information. Some words sound snide even when they aren’t meant that way. It’s very easy to misinterpret or take things the wrong way. If you’re using any judgment words at all, you might want to cut them out (unless it’s praise of course). This applies to simple things, like “really” and “just” as well. “This just really felt slow” has a different tone to it than “this felt slow.”

 

Why You’re Wrong

Sometimes an author responds to every critique by telling the critiquer why their opinion is wrong. They missed things, they didn’t get it, they misunderstood, etc. It’s understandable why someone would be defensive about their work, but it can be frustrating to the critiquer and make them feel like their efforts were wasted. If it continues, that author’s crit group might just stop spending time on their work and give them cursory crits that do no one any good. And who can blame them? Why spend time helping somewhere who always belittles your opinion?

 

No matter how wrong you feel someone is about a critique they gave you, a reader’s opinion is their opinion. They can’t be wrong. And it’s possible that what you saw in your head never made it to the page, which is why they pointed it out in their critique. Even if you find no value in a crit, that person took time to do one for you. Be gracious, say thank you, and then do what you feel is best for your own work. Don’t argue or tell them they’re wrong. However, it is okay to ask questions or say what you were trying to do, and ask if they have any suggestions for achieving that. Discussing a crit and the work is fine.

 

Falling on Deaf Ears

A similar problem is the author who never seems to listen to feedback. Submission after submission their work has the same issues and you could use the same crit each time with different details and no one would notice. This is frustrating as a critiquer because you feel like you’re wasting your time if the author never listens to anything anyone says. They say thanks, are polite and respectful, but they just don’t seem to use any of the feedback.

 

These are tough situations, because you don’t know if the person is ignoring you or just doesn’t understand how to use the feedback they’re getting. They might be trying their best and don’t know (or are too embarrassed) to ask for help or clarification. And it’s not like you can ask them, “are you ignoring me or do you not get what I’m saying?”

 

You might try focusing on simpler things, or doing smaller crits and see if the author responds to that. Maybe they need to work on the fundamentals before they can handle the more advanced suggestions. Or maybe they’re getting overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. Trying different types of crits could help both of you reach an arrangement that works.

 

Critique groups can be a wonderful experience, but they can also be frustrating. Some frustration from time to time is normal, so don’t worry if your group hits a bump once in a while.

 

What experiences have you had with critiques?

 

Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy THE HEALING WARS, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her books include THE SHIFTER, and BLUE FIRE. DARKFALL, the final book of the trilogy, is due out October 4, 2011. She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats and one very nervous freshwater eel. You can visit her online at www.janicehardy.com, chat with her about writing on her blog, The Other Side of the Story (http://blog.janicehardy.com/), or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.

 

 

 

 

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28 thoughts on “When Critique Goes Wrong: Crit Group Calamities | With Janice Hardy

  1. timit and trying

    I’m late to the post too, but grateful for its guidance. I’ve been in a number of critique groups, some good and some not fits for me, and a couple of them have even been great but they have been far and few between.

    Then I found and became part of a newly formed group that was wonderful for a long time. We were all different genres and came from all different background and I found that really helped inform our different styles of work greatly.

    But even great groups can fall apart over time. After about a year, ours became like a tight family. It was very cozy and supportive and comforting. Another year continued, with a recovered alcoholic in it so we didn’t drink. When that member left, the group started drinking as part of the meets and more social than helpful.

    Then the moderator, already domineering, became the more and more dominating member, cross talking over everyone, criticizing without suggestions for improving the work, taking over the power and leading like queen of the roost, following up by acting all lovey-dovey. She hand-picked new members, usually good choices, but always in her army. The newbee weaker writers followed her lead. She and one other member started talking behind each others’ backs (to be “sensitive”) if either had problems with a member so that by the time a member was made aware, they were already ganged up against by the majority of the group.

    The ONE male in the group became the darling of almost all the women. He is a great guy usually and his story moves, but he needs work on his clunky writing and almost all the other women did was coo at him, even the literary lesbians in the group. So when I tried to do the sandwich rule (first point out what’s good,then siting places needing work with concrete examples, and ending with positive notes), the women turned on me and so did he, as he and they now thought of him (even thought he is still unpublished) as a GREAT writer with all that adoration. How could I suggest an active sentence or verb would be stronger? Did I say it without enough love, even thought I wasn’t judgmental? Other problems, related to that one, occurred when the crits became reduced to liked (or loved) or didn’t liked (or hated) as a critique. Neither helpful, although it is nice to hear the positive and painful to just hear the negative. But of no use to understanding how to improve a piece.
    But because we became like a family, it became painful, like losing friends always is, when I was asked to take my own very hard crits (starting in with criticism and forgetting about the support or help I needed) without the pain that it brought, especially when my work was not read by one member for his not being able to “get into” it and by the moderator attacking it. They then interpreted and projecting my pain (trying not to cry in front of the group) as radiating anger (easier to blame me for than the pain they might have caused) and told me I would not be welcome with that attitude anymore because it affected the group from being a happy place. At which point I was just trying to hold myself in and not fall apart further.

    It was hard to thank (which I still thought important to do and did) a once great group that did so much for me, apologize for any misunderstandings I myself might have caused, and realize that I may be too sensitive to survive any more of some of their harsh treatments, or everybody just cooing or booing at work and not strengthening it, and then as a consequence to also lose friends I have valued and even come to love.

    But I need a group that will roll up their sleeves and dedicate themselves to each others’ writing and to getting it actually published .I also need a group that is willing to grapple with a whole novel and that’s a LOT of work. Short pieces, or small chapters are very nice, but not a place for novelists. I love the friends aspect, but beware, it can threaten the work the group still needs to do.

  2. i once had a reader tell me she didn’t like the way i spelled my main character’s name. this was a character that i had been writing about for a while, so i took the critisism personally. when i got my copy back from her, she had crossed out the character’s name everytime it appeared and spelled it the way she wanted to spell it. i think there are only a few things in life you get to name: your babies, maybe your dog, and your characters.

    • I feel your pain. Most of the critiques I get for my character’s name are positive. However, because my character’s name is Cain, I constantly get critters ask, “Is he the antagonist? No? Then why is his name Cain? It makes him sound like a bad guy.”

      It’s a fine critique, except that when you find your main character’s name, it’s like it snaps right into the story. A perfect fit. And you will fight to keep from changing it.

      Of course, I’ve also gotten a more blunt, “You need to change his name. It sounds stupid.” Which incited a violent desire to throw something at the critter. I didn’t though.

      Just saying, I completely understand. Our characters…specifically our MAIN characters are our babies. That’s like insulting my son. That’s why if someone points that out, I try to ignore it, or I stop them and say, “I’d rather you not critique that.”

      • Maybe you could make the associations of the name work FOR you? At the start of the story, you could perhaps leave the reader wondering if he’s a goodie or a baddie – maybe even make him look like a baddie, then turn it around as a plot twist?

        Anyway, it’s just a thought. Hope it’s helpful, but if not, fair enough. :)

  3. Thanks for all of these wonderful comments, & sharing your stories – good and bad. I hope it’s been somewhat cathartic!

    It seems, like the best things in life, that embarking on a critiquing relationship involves a bit of a risk – it can be super helpful, terrible, and all shades in between. I think Janice did a great job at helping us to realize that it’s like any relationship – it can be wonderful or frustrating and it takes work and support from both sides. Thankfully there are plenty more fish in the sea when it goes wrong and we don’t have to stick around if there isn’t a good fit. Don’t forget to review these articles that set out some guidelines in the beginning of a CP relationship: http://www.ladieswhocritique.com/critique-tips/

    Thank you so much Janice for a VERY helpful post.

  4. I’ve only ever had professional critiques which went well enough – at conferences for SCBWI. Those author/editors know how to give constructive criticism in an objective tone. Other than that – I rely on very specific people to give notes on my work (no tirades). I have a few story people I really trust – but I only ask for their opinion when I’ve got something very very ready. I’ve heard enough scary crit group stories from my hubby who works in TV. Too many angry opinions all at once scare me. The best and most helpful crits have come from writers who are really comfortable in their own skin. I seek them out and try not to be too clingy. Slowly I’m learning how to use what I’ve learned. Sloooowly. Thanks. Great posts and comments!

  5. Great post, Janice.
    I’ve belonged to several critique groups over the years and have witnessed witnessed just about every experience you’ve mentioned. I’ve learned that one size does not fit all when it comes to critique groups.
    The current critique group I belong to has the motto: Be candid but kind. That seems to work. While we all try not to take the criticism personally, does sometimes sting. By listening to others read their works and have them critiqued I’ve become a writer.
    Thanks,
    Donna

  6. “A reader’s opinion is their opinion. They can’t be wrong.” Haha! Thanks for phrasing it that way. I had a little “aha” moment. I can’t say I’ve had terrible experiences with my crit group. We setup a code of conduct in the beginning and talked about constructive criticism vs. value judgement… how “I didn’t like it” needs to be “the character’s reaction seemed too strong”, etc. Establishing that up front has made our crit group a wonderful and helpful experience.

  7. I was in an online critique group once where I expressed my dislike for 1st person pov. One of the members of the group sent me nasty emails telling me I should be nicer… I could tell the group wasn’t going to work for me so I dropped out. I joined a group that had some of the same people as the online group and she sent me more nasty emails. I had to block her from my email.

  8. I once had a critiquer tell me when we finally got to the end of my novel that she hated my main character and thought he was a jerk. She hadn’t given me any useful feedback up to that point, only a lot of “I don’t get it” on simple stuff, line edits, and a sense that she hated reading my submissions. It would have been helpful to say something like “I think he’s too angry. You should tone down his anger to make him more sympathetic.” Instead of I hate your book; I hate your character. Interestingly enough, she was my critique partner who I could only give line edits too because she takes any critique of her work as an attack on her. My critique group now is so much more blunt and effective. I always walk away from a critique session excited to get to work on all the ideas.

  9. Great post! One of my first critique experiences I joined a local critique group and after finally getting up the guts to bring something for critique, one of the more vocal writers went on a ten minute tirade and punctuated with shouts of ‘Show, don’t tell!’ ,banging his fists on the table and pontificating on how HE would do it.

    I really felt like an idiot when he was finished. Afterwards others in the group said that’s just how he was, he liked to hear himself talk, but no one ever stopped him.

    Well, a heads up would have been nice, but I learned four things that day: 1) He was actually right, I did need to show, not tell, but I would have been able to receive it better had it been presented with more professionalism 2) a critique group that is dominated by one or two personalities is probably not a good fit for me 3)I’d better suck it up and get a thick skin if I was going to continue in the writing business 4) I would work my hardest to give a kind but fair critique for anyone else in the future. That’s what I’ve endeavored to do. I think more critique groups would grow rather than whither if they establish basic rules and a code of conduct so people understand what is expected.

    Thanks so much for this great post, Janice.

    • What a great example of good advice given badly. How much more receptive would you have been if he’d not been a jerk about it? Glad you were able to take the good away from that, and even learn more from it than just the advice.

  10. I haven’t been involved in many critique groups, but my worst experience was also my best.

    Seven years ago, I was a classic case of “why you’re wrong” mixed with a hefty dose of “I’m so awesome”. I listened to the feedback I was given, and then proceeded to explain that the readers had misunderstood what was happening, and that it really did make sense in the context of the world, and etc. etc. etc.

    At that point, one of the group members said the most memorable (and helpful) things I’ve ever been fortunate enough to hear.

    She listened to my spluttering explanations and then calmly asked, “And are you going to sit next to everyone who reads your book and explain it?”

    That question changed my critiquing (and writing) life, and I’m pleased to say that I’ve never wallowed in “why you’re wrong” again.

  11. Ah, there was a two-post series on this at Superhero Nation a few months ago, but it’s refreshing to hear your side of the story.

    Personally, I hadn’t had any bad critiquing experiences yet. But at this one forum, there was this one writer whose friend was his/her only beta reader. However, the friend keep insisting that one of the characters be changed, because that character’s lifestyle offended him/her.

    The writer showed an e-mail from the friend. From it, the friend seemed to have a “this story is for me; why aren’t you changing it?” attitude.

    More than one poster, included me, advised the writer to drop the beta reader immediately, as the friend might be harming the story. The writer did. Of course, if I was in that situation, there would probably be a lot of stress on me.

    But any critiquer who thinks a story is for them and them only is most of the time misguided. It’s the writer’s story, and the writer’s aiming for a larger audience.

    • That’s a really good thing to remember. It’s fine if a story isn’t for you, but it’s vital to remember to let the author know what’s your personal preference vs a criticism. For example, I have trouble connecting to a distance narrator, and I always say that if I’m critiquing a distant narrator so the author knows to take my comments with that in mind. There will probably be things I say that aren’t applicable to those who do like that narrative distance.

  12. Thanks so much Janice for your tips. For the most part, I’ve had good critique partners. But I’ve had situations where critique partners took the critiques personal and was not nice in return. That was hard. I find critique partners very helpful. I’ll be joining a new one soon and will keep your comments in mind.

  13. Wonderful blog, thanks. :-)

    Right now I am working with a wonderful critique partner. When she points out what could be changed, I can see why she suggested the change and usually agree with her. It has helped my writing a lot.

    I did receive a critique, one of my first critiques, that was so painful to read I felt like tossing my lap top out the window. Fortunately, I didn’t. I doubt this person read what I wrote. Not only did she harshly criticize my WIP, but me as a writer.

    After I recovered, I wrote a blog about it. Read the critique again to see if there might be something I could learn and deleted the e-mail from my files and my mind. Sometimes we need to ignore what we know is wrong.

    Thought I would share that experience. Thanks again.

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