Why I don’t like writing groups

In my previous post I mentioned in passing that writing groups don’t work for me. Here’s why:

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been in some wonderful groups with fabulous writers, who are brilliant and incisive critics, not to mention heaps of fun to hang out with. Frankly, I don’t think you could find better groups. Yet I did not enjoy them, and found they made me less, not more, confident about my writing. After a year I gave up on writers’ groups forever.

It turns out that sitting in a room with a bunch of people taking turns to tell me what they do and don’t like about what I’ve written is my idea of hell. I hated it for several reasons but mostly because I need time to digest criticism. That’s because my initial reaction is pretty much always:

“You are completely insane and wrong and if it wasn’t illegal I would set your hair on fire!”

It takes me awhile to get from there to,

“Huh? You know I think you may be right: my six hundred thousand-word novel could stand some trimming. I can see as how sixty-three sub-plots is perhaps too many.”

Sitting and listening to criticism is too immediate for me. It makes me feel vulnerable and like I’m back in primary school, getting in trouble yet again.1 I hate it when the critiquer would look up to see how I’m taking the criticism and I’d have to bite my inner cheek to keep from showing what I was feeling.

I’m also uncomfortable with the group-think I’ve seen develop whereby one person says, “This really isn’t a mystery. You should recast it as a mainstream novel.” And pretty much everyone else keeps making the same criticism, adding their own twist on it, even though you know in your gut that they are absolutely wrong. Yet the pile up continues and you start to doubt yourself.

Then afterwards when you ask one of them about it, the person will say, “Oh, well, I didn’t really think that. Not really. I mean it might help, but I doubt it. You probably just need to make it more of a psychological mystery, you know?”

“So why didn’t you say that in there?”

They shrug. “I don’t know.”

Grrr. The group-think thing is especially likely to happen if the rest of the group is in awe of one of the writers (they’re published; everyone else isn’t) and uncomfortable contradicting them. Or if one of the group is very definite and assertive. But I have seen it happen in very well-balanced groups as well. One person will deliver a very witty and eloquent critique and (inadvertently) sway the rest of the writers to their way of thinking. I’ve not only seen this done; I’ve done it myself.

I do not find it healthy or helpful.

Which is why I rely on a group of first readers. When I think my latest novel is ready for feedback I send it off to about a dozen people whose opinions I trust. When they have time they write back with comments and criticisms. I still go through the wanting-to-set-their-hair-on-fire stage but in the privacy of my own room I can yell and stomp and no one’s the wiser. I get to the point where I understand what they’re saying much quicker when the comments are written rather than verbal. It’s less intense and less confronting. Many of these first readers are people I was in those groups with.

This is just my view. I have friends who swear by their writers’ group. I have other friends who don’t let anyone but their editors read early drafts. Each to their own. But if you are one of those people who’s been told by just about everyone that you should really join a writers group2 and then you tried it and didn’t like it. Well, you’re not alone.

  1. Okay, maybe it happened in high school also. []
  2. hey, I just suggested it in my last post []

16 comments

  1. Cat Sparks on #

    I used to love writing groups. They were all about the cake. I could get away with eating 3, maybe 4 pieces and nobody would point out that I was acting like a fat pig cos I needed that cake to buffer the crit process, right? But Clarion cured me of crit groups forever. Took me years to get the voices outta my head even though I loved every minute of the Clarion thing. Now, post writing group era, when I eat three pieces of cake I’m doing it alone infront of the telly. That’s a bad thing, right?

  2. Rebecca on #

    i love my writers group, but then again, we’re not exactly traditional. we hardly ever do the critique circle anymore. in fact, it’s been months and months. instead, we meet and do what we call a write-in. we do it every week and bring our laptops, and sometimes we write, but sometimes we bitch about writing or freak out about agent searching (well, the one person who is actually doing it does :P) or discuss our writerly problems, or talk about stuff that has nothing whatsoever to do with writing.

    i have really come to dislike the circle critique, actually. all two of my creative writing profs have lovvvvved them, which is why i think i got so frustrated with the class. it was practically all we ever did, and half the people in the classes didn’t really care about writing anyway. i think getting a good critique doesn’t happen with just anyone. sometimes it’s luck of the draw, and you mind wind up with someone who only reads non-fiction and so doesn’t really have a clue, or yanno, something like that.

    i guess my writers group is more like a support group than a crit group. :D writers anonymous, haha.

  3. Little Willow on #

    Keep your hair away from the fire and keep all arms and legs inside the tram at all times.

    i think it’s great that you know what works and what doesn’t work for you, no matter what anyone else says.

  4. Justine on #

    Rebecca: You’re spot on—it’s the critique circle that I hate. Hanging out and gossiping about publishing is heaps of fun.

  5. gwenda on #

    When I first started writing I lucked into this amazing private screenwriting workshop that was online. The woman who ran it was wonderful — she was great at screening people and at keeping the tone right (so important) and a genius critiquer. And, of course, it was all written critiques, being online.

    So for years I was so confused about why people felt like writing groups could be damaging. Having been in my fair share of critique circles now, I can completely understand it. (And yet — paradoxically — sometimes I still find it really helpful. I would stab myself if I had to do it all the time though.)

  6. PJ Hoover on #

    I so get what you mean about the in-person critique thing. I joined an online critique groups which works out amazingly on so many levels (for me).

  7. Justine on #

    Gwenda & PJ Hoover: Yup, I shoulda made it clear I was only talking about face to face groups.

  8. Liset on #

    *THE FEAR*
    i always freak out cause me and my best friend always have similar things in our stories, even though we won’t talk about it until months into writing it.
    I always get freaked out that somebody is going to steal one of my plotlines or something, or worse, that i’ll subconsiously steal one of theres! AH!

    does anyone else feel this irrational fear?

  9. Patrick on #

    No liset. Just you have that fear.

    Some critique groups have their own entertainment value. I don’t get a real big benefit out of groups, but I have found some valuable readers in the process.

    One group that I sat in featured several very religious/conservative people and two erotica writers. The discomfort when critiquing the erotica was amusing, to say the least.

  10. Kadie-Wa on #

    writing in groups always makes me uncomfortable. The way people look at eachothers work and critisize other people’s work…i would rather hear it from someone else…like an editor or something like that.

    writing in groups can be fun when we are not at the correcting part, but i still just feel weird sharing my ideas with someone else.

  11. Sash on #

    I’ve had to participate in crit groups for the last six months as part of my masters. I hated it. It wasn’t that the group was bad, or that they didn’t have anything useful to say. They did. but i was writing a first draft and could have discovered all those flaws myself if given half a chance. and i think making those discoveries yourself is part of what makes you a better writer.
    i do belong to a writing group as well, but it is definitely of the bitch, gossip, drink too much wine, eat too much food variety. aren’t writers supposed to be neurotic, over-indulgers?

  12. Anna on #

    critique groups sound like a particular form of hell. however, i don’t have “a dozen people whose opinions I trust.” Any advice on how to find at least a couple of people to give me feedback without experiencing a dreaded critique group?

  13. Justine on #

    Anna: i don’t have “a dozen people whose opinions I trust.” Any advice on how to find at least a couple of people to give me feedback without experiencing a dreaded critique group?

    Here’s the irony, though, part of why I have that many people whose opinions I trust is that I was in writers’ groups with them.

    I definitely think you should give writers’ groups a go if you haven’t already. They really do work for a lot of people. I wrote this post for the people who’ve tried them and it hasn’t worked out. I just wanted to let them know that they’re not alone.

    Also, as people have mentioned in the comments, online critique groups get around the scary face-to-face criticism. Again I know lots of people who’ve gotten a lot out of online groups.

    But, yes, one of the hardest parts of being a writer is the isolation. It’s hard finding people to read your work. It gets easier when you’re published, but that’s not very helpful when you’re not published.

  14. Camille on #

    When I was in writing classes we developed a mantra — there are always two people you listen to and at least one person who should be ignored at all times. Be open to the rest for occasional wisdom when it comes.

    That was a while back though — I don’t know if I could deal with it now. (Especially post graduation — I tried to keep up with meeting with an informal writer’s group but found I had to re-explain the rules and tropes of fantasy fiction at EVERY SINGLE MEETING. They all wanted to be Raymond Carver, you see, while I wanted to be Ursula Le Guin. It went poorly.)

  15. sherry on #

    I’ve been in many writing groups over the years–all on line groups which I realize isn’t what you are talking about. But I have found a trusted reader or two in each of these groups who have become critique partners later. I’d say an on-line group is a good way to get some feedback and find like-minded writing friends in the early days of writing. Not all groups are created equal though and you should just try one out with the same mindset as finding a pair of shoes that you like. If one doesn’t fit, try another.

  16. Brendan on #

    Thanks, this is reassuring. It’s not that I don’t want criticism to help me improve my writing; it’s that I don’t want to listen to people coming up with unwarranted criticisms in order to impress the other people sitting in the room. I know my work needs work. If my piece truly was 90% crap (and not the 80% I was hoping for), then say so, but don’t tell me it was 100% crap so that you can build your reputation for being the most insightful reader in the group.

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