Critique Group Dysfunction — and What To Do About It!

This article was originally published in the 2005 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market by Writer’s Digest Books; please do not reprint without permission from the author.

Are your critique group meetings starting to feel as stressful as a holiday dinner with relatives?

Over time, each member of a family tends to assume a role: the peacemaker, the instigator, the grump. Members of critique groups often function in a similar manner. If you find yourself dreading meetings or tensing as you listen to feedback, your group members (including you) may be taking their “roles” in the family a little too seriously. Besides sucking all the fun out of the process, critique group dysfunction can be downright depressing. And really, what’s the point of sharing and examining work in an environment like that?

Here’s the good news: just as with families, critique group roles are not carved in stone. If you can identify your role and the triggers that bring out your worst, you can take steps to improve your participation—and hopefully start a domino effect. By modeling assertive and considerate critiquing, you may inspire others to contemplate their own contributions.

PUTTING THE “FUN” IN DYSFUNCTIONAL

Guess who’s coming to dinner . . .

The following list describes some classic critique group characters. First read the list with your personal critique style in mind. After you identify your own strengths and weaknesses, re-read the list with your co-critters in mind, looking for ways to bridge the gaps between you. (And lest you’re tempted to show people the list and tell them where they fit in, remember that most people tend not to do well with name calling.)

MEET THE FAMILY

The Bulldozer: She’s a formidable presence in the group and always drives full steam ahead with her feedback. When she is critiqued, she may argue with comments or defend her work. Strengths: She has strong vision and is passionate about the process. Weaknesses: She may ignore the writer’s own vision for her work; she tends to take over the group and sway opinion. Work with her: Slow her down. Pick one element of her comments to focus on. Ask other members of the group to weigh in. If you’re the Bulldozer: Try to go last, after quieter members of the group have had a chance to speak up. Ask your group to give you a signal when you’re going overboard.

The Cheerleader: Also known as The Gusher because he goes on and on. He’s heavy on the compliments, easy on suggestions for improvement. He may seek encouragement more actively than he asks for criticism. Strengths: We all need a pep talk now and then. Weaknesses: He may not be reading critically. Work with him: Ask for clarification—“What is it that you like about this story?” Be specific: “I don’t think ____ is working, what do you think?” (This lets him know you can take the heat.) If you’re the Cheerleader: Remember that there’s always room for improvement. See if you can find something to be tweaked—challenge members to do their very best.

The Devil’s Advocate (also known as Contrary Mary): This critter can argue even the most mundane of plot points. She may feel a need to justify her own work in the face of criticism. Strengths: Sometimes she has a point. Weaknesses: It can be easy to discount her good suggestions because they’re buried beneath so many irrelevant ones. Work with her: Take a giant step back from her criticism and see if she’s responding to something that truly is wrong with the manuscript. If she obsesses over talking animals, the problem may not be that they’re anthropomorphic, but that the plot/characterization isn’t strong enough. If you’re the Devil’s Advocate: Examine your own motives when you feel a contrary comment coming on. Is it about the story, or about the writer/your own issues? Rather than attacking a premise on its face, be specific about what isn’t working for you.

The Drill Sergeant or Chairman of the Board: She’s the boss of everyone, and doesn’t like chit-chat, gossip, or pep talks. Strengths: She’s good at keeping the group focused and on-task. Weaknesses: She is often blunt and/or unaccommodating. Work with her: The structure she’s so fond of can increase the group’s productivity. Watch the clock, take turns, and work within reasonable guidelines. If you’re the Drill Sergeant: Lighten up! Let go of minor meandering within the group. What looks like idle chatter may lead to inspired work. Make a point to hand over your gavel so someone else can play leader for a while.

The Green-Eyed Monster: He can’t see straight because of his own envy. He may dislike everything successful members share, or give up: “I can’t help you, everything you do comes out perfect.” His insecurity means he’s likely to preface his own work with apologies. Strengths: His compliments can be buried deep within catty remarks, but they’re often in there. Weaknesses: He may give up: “I can’t help you, everything you do comes out perfect.” He can be a real downer when someone has good news to share. Work with him: Call him on his pettiness. “I hope you realize that I struggle, too.” Disarm him with charm. Ignore the sniping and ask specific questions based on his critique skills. “You are good at such-and-such. Can you give me any suggestions here? If you’re the Green-eyed Monster: Acknowledge your envy, then move on. Be sure to give every manuscript that comes through the group your full attention. Study “Miss Perfect’s” work to see why her stories are so successful. Remember to criticize the story rather than the person.

The Hog (also known as The Center of the Universe): This critter takes more than his share by asking too many questions about commentary, bringing more than one story, bringing longer than usual material, or always wanting to go first. Strengths: He may very well be a terrific critter, overeager to share his insight. Weaknesses: He has no concept of equity. Work with him: Watch the clock. Before opening the session, decide how much time each manuscript will receive. If you’re the Hog: Give your commentary last. If you want to share more than one piece, make sure that everyone who brought work for feedback has had a turn first.

The Mother Hen: She spends a lot of time smoothing ruffled feathers and trying to paraphrase other people’s comments. She often does not like to “criticize” her little chicks. She may receive criticism personally: “Don’t you love me? I do my best!” Strengths: She can help the group get over rough spots; helps members who feel marginalized get back into the mix. She’s usually good at Big Picture critique comments, and can find something to love in every single manuscript. Weaknesses: She may fall for manuscripts only a mother could love. She may try to stifle legitimate discussion in the hope of sparing people’s feelings. Work with her: Compliment her nurturing skills, but ask her for tough love when you think she’s pulling punches. Be specific. If you’re the Mother Hen: Channel all that tender loving care. Read manuscripts with the goal of coaching each writer to improve his or her work.

The Mouse (also known as Li’l Ole Me; cousin to the Waffler, who agrees with everyone): The mouse rarely makes many notes on manuscripts; those she does make are usually limited to positives or minor copyediting. When it’s her turn to be critiqued, she takes every single suggestion made without discrimination. Strengths: It’s hard to know what she’s good at because she rarely speaks up. Look at her own work to see where she’s strong. Weaknesses: Her own insecurity means she may not contribute much constructive feedback. Work with her: Ask her to give feedback first so she can’t say “me, too”; ask her to go last so she can expand on others’ comments if that makes her more comfortable. If you’re the Mouse: Use a checklist to help you examine manuscripts confidently (see sidebar).

Negative Nellie (also known as The Battleaxe; cousin to The Bulldozer and The Devil’s Advocate): She has a hard time saying anything nice about anybody’s work. Her combative critique style makes it hard to attend to her valid comments. She has a hard time tuning in to others’ comments about her work. Strengths: She is often insightful about a manuscript’s flaws. Weaknesses: She forgets to mention positives. Work with her: Ask about the magnitude of her concerns: “Do you think this is a fatal flaw?” Ask her for specific suggestions for change. If you’re Nellie: Choose one or two manuscript flaws to focus on. “Sandwich” your concerns between complimentary opening and closing comments.

The Star Pupil: He only brings very polished work to the group and knows the perfect fix for anyone’s manuscript problems. He may be flustered by criticism. Strengths: He’s often a very good writer and critiquer. Weaknesses: He can come across as condescending. Work with him: Ask how his story changed from rough draft to finished manuscript. Encourage him to stretch his range. Point out his condescending remarks. If you’re the Star Pupil: Ask people questions about their work, rather than telling them what’s wrong with it. Challenge yourself to share daring and/or unpolished work for feedback.

The Stickler: He pays great attention to detail and often takes an academic perspective: focusing on grammar, etc. With his own work, he may lose sight of the “heart” of a story by paying so much attention to mechanicals. Strengths: He’s a wonderful resource for revision. Weaknesses: He may lose sight of the big picture; his nitpicks can stunt a story in its infancy. Work with him: Seek out his help on your trouble spots. Ask him “big picture” (see sidebar) questions about his feedback. If you’re The Stickler: Remember the “age” of each manuscript and try not to zero in on minor flaws too early in its development. Make general comments: “You said ‘very’ a lot,” rather than marking every single usage.

The Wanderer (also known as The Dreamer): An emotional reader, she often strays down unexplored territory when excited about a story. She may have trouble seeing a sagging narrative arc in her own work. Strengths: She has an unfettered imagination. Weaknesses: She’s often more focused on mood than structure; can be distracted by minor problems. Work with her: Ask specific questions about her suggestions. Indulge her flights of fancy—they may lead you somewhere fun. If you’re the Wanderer: Let others speak without interruption. Stick to one main point in your commentary.

But . . . but . . . but!

Several of my critiquer pals who read this article said, “I see myself in many of these descriptions!” In reality, we all bring a lot to the table. Our critique styles vary with experience, mood, feedback, and of course, story. But most people tend toward one type of participation or another. You can identify your general tendencies and tackle one issue at a time. Consider playing against type. And try to understand your “adversary’s” motivation. Critique groups evolve, as do writing skills. By examining the various quirky personalities that critters assume, you can learn to work with them instead of against them. A little bit of introspection can breathe new life into a critique group that has grown as stale as the third course of a miserable family dinner.

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