Everything I Need To Know: Critique Group Problems

AdviceIt’s time once again when the email queries of those seeking advice are answered, Smart Bitch style.

Dear Smart Bitch Sarah:

I’ve been a member of a critique group for a few years now, and the three of us have developed a wonderful dynamic. I know my writing is better because their questions and comments. Recently, though, one of the members asked if she could bring a friend into the group, and we agreed.

It really isn’t working out. At first I told myself that it was because I was so used to my critique group’s style that hers was so irritating. But after the third or fourth time we examined a chapter of her work in progress, I realized it wasn’t just me.

What’s really bothersome is that she doesn’t listen to our critiques at all. I’ve tried to focus my comments on one issue per chapter, and yes, I do make sure to say something complimentary, but she doesn’t listen or make any changes. She seems to want admiration more than critique. She doesn’t ever make critical comments on our work, and only praises us and asks for more of our stories to read.

The friend who brought her into the group is now wishing she hadn’t, but while we all agree she’s not contributing anything to the group, we don’t know how to ask her to leave, because she’ll be so hurt and it’ll certainly ruin her friendship with my one critique partner.

Do you have any advice how we can ask her to leave? Or how to get through to her?

Signed,
Wanting Things Back the Way They Were

Dear Wanting Things:

Sit her down outside of the critique group and say that while you’ve enjoyed having her in the group, you’ve collectively decided that since you are in different places in your writing projects, you’re going back to the arrangement you had before she came. You wish her the best of luck, and maybe even offer to help her find someone who may make a better partner. But you say, “Thanks, and good bye.”

If you want to get specific, tell her that you don’t think your suggestions are being met with any serious consideration. Give examples. But simply say no, and make sure you present a united front while doing so.

Breaking up is never fun to do. But writing is an art and it’s a business. The art requires honest critique from people who want you to succeed, and the business requires that you forgo the urge to “be nice” and replace it with “be real.” Rejection is part of publishing. Setting limits is part of being an adult. And the three of you have reached a limit: your group, from the sounds of it, isn’t functioning as it used to since you added a fourth party.

Women, as a rule, are not encouraged to be forthright and assertive socially. We aren’t supposed to be “mean” to one another – and more often than not you can spot the villainess in a contemporary romance simply by her predilection for long, pointy, manicured red nails and a tendency to speak her mind and potentially hurt feelings.

Now, it could be that her writing is not to your taste, and that her style does not mesh with yours. Reading is, after all, subjective. It could be you resent the new dynamic and don’t like it as much, and that feeling is contributing to how you read her writing. Like I said: subjective.

But from your letter it seems that everyone in the group agrees that her writing and her critiques are not adding, but subtracting from the group’s progress. If you want to pursue writing as a career, you have to be able to set your own limits, define progress and regression, and remove obstacles.

If she’s an obstacle, then she needs to find another group to work with. Being nice will only make the problem more difficult as time passes, and being nice never does anyone any favors. So paint your nails red and break the nice cycle: it’s time to stand up for yourself, and your writing.

If your other critique partners aren’t willing to do so, there’s no reason why you have to participate in the group. It is ok, even acceptable – hell, it’s demanded in solitary endeavors like writing to look out for yourself first. And that’s what you have to do. As contrary as it may be to what’s expected of female group dynamics, your professional needs must come before any amount of “nice.” Yes, friendships may end and people may be angry, but this is business. It’s business time.

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  1. 1

    Another option would be to tell her you’re disbanding the group, and then continue on in a new location without her. It’s the coward’s way out, yes, and Sarah’s advice is excellent.

    But it is a way out. :-)

  2. 2
    krsylu says:

    So paint your nails red and break the nice cycle: it’s time to stand up for yourself, and your writing.

    Ouch! So true, but… Ouch! Sarah hits the nail on the head again.

  3. 3

    This has happened to me before, where a group is chugging along and it’s great, and then we invite one more person and, kaboom. What I’ve noticed is that one person can easily change the dynamic of the whole group. Our group tanked after we expanded it by one person, and not only that, but all of the friendships dissolved, too.

    If you ask New Person to leave, the friend who brought her in the first place will either be really miffed, or she’ll also have sensed that the New Person was really messing with the balance of the group and she’ll have been wanting to ditch her, too. It’s rough to risk reaction #1, though.

    I’m thinking Ms. Quinn is right, and you may end up starting a new group to escape the New Person—not because you’re too polite to stand up for yourself, but because the damage may already be done and all there is left to do is start fresh.

  4. 4

    I can see another SB book looming on the horizon.  These advice columns are great, especially when you work in the comments.

  5. 5
    Silver James says:

    I think it is important that the original group act in conjunction on this. Be nice – maybe meet for lunch, and explain things. If the others don’t want to back up Wanting Things, she might need to look for a whole new group.

    Finding a CP or group is one of the hardest things there is for a writer and once we find a good working relationship, we are loathe to lose it. But if the others aren’t willing to return the dynamics, I’d cut my losses and look elsewhere.

    This is a tough situation and Sarah’s advice is right on. *adds red polish and manicure to Christmas list – just in case*

  6. 6
    Keri Ford says:

    You could try to get HER to want to leave. When you look at her pages and you’re seeing similar things, point them out and be direct. “See this? I pointed this out to you before on why is wasn’t working in the last chapter. Maybe you should bring a notebook and take notes so you’ll have them at home for you.”

    Make your style something she doesn’t find flattering. Critiqing is often done nicely. Drop the niceness and be blunt.

  7. 7
    KJG says:

    Although I respect the SBTB answer, I have to go with commenter number one. I would also chicken out of confronting her (because that really would just lead to bad feelings and possibly tears or high emotions) and tell this woman the critique group is disbanding and reform at another location/time.

    One, I think sparing this woman’s feelings is the kind thing to do. I’ve had my share of bad experiences with critiques…sometimes it’s just a bad match and nothing more. Why make this person feel like she doesn’t know ‘how’ to critique or how to be part of a writers’ group? In another group, she may find more comraderie, but confronting her and telling her she has to leave may send her scurrying for cover and thinking she’s a horrible person or terrible writer.

    Two, this confrontation scheme may ruin a friendship between the other member of the critique group whom you like and her friend/acquaintance. Just because the other two writers in your group claim to feel the same way, does not mean they also want to confront her and boot her from the group in the same fashion. If you talk with this woman and imply that everyone feels the same, when that is not the case (or maybe the others are as cowardly as I would be), that might be worse than allowing her to stay.

    One of the few times I was personally excluded from something, I only felt TERRIBLY for months. Wondering what I had done wrong…or why this person/these people wanted to get rid of me. It was awful. I much rather would have been excluded without my knowing, either being lied to or deceived. It really would have been much better, and I wouldn’t have been carrying around bitterness/confusion/doubt for months on end.

  8. 8
    theo says:

    Another way to approach this so your nails are out but they’re painted a softer pink is to explain that you’ve found her writing experience has not yet achieved the same level as the three of you have enjoyed and that perhaps she needs to find a group geared more toward the beginning writer, rather than trying to fit in with a group that has made all the simple, starting mistakes she’s making now (out of not knowing! not that she’s stupid). Perhaps, because you’re all at a point where those mistakes are far in the past and the three of you are looking to move forward, you feel she won’t be able to keep up. Then give her a couple options, like some of the writers boards online that cater to different levels of experience.

    I definitely agree with Sarah though. If you want to move forward, if you truly want to see your name on that store shelf eventually, you can’t cater to someone who will ultimately hold you and your group back.

    Then again, you can always point her to one of the fan fiction sites too, if all she really wants is to have a steady stream of free reading… ;)

  9. 9

    You know, I think this is a good suggestion, but what I would do is try to have a heart-to-heart about it, first.  She might be uncomfortable offering critiques, because she’s the new person, and maybe she feels intimidated because the rest of the group has been writing longer.  She could have valuable insight that she’s withholding because she’s afraid of offending the rest of the group, or afraid that she will come off as a know-it-all.

    If that doesn’t work, then I’d cut her loose.

  10. 10
    Suze says:

    It’s probably too late in this situation, but any group that’s considering opening up to a new member should really formalize their rules or process, and have a trial period.  Sometimes the fit just isn’t right.  That’s why there’s probation periods in new jobs.  Sure, you’re skilled and talented, but you’re not fitting in the job’s niche.

    Being too nice, taking the chicken way (my preferred method btw) just drags things out and leaves a bad taste behind.  The surviving group may well fall apart anyway over guilt, and depending on the size of the community, the abandoned person will probably find out about the group continuing to meet and feel much more hurt and betrayed than she would have by being clearly told that her behaviour is not meeting the group’s standards.

    What I would do in this situation (unless I chickened out) is speak up at a group about what’s not working for me.  Something like, “I’m feeling uncomfortable about how this critique group is working currently.  What I want from this group is XXX, and what has been happening lately is YYY.”

    This makes it all about you and your feelings, and non-accusatory, and opens up the floor for the other members to support you and clarify their own discomfort.

    Does the group have rules about critiquing?  A lot of on-line critique groups have them posted, because body language doesn’t translate well on line.  There are always things like: make it about the work and not the person, how to identify what’s subjective and what’s objective, and also how to receive feedback.

    If this is the new person’s first time in a critique group, she may not be aware of the etiquette.

    And if she’s there just for feel-good, aren’t-I-talented fuzzies, she really needs to go find somebody else to provide them.

  11. 11

    I agree with you, Suze.  In fact, if she’s looking for feel-good, aren’t-I-talented fuzzies, she’ll probably grow bored with the group fairly quickly and move on.  It happened in my critique group with someone who often showed up “just for an audience.”

  12. 12
    RfP says:

    I think it is important that the original group act in conjunction on this. Be nice – maybe meet for lunch, and explain things.

    Oh hell no.  That leaves you stuck sitting through lunch and makes it likely you’ll end up talking about it in more depth than you need to.  Probably resulting in even more hurt feelings; more talk does NOT always mean more warm fuzzies.  Don’t drag it out.  If only one of you has a friendship to preserve, clear out and let the two of them deal with it.

  13. 13
    Kathleen says:

    One thing I noticed missing from the letter is whether or not they’ve tried sitting her down and telling her exactly what they expect out of her re: critique style and revision.  It’s possible that she honestly doesn’t know how to effectively give and receive constructive criticism, and if that’s the case, maybe things will start going a little smoother if she knows what’s expected of all group members.  It’s hard being the newbie when everyone else already knows how the situation works!

    That said, if it really is a matter of her wanting praise as opposed to critique, then maybe explaining that your group’s critique style and her critique style just don’t mesh that well, and you think she might find a better fit elsewhere.

  14. 14
    Jonquil says:

    The shorter the explanation, the less she can argue.  Seriously.  Use the Miss Manners technique.

    “I’m sorry, X, but we’re asking you to leave.  It isn’t working out.”
    “But why?”
    “It just isn’t working out.”
    “But you have to tell me why.”
    “It isn’t working out.”

    If you say anything specific—“You aren’t listening to critiques”—“You aren’t participating”—she can promise to change, which she won’t.  But “It isn’t working out” is inarguable.

  15. 15
    Ciar Cullen says:

    Once again, I’m the odd woman out. I think because you took in a newbie and opened yourself up, it’s important to suck it up. Kinda like hiring a long shot for a job—you took the chance, now give her the chance to come up to the plate.

    Tell her in some rewriting of corporate speak that some things aren’t working well, and list them conversationally for her (not in writing, unless you guys communicate by email). Give her a chance to change. If she doesn’t, and it sounds like she won’t, you will have done your best. Isn’t that the chance you would have liked as a newbie? She might surprise you. Be sure to tell her that the consequence of not changing is to get the boot. The phrase “up to and including termination” comes to mind—whatever the crit group equivalent is.

  16. 16

    I’m cringing at the thought of telling someone to take a hike, even in a nice way.  I’d rather leave myself.

    I’m also confused by the group’s expectations.  She’s supposed to make changes based on their suggestions?  I wouldn’t join a critique group that required me to follow their advice. 

    When a new person comes in and shakes things up, that can be a good thing.  Sometimes, feeling comfortable isn’t indicative of true growth.

  17. 17
    joykenn says:

    Sarah is right to keep reminding everyone that a writing group is a business group—not a friendship or a club.  If you are a serious writer you need a serious attitude toward it in all its aspects.  Is one of you the organizer or acknowledged leader?  If so, it would be easier for that person to take the lead. (That’s why I like a professionally led writing group where the organizer is paid and is a critic rather than an author.  Better comments, better dynamics.)  Whatever you do don’t let this slide along!  Either get rid of her, counsel her with a deadline for a final decision, or just get out now!  Writing takes too much time and effort for you to waste time and effort with this!

  18. 18
    Lovecow2000 says:

    The most important thing in this is for the 3 original members of the group to be on the same page about how to go forward.  Evaluate all the advice given by SB Sarah and in the comments and then act on what feels right and meshes with your ethical codes. 

    I think pretending to disband might save her feelings today and avoid a potentially embarrassing conversation.  if she were to ever find out the fall out would be even worse than if constructive honesty were offered.

    Here’s my approach and take or leave it as you will:

    Discuss with this woman what isn’t working, honestly.  See if she is willing to be more constructive in her criticisms and find out why she isn’t using the advice you’re giving. As a writer you know this, you don’t always use the advice given because it doesn’t feel right to you.  Do you really use all the advice you’re given? If not, then why should she?

    It may be that she doesn’t agree and is trying to save your feelings by not being honest with you about her objections.  The important part is to find out if she has the same level of commitment to and ownership of her writing that you all share.  If she isn’t interested in the critiques offered then you can very kindly suggest that she find another group as this one isn’t helping her grow as a writer.  I wouldn’t accuse her of not helping your writing because honestly that isn’t taking charge of your own process.  Whether or not your writing grows is your responsibility just as it is her responsibility to grow as a writer as well.

    She is not your child, nor is she writing your book.  As an adult you all have agency here to act or not.  Yes it is frustrating when perfectly valid advice and critique is given, but the advisee isn’t following it.  You should let your advice go to be used or not. 

    Equally, I know you may not follow my advice here. Do I want you to? Of course!  Will I be crushed if you don’t?  Not really.  I’m not you and your taking of my advice isn’t something over which I have power.  Still, I’m curious to find out how this plays out.  : )

  19. 19
    Suze says:

    Kinda like hiring a long shot for a job—you took the chance, now give her the chance to come up to the plate.

    I agree with this if a) she understands what the job requirements are, b) there’s a clear timeline involved, and c) everybody knows what the standards of measurement are.

    How many chances does she get?  How long do you drag it out if it’s not working?  Of course, if she’s not aware that it’s not working, you’ve got communication issues.

  20. 20
    P.N. Elrod says:

    Don’t lie to her with the “we’re disbanding” line. That will bite you in the ass down the road.

    Be honest, even if it hurts. Let her know that yours is a group trying to get better at writing via critique, not a feel good bunch.

    She may only know about feel good groups. If someone has not explained the rules of this one to her, then it needs to be done.

    Let her know she’s not contributing with simple praise, nor is she listening to the comments she gets.

    You are wasting time critiquing her works when she’s so clearly ignoring things. That’s a legit reason to ask her to leave.

    Send her to AbsoluteWrite-dot-com. It’s free and they have a share your work forum for feedback. Several pro writers lurk there, helping the newbies.

    There’s a girl like this in a workshop I used to go to. She’s copying the style of a substandard paranormal writer (bad copying, too) and wholly ignores any suggestions for improvement. In one year’s time she was still on chapter one or her dismal erotica opus.

    The woman running the group is too soft to kick this one out, so I left instead. Last I heard, the ego princess was still on chapter one!

  21. 21
    Lori Borrill says:

    I’m also confused by the group’s expectations.  She’s supposed to make changes based on their suggestions?  I wouldn’t join a critique group that required me to follow their advice.

    I’ve worked with writers who sent me “revised” chapters that took none of my previous suggestions into consideration.  Even the typos I’d pointed out were still there.  While a writer isn’t required to make changes, when you’re spending a ton of time reading and critiquing and over and over again the advice is ignored, it’s pretty darn hard to shake the feeling that you’re wasting your time.

  22. 22
    Anon76 says:

    Actually, I’m seeing this issue a bit differently.

    Perhaps this new member is just jumping the gun a bit. She has a number of chapters written, and rather than digesting the thoughts already expressed by the other members and massaging her next chapters, she just posts another. She has learned things from the crits, but she’s not applying them to her subsequent chaps before posting. Which does drag the other members down, but she probably doesn’t know that. She’s new and eager.

    A private chat about posting the cleanest copy of a chapter on the loop may well take care of this. Bring your best game, with all you have learned. There is no rush. Personal editing is a good thing.

    As to her not offering detailed crits to others, well, I think she is still learning and that will change in a short amount of time. When she gets her groove on, the group may be very surprised by her take on things.

    Again, I think it should be said about editing other chaps before posting. That could save a whole lot of drama and hard feelings.

  23. 23
    Elyssa says:

    I understand the person’s frustrations with the new member, but have the rules of the critique group been properly explained to her?  Maybe this is her first group—-and her first piece of writing—-so the new member really doesn’t know what to expect or do.  And I remember how closely guarded I was to my first completed novel and how I reacted to criticism, but that all changed after a few rejection letters basically stated what one CP told me. So maybe the new member has to learn the hard way? But, maybe it’s just a simple thing of reiterating what the rules are and what everyone hopes to get out of the critique group.

  24. 24

    I think it is important that the original group act in conjunction on this. Be nice – maybe meet for lunch, and explain things.

    Although I certainly understand the need to present a unified front, it could end up making her feel like the group is ganging up on her.  I like Smart Bitch Sarah’s original suggestion of being nice but firm in a one-on-one setting.

    Oh, OH.  OR you could use your copy of her manuscript to make a papier mache work of art and then give it to her in lieu of an actual critique. 

    Voila!  It is a majestic, rearing centaur!

    Voila!  This month it is crude suspension bridge to Venezuela!

    Voila!  It is your mother.

    I’d think she’d eventually get the point.

  25. 25
    Jessa Slade says:

    Tell the truth; hurt a feeling. Lie; get bit on the butt later. Suffer in silence while resentment builds…  No good outs here, really.

    Perhaps telling her that critiquing four people is just too much work in your changing schedules.  Since she has the least seniority, she has to go.  This combines truth and lies which is the best for weaseling.

  26. 26
    Charlene says:

    It would be very bad manners to not tell her why she’s being dumped, and even worse manners (bordering on selfish, gross rudeness) to passive-aggressively disband the group and restart it later. Neither of these actions would spare her feelings in the least; they would only spare YOUR feelings, because you wouldn’t have to do the icky messy thing of dumping her or exposing yourself to her emotions.

    There’s also a practical reason why you should explain in this situation. Without an explanation (and no, “this isn’t working out” isn’t an explanation), she might assume you were jealous, mean, or even bigoted. How likely is it that she will badmouth you around if she assumes this?

    You have to a) actually tell her you’re dumping her and b) tell her WHY, using specific examples. If this is a “business gathering”, then you have to act professional, and that includes giving reasons (not excuses) for your actions and being able to withstand the other person’s anger and sadness.

    Oh, and I assume someone has already provided her with a full and detailed list of what is specifically expected of her? You’re not expecting her to figure it out perfectly without actually telling her, right?

  27. 27
    Charlene says:

    Boy, that came out angry, but I really get tired of people who say “this is a business matter” and then try to use high-school clique techniques to get rid of people who don’t fit.  It doesn’t make you look good, it’s unprofessional, and you’re causing unnecessary pain.

    Be honest. Be candid. Be impersonal. Give cogent reasons. She may still be hurt, but she’ll be a hell of a lot more hurt if you manipulate her into quitting by catty little passive-aggressive actions like suddenly over-critiquing her work or – ugh, I cannot believe anyone over 18 thinks this is within the realm of acceptable – pretending to break up the group.

  28. 28
    willaful says:

    Don’t lie to her with the “we’re disbanding” line. That will bite you in the ass down the road.

    I thoroughly agree. Even if she doesn’t catch you out, you will always worry that she will.

  29. 29
    Michelle C says:

    I don’t know if this group has tried this approach, but I would tend to try to lead by example before taking any action.

    Do all of the other members give fair and complimentary, yet tough advice to each other where it is needed? If you do that with each other, she might pick up on that. You might even joke about it and say, “Thank you, INSERT NEWBIE NAME, I’m so happy that part of my story worked for you, but what do you think my weaknesses are? Where do you think I could tighten up?” Or make it a question for the whole group, so that your newbie can get a better grip on how you work.

    It may just be that she still feels like a newbie, and needs to understand the ground rules a little better.

  30. 30

    There’s lots of great advice here.  Just two quick things to add: Ideally, the personal chat would be left to the friend who brought her in initially.  And you don’t want this newbie to feel like everyone’s ganging up on her.  Otherwise she’ll either a) get defensive or b) start crying.  And neither is a good scenario.

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