9/05/2016

Negative Critique Group Sterotypes

Critique groups are among a writer's most important resources. Whether online or in person, whether you're a fresh-faced newbie or a seasoned veteran, there is always something to learn from fellow writers. Getting feedback on our writing is the main way we improve as authors. Some of us are lucky enough to work with professional editors. Others go to classes, or pay freelancers to help hone their skills. But for most of us, the tit-for-tat simplicity of a good crit group is the way to go.

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The following post comes to us from guest blogger and author Tom Howard.


Learn more about Tom by visiting his Amazon Author Page, and check out Tom's latest story in Coming Around Again, an anthology by my local crit group!

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If you've been in a few crit groups, you've probably noticed that members seem to come in a handful of recognizable flavors. Even if you just joined your first group, you're probably already starting to see a few predictable dynamics. Contrary and complementary personalities are what make crit groups so fun and useful. Every point of view contains a nugget of knowledge that can help you improve your writing--even if it's not always delivered with the purest intentions or the kindest of words.

Crit groups are not for the faint of heart. Writers join because they want to receive and provide honest feedback. Sometimes, though, members can take the idea of "not pulling punches" a little far. Below, we look at some of the more unfriendly characters you may meet.

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The Authority



How to identify: This member of the crit group knows everything about punctuation, plot, and style, and some of it may even be true. The problem with Authorities is that even the things they don’t know are said with such conviction that the beginning writer believes them. Beware of terms such as “you should,” “you must,” and “this couldn’t happen.” And the most damaging, toxic, and untrue term: “What editors want.”

How to handle: Make them aware of the way they present themselves and the damage “I know the only correct way” can do, especially with beginning writers. Look at their credentials. How much have they published? Don’t try to contradict the information presented by The Authority. They don’t see anything wrong with their worldview. Hit them in the empathy department, and tell them they are hurting people.


The Literalist


How to identify: Literalists don’t understand humor or metaphor. They don’t include them in their own writing and don’t understand it when used by others. They question each action taken by characters, especially if any symbolism is present. Look for statements such as “But a woman isn’t like a summer’s day,” “Lantern jawed? Lanterns can come in many shapes.” A Literalist must have things explained to them. Because they’ve never experienced something from someone else’s writing, it can’t happen.

How to handle: Try discussing with the critiquer but don’t expect them to change. Their life experiences have not prepared them for odd, unusual, and creative events. Simply listen to their confusion and take what little input you can use. 


The Corrector


How to identify: Like The Authority, The Corrector knows it all; however, they are rarely correct. They insist that bad grammar, poor punctuation, and shaky science are absolutely sound and their egos are dependent on other people agreeing with them. They enter the group to fix it, even though they don’t have the talent or knowledge to actually help the group. They are quick to tell you about the craft but it’s rarely reflected in their own writing. The Corrector goes to all the workshops, knows all the latest writing fads, and is on a first-name basis with Stephen King and Lois McMaster Bujold.

How to handle: The Correctors will quickly depart if they discover no one is listening to them or if other writers question their credentials. Again, a private discussion may help if potential damage is brought up.


The Grammar Nazi 


How to identify: Every crit group needs a Grammar Nazi, someone who knows all the rules of punctuation and grammar. They perform a very helpful role in every group. The problem is that a writer/reviewer who is only a Grammar Nazi is no real help to other writers. Finding a comma splice but missing a giant plot hole doesn’t improve the writing. In fact, the writer may believe problems are taken care of when blessed by the Grammar Nazi although that may be far from the truth.

How to handle: For this one, pointing out the difference between technique and substance may help. Steer the reviewer away from ONLY pointing out grammar and punctuation. Ask him or her about the plot, characters, and flow. Suggest a worksheet with non-grammar items on it.


The Cheerleader


How to identify: Every group needs a Cheerleader, too, but when it’s all over, they aren’t helpful at all. They are enthusiastic and positive, but, like the Grammar Nazi, they miss plot holes and character inconsistencies. They enjoy everything they read, all the time. Cheerleaders are good for the ego but really bad for finding ways to improve a story.

How to handle: During a crit review, ask them what caused them problems in the story, what slowed them down, what confused them. If you focus on the negative, sometimes a Cheerleader will admit they had trouble with this or that. That feedback can be very helpful if the Cheerleader can be interrogated effectively.


The Librarian


How to identify: This individual is very well read and is happy to tell everyone what story this work reminds them of. While it’s nice to fit in a specific genre, comparing a writer to Norton or Asimov doesn’t help the writer to a great extent. Like with The Cheerleader, it builds the writer’s ego (and maybe the critiquer) but doesn’t solve story problems.

How to handle: It’s easier in person because of the time limit on critique groups, but for online critiques with retelling of some masterwork, ignore the feedback. Ask for specifics on what reminded them of the other story or ways to make it more like Bradbury (or less like Bradbury).


The Orator


How to identify: The Orator likes to talk. Not so much a problem in online crit groups, but for in-person reviews, a time limit is the only thing that helps slow this beast down. Not only does an Orator like to expound on the story, he or she also likes to comment on what other reviewers have said, often repeating critiques. These people do not come to the group prepared so they meander through wispy topics they’ve heard at the table and waste people’s time.

How to handle: Use the time limit rule vigorously. If they go over, cut them off. Remind the speaker of the story in front of them. If they are unprepared to discuss the story, perhaps they’ll be more concise next time if they time out repeatedly. Require a written summary sheet be passed to the writer at the meeting. For online feedback, skim over the wandering thoughts and pick out what helps improve your story. 


The Rewriter


How to identify: The Rewriter, closely related to The Corrector and The Authority, can’t stop themselves from rewriting other people’s works. Instead of stopping at “This is an awkward sentence,” they provide you with an entire newly rewritten piece in their style and their own voice. They are fond of “a better word would be” or “this would sound better written this way.” If the author wanted the critiquer to rewrite the piece, they’d have asked for it. Rewriting is not critiquing.

How to handle: Rewriters react one of two ways if told rewriting isn’t critiquing: they either curb their enthusiasm or leave when they realize no one is listening to them.


Half a Writer


How to identify: the Half a Writer truly believes that their words, not the grammar and punctuation, constitute writing. They think some editor somewhere is going to get the commas right and punctuate the dialogue as necessary. They don’t need to learn that stuff. They only have to write and not worry about details like readability and grammar.

How to handle: Point out that writers need to know all the tools of their craft, including spelling, typo elimination, grammar, and punctuation. Editors are looking for ANY excuse not to accept a story, and a poorly written one will go right in the circular filing cabinet. Make line edit changes to the punctuation and grammar, pointing out that you do not expect to see this error again. Results can vary, but Half a Writers are not real writers and others waste a lot of time and energy trying to teach them English 101.


Unfortunately…


The bad news about these negative critique group stereotypes is we all fall into these categories occasionally. The trick is to recognize which stereotype label you are currently wearing and think of ways to turn the negative into a positive. Stop being The Authority. Find something to improve in every story. Don’t mention other writers unless it’s helpful in some direct way. We’re all creative in this business or we wouldn’t be writers. Be flexible and adaptive in your critiquing and try not to be one of the negative stereotypes.

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See anybody you recognize? Share this post on Facebook and tag them!

Next week, we'll look into some of the positive stereotypes you see in crit groups, so don't miss it!