Blog of Pulitzer Prize Nominated Author, Jory Sherman. Get the latest information on his books, appearances and his candid reflections on writing.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


A few years ago, some writer friends asked me if I'd be interesting in starting a small critique group. That's where writers read what they're working on to each other so that the members can comment on the writing, make suggestions, find flaws, render comments in general and in particular.

"We'd like you to chair the group," one said. "Would you?"

I said I didn't think such groups worked.

"Why not?"

"In most cases," I said, "the ones I've seen, it's a matter of the blind leading the blind."

"What do you mean?"

"Unless the group has some professionals in it, you have people giving advice about something they know nothing about. Like writing. Editing."

"Which is why we want you to lead our group."

Reluctantly, I agreed to start a small critique group, but said that I would not stay long. I'd help them get started, attend a few sessions, and then they were on their own.

And, that's what we did.

There were only a few rules. Readings were limited to 15 minutes or so each. Criticisms had to be constructive.

My wife, Charlotte, stayed with the group. I attended the first three or four and then went back to writing books. Once in a while I would drop in, and, when I did, I saw that some were reading entire chapters. The sessions had grown longer and longer, taking up an entire afternoon, sometimes running into the evening hours. One writer was reading the same chapter at each session, having modified it in the previous week.

The group did limit its membership and a slot could be filled only when a member dropped out. Eventually, the group disbanded. Some started their own critique groups and these lasted for a while, then expired like deflated parade balloons when the air valve was opened.

Over the years, I've sat in on a number of such critique groups. Most of them were conducted with diplomacy, and constructively. However, I noticed that some individuals took constructive criticism very badly. I heard a lot of bad advice given in many of these groups. In some groups, none of the members were professional writers. That is none of the group had ever sold any of their writing for money.

So I have grown wary of critique groups. I have been paid to critique chapters, articles, and stories, by professional writers. I've also been paid to rewrite and edit work by many of our top writers. It is only when I critique the work of unpublished or inexperienced writers that I run into difficulties. Many writers have come to me with material that has also been critiqued in groups. I find that these writers are very hostile to professional criticism.

I have come to the conclusion that most of the writers who attend critique groups are not looking for criticism. They're looking for praise. My feelings about this are that the writers who are looking for praise not constructive criticism will never learn. Instead, they will continue to go to a critique groups where the blind are often leading the blind.

This is why I no longer attend critique groups. Now I do conduct a critique service on my help4writers website. I charge a fee for such critiques. My advice to those who would avail themselves of this service is to be prepared for a genuine critique not a pat on the back. Of course I will give praise where praise is due but a critique is meant to point out problems with the writer's work.

If you are genuinely interested in becoming a better writer then study good writing. And if you want to elevate your writing to a professional level then, by all means, seek the advice of a professional writer. If you do this, be prepared to have your work gone over thoroughly and ripped apart.

If you just want praise from other amateur writers then by all means attend a weekly critique group. Unless at least one of these is a professional writer and is willing to help you with your prose then you are probably not going to go very far as a writer.

So, beware of critique groups unless it is peopled by published writers who genuinely know their craft.

And good luck, in any case.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. I joined a writer's group and was amazed to see that not one writer had typed their MS in the proper format. Secondly, noone wanted to critiqued harshly...I thought this as odd... I'd rather be ripped in my writer's group than harshly rejected by the industry.

8:03 PM  

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