Let’s Be Honest: Life Changes…and So Do Critique Groups

So I was trolling for blogging ideas on Twitter and Facebook this morning, and Jane Friedman wrote:

 “Here’s a question: what if you have a long-standing member of a critique group who … just doesn’t fit anymore. Yet they don’t seem to understand this themselves. How can you gently get them to move on? (Maybe this is a psychology question rather than a writing question … !)”

Jane’s right–this is a psychology question, but so much of the critique process is about how people interact that I think it’s a good topic to discuss. It also happens to be a question I get asked a lot–what do you do when someone in the group is not working out. “Not working out” can mean anything from slamming others with harsh critiques, to not submitting any writing for months, to overloading the group with hundreds of pages while baring showing up with comments for everyone else’s work.

I know, shocking, but it happens. 🙂

Sometimes, the problem isn’t even a problem. As Jane says, it may just be that one writer “just doesn’t fit anymore.” You may never experience the kind of horror-story situation that is the stuff of critique-group urban legends. At some point, though, I can almost promise you–your critique group will come across a time when they have to make a change. Perhaps most of the writers have achieved publication, and the other–while close–feels left out or left behind, even intimidated. Or maybe half the group has time to spend six hours a day writing and critiquing, while the other half are still working full-time jobs and feel overloaded by the group’s demands. The shift in the group can be something as small as one writer moving an hour further away from the meeting place, to a writer shifting gears from heavily-graphic sci-fi novels to rhyming picture books. You name it; change happens.

What do you do?

Now, I have to tell you, here’s what happens most often when someone asks me about problems in their group. Everybody’s very nice; there’s rarely any whining, but the conversation goes a lot like this:

Writer: “There’s this person in my critique group, and they’re doing (or not doing) X.”

Me: “Have you tried talking to them about it?”

Writer: “Um….” [Sheepish Grin]

So, yes, the first thing is to try and talk things out. Whether someone’s causing a real problem, or–as Jane says–just not feeling like they mesh with the group anymore, they can’t know that you’re unhappy with their behavior or their “fit,” if you don’t tell them. Okay, sure, unless they’re psychic, but if that were the case, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, would we? I don’t know if it’s human nature, or the training we get, but most of us will too often choose bury our heads in the sand and fuss silently, than move to directly confront a problem. Well, sand burns your eyes and silent fussing causes migraines.

Try talking about it.

Again, this conversation can range from simple and straightforward to a complete dissection of the way the group operates. If you’ve got someone new to critiquing who didn’t realize they were pushing a bit hard, or someone who’s still learning to dig for more than commas and spelling–a few pointers and reminders can get them headed in the right direction and bring peace and happiness back to the group. If someone has been slacking off, they may recommit to showing up and critiquing full-force; maybe they just needed the reminder.

On the other hand, it may be that different writers have wildly different goals and that–within the group–these goals can’t be reconciled. Sometimes the discussion itself is a way to point out to someone that they aren’t happy in the group anymore, that the group isn’t providing them what they need, and they will make the choice to leave. If not, one or more of you may have start your own break-away group, or you may have to ask another member to step out of the existing one.

Easy? Hah. This can be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do–as I said, most of us shy vehemently away from confrontation and conflict. Remember, though, that you are placing your writing (and your critiquing) up near the top of your priority list. Remember that you have had a core group with a wonderfully cohesive and productive dynamic. Remember that, if you do not take this step, the sore spot of the group will fester and damage that entire group, not just its individual members.

Be polite. Be respectful. And, if you need to, be firm.


  1. Wow! There’s a challenge. Have you done this? Has it worked out okay? Did you lose a friend in the process?

    Really, it is very mature advice. I just have to figure out if I’m that mature. I’m not actually part of a critique group right now and to be honest, this is partly why. I’ve never been part of a truly successful critique group.

    Thanks for giving us something to chew on. And to act on, also!


    • beckylevine says:

      Joyce, I’ve done a few variations on the theme. I’m sure there have been some hurt feelings once or twice. So far, I’d say no friends LOST, although paths have gone in different directions, yes. It has, though, from my pov, worked out okay–maybe it’s a selfish focus, but I’m still critiquing and learning from my critqiue partners. So that counts for a lot.


  2. claudine says:

    Ah! That’s the problem in so many areas. As you say, it’s that squeamishness about even gentle confrontation.
    Good post though. Very wise! And I do like the ending where you remind us why we are even in a crit group, and that is to make our writing a priority.


  3. Nancy Benton says:

    Hi Becky

    I attended your short talk for FAW the other Saturday and came to visit your site. I was very impressed and it inspired me to go back to my page and do a little revising. Thanks!



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