One of my favorite literary mottoes comes from Alexander Dumas’s The Three Musketeers: “All for One, and One for All!”
I’ve often thought that any kind of critique – whether it be of a fiction manuscript or a friend’s hair cut – should be delivered from this rousing spirit of good will and helpfulness. Unfortunately, Urban Myth -- or worse, ego -- gets in the way.
A Story Critique is Not a Competition
Many individuals in writers groups (both the published and the non-published) see an opportunity to deliver a story critique as a contest of one-upmanship with other fiction writers. At this point, a story critique escalates from discussion to competition.
The critics abandon all efforts to be constructive. They are so busy, delighting in their own cleverness, they don’t spare a second thought for the fiction writer. All the critic cares about is scoring a point in an imaginary match of wits.
When the ego of one or more critics in your writers group becomes the focus of the story critique, it’s time to end the discussion.
Windbags and Wafflers
I’ve identified two types of personalities that seem to cause the most conflict in a writers group:
The Windbag: These individuals are confident that no other opinion is as valid as theirs. Windbags argue their perspective to death. (Secretly, they can't bear to look wrong.) You can think of them as mules, stubbornly digging in their heels and refusing to be lead to the middle ground.
The Waffler: These individuals don’t have the conviction of their opinions. Whether they speak first or last during a group story critique, they’re easily influenced by the Windbags, who are bolder and louder – but not necessarily right. Wafflers will tell you what everyone else is telling you because:
a) They’re uncomfortable with conflict
b) They don’t want to appear “stupid” by offering a different opinion
c) They need to feel accepted by the “winning team”
Keep in mind that humans are basically pack animals. They follow a leader. If the most outspoken individual in your writers group goes off on a tangent, whether that tangent is positive or negative, the rest of the pack is inclined to follow.
Those with differing opinions about your fiction manuscript may wimp out, afraid to offer the lone, dissenting opinion -- the opinion that actually may be the most useful to you!
If you don’t ask for a differing opinion from other fiction writers, you may walk away from the session with an unbalanced (and completely inaccurate) perception of your manuscript or your fiction writing skills.
Tips for Ending the Trash Talk
Whenever writers groups let story critiques erode into adolescent giggle fests – or worse, pot shots -- you are your own best defense. Here are some phrases that you can use to derail the Windbags and the Gigglers:
“Thank you. I’ve heard enough to make a decision about that scene. Let’s move on to the next scene (or the next fiction manuscript.)”
“I appreciate your input. I’d like to hear from the rest of my readers now. Joan, what did you think?”
"Thank you for your comments. I’ll take them under advisement. Now I’d like to hear from another fiction writer who may have a different opinion.”
Things to Remember:
For the Critics:
- Model the story-critique approach that you prefer to receive in writers groups
- To be consulted for your opinion about a fiction manuscript does not entitle you to:
- Vent your spleen
- Air your personal prejudices
- Repeat your point more than once
- Regress into adolescent behavior at a fiction writer’s expense
- Describe the critical approach that you find most helpful. Ask the critics to work within those parameters during your story critique.
- Keep an open mind. You have the license to object, but only when the story critique has gotten out of hand with sniping, adolescent commentary, or off-topic discussions
- Rather than getting your panties in a twist, start asking questions. Maybe you misinterpreted what your critic was trying to convey.
Remember: a story critique of a fiction manuscript is a privilege, an opportunity to give your fellow writer help and inspiration. If your writers group fails to deliver constructive commentary time and again, exercise your inalienable right to quit the group.
In the meantime, if you are seeking a balanced opinion from a bestselling fiction author, check out my story critiques and book coaching program for fiction writers.