Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Critique Group of One

Judith Arnold

Many of my writer friends participate in critique groups or work with critique partners. It seems like a fine idea: invite a fresh set of eyes to read a work-in-progress. Gain good insights. Learn what’s working and what’s not working. Wind up with a better piece of writing.

I can’t do it.

I’ve had experience with critique groups. As an undergraduate, and then working on a graduate degree in creative writing, I participated in many critique-group seminars with other writers. We would distribute copies of what we’d written since the previous class, read the story or excerpt aloud as classmates read the printed copy and jotted notes, and then sit silently as those classmates analyzed the work. After our fellow students were done, the professor might add a few comments.

I can’t say those critiques were particularly painful for me. Not to brag, but I was a pretty talented writer. More importantly, I would not submit a story for the class’s dissection unless I’d polished it into a gem I was convinced would dazzle everyone in the room with its brilliance.

And that was exactly the problem. After a few years of this process, I realized that what I was doing was writing with the goal of dazzling my critique group. In each class, I eventually figured out what sort of writing would elicit oohs and ahhs. An abundance of metaphors? A feminist undertone? Concrete imagery? Cryptic dialogue? Single-sentence paragraphs? Humor? Irony? (We were college students. Irony was always near the top of the list.) I’d use whatever tools and tricks I had at my disposal to create a story my classmates would gush over.

That’s not exactly a bad thing. Those of us who write for publication do so with the expectation of reaching an audience. We want readers to appreciate what we’ve written. We’re writing to communicate with others.

But for me, the critique group became the only audience that mattered. I lost track of my most important audience: myself. I was so intent on impressing the people who would be critiquing my work that the stories I wanted to write, in my voice, with my world view, somehow got lost in the process.

I realized that the only way I could write what I wanted—and needed—to write would be to trust myself. I am usually my harshest critic, anyway. I “kill my darlings” with such gruesome relish, it’s a wonder I haven’t been sentenced to life behind bars. (Thank goodness it isn’t a crime to murder a bad simile!)

I write. I critique what I’ve written. I revise. I critique again. My critique group is me. I share every work-in-progress with exactly one person: me. No one else is allowed to glimpse it, comment on it, touch it or tamper with it until I say it’s done, until I believe it’s polished enough to dazzle not just a group of wise, helpful colleagues but the entire world.

Maybe my books would be improved with input from a critique group. But at least I know that the stories I write are all mine. Every word, every nuance, every comma and question mark has to pass muster with my very intense, very tough critique group of one. I’m damned hard to dazzle. So if I decide that what I’ve written is good enough, it probably is. And if it isn’t, the responsibility is all mine.

USA Today bestselling author Judith Arnold’s most recent indie-published release, Going Back, is now available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords. Her new “Daddy School” novella, Almost An Angel, is included in the just-released Christmas boxed set, The Heart of Christmas, on sale at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Koboand iTunes. To learn more about these and her other books, please visit her web site and sign up for her newsletter.


  1. What a fascinating post, Judith! I too suffer from this same curiosity, writing to please the critique group. I'm glad to hear/read that writing for an audience of one can be a successful way of going about the process.

  2. Thanks, Laura. It works for me. But I'm kind of envious of writers who can be in critique groups without losing their own sense of what they want their writing to be.

  3. The great thing about writing is that there's no one prescription we all must follow and, clearly, Judith, your way works for you!

  4. This is very insightful, Judith! And since I participated in an online critique group for many years, I understand exactly where you're coming from.

    Nowadays, I have a couple of carefully selected beta readers as my critique group, and that works just fine!

  5. Love this twist on critique groups--especially since mine is falling apart!

  6. It might be good to change critique groups every few years, just to get different perspectives. So, Barbara, if your group is falling apart, maybe there's a silver lining...

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