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For Whom the Critique Group Tolls

Judithe Little discusses the importance and benefit of being part of a critique group.

by Judithe Little

Hemingway once said, “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness, but I doubt if they improve his writing.”

We all know Hemingway was a spinner of myths, of man versus beast and man versus nature, of wrestling thousand pound marlins and masterful prose out of dark and mysterious places. He had to say things like this.

But we also know he was part of a vibrant fellowship—a veritable moveable feast—of writers. He had Paris, Montmartre, Stein, Fitzgerald, Joyce and so many others. He belonged, in effect, to a de facto organization for writers, to a critique group.

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Which means even when he was alone, he wouldn’t have been truly alone. He would have had the voices of his critique group in his head, Joyce in his white jacket, Fitzgerald chain-smoking Chesterfields, hovering over his shoulder like literary guardian angels or red-horned devils, prodding with pitchforks. What about this? they would say. What about that?

I’m in a critique group. I know what happens. The voices of your fellow writers take root in your head, pushing you to do better. It has nothing to do with absinthe (although there are times you might want some).

“Boring, boring, boring!!!”

My critique group once had a member notorious for writing “boring, boring, boring!!!” in the margins of our pages. While the delivery wasn’t ideal, she was always right. The pace was too slow. There wasn’t enough tension. It just took a day or two to stop seeing red and admit it.

She finished her book, published it and moved on. But those words are always in my thoughts when I write, reminding me that each scene has to push the story forward. It has to have a purpose. If it doesn’t, it will be boring, boring, boring.

“Slow down—we want more!”

Sometimes I’m on a roll. I’m churning out the pages and dreaming about typing “The End” when the dreaded critique group chorus “we want to know more” comes up.

The truth is, a part of me knew I was being lazy. I knew I needed to spend more time on certain scenes. The voices were trying to tell me, but I wasn’t listening. I wanted to FINISH.

As a result, the motivation of my characters wasn’t clear. I didn’t include details that would bring the scene to life. I hadn’t gone all the way in. I hoped I could get away with it, but the critique group called me out.

“We like dysentery.” And, “Maggots are good!”

One member of my group is writing a novel set during the civil war. She writes beautifully, and when she first brought drafts of hospital scenes, they were very … beautiful. There was no blood, no gore.

So she added details such as her main character’s experience with dysentery and a description of a maggot-infected wound. We were thrilled. “We like dysentery!” we said. And “Maggots are good!”

Now, one of the voices I hear when I write asks, is this scene logical? Is it realistic? Or does it need some maggots?

Critique groups are funny. They make you say strange things. They put voices in your head. But what they are at heart is readers. They are your audience. They don’t just teach you to write. They teach you how to tell a story.

So Ernest, if you can hear me, my critique group does palliate the loneliness. But it also makes me a better writer.

Judithe Little grew up in Virginia and earned a Bachelor of Arts in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia. After a brief time studying in France and interning at the U.S. Department of State, she earned her law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law where she was on the Editorial Board of the Journal of International Law and a Dillard Fellow. She lives with her husband and three children in Houston, Texas.

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