Writing By Committee?

Writing By Committee?

Can’t tell you how many times non-writers have dissed my critique group by calling the process writing by committee. Ugh! Would they dare tell an engineer he was engineering by committee if he brainstormed with other engineers? Would they dare belittle a doctor’s process if she suggested a second opinion? How about the college professor who pays my son to grade his student’s homework?

Nope. In those cases, and thousands of others, the professionals are praised for seeking outside help and ideas to ensure they produce the highest-quality outcome.

Why then does critique group get such a bad rap?

Last week, I found myself defending the process to my mother, who happened to have been a silent observer at a recent critique session. “The ideas and writing are our own, but running the pages through the group shows us areas that aren’t going to fly with the public.” “…highlights repetitive sentence structure.” “…points out logical flaws in our plots or instances where we’ve inadvertently called a character by the wrong name.”

After my righteous indignation had worn off – and I’d made my Momma sorry she’d dare express what she’d thought was a funny insight – I began pondering this idea in the back of my brain. After all, critiquing had now been questioned by an outsider who had witnessed the process.

Here’s what my pondering has come up with:

  1. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, but eagle-eyed critique partners can help point out aspects most likely to fall flat with your readers. One of my favorite things about our group, and what makes us such a successful group, is our differences: ages, backgrounds, childhoods, careers, education, relationships, genres we write, genres we read. (The only thing we’re missing is a Yankee perspective!) Since there are four of us, I generally think of everyone’s opinion representing roughly 25% of readers. If one person is iffy with one of my writing choices, I’ll probably go with my gut and make no changes, but if two or more have issues with something, I know for sure I’ve missed my mark. Time for serious edits.
  2. Critique deadlines keep the writing moving forward. Our group meets weekly, which means each week, I must make time to read the others’ pages and prepare pages to submit. Yes, there are weeks when I fail as a critique partner and don’t get the pages read or don’t read as thoroughly as I should, and yes, there are weeks I fail to turn in pages. Good news here is these wonderful women won’t allow me to slide more than two weeks in a row, particularly when it comes to producing new pages. They’ll get in my business and help me figure out what’s blocking my progress. Writing is a solitary labor of love and having people keeping tabs helps keep me a little closer to the track.
  3. Giving critique is as valuable a writing tool as any craft book. I learn so much from reading and critiquing other writer’s work. Quite often, when I’m struggling with an aspect of craft, I find that spotting it in someone else’s work and suggesting a fix will ultimately help me improve that element in my own writing. Also, I find it educational to listen to what fellow critiquers point out issues with. For instance, Ann is great about pointing out areas where you can circle back to an earlier turn of phrase or image and milk the moment. Me? Not so much, but the more I listen to Ann point these opportunities out, the more aware I am of them in my own writing.

So far, all my pondering has led to positive, affirming realizations, but hang on. As I pondered a bit deeper, I came up with a few less-than-stellar observations.

  1. Sometimes, I feel paralyzed with my writing and am afraid to move forward with an idea that hasn’t yet gained the stamp of approval from my critique group. Stamp of approval? Uh-oh. This sounds a little committee-ish, doesn’t it? Need to be aware of this dangerous habit and do my best to eradicate it. Now, listen. We all know those pesky little characters in our brains have an annoying tendency to run off script and turn your plot on its head. In such circumstances, brainstorming a new path or waiting on feedback is a good idea. But procrastinating on writing the next scene because it’s going to be hard or messy or require a bit of extra research? Nope. That turns critique group into a crutch – or worse yet, a writing committee. Can’t let myself get away with that.
  2. My inner self-doubter often works overtime, particularly in respect to my writing. I might write a scene or a plot twist that I think is great, but if a critique partners says, “what if….?” I have a horrible habit of saying, “Yeah, that’s what I should do.” And poof! Forward progress stops as I begin rewriting in another direction. This is a double-tricky pitfall of critiquing because I’m not only guilty of buying into these suggestions, I’m just as guilty of tossing them out as well. Now, I’m not saying that critique partners shouldn’t suggest alternative directions or report, “hum, I thought you were going to …” What I am saying is that this is my story, and ultimately, the responsibility of what I keep and what I change falls to me.

As the author, I have to know my voice, my characters, my genre, and my audience well enough to know when to stick to my guns and when to let a good suggestion lead to a new line of thinking. If not, what the naysayers say would be true – my work would be a community project.

Can’t have that! Maybe in the future, I’ll tell the non-writers in my life that I’m on my way to a quality control meeting rather than critique group and save hurt feelings all around.





Dawn Temple

Back when her twin sons were young enough for daily naps, Dawn Temple took advantage of those quiet moments to pursue her dream of becoming a published romance writer. Sneaking in an hour here and there paid off in 2005 when she sold her first book, To Have And To Hold, to Silhouette Special Edition. She managed to secret away enough time to write and sell the second book in her Land’s Cross series, Moonlight And Mistletoe, but alas, her boys outgrew naps and Dawn let go of those stolen moments with her laptop to enjoy life with her two little guys and her big guy, hubby of 21 years.
But now, as an officially retired stay-at-home mom, Dawn has once again found the time and the creative drive to return to writing, and this time around, she’s set her sights on independent publishing. Her first self-published book, Peace of Heart, is scheduled for release in 2017.

7 thoughts on “Writing By Committee?

  1. I didn’t know that you suffer from the same maladies as I do when it comes to CG. Two things you said struck cords. 1) Using CG as a crutch, not being able to move forward without the “stamp of approval”, and 2) going down different paths because of a suggestion rather than staying the course. What helps me is that I’m AWARE of these tendencies of mine. About number 2 – when I’m home alone and reading through the pages after we’ve meet and discussed them, I make the REAL decision about whether or not to incorporate the changes. Most are pretty damn good, truth be told, but there are some I choose not to incorporate. Number 1 is harder for me. I’m hoping its a confidence thing, and I’ll get better as I go – or dare I even think it?? When I get published.

    1. Awareness is good, but action is better. Good on you for sitting right down and deciding which feedback to keep and which to discard. Ultimately, that’s the purpose of CG. “Keep what works and ignore the rest.” I think where I fail in that regard is not immediately combing through comments each week. I worry it might lead to moving backwards instead of forwards, but what I end up with is a several-feet high stack of redlines, and it’s so imposing, I dread jumping in.

      Going forward, I’m gonna ask myself “What would Ann do?” and cull through comments right away!

      1. Well now, remember that editing is my very favorite part. Still, I like not having stacks and stacks of marked pages to wade through.

  2. My first reaction is that the people making these comments are NOT WRITERS!

    I love your comparison to doctors and engineers. In fact, MOST occupations are done in group settings so employees – be they engineers, doctors, accountants, etc – are free to walk into a co-workers office and discuss any issue as soon as it comes up. People in positions of authority often have an open door policy to encourage employees to bring them any problem they encounter as soon as it arises, so it doesn’t slow down productivity.

    WRITERS work ALONE! No one is down the hall to help us talk through a problem. We don’t get to bounce around solutions. We don’t get to have a casual conversation at the water cooler that strikes the spark that helps to point you in the right direction.

    Critique group gives us that opportunity – once a week – we get to meet with our co-workers.

  3. Do you think they’re jealous because our business meetings include drinking? 🙂

    Seriously, it’s that work alone part that creates the biggest struggle for me. Hell, you know that even back when I did have the outside pressure of an editorial deadline, I still procrastinated till the last minute.

    Looking forward to tonight’s meeting!

  4. Great article, Dawn.

    We don’t write by committee; we craft by committee.

    The myth of the solitary creative whose vision is expressed on a metaphorical mountaintop is pretty strong. And yet, we writers get input all along the way to publication: from a beta reader, from an agent, from an editor or group of editors. I personally consider that a plus. (Consider the poor painter, who has to complete a project before getting feedback that might improve it! It’s sort of an all-or-nothing proposition.)

    But what we’re honing in critique group is our craft. There comes a point (me, now, with Evelyn) where we’re too damn close to the story to be able to stand back and see it more objectively. We can’t unknow what we already know. Critique group is key to my process, as is my beta reader.

    And, no offense, my friends, but as many times as I look at your feedback and proceed to ignore it because it doesn’t match my creative vision, I’m more likely to err on the side of setting aside something I should pay attention to… I can be very arrogant that way.

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