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Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Man is Known by the Company He Keeps

The title of this blog post is an English proverb, in case you're wondering who said it. It's been around for centuries, and still holds true today.

Remember back in high school, how if you were a cheerleader and hung out with other cheerleaders, people thought certain things of you, or if you were in marching band and hung out with other marching band members, people thought certain other things of you? (Yes, I was in marching band. Go on, think what you will. I went to band camp, too.) It's part of human nature, I think, to form judgments and opinions about other people based on things outside of themselves.

To go along with that, it is also human nature to take on certain characteristics similar to those one spends the most time with. For example, how many smokers would have started smoking, if they were never in the presence of other people who smoke? Did you ever have that one friend--the one who used a certain word constantly--and then one day realized that you were using that same word even more often than your friend? Yeah, I've been there too.

The same kinds of things happen to the writers of a critique group, too, but in a different way. The more we participate in the group, regardless of whether the work we're critiquing is that of someone who's been writing for ten years and is multi-published, or if it is a person's first attempt at a novel, the more we learn and grow. The same holds true in reverse--there is something to be learned in every critique you receive, regardless of the critiquer's experience with writing.

One caveat, though: This only holds true if everyone in the group wants to see everyone in the group succeed.

I've been part of a few different critique groups over the last couple of years. In one, I became frustrated by the members who seemed only out for themselves. What was worse, I felt a few members were out for themselves to the point of viciously attacking others' writing in order to elevate their own.

When I recognized that was the problem, I decided it was time to move on, even though I could still learn from others that were there. It was too stressful, too taxing on my emotions. It became something I dreaded instead of looked forward to.

It's easy to get stuck in a situation where you're giving more than you receive. It's much more difficult to find that equal balance.

The critique group I've found with the other members of this blog is completely different. The biggest difference is that in this group, everyone wants to see the success of all the members. We're a big mix of writing experience. We have writers with agents, writers published with large presses, small presses, and e-publishers, writers on the verge of landing an agent, writers who are struggling to figure out why we aren't on the verge, and writers working on their first manuscript. We're all over the board, with every level of experience you can imagine.

Still, it never fails that I'll learn something from every single one of them, whether it is through their critique of my work or through critiquing their work. I might pick up a particular phrase from one of them, or study the way another creates a sense of action, and try to incorporate it into my own work. Not only that, but we all act as cheerleaders for each other. We know the work of the others almost as well as our own--including their strengths and weaknesses. We can read a sentence and recognize it as belonging to one member of the group or another, based on the word choices or the voice.

So, if you're a writer, what kind of writerly company do you keep? Are you surrounded by other writers who support you as much as you support them? Or are you hoping to find somewhere to plant yourself where you can grow?


  1. I'm really lucky; I have several friends who have the same writing goals as I do, though we are in different stages. I wouldn't have near the amount of confidence I do if it wasn't for them.

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  3. Catherine, we are SO on the same wave length today. I just wrote an article this morning on this very topic for my local RWA chapter's newsletter. It's scary how similar our thoughts on the subject are!

    Obviously, since I started the group, it's exactly how I wanted it to be. I love that we are all creative and not competitive. As a matter of fact, we've had to let some competitive spirits go in the past because they just couldn't grasp the concepts of support and encouragement.

    I'm so grateful every day for the wonderful group of ladies we have! And I think we've proved to the world that you don't have to tear someone down to make them better...look at what we've accomplished by being kind and constructive!

    Great post!

  4. Cid, that's great that you've found a group that has the same goals as you, AND that you're all at different stages. I think that is an important part of a writer's growth.

    And Jerrica, in case I haven't told you lately, thank you for starting this group! I've found good fits before coming here, but this feels like the perfect fit.

  5. Finding my crit group was one of the best things that could have happened for me - both for my writing as well as for the friendships I am forging. Just as you said, it works because everyone there genuinely wants to see everyone else succeed, and we do what we can to make that happen. Great post, Catherine!

  6. Thanks for stopping by, Erin! And I'm glad you feel as comfortable with the crit group as I do! You've been a great addition.

  7. I have always cheerished my crit groups. Now I'm only part of one, but I love all the help I get from them.

    Oh, and I was in the marching band, too! (grins)


  8. Thanks for stopping by, Marie. And woo hoo! Another band nerd.

  9. I had to laugh when you mentioned band - no marching band for me, just band (flute and piccolo). We never thought we were nerds. ;)

    Otherwise, great post, Catherine. I've likewise found groups - critique and otherwise - where there was either a lack of cohesion (everyone else seemed to be from a different planet, actually), or crits were generally unhelpful and there was nothing constructive about them (my favorite and what cemented leaving another crit group was where someone did a find + highlight function for "ly" and thereby declared I used "far too many adverbs" (yes, her words precisely). Names like Emily and words like family were apparently horrible too. ;) Very glad to have found a great crit group now - where people actually do crits and I'm not the only one doing any work!

  10. Shelly, I take it you use your name far too often, too? LOL. Glad you've found a place where you fit! And I never thought I was a nerd, either. Not even when I went to Band Camp every summer. Granted, I was a drummer--and drummers are cool.