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A Critique Group of One

A session with 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.

Um, no. Not for me.

I’ve had experience with critique groups. As a college student, and then working on a graduate degree in creative writing, I participated in numerous critique-groups with other writers. Each of us would distribute copies of what we’d written since the previous class, read the story or excerpt aloud as our classmates read the printed copy and jotted notes, and then sit silently as our classmates analyzed the work. After our classmates were done, the professor usually added a few comments.

I can’t say those critiques were particularly painful for me. My fellow students generally liked what I’d written. Perhaps this was because I wouldn’t submit a story for the class’s appraisal 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 participating in critique groups, I realized that what I was doing was writing with the goal of dazzling the group. Once I’d figured out what sort of writing would elicit oohs and ahhs from my critiquers, that was what I put into my stories. 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 critique group would gush over.

That’s not exactly a bad thing. I want my books to be read. I want them to find an audience, and I want that audience to be glad they spent some time living in the fictional world I created.

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 worldview, somehow got lost in the process.

I realized that the only way I could write what I wanted—what I needed—to write was to be my own critique group. I am 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. Every word, every phrase, every comma and question mark has to pass muster with a very intense, very tough critic: myself. I’m damned hard to dazzle. Only when I decide that what I’ve written is good enough will I let anyone else read it.

The first “anyone else” to read my work is my editor. He is as close to a critique partner as I can accept. He will offer suggestions, and they’re usually excellent.

(Not always, however. When he read the manuscript for If Only, he criticized the fact that in the novel, Barry, the heroine’s husband, watched televised football games pretty much every day. Apparently, my editor doesn’t live in the same world as Barry and I do. The book is set in late autumn, and yes, indeed, you can find a football game to watch on TV every night during football season, whether it’s an NFL game, college football, high school football, or a football “classic” from days gone by. Sometimes critique partners can be wrong. But I suspect that Ruth, the heroine of If Only, wishes my editor had been right. Her husband’s obsession with televised football games certainly irritated her.)

Writing is an act of trust, and the person the writer has to trust the most is herself. Only when my very small, very personal critique group of one decides a manuscript of mine is good enough will I share it with anyone else.


About the Author…

JUDITH ARNOLD is a USA Today bestselling author who knew she wanted to be a writer by the time she was four. She loved making up stories (not exactly the same thing as lying) and enjoying the adventures of her fictional characters. With more than eight-five published novels to her name, she has been able to live her dream. Four of Judith's novels have received awards from RT Book Reviews Magazine (for Best Harlequin American Romance, Best Harlequin Superromance, Best Series Romance Novel and Best Contemporary Romance Novel) and she's a three-time finalist for Romance Writers of America's RITA Award. Her novel Love In Bloom's was named one of the best books of the year by Publishers Weekly. A New York native, Judith lives in New England.

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