Friday, June 7, 2013

Avoiding "writing by committee"

Photo courtesy of Aaron Brown on Flickr, made
available under an Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 license
One of my favorite stories from my old set of The Junior Classics was an Aesop's fable of the man and his son taking a donkey to market.

First, they walk alongside the animal, only to be berated by a passerby for not riding. The son gets on the donkey, only to hear a complaint about lazy, disrespectful youth. They switch, until someone remarks how cruel the father is to his son. They both mount the donkey and are lambasted for overworking the poor beast. In frustration, they fell a tree, cut a pole, tie the donkey's legs to it and carry the trussed animal with the pole over their shoulders. As they are crossing a bridge, the donkey kicks one leg loose making the son drop his end of the pole. In the struggle, the donkey falls off the bridge and drowns.

The moral: Please all and you will please none.

One of the pitfalls of writing critique groups is "writing by committee." A member, eager to do everything "right," eager to please, seems compelled to make every single change recommended by others. They try to please everyone. In the process, they lose their distinct voice and the story loses vibrancy.

Lord Save me from Critique Groups is Duffy Brown's take on it over on Patricia Stoltey's blog. She believes critiques do nothing but tear down a story, resulting in prose by committee. She prefers brainstorming -- mapping out the basics and asking your compatriots to think of ideas to fill in how the story could go. With a steady supply of cookies, of course.

It's an interesting concept, and I'm glad it works for her, but I can't say the idea appeals to me. The brainstorming she suggests sounds more like story by committee to me than a good critique does. I don't want my writing group to suggest story ideas; I want them to help me fix what could be done better. I need them to point out the things I do not see because I'm too invested in the writing.

I think of critiques as a way to "pull the weeds" and let my story bloom. Maybe, though, I've been in better critique groups. The best ones I've been in have operated on one simple principle:

Your fellow writers are merely readers.

They are not editors. They are not instructors. They are readers. You will not please every reader. Their suggestions are not commands. They might have more technical knowledge on how things might be improved than the average reader, but they are still readers. They may offer a way to fix it that you hadn't considered. But it is still the writer's job to evaluate when to accept or reject a suggestion. No matter how forcefully the point might be argued, they are STILL only suggestions. The writer owns the story.

As readers, they may catch things that seemed clear to you, but did not come through in the actual words you put on the page. My general rule of thumb is to seriously consider revising if several find a spot that makes them say, "Huh?"

The other night, I came back from a critique session last night with a pile of great notes and ideas. My next step is to sift through and evaluate what fits and what does not. I am inspired, not torn down. My group has helped me clear the clutter and let my voice, not theirs, come through more clearly. I am grateful for it.

So which do you like better -- brainstorms or critiques? Please leave your thoughts in the comments!


  1. I like critiques, in moderation. I rarely bring a piece back to the group, because I don't want people to see that I took some suggestions and not others.

    As to brainstorming story ideas, I have only to hearken back to my experience in a screenwriting class. This approach is pretty much what all screenwriting consists of, and I had to refrain from running screaming out of the room. No, call me secretive, call me stubborn - I don't want anyone telling me, "Oh, now they should have a stampede. It's a western, right? You have to have a stampede." Yikes!

  2. A wise move to avoid hurt feelings. There are times I might want to bring a piece back for more than one go-round, but depending on the group, it could get awkward.

  3. Hi,
    I found your blog through Abbie, WyoPoets, and I'm glad I did. I am enjoying reading your posts. I started out about 20 years ago with a critique group that was very helpful. Now I only share my work with a few friends who have been writing as long as I and they are people I trust. I could never write "by committee" and have others telling me how my story should be told.

    1. Thanks, Glenda! It can be hard finding people to critique your work that you trust. I'm glad you have.

  4. When I was growing up in Tucson, Arizona, my dad and I decided to study Spanish with a tutor. One day, as part of the lesson, the tutor gave us this same story about the father and son and donkey. In this case, the animal was a horse. Otherwise, it was the same story. This reminds me of the song that goes, "You can't please everyone so you got to please yourself." It's an interesting concept to apply to critique groups. Happy writing and critiquing.

    1. I'm trying to figure out how they could sling a horse over their shoulders!

      And now I'll have that song as an earworm. ;-)


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