Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Avoiding "Writing by Committee"

by Susan

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 old 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?"

I often came back from critique sessions 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. Another good, useful blog, Susan. When I was a tech writer, every job was writing by committee and it was essential to get everyone in the room at the same time because what one engineer said was absolutely wrong another said was absolutely correct. I'd let them fight it out since they had the technical knowledge.

    But poetry or fiction is a whole other ball game. You were exactly right when you said the comments from others in the group are suggestions and the writer owns the poem or short story or novel. I often get critiques from another poet I respect highly, and often I look at her suggestions and don't change anything. At other times, she's exactly right and I make the change. Other times, we're both right and a third solution, a better one, comes from reexamining that particular point.

    Thanks for remind me of this. I'll pass it on to my poetry class Thursday.

    1. Thanks, Art. Glad it was useful. Hope the poetry class goes well!

  2. I totally agree with you that critiques are better! I would hate to take ideas that weren't my own and use them in "my" book or story. It would feel like plagiarism to me. Critiques, on the other hand, are exactly what you said- pulling the weeds so flowers can bloom. I can't think of a better analogy.

  3. P.S. I really want to pet that adorable donkey in the picture.

    1. I know! Isn't he a doll? :D I'm actually staying at a place in Saratoga this weekend that has four horses that enjoy pats and cookies -- and the ranch house owners supply the cookies.

      Although I'm a fan of pulling weeds, I'm also (slowly) learning that I need to feed the garden, too.

  4. So glad working with a critique group works for you.

  5. Thanks, Duffy. Appreciate your stopping by!


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