The 6 bad eggs of a writers’ group

While a writers’ group can be the best thing that ever happened to your writing, it can also turn out to be maybe the worst! This has nothing to do with the principles of what a critique group is supposed to do – if you’ve done your homework, you hopefully have arrived in a group that suits you perfectly. But after a while, as members come and go (which they will do), you may find one or two bad eggs have sneaked in.

Bad eggs in your critique group?

Bad eggs in your critique group?

Bad Egg 1: The “expert”. Often this person joins a group that they perceive as “amateurs” and get their satisfaction from tearing everyone else’s work to shreds. They seem to have met plenty of editors and agents, and know intimate details of what they’re looking for – never what you’re writing though. When you pin them down, usually they either don’t write at all, or write badly and have never been published (or not anywhere that counts).

Bad Egg 2: The “mouse”. She or he sits quietly, smiles, makes the coffee, brings cake. Is always working on something too big to bring for critiquing right now. And is way too polite to actually comment constructively on anyone else’s work. You’d almost forget they were there … except they are and you wonder why.

Bad Egg 3: The “boss”. This is the person who wants the group to take minutes, to form a “society” of some kind, to have a timer so no one gets a second more than their allotted time. Oh, and s/he decides how much time you’ll get, with his/her calculator. The group ends up spending so much time on official trivia that critiquing falls by the wayside.

Bad Egg 4: The “needy one”. This person means well, but their need for reassurance and encouragement leads to everyone in the group feeling like they can no longer give honest critiques. And that tends to leak outwards so that critiques generally become softer, less realistic and less helpful.

Bad Egg 5: The “defender”. Even if your group has a rule (a common rule, by the way) that the person whose work is being critiqued is not allowed to respond until the end, this person will argue and defend every comment you make. They always have to explain why their character acts that way, or says those words, or what that gaping plot hole is for. This can lead to some awful scenes all round!

Bad Egg 6: The “mentally ill”. Sadly, occasionally you will see this person in a writing group. When they are honest about their condition, it’s usually fine and the group can help. But often they refuse to acknowledge they have a problem, and can blow a writing group apart with their behaviour. I’ve experienced this personally, and we were lucky to save our group (and had to ask the person to leave).

What can save a group from any of these bad eggs? Communication. If you have agreed how the group will run, then any of these members can be asked to leave if they are becoming destructive. If you have a great critique group, it’s worth taking action.

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  1. Bev Montgomery says

    To dial down the expressions listed above, wouldn’t the group have to define what critiquing is? By whose definition? A group vote before beginning? What happens when humanity creeps back in? Who is the “designated boss” to get the group back on track?

    Writing is about memoir. Memory recall can lead to issues beyond the groups’ ability to appropriately respond: where does the nudge towards guiding someone into therapy come into play? Where is the possibility of showing empathy without dismissal and still maintaining the goals of the group? Not as easy task.

    Most writer’s groups are a ciique of approved like-mindedness. That’s fine with me as long as everyone knows that ahead of time, which saves time, gossip and ultimate embarrassment.

    • Good points, Bev. All of those things are best agreed on before the group begins. Often the disruptive person comes in later and doesn’t “get” or doesn’t care how the group works. Most groups I’ve been in are about fiction writing, so memoir doesn’t really come into it. It’s more about “have I created a real fictional world for you to believe in?”
      A good group works on empathy, where everyone understands how hard it is to present your writing for critique. But a good and useful group also focuses on trying to help the writer improve the work, not stroke their ego!

      • Bev Montgomery says

        Yes, a good group works on empathy because the dynamics of “Bad” Eggs 1-5 show up in human nature: leadership seems to be a learned skill once we understand how to follow an effective, protective leader.

        Unfortunately, “Bad” Egg #6 is what you referred to as undiagnosed mental illness. Sadly, this is the stigma that society has towards those who are suffering from mental illness because they cannot follow the social cues in becoming as productive as society expects. Mental illness is a chemical problem in the brain that is way beyond “ego.” To create a public group opens the door to all–the so-called good, bad and sad eggs in society.

        Each writer’s group writes its own story: Is the written page of utmost importance? or the author? or the processing of both? Empathy responsiveness in each member will eventually answer those questions and will either be of positive or negative influence to those who join.

        • I think a key problem is that often the group doesn’t realise the problem with the “sad” egg (nice term, thanks) is a mental illness. Certainly, in the case with my group, we didn’t until much later, hearing this from other people.
          I doubt any group would stigmatise someone with a mental illness – most groups are really supportive, especially of depression (well, the groups I know are). The problem that arises comes from not recognising what the problem is, so the group naturally tries to protect the good thing they have created.
          A difficult situation.

  2. I think any of these eggs, in excess, could prove to be a detriment to a writers group, but when I think of members of groups I’ve been a part of, I see glimpses of these “personas” and can’t help but see some pros mixed in with the cons.

    Everyone brings something to the group, and no one is perfect. While I don’t outright disagree with most of your points — and while I do think a writer should be picky when selecting or starting a writers group — I hope these bad eggs don’t turn off writers from the idea of pursuing a support network.

    You might be interested in another perspective of what makes a great writers group:

    • Totally agree, David. I’ve been in a writers’ group for more than 20 years, and it’s been the best thing ever. All groups are different, and have different dynamics, but over the years I have seen what I’d call an “excessive” bad egg derail or destroy a good group more than once. It nearly happened to my own group, which would have been a great pity.

  3. May I add (six years later) another category? “The Pornographer” Type One: the person who insists on bringing “erotica” to a group even though everyone’s agreed that’s not what the group’s for. Type Two: the person who brings only scenes of extreme violence and/or sexuality to the group, never contributes to critiques, talks about their overall plot, or gives any indication that they actually are writing a coherent story. Both types seem to love it when people get up and leave…

    • Oh yes, I recognise those two! They also turn up in our classes, especially online where they don’t have to face anyone, just post their writing for comments (and then provide little or no feedback to others). Thanks for the additions!

    • Those two types are what I was visualizing while reading Bad Egg #6 “Mentally Ill” in the original list. More subtle flavours of mental illness are, well, too subtle for me unless the individual describes their condition. As you say, a delicate situation indeed.

      Another possible Bad Egg that is getting up my nose is “The Trendoid”. A person who has comments and defenses based on the latest thing sweeping the web. “NOBODY is doing character descriptions any more. That’s so last century.” “Publishers are ONLY buying series of a minimum ten books, so padding is A-OK.” It’s a staggering coincidence that most of these trends in writing allow the wanna-be author to be flaccid and lazy.

      • Often trends are simply something that a bestselling author is doing, so it’s seen as the current “thing”. As we know, there’s no trick to getting published, but being in the right place at the right time does help!

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