Writing Groups and the Toxic Critic

angry author courtesy of pixabay man-70442_960_720We’ve had posts about critique groups before. These groups can be very helpful to writers if they are balanced and the members show mutual support and respect.  Until recently that’s how it’s been for me. Members respected each other and genuinely tried to provide constructive feedback, trusting that it came with good intentions. This keeps groups working together without rancor.

But what happens when one member becomes volatile, angry, and refuses to hear what the others say?

It recently happened in the group I belong to. Our group is small – only five members who each submit a piece once a month and meet to discuss it. One member, whom I will call Bob, joined about a year ago but was absent for several months last winter. From the beginning he was what I’d call “prickly” with me, though I have no idea what triggered him. Perhaps he doesn’t appreciate strong women. For the months he was away, we all got along smoothly. But, when Bob was around, he did 90% of the talking, mostly about himself and his writing, taking up so much time the rest of us had to rush our critiques.

Other groups may work differently, but in ours the rule is that we listen, and may ask clarifying questions, but not argue with what we hear. But Bob took issue with everything I said, even when it was supporting what another member had said. He was also highly critical of my writing, told me my characters didn’t work, my plot didn’t make sense  –  you get the picture. I suggested once that perhaps he didn’t like my genre. On another occasion I opined that, since he had been away for months, perhaps he had lost the thread of what I was writing. And I dropped the subject.

Until last month.  At that meeting, when I supported the previous member’s comment with an illustration from his text, he argued with me, then exploded, with a shouting rant that became a very personal attack. It continued even when the previous member pointed out I had used his comments to base mine on.  Bob rose, and, touched each other member physically as he told them how much he appreciated their input. Then he stormed out, stating I had been the problem from the beginning and he could no longer be in the same room with me.

With one member absent that night, I looked at the other two, hoping for some support. One made it plain that this was not my fault and that Bob was the one with the problem. The other remained silent. I learned later that she was in shock and did not know what to say, though she told me later she agreed that Bob had the problem and I had done nothing wrong.

When she finally did speak she said, sadly, “I hope this doesn’t mean the group will break up.”

There are toxic types other than Bob, with his misogynistic ego and hot temper. Another is the grammar cop who insists on editing your work even when you’ve stated clearly you only want comments on the characters or story because editing comes later. There is the writer who just doesn’t get it, can’t write and can’t take suggestions. Or the one whose ego is so fragile that all feedback which does not praise to the skies seems like rejection. They never have anything of value to say to anyone else for fear of hurting their feelings. Or the one who goes to every new class they hear about and then insists that the new stuff they learned is the only correct information. Or the know-it-all who insists their way is the only correct way. I’m sure you can think of a few more types.

So does this member’s issues have to cause the group to break up? Ours didn’t, fortunately. Bob waited for 24 hours – no doubt thinking they would kick me out and invite him back – then announced his resignation to the others, ignoring me. We heaved a collective sigh of relief.

But, if Bob had not left voluntarily, then what? In many cases the other members will drift away and the group dissolves. That’s a shame, because the ones who benefit most from a group are chased away. Sometimes the group divides into opposing factions. Again, eventually the group no longer works and it closes.

Writers are often too critical of their own work and the remarks from a toxic member can leave them insecure or devastated. It’s sometimes a tall order, but in cases where only one member is destructive to the group, the others must somehow find the courage, collectively, to oust the troublemaker. Had Bob not left, the rest of us were prepared to tell him he was no longer welcome. Standing together against this adversity makes the group stronger and more cohesive. The important thing is that all members must stand behind the decision.

If the group has a chairperson, the duty of informing the toxic member falls to him or her, but it must be made clear the entire group agrees. If this message cannot be given face-to-face, an email including the names of all members is an effective way.

Once that is done, the group must let it go and carry on. It can work. It did for mine.

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

28 thoughts on “Writing Groups and the Toxic Critic”

  1. I’m a member of a local writers’ group which has been relatively active for about twenty years. I’ve only been going for two years. Each of us can bring up to ten pages per week, enough copies for each of 8 to 12 members. Our group has a rule that each member comments on each others’ writing for up to five minutes, usually character, structure, misplaced words, plot, rarely spelling, punctuation, etc., although we may mark those things on our copies which are given back to the author. The author is not allowed to speak while the members critique. Then the author answers our questions, explains the things we were unsure about, responds to the critiques, if he chooses, etc.

    We usually only cover writing from two or three authors each week, although we meet for two hours every Saturday afternoon. But it works out since not everyone brings something every week. We’ve had folks leave in tears at their first meeting, others have stormed out because we didn’t tell them they had written The Great American Novel. We have a couple of published authors in our group, who still want critiques on their work.

    My point, I think, is that there have to be rules which don’t allow one person to take over and spoil the group for everyone else. By not allowing the writer to respond during the critique period, we make notes as they critique, we never get into arguments, or even discussions, about the work and we stay on track. Since I’ve been there, we’ve not asked anyone to leave, but several have left of their own accord.

    1. We follow a similar set of rules and that usually works. However ours is so small there is some room for clarification questions. We’ve had members leave as well. In this case, though, the person who left refused to abide by the rules.

  2. Our small group had gotten along for a year without conflict, relying on common courtesy and shared goals. Then a new member joined who thought her job was to deliver a long, aggressive, point-by-point critique, complete with snide remarks and scoffing laughs. I was the first to receive this treatment; luckily, I had worked in the software industry in the 80s, always the only female programmer, and could take it. The rest of the group sat stunned in the chairs, too shocked to speak.
    Fortunately, she didn’t come to the next meeting. We decided we couldn’t survive as a group with such a member and the one who invited her was given responsibility for asking her to leave. Then we created some guidelines, though we’ve never needed them.
    You must eject these toxic critics. The goal must always be to help each other produce the best possible work. The critiquer’s ego has no role.

    1. Thanks, Anna. Sounds like a similar type to the guy in our group. The rest of us also have mutual respect so we can bend the rules on occasion without upsetting the apple cart.

      1. I don’t have anything useful to add other than to say I’m sorry you had to go through that.

        I also feel for Anna. That experience would definitely have given you a thick skin. 🙂

  3. Scary stuff. I haven’t been involved in any critique groups so haven’t seen this particular dynamic, but I have seen some overbearing bullies in LinkedIn forums. It’s really bad when that person is the administrator, because no one with a dissenting view can have their comment approved. Best course of action with any of these is to get away as far as possible. In the case of your group, I would think this a good time to take the lesson to heart and hammer out a process for dealing with similar things in the future. With luck, you won’t have to use it, but just in case, you’ll have it in your back pocket.

  4. Boy, does this bring back memories! It’s wonderful when you find a group of writers who are there for the right reasons. It’s something to look forward to because you can learn so much from other caring and supportive writers. Plus, you have the opportunity to help the others where you can.

    But then, it can all fall apart when that one toxic person shows up. My experiences involved a duo who insisted on aggressively talking politics, and in two other groups, there was a clueless compulsive talker who abused the page limit in one case, and the time limit in the other. Ugh! Deliver me.

    I will never put up with that again, and if I find myself in such a situation in the future, I’ll speak up rather than just endure. In the first situation, I left. In the case of compulsive talkers, they left rather than comply with the rules. (What IS it with compulsive talkers, anyway?)

    It’s great that things worked out for your group, Yvonne. What a nightmare.

    1. Thanks, Candace. Sometimes it takes a while for the group dynamics to sort out. But you had the right response. If a group is not meeting your needs leave, and if someone is abusive oust them.

  5. That’s awful. It’s no good when a person is angry and hostile to other group members. It’s good he left.

    The one thing I like about my critique group is that we have a fearless leader, Pamela, who takes the helm and keeps the discussion on track. I think if someone were that disruptive in our group, he’d have been asked to leave. I’ve been in other groups where there’s not much of a structure, or the person running the meeting lets things go on too long, and I’ve found that doesn’t work as well. It’s nice to have a person who’s in charge of leading the discussion, who can move things along and can ask people who are violating the rules to move it along.

    Again, so sorry you had an experience with such an angry person. I’m lucky to say, the worst experience we’ve had in our writer’s group is the guy who eschewed punctuation. Understood punctuation, would correct it on yours, but actively refused in his own work submitted. But, of course, this leads to the problem you mentioned earlier, people not coming when his work was up for critique. So, it’s always a double edged sword with critique groups. Finding the right balance is key.

    1. Thanks RJ. It was a shock at first but I got over it pretty quickly, especially when the others supported me. I agree that some structure and control is usually necessary. Now that we’ve had this experience we’ll be able to nip it in the bud. The signs were there. We had just ignored them.

  6. In 2010 I did an advanced fiction course in a city 2 hrs drive from my home. You had to be either a post graduate in English or creative writing to get into the course or be an already published author. (I was the latter) You also had to have one novel with the first draft complete.
    It required weekly journeys there and back for a whole year. There were nine of us. The best thing that came out of it for me, was the group went from being complete strangers to being a tight-knit team who work together, drink together, look after one another and are super-critical for all the right reasons.
    We still meet whenever we can, though two of us have left these shores and have to travel far to join us. We have yearly retreats in fabulous locations. We have social gatherings and go to lit events together. We all value what we have between us and feel privileged to belong. All of us have succeeded in our various ways in achieving our very different kinds of writing goals.
    As an author, finding that group was the best thing that could have happened to me. No toxic person will ever be allowed to join because we are complete as we are and would not dream of allowing anyone else in. How could any new person ever understand us, the way we understand one another, after the last six years together? If that makes us a closed clique, well so be it. In this case exclusivity works.

    There are others who would love to join us but they have no chance.

    One minor weekend-long lit festival we booked out a large house and attended as a group, we got the feeling we were the “in group” of the festival, to our amusement. The festival was a very small pond to be a big fish in, but it was still a lot of fun.

    Each meeting we appoint one among us to act as the facilitator for that meeting. We call them the facili-potato, (to keep them grounded.) Some of us sometimes talk too much. Some of us are more or less positive or negative than others. Sometimes we get upset a bit because critiquing is not an easy process to go through. We do have stresses and strains between us at times. But as with all good relationships, we get over it and hang in.
    Let’s hear it for the strong critique groups of the world. May we all follow in the footsteps of the most famous critique group of them all – the Inklings of Oxford University.

    1. How wonderful for you and your friends, Tui. Yes, when there is long-standing trust we can be far more frank without the relationship coming to harm. I hope your group manages to hang on to those bonds for many years.

  7. I was fortunate to be involved in a great group in Washington and miss them sorely now that I have moved. I’ve been trying to form a similar group here but no luck so for.

  8. I’m new to Indies Unlimited, but have already noticed there are some talented, dedicated, patient members. The act of writing may be a solitary pursuit, but the craft is shaped by numerous influences.

  9. Hello Yvonne, and thanks for sharing your little nightmare with Bob. It brought to mind something that happened to me way back in the mid 90s at a writer’s group in Manhattan. I read a short story at the meeting and afterwards, when many praised it, mentioned that a well-known lit agent had taken me on as a client. One guy blew up at me then. He said I had gotten lucky only because I was Indian, and all things Indian at the time were a fad. He went on and on with his rant until another guy shut him up and told him he was jealous. Toxic stormed out and I never saw him again because I did not go back. That was the end of my wanting to be part of a writer’s group. Too many fragile egos, at least in Manhattan. Today I much prefer to show my work to intelligent non-writers (although writers like Melissa Bowersock have helped with great insights too! Thank you, Melissa, I’m working on yet another draft of KC). I’ve also found that its talented people who have not bothered to cultivate their own potential that turn into our worst critics. Thanks for your honesty – I too write myself sane after an uncalled for attack, and it works so well!

    1. Mira, I’m sorry you had that experience – and sorry that it soured you on groups. In my case the fellow is not welcome back and our group carries on.

      I wonder if your guy returned to the group? Since others in yours stood up for you I wonder what could have happened had you returned. All “what if’s” of course, but I feel badly that it didn’t work out for you.

      In any case, congratulations – and yes, Toxic was jealous.

      I know groups are not for everyone and that making them work takes effort. Egos do tend to get in the way. In the end I am glad mine is still worth it.

      1. I think, Yvonne, that mature people make for good groups – and maturity means, in this case, realizing we are a community, bonded by our common love of expressing ourselves through the written word. Jean Rhys said something beautiful about this a long time ago…that every one of us contributes to the ocean of creativity. Glad your group goes on….nothing like one that works!

  10. Groups are made of individuals, no matter what the setting. I see it in volunteer organizations of all sorts. Artistic groups have it in spades, because of the egos involved. If the other members of the group allow the power junkies to take control, the group will fail. It takes an act of combined courage to deal with those sorts.
    The good part of it is that once you have been through that sort of experience, the group becomes more cohesive and experienced, and there’s less chance that kind of problem will happen again. Several of the tales above prove this point.
    I’m a big fan of a good chairperson or moderator, but there’s no substitute for group cohesion.

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