Critique Groups and Character

If you’ve read my book Build a Writing Team, you know I’m a proponent of critique groups. I’m also a fan of people with good character. There are quite a few out there in this world and I’m happy to say I know many people with ethics, compassion, and a decent sense of right and wrong.

Unfortunately, we must be careful not to cast our pearls before swine. I know plenty of people without character, too. And I know to avoid them and smile. Be nice to them… they bite. Don’t taunt a junk yard dog on a chain and expect it to act like a sweet little lap-dog.

I want to address something here on my blog about an unfortunate lesson I learned this past week. I am a part of a group of great folks in Omaha who have a critique group. Nice people. Smart people. Intelligent people. And the group’s leader is one of those wonderful examples of a person with character and integrity. So, for the most part, this is a lovely group of folks.

badappleExcept for that one bad apple. I won’t name him, that’s not the point, but I do want to share my story so others can learn from it. There is a lesson here for those who run open critique groups, and for individual writers as well.

In this writing group, we send in our submissions via email to the group leader. Then he sends them via email to everyone in the group. The people who receive the chapters to be critiqued, read through them, critique them on paper, and come to the meeting prepared to tell the author what they liked and what they would change. They give the author the critiqued paper to keep and use as they wish. (I am in another critique group that does it differently. Every critique group will have their own methods.)

COVERAgain, if you’ve read my book, you know I believe in honest critiques. When I ask for a critique, I’m not looking for compliments, but suggestions for what doesn’t work in the piece, and ideas about how to make the piece better. That is the entire point of critique. Not everyone understands that. They are looking for compliments, and you know, I’ll go to my best friends for that. In a critique group, I need keen eyes and honesty to help me see the problems I’m too close to the writing to see.

Here’s where we come to the part about character… or unfortunately, the lack thereof.

The bad apple of the Omaha group, unbeknown to the other members, had been taking the emails of our submitted chapters, converting them to PDF’s, and putting them on his website with his critique at the end.

He was publishing our work without our knowledge or permission. Our rough draft work. Our unedited, unpolished, work. And even more audaciously, he was including his critiques. For anyone in the world to see.

As I said, I want the critiques. But when one asks another to critique their work, it is a private matter. Neither party should make the information public without the other’s permission. I no more have the right to publish his comments without his permission, than he does to publish my writing. Fair is fair, after all.

The group leader and the members whose chapters he’d put on his website all asked him, very nicely, to please take down the chapters.

His response was that he would do so, but he was insistent that it was just a mistake, he was under the impression the website was private. As a writer, that comment is what I would call a plot hole! He had developed his own website. He had a privacy statement of his own on his website. But that this man crossed a line is not the point.

The point is, as writing critique groups, it should be noted to any and all, especially new group members, that it would be a breach of trust and possibly, depending on the situation, breaking copyright laws, to ever publish another author’s work without their permission. An author worth their salt doesn’t publish work until it’s been thoroughly critiqued and professionally edited. It’s coal and has a lot of chiseling and buffing to be done to it before it becomes a diamond. Then, ultimately, only the author of a work has the right to first publication unless they give signed permission to copy, print or transfer in any way before someone other than the author can publish it.


So, what is the solution?

In my situation, the offender has been removed from the group. Kicked out. Eliminated. “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out, bud!” That’s good swift decision-making and leadership of a man with character!

My personal solution is that now, on every document I send out for critique, I will be putting this notice near the top of the document:

© 2014 G. M. Barlean. All rights reserved. This document and the information it contains is a work in progress and is the property of Gina M. Barlean. It shall not be copied, reproduced, or published in whole or in part without written permission from Gina M. Barlean.

Will it stop someone who is unprofessional and of poor character from using it inappropriately? Of course not. That would be called crime, often done by criminals. Bad people exist. Shit happens. Life isn’t always fair. Worse things happen. You’ve read the news. But it’s one more little step I, as an individual, can take to protect myself.

I sincerely hope this never happens to you. You may want to consider implementing these ideas in your own critique group or the work you forward digitally for critique. You may also want to share this information with other writers you know. I present it only in the name of helping out other writers to protect themselves and to be aware. Don’t get mad… get smarter, because there are some real idiots out there and they know how to work computers, too.

16 thoughts on “Critique Groups and Character

  1. This is not just bad taste, but it may be a violation of copyright. When your work, albeit a draft or a completed manuscript, is saved in a “substantive form” such as a computer file it is technically copyrighted. A cease and desist letter written by the author/s involved is compelling legal notice that he doesn’t / did not have permission to “publish” on his website. It sounds like the group response, and the response of a strong leader was to stop the bleeding. Unfortunately, some people don’t think things through but instead plow through. That process can be hurtful to others. Thanks for the great post.

    • says:

      You’re welcome. I think the problem is dealt with, unless he keeps stewing on it and does something more. For now… the fire is out.

  2. It’s sad that someone even thought it was okay to do this. Just when I think I’ve heard of everything, something else comes along.

    “Don’t taunt a junk yard dog on a chain and expect it to act like a sweet little lap-dog.” Amen to this. There are some people you just can’t reason with, so why waste your time?

    I’m glad you got it resolved, but I can imagine how terrible it felt to have your work up there in a public forum until it was taken down. 🙁

    • says:

      Funny thing is, Ruth, now the guy keeps whining that he’s the victim for making one little mistake…
      He’s now crossing the line into harassment. He keeps dropping to new lows. Amazing.

  3. Another downside is some agents and publishers consider a website/blog publication a true publication so won’t take a story already “published”. Some will. Some want the website/blog publication to have happened within six months of submission. I picked this up from submitting short stories this summer.

    It’s not really a concern here as a novel wouldn’t be published in its entirity on a website/blog. Maybe that’s the upside in all this.

    I love the disclaimer. It will stop any unintentioned duplications, but like you also mentioned, it won’t stop a true thief.

    Thanks for the great tip, Gina, and the added comments, Hope.

  4. Jen Floyd says:

    Well said, Gina! And as one of the other submitters who was “violated,” I am grateful that you caught the intrusion upon our rights. And notified the folks who needed to know right away. Thanks!

    • says:

      Exactly. Just protect yourself in whatever way you need to. I’m too gullible. Always have been. I’ll be more careful now. Even if it was a mistake, it was a mistake that needed to be rectified.

  5. I’ve had my work stolen a time or two. I’ve put them on notice, even sent bills for the time period they published it. They always crawl back into their holes. Your statement is good – just don’t put it on anything you send to agents or publishers. It might come across amateurish to professionals who definitely know better. Glad this all came around in your favor. The white hat won.

    • says:

      Excellent point, Hope.

      This was an easy lesson. It could have been worse. I’ll consider it sharpening of my saw and hope I can avoid the swine of the writing culture in the future.

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