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I am currently writing my first draft, and also happen to be in a critique group. It's my understanding a first draft is going to have lots of issues. This is where I am confused. While a critique group can offer some useful advice, can it also be a hindrance to just progressing with the story?

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Yes.

Writers vary but some find that submitting a work in progress to a group causes them to be continually revising the opening and not finishing. Also, you might finish your first draft, realize you seriously need to revise the opening to change a character, and complete a second draft without any input. Then you can't get a first impression from the group because they've seen it already, and their impressions are colored by the first draft.

However, you don't want to wait to get second opinions until you are thoroughly sick of the work, because you might lack the energy to implement their suggestions.

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Try telling your critique group what you are looking for, rather than accepting their standard model critique. Without instruction, your group will probably provide you with a spelling/grammar check, point out unclear passages and maybe if you are lucky, give you a little emotional feedback on what you have created. In almost all cases, they will give you support and encouragement as well.

The problem with spelling/grammar check's is that to correct them, you have to switch into editor mode which is something you never want to do with an incomplete initial draft. Once in editor mode, every paragraph is at risk of needing rewriting, the entire character/under-structure of the work shifts precariously and your writing momentum falls to zero.

The problem with fixing unclear passages is that attempts to clarify them often force you to make authorial decisions which you might have been subconsciously delaying until the unfinished plot matures. Excessive detail now means less freedom later. Better to leave things vague until the first draft is done. You can clarify it all later, when you know what the new clarity is going to reveal.

Emotional feedback is the real gem that a critique group can give you during your initial drafting process. It allows you to see your characters and events through a reader's eyes and can greatly influence both who those characters become and what those events eventually lead to.

As for the support and encouragement, I would suggest ignoring it and instead, finding your reason for writing elsewhere. Everyone attending a critique circle has embarked on the costly and probably foolish adventure of trying to write something. As human beings in the real world, every last one of them encounter the same distractions and time-use alternatives which plague your writing. I have noticed that those who complain most often about those distractions are also the ones who offer the most encouraging and supportive words. You have to wonder if they are trying to help you or just convince themselves that they are not wasting their time.

So in attending a critique circle, your goal should be to get emotional feedback and to answer specific questions which have come up during your most recent writing sessions. Do the readers feel any sympathy for your protagonist during her early challenges? Does the goal of the quest make sense? Did any of your character reactions seem out of character or unnatural? Did anything break the rhythm of the story? These are the things you should really care about during the initial draft, not so that you can go back and fix them, but so that you can work towards improving your writing to avoid similar problems in later chapters. Fixing existing writing should wait for the editing phase, but noting what is wrong now and avoiding those problems in subsequent writing can greatly reduce the amount of editing which will be needed later.

So instead of handing out your hard written words to the mythical mercy of the red pens, pause for a moment and ask your critiquers to ignore the usual stuff... to save their red ink and just give you the feedback and answers that you really need right now. Then tell them what your most recent questions are before asking them to start reading. If you are in a good group, they will give you what you ask for and help you become more productive instead of more perfect.

One last thought... many critique groups develop a cognitive cancer which grows out of each attendees desire to contribute to the group. When approval and gratitude from the author under review (or from the group leader) is portioned out more heavily for negative findings than for positive ones, an malignant expectation quickly takes form. If a reader has nothing bad to say, they don't feel that they are contributing as much as those readers who have found or created something negative to talk about. This can often lead to unsubstantiated criticism of your writing by the last few readers to comment. They choose to make something up rather than be left with nothing to say after the earlier responders used up all the real problems.
A good way to get around this is to ask that answers and feedback be provided in conversational form rather than each reader taking a turn. With everyone talking at once, the pressure to have something to say vanishes and the content of the conversation can thrive.

Hope it helps! Keep Writing!

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    "you have to switch into editor mode which is something you never want to do with an incomplete initial draft" - Personally, I don't have "modes." I'm constantly writing and editing, and while I frequently read other people insisting that this is a broken model, it works perfectly well for me. Maybe my brain is just wired differently. – Kevin Aug 28 at 22:27
  • @Kevin, fair enough. We all find the method that works for us. I used to follow your approach but found that I wasn't productive in the long run. I gave NanoWriMo a try one year and totally failed despite starting with a complete outline and dedicating far more hours to it than should have been necessary. The freedom to revise destroyed my daily word counts and ruined my schedule. Best of luck with your approach. I honestly do hope that it continues to work for you because it is more rewarding at every step of the journey to do it your way. It just results in a very long journey for me. – Henry Taylor Aug 28 at 22:32

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