Groupthink and critique

rooftops of Balham

I’m a writer/teacher whose first 10 years of vigorous employment were spent in the land of business, and there are times that I think the industry verticals (business and education and the arts) could really learn a lesson from each other. The clarity and product-focused nature of business serves me well as a teacher…and writing/teaching’s orientation towards process and patience informs me as a Director of HR.

I often use lingo from one to describe another. Like in workshop, I used to say, “Real estate is really precious in a short story, and I’m not sure this [add whatever is relevant here] deserves all the real estate it’s been given.” I got a few giggles about the term “real estate.” But it’s true. It’s all real estate, because any space is precious, especially in a story.

Then there’s the term Groupthink, a word that describes reaching consensus with minimal conflict and minimal contest. It is a word often used in business, and groupthink is dangerous in the way that Vonnegut describes in Sirens of Titan the antennas in the brains of the soldiers of Mars, listening to one voice and following directions without protest. Groupthink is bending to peer pressure, groupthink is mindless, and groupthink is dangerous to art and creativity. Groupthink means writing by consensus.

Groupthink happens, for instance, in meetings where an exec throws out an idea, and no one is brave enough to disagree, or no one dares to pay attention to dissenting opinion. Groupthink is believed to have brought down NASA years ago, leading to the tragic Challenger disaster. No one listened to the feedback of an engineer pointing out flaws in the design of the O-rings. NASA has since become not only a cautionary tale regarding groupthink, but also a case study in how NOT to build a corporate culture. You should have an environment in which people can disagree and bring up alternative ideas and thoughts.

It is groupthink that can make workshopping so dangerous.

Years after workshops, I found a stack of critiques and saved the feedback, knowing that what didn’t pierce my psyche constructively then, might pierce my psyche in the future. But now years later again, I see the symptoms of groupthink throughout the feedback.

In workshops where writers are requested to bring in written critiques before workshops begin, groupthink is not so prevalent, because those critiques were composed before entering the group.

But in workshops where writers were not asked to bring in written critique workshops to workshop, and where people just spew their thoughts spontaneously, groupthink evades the feedback. I see it in my notes. The Famous Writer workshop leader says one thing–and everyone bends to the will/opinion of that one person. The workshop leader doesn’t even have to force this behavior; since most writers in an MFA workshop are emerging writers, if not downright beginning writers, they simply don’t have the confidence behind their opinions to contest that of someone more experienced.

Even in workshops where writers bring written feedback to class, there will always be an unexpected topic of discussion. The workshop leader will point to a passage or scene and say something like, “What do you think about this?” A good workshop leader may not throw out her/his opinion right away. S/he will wait to hear all the feedback.

But when I see feedback on my novel in those notes–I can see that after the workshop leader said something like, “It’s hard to write a scene inside a traincar–it’s real static–unless the train is crashing,” everyone immediately agreed.

In the case of my novel, I promptly deleted that chapter. Years later, I put that scene back in my novel, only condensed. It was important, but just didn’t work as written.

I’m glad I saved my workshop feedback all these years. I understand things now that I didn’t understand back then. Elizabeth Stark addressed the topic of responding to critique:

In order to be helpful, critique must be absorbed. What is unhelpful must be disregarded, and a writer does well to build up a strong instinct for what must be disregarded. What remains, then, is an arrow, pointing to a hidden door in the text that needs to be opened, or a hidden wall that needs to be removed.

One final note: we rarely know if what we are writing is good or significant while we are writing it or shortly after. The voice that judges the work is not that of our deep reader self but the anxious harping of some face concerned about the public eye. So you will not know right away if the changes you are making work. That, too, will take time, will take absorption, will lack efficiency.

In workshop, be aware of groupthink. Save your notes. Read them later. Later, as in weeks, not days. Later, as in months, not weeks. Later, as in years, not months. Do not ever delete something without leaving a backup. You may want it back, years later.



Filed under MFA, Writing

3 responses to “Groupthink and critique

  1. I see this happening, a lot. I try not to participate, but I can find it difficult. Am I agreeing because everyone else thinks so, or am I agreeing because so-and-so made a legitimate point? I think it can depend on the instructor, too. If they are a commanding Famous Writer, groupthink seems a more likely danger than with someone, as you point out, who is asking questions before giving their own opinions.

  2. Nate

    Corporate structure makes it risky to take initiative outside of the central office’s predetermined goals. If you compare corporate behavior to the behaviors that education rewards, it gets kinda scary. Sure results matter, but which results and who decides?

    You are so right. Submitting comments before workshop is essential. Not only do you get a better variety and more honest feedback, but the discussion is better because people have already formed some solid arguments (Of course, the workshop feedback that I get is only Groupthink when it’s negative ;-))

    CZ, this week you have been seriously motivating me not to bother finishing my degree!

    • @margosita: the upside of “groupthink” is that once in the spotlight, the phenomenon usually goes away. 🙂

      @Nate: Keep going! I don’t mean to discourage, but to make people aware of this. Groupthink hates awareness. 😉

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