Monday, November 28, 2022

Critique Group Know How

One of the first pieces of advice I received when I started to write for publication was to find a critique group. Back then, I was pretty much doing whatever anyone told me since I had no idea what this writing business was about, so I reached out and soon connected with a small band of people who said they were writers.

It turned out that two of them were and two wanted to be. 

One actually published the book she’d brought to the group and that we'd all read and critiqued. Another finished writing an excellent saga, but never published it. Both of these people impressed me with their talent and know-how, and I learned a lot from them. Our format was to submit writing samples via email about a week before we met, and then give our comments in person. We’d spend about three hours every other week, so slowly our time together became social as well as professional. The group lasted about five years before it disbanded. By that time, I was convinced that I needed other eyes and minds attending to what I was writing, so I found a second group. 

This time the members met online, submitting their work via email, critiquing it, and emailing it back. Unfortunately, once I was involved, I discovered there was quite an unevenness in the level of writing, and much of the feedback wasn’t helpful. Soon, three of us peeled away and formed a more cohesive group. These writers turned out to be keen-eyed editors as well as excellent and dedicated writers. I’m still exchanging work with two who have gone on to publish several successful books. 

Sometime during these critique group experiences, I realized that while I was improving my writing craft, I was also acquiring two more important skills—critiquing and networking in this new field where I knew nobody. Also, I’d become much more discerning about the kind of group I wanted to affiliate with, so I formed a plan.

When I played tennis, I always tried to find better players to compete against, reasoning that I could improve my game that way. So I applied that principle to this new endeavor. Before I joined another critique group, here's what I did.

I asked to read samples of their work and submitted samples of my own.

I asked to see an actual critique they’d done and reciprocated with one of my critiques. 

I told them I needed to know about their format--online or in-person as well as their schedule for submitting. 

The reason I asked about the last item is that I’m a slow thinker and like to consider a piece before I make suggestions or offer comments. I prefer reading large chunks of a manuscript rather than chapters or excerpts. I told any group I wanted to join that I recognized carving out a large amount of time might be difficult for people. However, I made it clear from the start that I was open to exchanging full manuscripts and longer segments of a WIP.  This turned out to be good because sometimes we actually exchanged full manuscripts. 

So far I’ve been a part of four different writing groups, and after this amount of time sharing work, I’ve come to recognize a pattern that seems to be common to all of them. 

There is a tendency to want to maintain a cohesive and friendly atmosphere, especially after a group has a long history. This is great, but it can also lead to less helpful comments. Saying that something’s "just wonderful" makes a writer’s heart flutter with joy, but what if it isn’t just wonderful? What if they could make it better than it is? And what does just wonderful mean anyway? While it’s obviously kinder comment, it’s not any more helpful than, This isn't good." 

When I go through one of the sample critiques to make my decision to join a group or not, I look for three things: 

their overview comments

the kinds of edits  (punctuation, typos, global impressions), and 

specific suggestions for improvement. 

I like to find an opening positive statement—there’s always something good in any writing, and that should be acknowledged. I like to find clear corrections about everything from those mechanical details to emotional responses, but most importantly, I like to find specific suggestions that I can consider to improve my work.

Some groups like to hear the story read to them by the writer. I love being told a story, but I believe hearing one changes the perception. I’ve experienced that while listening to audiobooks. I’ve continued with an audible story that I know I would have stopped had I been reading it. It seems there’s kind of a “grade elevation” effect when you hear writers read their stories. 

I found some studies contrasting the two modalities for processing writing (silent reading and hearing the story). These studies focus on retention of material, and the few abstracts I’ve read, indicate that there is either no difference in retention or retention is enhanced. I’d like to find some studies that contrast the perception of quality and enjoyment. Know of any studies like these?

In general, I believe critique groups have great value. They give writers different points of view on their solitary endeavors and open possibilities for growth and improvement. However, it has to be the “right” fit for me, and I think that’s important for any writer to determine before joining and sharing their work. 

I hope you’ll weigh in if you’ve had critique group experience. And by all means, let me know if you agree or disagree with my take on the topic.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

It is important to find writers at your level or above. Those who aren't as good won't be able to help you.

PT Dilloway said...

If you're in a group of other bad writers it is just the blind leading the blind. But in my experience a lot of people are very thin-skinned even when they claim to want honesty and it can lead to bad blood between people.

Tyrean Martinson said...

I've been in at least a half dozen critique groups, some more helpful than others. The current one I'm in meets almost every other week - as in, if everyone or the majority is busy, we skip. We email each other up to five pages, critique on our own, then meet to discuss. In person, we always give positive first, then helpful critique, and sometimes suggestions. We vary from light critique to more critique, depending on where we're all at. I'm thankful for this group, one of the best I've been in.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

A group that's been together a long time will become good friends and then it gets harder for people to offer up real critiques because they don't want to offend, and that's not helpful to anyone.

A Hundred Quills said...

Hi. I found this very useful. I've moved from one critique group to another. I agree with your point about saying only 'nice' things about the writing. It doesn't help anyone.

diedre Knight said...

The last in-person writing group I belonged to had 30-40 members. My only disappointment was that rather than rotating critique groups, tight little cliques were formed, which created the same dilemma you mentioned. Short of paying for a "service," I wish there were a better idea. One of the best things I ever did was distribute copies of a manuscript to ten strangers - did you know school bus drivers are usually avid readers? Their comments, critiques, and suggestions were the perfect incentive to finish the book. There were no ruffled feathers because there were no alliances.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

nashvillecats2 said...

I think one has to be secure with one's own ability,
Enjoyed reading the post after being away for a ong while.


Rajani Rehana said...

Please read my post

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Lee - it's challenging to find people who can be truly helpful - encouraging, yet if necessary to be useful - exactly as Diedre suggests ... interesting to read - thank you ... cheers Hilary

Donna Robert said...

Such a beautiful post, I want to share a testimony on how Dr itua healing herbs cure me.
The worst time has passed”However, it is true that there are more improvements than before...because of the rising numbers of people living with HIV in the state of Nevada. How could they stigmatize all of them? Therefore everything becomes a little easier and we start to share everything... We also started to invite and visit each other in a community. You know, it is six years since I started taking antiretroviral drugs...Yet whatever problems I face, the worst time has passed
When I was evicted from the family home by my mother, my father rented a small room for me. But my mother and brothers believed that having HIV was my own fault – and that I deserved to be punished...I also considered myself unworthy and without hope... But I have a child and eventually I convinced myself to live for my child’s sake.
My mother knew nothing [about HIV]. She didn’t understand anything. Do you know why? She didn’t have [the chance] to go out of the house and communicate with society. However, my father does interact with the community. I know his friends are mature and dignified in africa america. So he has a better understanding than her.
My father came call me on a sadfull day sitting on my couch about a friend of his from africa who introduce him to Dr Itua herbal cure in africa in which he advise we should purchase his herbal medicine to cure my hiv so we did and Dr Itua prescribed I should drink the herbal medicine for two weeks to cure although we were so curious about the whole thing ,I finished the herbal medicine like he advised then he talked to me to visit my nearest clinic for check up I did and now I'm totally cured from Hiv my father was my rock and I and my family are now happy together also Dr Itua has be helpful in my community ever since he cure my Hiv and my tinnitus so why I'm leaving my story on here today is to reach out someone out here to hope on God and never give up no matter the situation you that you are facing especially through this pandemic seasons which has really taught us all on how we should be helpful to each other and cherish one another.
Dr Itua cures the following diseases..... Herpes,Liver cancer,Throat cancerLeukemia. ,Alzheimer's disease,Chronic Diarrhea,Copd,Parkinson,Als,Adrenocortical carcinoma Infectious mononucleosis.
Intestinal cancer,Uterine cancer,Fibroid,Bladder cancer,Hiv,Esophageal cancer,Gallbladder cancer,Kidney cancer,Hpv,Lung cancer,Melanoma,Mesothelioma,Multiple myeloma,Oral cancer,Sinus cancer,Hepatitis A,B/C,Skin cancer,Soft tissue sarcoma,Spinal cancer,Stomach cancer,Vaginal cancer,Tinnitus,Vulvar cancer,
Testicular cancer ,Thyroid Cancer.
You can contact Dr Itua Herbal Center on E-Mail:

Olga Godim said...

Great post. But I want to add one more point. Your writing group should know and read extensively in the genre you're writing. Otherwise, they often don't recognize concepts or even vocabulary, so their critique isn't really valid. It is especially important for speculative fiction writers. When someone who doesn't read or enjoy speculative fiction try to critic a story written in the genre, the results are often awkward and not helpful to the author. I experienced such a phenomenon myself once. Suffice it to say, I didn't join that group.

CJon said...

Thank you for sharing your experience! I was part of a writers group for a year or so and ended up leaving because we met every week which was too much with small children. The group was small, very welcoming and since I was just starting to write online blogs, I learned a lot from them in that short time. I have thought of going back now that my kids are grown but the group has gotten large and I just want to interact with one or two writers on larger manuscripts but didn't want my old group to be offended.