#EditTip: The Value of Writing Critique Groups

Jeri Walker
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Jeri Walker
Jeri Walker
Jeri Walker
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Writing critique groups truly can be wonderful, and yet workshop is a dreaded word by writers the world over. What could be more fun than participating in writing workshops? You slave away on a draft, endlessly tweaking it before submitting it to THE GROUP. Then you sit silently while THE GROUP tears all that effort to shreds, pointing out inconsistencies and weaknesses. You squirm in your chair and feel your face turning red. Your pulse quickens because THE GROUP just doesn’t get it and you aren’t allowed to talk. Occasionally, someone makes a positive comment. Your heart soars.

If you call yourself a writer, get thee to a writer’s group ASAP!

No matter how diligently you work on a draft, the input of other readers will prove invaluable when it comes to revision. While family and friends can offer feedback, chances are their input will dwell in generalities. Various online groups now exist to facilitate the sharing of works in progress. However, nothing can truly replace the tried and true format of the traditional writer’s workshop or critique group. Sharing your work with one or two dedicated writing critique groups can also be a good way to save money on the developmental editing process.

 

Picture of nervous woman biting nails.

 

How to get started? I found my recent writer’s group via the website Meetup.com. Groups could also be found by checking with your local library or other writer’s organizations in town. Even though there never seems to be enough time these days, if you have never participated in a workshop, nothing will replace the intensity of signing-up for a college-level workshop, whether during the regular school year or at a writer’s conference.

 

The Most Successful Groups Will Follow The Traditional Format

Drafts should be made available to group members a week in advance in order to allow time for a careful reading. Some members will choose to mark-up the draft by hand or by making electronic comments, and generally, their written feedback is given to you after the workshop. Most members will offer verbal, rather than written, suggestions.

 

The group moderator will get things going. It’s typical to start off with brief introductions that revolve around current writing projects and previous publications.

 

The author reads a section from their draft (a page or less) so the group can get a feel for the tone of the piece. If the writer prefers not to read aloud, it’s always okay to ask another member to read the selection for them, but not as effective as hearing the writer’s authentic voice.

 

The group then discusses the paper while the writer is silent. During that time, the writer can take notes or have someone take notes for them so they can better concentrate on the discussion.

 

The criticism offered should be constructive and not mean-spirited. The best energy results when discussion bounces back and forth between members rather than going in order around the table. Some groups focus on positives first before tackling negatives. A good moderator will decide what works best for the group.

 

After discussion, the writer can ask questions of the group members to help clarify comments. The writer should not defend their paper, but rather try to understand the readers’ perceptions of their draft as it currently stands. Also, a good moderator will keep the ensuing discussion related to the story as it can be easy to digress into other topics.

 

The session should end with thanking the author for sharing as well as deciding what writers will share at the next meeting.

 

Picture of arguing robots.

 

Further Suggestions

The most effective size for a critique group ranges from 10-15 writers.

 

Set aside 45-60 minutes for papers approximately 5,000 words. A full 30 minutes should be devoted to discussion while the author is silent.

 

A U-Shaped seating arrangement or large conference table usually works best for sharing and discussion, but many seating arrangements can be utilized if needed.

 

During the author’s “silent” period, the participants should not directly address the writer or look at them while making comments. The goal is to discuss the writer as if they are not in the room.

 

Professionalism and courtesy should be maintained at all times. Having a draft is nerve-wracking enough without having to experience an onslaught by an overly critical member. This extends to break times between drafts as well.

 

My current group meets twice a month in the conference room of one of the public libraries in town. The number attending has been around 25 lately, which I feel is too many. I’ve been on the chopping block twice and have received valuable feedback each time.

 

My former co-worker group got me back into writing on a regular basis, but by strident standards, we were naughty girls indeed. Our monthly or bi-monthly meetings spanned 3-4 hours and much wine, laughter, and good food was involved!

 

 

What groups have you benefited from where the goal was to receive constructive criticism?

 


Photo credit: Nail-biter andres.thor / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Photo credit: Robots GViciano / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

 

Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2013.

Author: Jeri Walker

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38 Comments

  1. I know some people have had bad experiences with critique groups, but I tell them to keep trying until the find the right fit. My critique group has been a godsend. There’s only three of us, which seems to work well, and we meet every two weeks.

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  2. Hi Jeri
    Thanks for this post.
    I’ve been writing for a couple of years and am publishing my first stuff this year. At the moment my critique group consists of my wife (far tougher than I expected) and my 19 month old daughter (even tougher, though with slightly less defined feedback)!
    Your post has given me a craving to find a critique group near me, so thanks for that. As I get nearer putting my stuff out there, any fear I may have of being critiqued by a group of like-minded individuals pales compared to how I think a 1* review might feel, so it seems like a good direction to go in.
    It’s nice to know what to expect and have a clear idea of what I would be stepping into.
    cheers
    Mike

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    • Mike, Definitely go for the critique group experience. If you can find a great group, cherish it. If not, move onto the next. Writers really do need all the feedback they can get when working on a draft. Over time, you get better at deciding what advice to incorporate and which advice to ignore.

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  3. One of these groups is probably in my future, but not yet. I think I may be too fragile to subject myself to one right now.

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    • Cheryl, I say dive in! I’ve always found it odd that my general thin-skinned nature doesn’t apply to workshopping. At least so long as the feedback is helpful and not vindictive. I think most groups aim for that, though once you start looking for a group, you’ll quickly get a sense of what will and will not work for you personally.

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  4. I always hated having writing workshops in class at school because I hated having people read my work. Especially when it came to creative writing that was personal, I cared way too much about what people thought about me and my work that I felt really uncomfortable. Having said that, my pieces always came out much better when I got feedback from a number of different people and got constructive input. This is definitely an important step to make your writing as good as it can possibly be because different perspectives can shed a new light on it that you didn’t see before.

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    • Kelly, that’s seems to be the paradox that is workshop. The experience may get more bearable, but it’s always some degree of unpleasant. So when we get so much feedback for possible ways to revise, the sting does fade a bit.

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  5. Critique groups have been on my mind, but it hasn’t been at the front of my agenda yet. I will start actively looking within the next couple months though I think.

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    • Jon, nothing can ever replace a group that meetings in-person, but depending on what you’re thinking of, feel free to run some ideas by me when you’re ready for some critiquing.

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  6. This is my update comment from my first comment here! I’m still in the same critique group and I still love them and they still repeatedly save my butt and keep me going time and time again. Leaving in 15 minutes to go meet them tonight and am truly excited. Plus, we drink while we critique. 🙂

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    • Laura, that’s great that you’re still in the same critique group. I hope I can hook-up with a serious group after I move. I’ve looked on the Meet-Up website for Boise, but it’s not nearly as active as Charlotte as far as writing groups are concerned. Hopefully, I can talk to some of my professors and/or see what’s going on through the library or the local literary center in town.

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  7. I had no idea there were such things as writers workshops but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m really looking to take my writing to the next level. I feel I’m “pretty good” but would love to get as much feedback as I can to become great. I imagine workshops can help with that. Thanks for sharing Jeri. A great post as always.

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    • Johnny, joining a critique group would definitely help you take your writing to the next level. It can also be helpful to join local writing organizations. I just joined the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association and will be going to my first writing conference this July in Seattle. I hear it’s a great conference, so I’m definitely excited. There is so much help out there for writers. The hardest part, as always, is taking the first step.

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  8. Great post since I have been late and lazy in getting others’ input into my writing. I never looked into critique groups because I didn’t know how valuable they could be, and now, living in Germany, I’m unable to find a critique group.

    I’ve wanted to find a few critique partners, but I find it difficult. I joined certain groups on Goodreads, but I haven’t seen anyone who writes in my genre. Well, the genre of my current WIP. I don’t have a specific genre. I’m messed up. I joined Scribophile, but I haven’t been on in a while. It’s a good way to get input on your works. Posting new chapters after deleting old ones can make it tough to get a good idea about the book.

    I’ll keep looking for critique partners who write in my genre, but from the looks of it, I’m kinda crashing and burning. AND, I haven’t finished my first draft yet. GAH!!!! WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?!!!!

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    • Denise, maybe we should talk about giving each other feedback. I’ll email you soon. I haven’t tried sites like Scribophile, and I’ve been meaning to check more of those types of writing sites out. I did find one critique partner via Ladies Who Critique, but her editing schedule didn’t mesh with mine. I found my first partner via a random blog for writers that I visited one day. I ended up leaving a comment to be paired with a potential partner, and I can’t believe how well that one has worked out. My other partner came from me putting a request out on Facebook. We had sorta followed each other’s blogs and social sites a bit before that, and now we’ve been swapping chapters for months. So who knows, maybe we could try something?

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      • Sorry I’m so late. Hey, I’m open to anything. Anything that will get me back to writing on a regular basis and help make my story its best. Thanks.

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  9. We just started an art group, so I am trying to decide if your remarks are relevant to our group. We have only done a little critique – we generally use the time to do art together, so it seems to be different than a writers’ group.

    In general, meeting people regularly in person can be *so* supportive.

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    • Leora, the traditional writers’ group format I outlined above is what my current group (and most of the workshops I took in college) adhere too. However, once a week, many of the writers also get together to spend time drafting at a local coffee shop. Then once a month they also meet at a bar just to be social. Your art group sounds very productive. I would love to do something like that with photographers.

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  10. I can see how helpful these would be… But dang that sounds brutal!! I’d better stick to developing better writing habits before I subject myself to that 🙂

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    • Dan, I’m sure you’d fit right in with any writing group. People of all skill levels usually join, and there’s always something to be learned from each other, no matter how far along we may be in the process. Of course, there is the occasional stinker who joins a group, but a solid group will be able to deal with the seeming whackos who only seem how to cut a writer down rather than offer sincere helpful criticism.

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  11. I have not had good luck with critique groups. I do, however, have some brutally honest friends and relatives. This has proven to be very useful.

    I wish I could find a group but I feel a bit like Goldilocks. The last group was too unprofessional, the one before too mean and the writer who approached me to do an exchange of chapters (largely because she said if she knew I was waiting for her to send it, she’d get it done) faded away without sending me more than a cursory note on my first chapter. She didn’t even manage to send me her’s — did she finish it? Who knows… I’m onto the second draft of the novella.

    But in the absence of a real group, I have some friends willing to tell me exactly what they think! Even my dad will tell me he when he doesn’t like a story.

    Goldilocks (AKA Candy)

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    • Candy, that’s the worst when you give a draft to someone and get hardly any feedback in return 🙁 I remember some of my workshops in college when we had to go to Kinko’s and make 20 copies of a 15 page story for each member of the class, only to get them back with hardly any written feedback. Still though, I think the quality of your writing speaks for itself. You’re lucky to have friends and family who give good feedback. I am still trying to train my hubby in that area… 😉

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  12. I really like the idea and what it has to offer. Do you think I could benefit for a critique group? I worry that they would not get that I work with a disability. Should I even worry about that? All these questions.Thoughts?

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    • Susan, I think you would be perfect as a participant in a critique group. You are a good listener, but you also speak-up when necessary. Part of being a good writer is asking good questions in order to get the best feedback. I should think in your area there would be plenty of options for finding a group. I know a lot of critique groups and writers’ organizations welcome guests who can come in and observe in order to decide if the group might be a good fit. Other groups are more selective. As for being a writer with dyslexia, I don’t think it would be an issue. Especially if you told the group how it impacts your writing. The beauty of workshop is that 20 sets of eyes will catch what the writer’s one set of eyes won’t see in a hundred years!

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      • Thanks Jeri, I have a good friend who is part of a group. She has mentioned that I might want to become a member. I should reach out to her and see what she had sin mind.

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  13. Ooh, *bites nails nervously, not dissimilar to in the second pic* – this really scares me! I wrote a fiction book a few years ago and my partner kept telling me to join a group like this. It’s funny – I write non-fiction now and I’m so confident about it! The fiction though? Won’t share it with a single soul. To this day that book sits, unread by anyone, getting dusty in one of my cupboards. I’m just so sensitive about my fiction work – it’s strange. Thanks for a great post Jeri – I can see how a group like this would prove valuable.

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    • Kirsty, so many writers are sensitive about their drafts. It’s because as the writer you are so close to the material. You know it inside and out. As such, that means all writers lack objectivity toward their work. Even with a great deal of editing skills on my side, I truly relish how much workshop can benefit my drafts. Sure, I still get hot pinpricks of nerves coursing all over my skin each time I do a workshop, but I am always so amazed at the great advice I receive. Sharing a draft with others is the best way to begin revisions because they will see the draft more objectively than the writer ever will be able to.

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  14. Jeri,
    I can understand the “fear” in having a group review your work. I think many of us are so passionate about our work that when it is critiqued we take is so personal. I know that even with my essays for school, I always have someone else read it to give me a fresh perspective.

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  15. I’ve been a part of several writers groups, and generally had good experiences in all of them. One interesting critique methodology was to work within in a critique group that was devoted to writing novels, and was on the web. I thought there were some definite advantages in getting useful feedback and criticism from people who commented essentially anonymously.

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    • Larry, I can definitely see the advantage of using anonymous commenters, and I think I would like to try something like that when I get to the stage where I’m seeking beta-readers for my novel. Right now I feel lucky to have developed a solid critiquing relationship with a the current critique partners. Under either scenario, it’s nice to not have to worry about the “getting to know you” phase.

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  16. I’m not part of a writer’s group. But I do have a couple of business colleagues and we will exchange our posts, new business emails, and other written content for critiquing. It works very well. It’s hard to edit yourself. If I was writing novels I would definitely consider a more formal arrangement like you suggest.

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    • Jeannette, it’s so true that editing one’s self is very hard. Even with a good amount of distance from some of my drafts, I still can’t catch issues with language, characterization, and plot like a new set of eyes can. It’s great that you have a few colleagues you can rely on when you need it.

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  17. We have a critique group that has been active for about fifteen years. Recently a new member invited a writer to come. Our practice has been to interview the prospective member and read their writing before voting to invite the member. We found ourselves in the uncomfortable position of having this person in our group without having group consent. She is argumentative and overly critical and dominates taking up valuable time. Does anyone have any suggestions about how to deal with this? We haven’t encountered this in the past.

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    • Roberta, I envy your involvement with the same critique group for so long, and I also feel for your situation. The first question that came into my mind centered on the group’s guidelines for bringing a guest. What guidelines does your group have for inviting guests? Was it sufficiently clear to the other member that full membership involves an interview and writing sample? Has this other member been a part of the interview process before bringing the guest? Also, how often do you meet and how many times has the “uninvited” member participated?

      My suggestion is to bring the issue up in a meeting. Be as forthright as possible. It really is for the best if the group can adhere to guidelines that help keep the group cohesive. Let the “uninvited” member know that the interview needs to take place. If they’ve already been to a few meetings, you could tailor the questions so they would dwell in behavioral responses, such as questions that would focus on the effect of being overly critical and/or argumentative. Chances are this person doesn’t even realize the issues being created by her commenting style. Some people are naturally combative.

      Your group could choose to take a vote, and most likely then inform that person he/she just isn’t a good fit. Or, you could use the interview time to discuss how their approach to critiquing is creating discord. It will certainly be an awkward situation, but what’s worse? If it continues, the writing group will continue to suffer and lose productivity. That would be a real shame for a group that has been together for such a long while.

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  18. Great Post on critique groups. I’ve been in the same group for a few years and they are like family to me. I;ve not been published yet, but when I am it will be because I have had such a great support group that kept me going.

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    • Sonja, the support of a critique group is such a great thing. I miss the group I used to belong to, and have not been able to find one since I moved. However, I do have a couple of great online critique partners.

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  19. Hi Jeri…
    A very interesting post. I had no idea about the existence of writers workshops. It sounds like a very profitable experience… As far as I understood it is a good option to enrich your writing platforms with people who share your same concerns.
    Happy Easter & best regards, Aquileana 😉

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    • Aquileana, Happy Easter to you as well! Writers workshops are so hopeful in getting a draft to the level it needs to be at to be able to meet a larger audience of readers.

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