Writing Critique Groups – Join One

checklistWriting critique groups are a great way to get feedback on your works in progress. It used to be that in order to participate, authors would gather once a month or so at a member’s house and take turns reading their latest works. Nowadays there are several kinds of critique groups: online, formal, informal, local. Some are homogeneous, comprised of members who write in the same genre. Others, like mine, are eclectic with members writing different things: memoir, poetry, fiction, non-fiction. Some groups have specific focuses, such as checking grammar and spelling only. Some look for flow and pacing only. Some have only beginning writers, others professional or semi-professional writers. No one size fits all. Even how often they meet, whether they send written critiques on ahead, whether they expect a written excerpt before meetings so they can have their comments ready, or whether they read their submissions at the meetings. The number of members can vary as much as the approach.

Today I would like to concentrate on the group I belong to here in my home city. We six members meet once monthly at our local library. Usually one member may be absent so we average five around the table. Two write contemporary fiction, one fantasy, one a memoir with a medical angle, one mystery thrillers. The last is a poet. One is trad published. One is self-published and the others are either just beginning to write or almost ready to publish. So you see it’s quite an eclectic group. In spite of that, it works.
About a week before each meeting we submit a piece of writing and we read each others’ works ahead of time. We write comments and suggestions on the members’ copies so they can take the feedback home with them after the meeting. At the meeting we take turns in the hot seat as each member gives two or three of their most important comments on the submission. The member being critiqued may ask for clarification but, due to time constraints, the points further may not be discussed further. I have some trouble with this last rule because I usually want more detail but hey, I have to share the time.

So what makes my group so effective? I think the greatest benefit comes from our common purpose. We all want what we offer to be of benefit to the others. We are a true support group. We want all of us to be better writers. There is no competition, no sense that one is an expert and the one just beginning has less to offer, even though we are at very different places in our writing journey. We don’t socialize outside of the group but we all like each other. We don’t have a leader; we come together as equals.

The other benefit is that we are honest. What we feed back may not always be what we want to hear. Sometimes it’s down-right tough. But, because we trust that what is said is given in the spirit of support and collaboration, it is not hurtful – even when it hurts.

I have heard of groups where one member is a bully, so critical that others are wounded to the point of leaving, even giving up writing altogether. This helps no one. Other groups may have one member who becomes the leader, by virtue of their published status, their education, or any number of qualifications that makes them appear “expert”. Again, the result can be an imbalance that, in my opinion, leads to either over-dependence on the “expert” or feelings of inadequacy in some of the other members. This benefits no one.
I am not a fan of online groups. They may work for some but, for me, their impersonal nature makes it hard to establish the positive rapport and trust necessary for the free flow of feedback.

Critique groups are not for everyone but I recommend you try one for a while to see if it can benefit you as a writer. Writing is such a solitary and often isolating experience. A good critique group can alleviate some of that.

Make the rules clear: what is allowed, what is required, whether you must submit something at each meeting, how much time is allotted for each critique, and what format it you need to provide. Make sure all the members know the rules and agree to abide by them. Most of all, make sure everyone has the same goal – to nurture and support each  other in that member’s chosen style, voice and direction. It can be fun, you may learn a lot, and you may have the opportunity to help another writer advance toward their goals. My group certainly does all this.

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

41 thoughts on “Writing Critique Groups – Join One”

  1. I have been reluctant to join a group for many of the reasons you stated above. I want to, and I would look forward to the benefits and growth I could achieve by sharing time with other writers. I guess I’ve just been chicken. You have encouraged me to get my feet wet and who knows, maybe I’ll end up swimming. Thank you Yvonne. Have a Happy Birthday!

  2. Thank you Aron. I think if you are careful it can be very helpful. One thing I didn’t mention is that in my group we do screen by having new members send a sample piece to see if they are a good fit. If the abilities are too divers it can lead to imbalance again. I’d suggest, in your case, to see if you can go to one meeting to decide if it’s a good fit. You’ll get a sense of the attitudes that way. If you’re not happy you can simply say it’s not a good fit at this time, or something of that nature.

  3. Yvonne, I sat in on one group a while back that was structured so that there was NO critiquing allowed; writers read up to 2 pages each per meeting and the group was 100% supportive. The people there were practically jumping up and down wanting to read, something that shocked me. So often writers hang back, afraid to read, afraid of rejection, but these people were so enthusiastic and having so much fun, it was a joy to watch. Also, with the guidance of the facilitator (a published author), out of a group of 35 people, 28 of them self-published. Like your group, they were a mixed bag: novels, non-fiction, memoirs, poetry, children’s books, cook books. Obviously a very successful group.

    1. That sounds like a great format, especially for those just beginning to share their work. My hubby belongs to a small poetry group that comes close to that. They are 100% supportive but do comment on what they like about each others’ work.
      For me, I like to hear what they say – both good and bad – so i can think about it and improve based on how I feel about what they say. I don’t always agree but some of the comments have really helped me.

  4. I have been reluctant to join a critique group. Your post makes a good point—that the individuals must be screened as to goals and expectations. I do have someone I discuss a WIP with, and a number of betas. This has worked so far, but the current WIP’s plot is a bit complicated. I’m not sure a critique group would be able to help me line up clues or murders. Thoughts?

    1. Lois, you make a good point. Because my group sees only a piece of my WIP every month they do tend to forget some of what happened before. It has caused some confusion and affected their comments. It can be frustrating. What I do with that is to ignore those comments. There are still enough relevant ones to think about. It’s not ideal, though.

  5. I’m a member of Scribophile–an online crit group. When I started writing fiction, I lived in such a remote location that a participatory group wasn’t practical. My writing improved significantly because of the the generosity of fellow writers on that site. I doubt that any writing course could have helped me as much. I learned from the comments on my work (sometime that stung), but also from giving feedback to others. I’ve recently moved back to civilization and joined a local group, which has a similar format to yours, Yvonne. I’m enjoying actually “seeing” other writers, but I’d recommend Scribophile to any beginner–and it’s free :-).

  6. Great post, Yvonne. I love my critique group. We are a group of six women, with one in each decade from 20s to 70s, all dedicated writers. Though we are supportive, we also talk about what’s not working and bounce around ideas on how to fix the problem. I couldn’t have self-published my novel this past year without the critiques and support from my group.

  7. Great post Yvonne. A good critique group can be hard to find but very helpful once created. I meet with a group every other week for 3 hour sessions – we are all serious about our writing and are there to support each other. We point out the good and bad, and after over a year of meeting, we have learned how to do it in a supportive manner. Sometimes it takes time to work out the rules that work, but once the bumps are leveled it becomes a useful tool, and fun.

  8. I haven’t been going recently (bad on me), but I have gotten a lot of value from my writer’s group, which meets once a week in a bookstore and is open to anyone who shows up. We each read about ten pages of whatever we are working on and get feedback around the circle. To be honest, while there’s some very useful feedback and some not-so-useful feedback, the most valuable aspect of it is simply reading my own work out loud to an audience. I notice awkward sentences, boring stretches, and the places where people are either laughing or not laughing. I make my composition students do for this reason, too.

  9. The grouip I’m in emails work in advance so everyone has had a chance to read it before we meet. After the person whose work is being critiqued has read he/she sits quietly while everyone in the group says something affirmative – one thing they liked, whether a phrase or the way a character is devloping. Then the writer has the opportunity to ask the group specific questions about the work – is the dialogue working? Is the pace all right? I find this part is the most useful and helpful becasue the group is focussing on aspects which the writer is concerned about.
    We don’t always meet to critique but sometimes have guest authors come along to talk or run a workshop.

  10. I understand the tendency to form collective help groups, and I know several authors who enjoy the various benefits of such associations. Horses for courses, however, and I do believe that everyone must do whatever is best for them, like most endeavours in my life I’m afraid I’m a bit of a lone wolf in that department too.

    Very pertinent post, Yvonne.

    1. Thanks, T.D. Of course no one thing works for all of us. Some prefer to work alone and it works well for them. And, from the comments, there are so many different ways to work in concert, too. We each need to find what’s best for us.

  11. I have been part of several critique groups over the years, and I even formed one of my own. To this day, I have mixed emotions about the experience. Eventually, the groups “devolve.” I’m not sure why this happens, but when it does, it’s time to move on.

    1. I’m sure that happens some of the time. In my case the membership has changed over time, so that may be why it’s still working. Or, it may be that we have a membership that works well together. I’m sorry your experience was less positive.

  12. A useful and thoughtful piece which is in itself a great critique of the different approaches and compositions of this type of writing group.

    I tried a local group of about 8 writers, all expat Brits and Americans, here in Chiangmai. The colleague I went with on the first occasion would not go to any more; I soldiered on for half a dozen or so. He had picked up on the fact that after each reading there was automatic applause but no constructive criticism. He was right that that approach was not entirely helpful. What I found, however, was that the group were too self-centred and not able to relate to genres with which they were unfamiliar. Normally that would not be a fair criticism, but I write on Thai culture and lifestyle and they were all expats living in Thailand!.

    I now use a “focus group” composed of six Thais and one American (all non-writers) to comment, argue, discuss, tear apart, or praise new ideas and extracts of my work that I put forward. They enjoy learning of a foreigner’s view of their culture, I get the benefit of cross-fertilisation and a critique of my work. It was not easy to set the group up as Thais are by nature shy and loathe to say anything that comes across as critical.

    The focus group approach works for me and I may try Scribophile too.

    Yvonne, thanks for taking the time to post a well thought out and helpful article. And it was refreshing to read the comments from IU members sharing their own experiences and thoughts. I must admit to getting bored sometimes at reading responses to IU articles which merely agree with the opening post. It doesn’t always happen but it occurs more often than it should and does not contribute to the discussion. You will have noticed that it did not happen in this thread: lots of positive and constructive comment.

  13. I think you’re right about mixed emotions on critique groups, Linda. Is it influenced by the nationality of the participants. My focus group, which works for me but may not work for others, is predominantly Thai. Yvonne is Dutch. Just a thought.

    1. I am Dutch insofar as I was born in Holland – but I was raised in Canada from age 15 months, so feel more Canadian than Dutch, although I am sure I am influenced by both. While it is true that culture bears a strong influence on how we interact with others I think it is minimal in my case within my critique group.

      1. I’m glad it’s minimal in your case. It was clearly a problem here in Thailand. It doesn’t help that Thais are quite distrustful of certain nationalities and so do not open up easily in focus groups (or critique groups). It’s an enigma that the country that pours the most money into Thailand is the least liked. But tolerated because of what the country can offer them militarily. But it’s down to individuals. The American in my focus group is fully accepted but he is a listener as well as a talker and is open to new ideas. Rather like yourself I imagine where you have embraced two cultures. and don’t have fixed views.

        Your article was stimulating and honest and )(belatedly) happy birthday

  14. I like the balanced tone of your article, Yvonne – the good and the things to watch out for. I’ve been in several groups, online and in person, and they’ve really helped for different reasons. Currently I’m in a group of strong, eclectic local writers, and we focus on the work. Not only does their feedback improve my writing, but I improve by giving critiques as well. Good all around.

    1. From the comments above it appears some work well for some people. I have not tried one personally so can’t speak to that myself. Two commenters spoke positively about Scribophile. You might want to check that out. 🙂

    2. Hi Venkatesh – I can share an experience of an online group. We have a small private G+ critique group of 8 writers from various countries and it did work for awhile. We mostly submitted short pieces or chapters and got brutally honest comments and even a bit of discussion back & forth. It was useful to flesh out rough drafts. Some of the short stories went on to be published, but most was our WIP, unfortunately no one has been submitting anything lately – even good things can become stale. But we had a good run for a year.

    3. Venkatesh, I’m a member of two critique groups, the online group Critique Circle, it’s free and does have a premium membership, and a local writers’ group. I joined the online group first. In order to have your work critiqued, it costs three ‘credits,’ you must critique and receive one to two ‘credits’ for doing so, depending on the length of the work being critiqued.
      (By joining this group first, inadvertently, I got hurt feelings out of the way – in the privacy of my home.) The members are tough, truthful, and helpful, but you have to be able to stand the heat. Many of the members there are published authors, I was surprised to find that. My writing improved a lot after joining this group.

      I’m also a member of a local writers’ group that meets every Saturday afternoon from 2 – 4. The members who choose to bring up to ten pages to share with the group, enough copies for each member. Up to ten members each meeting. Then we go around the table, each member discusses each offering from every other member from the week before (those who chose to share from the week before,) some members nitpic, some point out every grammar, punctuation, and spelling error, some only point out plot holes, some point out better words that could have been used, etc. – up to five minutes. No interruptions, no discussion at that point. When the discussion gets back around to the author, he/she can explain vague points, defend (that’s not exactly the right word, but it will suffice.) We’ve had new members run out crying, but most accept the critique for what it is – suggestions for improvement. Some use the critique for that, some choose to keep what they have written, and that’s their choice.

      My point is that both types of critique groups have their place. I chose to join two groups that are tough, but helpful. Both my groups have published authors, and have been tremendously helpful to me. Your mileage may vary, and everyone has to choose what will be helpful for them. Try out more than one type of group, if you have that option. (I had previously joined a group in which the only comments were ‘that’s great,’ and ‘I like your story.’ Those kinds of comments didn’t help me get better at all.)

  15. Yvonne, your point about writing being an isolating experience is a very true. Even living in the midst of a large city, a writer might feel cut off if s/he doesn’t have a peer group that shares the same interests. Living in a small village in Northern BC, I can say that the writing group I belong to reminds me that other writers do exist. Even though it takes 3.5 hours of driving for 2 hours of sharing the experience is worth it. Not only do my fellow writers point out my writing successes and challenges but their enthusiasm, ideas and own writing gives me ideas. In that respect, writing is a very social process that I miss when our group can’t get together.

  16. Thanks for a great post Yvonne. Sorry this comment is a bit late—catching up with a backlog of info.
    For several years I was part of a four-member critique group that played a significant part in helping me publish my best work at the time. We started out with six, but it dwindled to four, which made it far more valuable because we were able to read up to twenty pages every other week. What a win that was. The group, mostly published now with more than one book each, offered extremely constructive criticism and suggestions. Unfortunately, we’ve disbanded, and, because it’s a hard act to follow, I’ve been unable to get myself involved, or find another group. We wrote different genres—that worked really well. A good way to get started is to join a writing club that already has critique groups, or helps to start new ones.

    1. Thank you Ester. I can certainly understand how it would be hard to find that same unity and helpfulness in a new group when the first was so successful. That said, it can be done. I wouldn’t give up altogether. My current group is my second one and both, while different in some respects, were helpful and friendly.

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