Writers’ Critique Groups

I just had the great pleasure of visiting my old writer’s critique group, a few people who became dear friends over the five years I was part of the group. It seems a good time to revisit the importance of peer feedback:

My first book was a masterpiece, of course. I poured my heart onto the pages, begged my family to read it, and labored over revisions until it was undeniably sublime. Then I sent my newborn tome to agents and publishers, certain they’d coo with delight and sign me up with a fat advance. The result: Reject…Reject…Reject…Reject…Reject…

“What went wrong?” silly, starry-eyed me asked, a clueless look on my face. Little did I know (literally).

I discovered the answer to that question when I joined a writers’ critique group. With tender support and pointed criticism, my peers taught me that my baby was far from beautiful. Apparently, I was determined to describe every character’s point of view in every scene. Among other lame verbs, I found “was” extremely handy. I overwrote with reams of tedious detail; I could sink an insomniac into a coma. This embarrassing confession encompasses only a teeny-weeny sliver of my writing transgressions, but you get the idea. My baby was a toad.

The good news? After two years with my critique group, the toddler emerged transformed. I landed a publisher and the rest is history. I know now that well-informed, honest feedback is essential to learning and refining my craft, and joining a critique group was the smartest step I took in my writing career. Without hesitation, I advise all new writers to find one or start your own.

Group Composition

Not all groups are alike and finding the right group is like finding the right therapist, sometimes you have to work at it to get a good fit. You want the truth, but in a way that’s helpful and encourages you to grow. Some groups are loosey-goosey, others more formally structured. Learn as much as you can about the expectations of a group and be honest with yourself about your needs and the time commitment you’re prepared to make.

A few considerations:

  1. Not everyone in a critique group needs to write in the same genre, but there may certain drawbacks to being the only romance writer in a group of military sci-fi writers.
  2. Four to five members is ideal, providing sufficient feedback while not overwhelming members with critiques.
  3. A mix of male and female participants is great for garnering different perspectives.
  4. Though some writers may prefer a group with equivalent experience, a mix of new and seasoned members can be extremely rewarding.
  5. If a group experience leaves you discouraged or angry, don’t stay. Groups are supposed to vitalize your love of writing, not drain your enthusiasm.

Structural Norms

Structure varies group to group. Some meet face-to-face, others are entirely on-line. In general, guidelines for effective critiquing are the same, but I’m a strong proponent of in-person feedback where it’s easy to elaborate on comments, ask/answer questions, and take advantage of group brainstorming and discussion.

However a group is structured, there will be norms related to timing, length of submissions, and how critiques are returned to the authors. My critique group met twice a month for approximately three hours. We emailed submissions and received critiques between meetings. During our meetings, we elaborated on our critiques and answered questions for the author. (Set time limits if meetings run over. Don’t skip someone’s work.)

Receiving Feedback

Rarely do two people provide the same advice, and sometimes what one person loves, another would “suggest tweaking.” Sally may be great at tracking emotional themes; Margo is the queen of punctuation. Larry gives a man’s perspective of … well, everything. Jenny adores lurid descriptions, and Katie is the verb-police. Everyone brings something to the table and the author uses what’s helpful and dumps the rest.

Some writers submit first drafts, others a final product, and most something in between. What a writer turns in for critiquing will flavor what comes back. A critique of an early draft may point at awkward dialog, holes in the story, and believability of action and emotion. For a later draft, the critique may focus on word choice, phrasing, grammar, and/or punctuation. Remember, a critique group does not eliminate the need for careful editing prior to submission or publication.

Giving Feedback

A critique group is different from a support group, though they overlap. My mother is a one-woman support group; she loves everything I’ve written since I was six. Critique groups, on the other hand, should offer a balance of support and criticism. Writing is personal, and when a writer shares his work and asks for feedback, it’s an act of trust, worthy of respect.

An effective critique starts by emphasizing the strengths of the work. An initial focus on the writer’s successes makes hearing suggestions easier on the ears and heart. There’s always something positive to comment on – story, scene, character, dialog, a description, humor, rapport, tension, punctuation, word choice, grammar, pace. A critique is successful if a writer feels good about his or her work and eager to tackle the hurdles.

When we critique another person’s writing we are commenting on the work, not the person. We are cognizant of our personal preferences and writing style and separate these from our critiques. The most helpful criticism is specific to the piece. It points to a word, scene, or paragraph and explains what isn’t working for the reader. Then the writer can see exactly where the challenge lies, learn about another’s perspective, and make a choice. Broad negative statements aren’t only signs of a poorly-crafted critique, they’re unhelpful and demoralizing. Broad positive statements are fine, but grounding positive feedback with examples shows the writer the strengths they can build on.

A note of encouragement: When I joined my critique group, none of us were published. Five years later, we all were! Happy Writing!

104 thoughts on “Writers’ Critique Groups

  1. I’m happy I stumbled on this today. I usually give my work to a few persons(not writers) to read and tell me what they think. Its been helpful, but I know a critique group would be even more so. Thanks for sharing

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome. I love feedback from non-writers, but it isn’t specific enough to really improve my craft. Writers are better able to detail the challenges as they understand the mechanics of storytelling. Thanks for reading and have a great week!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ~M says:

    Great advice as always D. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. dgkaye says:

    Hi Diana. I came by to add this article to my Flipboard magazine. Your share button needs correcting with the code Hugh shared to enter in it so that when anyone goes to share your article it goes to ‘their’ Flipboard sharing. I think you entered your Flipboard URL to your page by mistake as that’s where the share button took me. I just discovered this with Terri Webster’s too and thanked me for pointing it out. Sometimes we don’t know till someone lets us know, lol. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sue Ranscht says:

    I’m glad you’ve posted this again so that an entirely new crop of writers has the opportunity to read it. This is perhaps the most concisely articulated presentation of the benefits of joining a critique group that I’ve seen, Diana. A group that follows the critiquing process you’ve described, and pays attention to what is and is not helpful should encourage even those who fear humiliation. We all have areas in which we can improve our writing, and the best way to find them is through a knowledgable reader’s input. Thanks for this encouragement.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve never had a critique group. That would be wonderful. Alas….no. This is similar to what I’ve read about groups (and a bit more – thank you). So happy you found yours and aren’t inducing comas anymore. 😉 Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha ha. No comas, I hope, though there are always readers whose tastes won’t agree with what I do. That’s life. Critique groups aren’t the only way to get feedback, just an option. Have a relaxing day, Sarah. Happy Writing ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I can see where it would be a valuable asset to be part of a writers group. There are no writers where I live…..except for a few folks who write “spiritual reflections.” Not that there is a thing wrong with reflecting, but maybe the Bible Belt should branch out a little more, just sayin’. I like getting comments from my talented WordPress friends, but I also have a feeling you all are way too nice 😉 Happy weekend, Diana.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Annika Perry says:

    Congratulations to all five of you! 😀 A resounding success and proves how well a writing critique group can work. It is often difficult to find such a balance within writing groups and perhaps starting one’s own is a good way to go. Your final section on Giving Feedback should be compulsory reading at any writing group – I started highlighting sentences to save but ended up saving it all, every sentence is salient.

    Liked by 1 person

    • One of the nice things about starting your own is being able to establish expectations with all members. We were somewhat inflexible about the commitment to complete critiques, but other than that, it was all about learning and having fun. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Annika. Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Great advice, Diana. 🙂 — Suzanne

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Erika Beebe says:

    What a great, honest and heartfelt post. I wish you and all of your critique group members much success and your every dream come true. Have a lovely weekend. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Erika. I’m no longer part of the group. After five years, I’d gotten what I could in terms of writing. But we’re still friends. I owe them a lot and can definitely say that I wouldn’t be where I am without their careful critiques of my work. 😀 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  10. A.P. says:

    I doubt I’d have been able to finish my play had I not joined my Writer’s Guild. They’re supportive, and the type of criticism they give is *constructive* — it helped me to solve problems, and move forward. Earlier, I had been getting a lot of *destructive* criticism, such as: “I hate to break it to you, but no one will ever produce your show, Andy.” Of course, as my own mother used to say: “Consider the source.”

    Liked by 1 person

  11. […] Wallace Peach – Writers’ Critique Groups Cathleen Townsend – Pinterest–Tips to Get Started Sean P. Carlin – Foundations of […]

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  12. I love your honesty but I cannot imagine anything you write being like a toad! hahaha You give great insight!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. “from the perspective of another creative person or group”

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was interesting how often the group members didn’t agree on feedback, which speaks to the disparity in tastes about books as a whole. I didn’t take all the advice all the time, but I always listened. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and have a great day. 🙂

      Like

  14. Thank you, some good thoughts here. There are pieces that benefit so much from the perspective of another creative person.

    Like

  15. mistermuse says:

    Excellent advice (for others). As for me: “I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise.” — Noel Coward 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  16. dgkaye says:

    Fantastic lowdown on what to look for in a critique group. Thanks Diana. We need constructive criticism, not to be shredded apart. Lol, I had to laugh when you said, finding the right group is like finding a therapist, or perhaps putting together a perfect jury panel. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  17. This is great information Diana! You make it sound so easy! Trying to find a reliable group in Westchester is the worst!! Too snubby!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You can always start your own when you feel motivated. Libraries are a great place to put up fliers. You’ll set the tone by how you present the group and set the norms. (I was in charge of my little group and laid out expectations to new members). Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  18. This is great advise! I need to get a wriggle on!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Christy B says:

    You point out many great advantages of this type of group, from the support you have received and the criticisms that can be constructive ~ Of course we have to want to listen and be open to change, and I admit that’s not always easy! It’s great that you shared your experiences and I love that you went back to the group 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was a lot of fun, Christy. I miss the friendships and sitting around and chatting about characters and plots and writing – a writer’s heaven. Couched in enthusiasm, it was never hard to hear about what needed work. I feel lucky to have been a part of a really wonderful group.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. This is a brilliant post, Diana – without my writer’s group I probably wouldn’t even have a blog, it’s the best thing that ever happened my writing. I agree that face-to-face is better where possible because miscommunication is reduced when you can see the whites of someone’s eyes. You made the really important point too about editing – it’s vital no matter how many people have critiqued your book. Also, it counteracts the confusion which critique by committee can sometimes cause.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad you’ve discovered this resource, Tara. It was transformative for me – I was sssooooo clueless. “Critique by committee” – perfect! Ha ha. It feels that way sometimes. Crazy-making but all valuable feedback in its own way. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  21. bpsenapati says:

    Great post! Thanks yo share your experience with the world, It must be helpful for every writer. I definitely try to become part of such a group.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Ali Isaac says:

    I belonged to a writers group in my early 20s… it was great fun, and really helpful. I was the youngest, the oldest member was in her 80s writing a memoir. I only ever remember it being relaxed and friendly, although reading out my work was always nerve racking! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad the experience was helpful and fun, Ali. The mix of ages and experience is great. We didn’t read aloud, but that’s good practice, and it was probably a valueable lesson. I hope you’re having a wonderful spring. Happy Writing.

      Like

  23. acflory says:

    I’ll be honest – I don’t think I could write at all if I had a regular ‘critique’ group hanging over my head all the time. That said, I’ve found my alpha and beta readers to be absolutely wonderful. They act like an informal group, I guess, but only when I’m ready for their input. Similarly, when they want a stranger’s eye, I’m there for them, but only when /they/ are ready.
    The writers and bloggers who see my work first are the people I trust the most, and I seriously can’t imagine being an Indie writer without them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think as long as we’re getting feedback that includes honest criticism, Meeka, it doesn’t matter the source. I used to completely “finish” my books before putting them through the group, so they served more as beta readers and proof readers. Other members submitted first drafts, looking for much more basic feedback. I left the group when I felt I’d learned all I could there (plus it was a long drive and my night vision is getting terrible). Now I rely primarily on beta readers too. 😀 Happy Writing!

      Like

  24. Heartafire says:

    A critique group sounds fabulous. Before WP I participated in several poetry forums, two in particular were very serious workshops. It could get harsh but I learned so much, plus I personally enjoyed it. Those who were thin skinned soon dropped out. Thanks Diane, I enjoyed this.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Yes, there’s nothing like a good writing group, not only for valuable critiques, but for inspiration and kinship, as well!

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Great summary for critique groups, Diana. I don’t always enjoy my group meetings, but I always come away better for it. I’m not good at taking criticism so struggle to keep a neutral face. It’s well worth the effort.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad that you’ve found groups helpful, Jacqui, and I think the extra polish shows in your writing. We don’t do the neutral face/silent listening in our group. We all chatter and argue the whole way through and use an egg timer to keep everyone on track! 😀

      Like

  27. “My first book was a masterpiece, of course. I poured my heart onto the pages, begged my family to read it, and labored over revisions until it was undeniably sublime. ”

    I could picture running around with your book and couldn’t help but smile. I am glad you took some advice and you grew as a writer -as you should.

    Soon I will have time to read one of your books and I hope you let me know which one. I don’t order books from my blogging friends online. I stubburnly insist on a signed book. (I am not kidding).

    So, what book would you want to read first?

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Although I don’t have a reason to join a critique group, this is wonderful advice to the writers out there! I enjoy your writing immensely, even if it is an article about critique groups, lol. Happy Tuesday!

    Liked by 1 person

  29. tpolen says:

    Wonderful post, Diana. I was at a writing conference last week where a speaker was talking about one of her earlier critique groups – for the most part they were very helpful, but one guy (a horror writer) always said the story could use a ghost – no matter whose work/genre they were critiquing – and he was serious.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. I was a member of a writers group for six years and we all grew together. It was an incredibly valuable experience. Thank you for sharing your creative wisdom.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad you had a great experience too, Brigid. I think there comes a time when we have learned what we can from from these types of groups, but the friendships continue. Thanks for adding to the discussion 🙂 Happy Writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  31. Mike says:

    Excellent post! My experience with critique groups was similar to yours. And your observations about what a critique group can do are right on the money. There’s no doubt I would never have published without the insights of others.

    My only minor dissent is your consideration #5: Sometimes criticism can bring you down, but it can open your eyes to real problems with your ms that you should at least consider.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Mike. You’re right about #5. Criticism can be hard to hear and writers have to have thick skins (for every aspect of this vocation). I was thinking more about the groups that allow critiques that are snarky and mean-spirited. Hopefully that doesn’t happen often, but I know that it does (I’ve experienced it in on-line groups where anonymity offers some protection to the bullies). In my face-to-face group, we were critical, but we were also kind. 🙂 The goal was to make each other better writers, not to tear each other down. Thanks for adding to the clarity! Happy Writing.

      Like

  32. balroop2013 says:

    Thanks for another enlightening post Diana. Critical analysis is the foundation of good writing! Besides it adds so much to our understanding of our genre. Love your motivating tone 🙂 Have a wonderful day!

    Liked by 1 person

  33. Almost Iowa says:

    I always broke my critiques into two parts: what works and what needs work or stated more honestly, what worked for me and what could work for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  34. Amy Walters says:

    Great post, thank you for sharing. The thought of a critique group scares me a little, but this post helps me realise it’s probably worth it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome, Amy. The butterflies disappear quickly. For me, the criticism and learning was a huge help and my writing visibly improved, especially at the beginning. The key is finding a group that makes you excited about improving your skills! It’s worth checking out if you have the time. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  35. Anonymous says:

    Such a great tip here. Those subjective critiques, especially when specific, must be golden to a would-be-published author. Your 5 for 5 success story…proof right there, D.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a lot of work turning around the critiques, but getting line by line feedback from 4 other authors was worth every minute. I learned a lot about writing that way. Thanks for stopping by to read. Have a great day!

      Like

  36. It sounds like a lovely group, Diana. Hugs.

    Liked by 1 person

  37. confabler says:

    Great post!
    I like the idea of including both experienced and new writers. Both are essential.
    Thanks for sharing.
    I would have liked the post but the like button is taking a long time to load on my device so I’m sorry for skipping that.

    Liked by 1 person

  38. reocochran says:

    I would like to go to one where people read their chapters aloud
    And others critique while in person. Suggestions are really good to hear expressed, but emails can also be valusble to digest over time. I was in a poetry group and easier to read and mention helpful comments in shorter pieces of writing. Thanks for also saying things I has not considered before, D. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for visiting, Robin. It would be nice to read aloud in a group, and I can see how wonderful that would be with poetry! With prose, it would take too long. With five of us, 20 pages each, we’d be there all night! I like the written critiques because, among other things, they catch my typos 🙂

      Like

  39. claytonjcallahan says:

    Diana, this is all great stuff. The one thing I would add is a word on attitude. The attitude each member should bring to the group is one of commitment to the success of every member. If I want you to succeed, I will not hold back on my encouragement or on my critique. I never want to discourage a member, but I also don’t want to see them frustrated when no one will tell them what’s holding them back. Attitude matters.

    Liked by 1 person

  40. How do I join? It is just what I need. Roland Hopkins, ROLLSTER@VERMONTEL.NET

    Like

    • There are a lot of writers out there willing to share their expertise and learn from others. Besides that, writers’ groups are plain fun with good people. Our group meets face to face, and though we’re usually unable to add new members, we encourage anyone interested in a group to start their own. There’s lots of great info on the internet about how to structure groups and how to give good quality critiques. You only need 3 people and some enthusiasm to kick one off. If you have a writers’ association in your area that’s a great place to seek interested members. Libraries are another place to inquire or post your interest. Please make the effort, you won’t regret it!

      Liked by 1 person

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