All You Ever Wanted To Know About Critique Groups and Weren’t Afraid to Ask!

Left to right: (top row) Martha, Deborah, Sara, (bottom row) Henry, Ann, and Conrad

As promised, here is everything you ever wanted to know about critique groups, with pearls of wisdom from Martha Brockenbrough, Deborah Heiligman, Sara Lewis Holmes, Henry Neff, Ann Whitford Paul and Conrad Wesselhoeft!

  • Innies or Outies? Everyone but Henry and Sara are currently in a critique group, though Sara would still be in BABES (Bossy Alphas but Excellent Scribes) if she hadn’t had to move away.
  • Togetherness Factor: Panelists have been in their groups from one (Martha) to 30 years (Ann), with Conrad and Deborah in the 14-16 year ranges; Deb’s primary group –she’s in three!–meets once a month and the others meet twice a month.
  • Real Time or Cyber Meetings? All of the groups meet in person, rather than on-line, perhaps because (as Martha pointed out), “It is so hard to drink cocktails and laugh online.”
  • Homogenized or Mixed Nuts? The panelists’ critique groups are all composed of only writers for children (though Martha’s group let her bring a novel for adults); Ann’s group is all picture book writers, Conrad’s group all novelists and Deborah and Martha’s run across the genres.

Why Group?

Ann: My critique group reads my stories like an editor or an outside reader. They are my third eye, pointing out gaps and inconsistencies. They mock purple prose and tired metaphors. And most importantly, they cheer me on and hold my hand during tough times.

Conrad: A critique group offers many advantages: constructive review of work in progress, shared secrets of the craft, invaluable networking, emotional support and friendship. My group has played a crucial role at every stage of my writing journey. A wise editor once said that the “Three Ps—Patience, Practice and Perseverance,” are the pillars of writing success. I would like to add a fourth pillar: a critique group. That’s how important mine has been to me.

Deborah: In the beginning it was for the critiquing and also for the collegial contact. I would say now it’s more for the collegial contact since I have regular editors I work with, but I still highly value my groups’ input on manuscripts and I usually take manuscripts or chapters that I’m having trouble with, and I’m always glad I do. What I value is that it is a safe haven, most of all. I feel safe and loved and like I can go to them with anything, any problem, any concern. I think all of us in the group (there are 11) feel that way. At least most of the time!

Martha: So much of the creative process is solo time—a critique group gets me out of my echo chamber and a little closer to the audience I aim to entertain with my stories. I really admire the people in my critique group (well, almost all of them, Jaime Temairik), and it makes me shoot higher knowing they will be reading. We meet every other week, barring conferences and the like, so that also keeps me on a productive schedule. I know I have to bring something.

I do love hearing what’s working in my stories and what isn’t, but for me, the greater value is the social connection. These people are my fellow travelers, and I sometimes feel like a character in a great adventure novel once the team has been assembled. We have our bards, our
swordsmen, our princesses, our lion-tamers. We’re all looking out for each other and bringing our assorted gifts to the room in the hopes that we defeat the ultimate evil: The Dark Lord of Rejection.

While Sara is not currently in a group, she values feedback and finds a first reader in her husband who has an “excellent emotional compass,” and also relies on her agent who was selected in part for her editorial savvy and her MFA in poetry. In addition, Sara has an vibrant creative life, belonging to several not-quite-critique groups, including a DC KidLit book club, the RockSugarBeets and the Poetry Seven, and she contributes to a newsletter called The Four O’Clock Book Hook. Henry says groups are not for him, but unless lemon gelato is involved.

Inquiring Minds Want to Know:

This topic was originally suggested by one of the readers of this blog. Once I decided to run with it, I solicited questions about critique groups from other readers. Today, we’ll tackle general questions regarding Finding a Fit and Setting Boundaries. Tomorrow’s post will address the question of Playing Well with Others, as well as last thoughts by the panelists.

Finding a Fit:

Several of the panelists were lucky enough that the first group was a right fit; but most of them had to cycle through a few others before finding “the” group. Sometimes the issues revolved around scheduling – for instance, as much as she enjoyed the members, late afternoon group did not work for Martha which is when her kids need her to “help them with homework, fill their bellies with snacks and drive them to their assorted lessons.” None of the panelists mentioned this, but I left a group once because the focus shifted from writing to personal support group and that wasn’t what I needed at that phase of my career. They met their current groups through a writing buddy, through classes, through writing retreats and even by blind luck.

So, what makes a good fit?

Conrad: An atmosphere that blends respect, fun, a sincere desire to help others in the craft—and to up the ante all around.

Deborah: The fit is a gut thing, and if you don’t fit with everyone in the group reasonably well, it doesn’t work. At least for me. I don’t have to equally love everyone, or click with everyone, but one bad fit wrecks a group for me.

Henry: Ultimately, I think everything hinges on the group’s goals. Is it a social group of people who simply enjoy writing and getting feedback from fellow enthusiasts? Is it a group of aspiring authors or novelists? Is it a group of established authors? Some questions I might consider when forming/improving my critique group:

  • What is its overall mission?
  • Does the group have long-term goals (e.g., each member completes a written piece quarterly)
  • Does it have goals for each meeting (e.g., exposure to a new technique and a review/critique of a least one member’s work)

Sara: A good fit is when all the writers are equally committed. Not equally published or talented or famous. Committed.

Is it worth sampling on-line critique groups?

Ann: Absolutely. I’m not in an on-line group, but I have faraway writing friends I share my manuscripts with on-line. If no community of writers exists near your home, check for on-line support.

Martha: It’s always worth trying everything until you find something that works. The challenge here is that much of what we communicate is nonverbal. So, there’s a higher likelihood of being misunderstood. Some people also get slammed in the inbox, and you might find you don’t get all the feedback you were hoping for. . . but, yes, do sample the online ones if that works best with your schedule.

What did you look for in a critique group?

Conrad: Two things—writing cred and a respectful atmosphere.

Martha: Snacks. Also, I look for people who are in similar spots in their careers, people who are serious about improving, and people who are fun to spend time with. You really need to be in sync that way, or the group will come apart at the seams.

Ann: I did not want to hear “Oh, that’s wonderful!” I wasn’t selling so I needed to know what wasn’t working. I also wanted to be with people I’d be compatible with and people who knew more than I did about picture books.

What Makes a Good Critiquer?

Sara: Someone who asks the right questions. “Why did you choose to give the MC twin younger brothers?” “What scares you about this section?” Also, one who can say simply, “I didn’t understand that part” without making a big drama-rama deal about it. Also I like having writers with expertise in both nonfiction and poetry look at my work. The nonfiction writers catch the unbelievable fact, and the poets actually change color when you bumble a metaphor.

Ann: A good critiquer will not always turn the discussion back to her life or manuscript. She will be thoughtful and her criticisms will be delivered without hostility. She will not be jealous of other’s successes and will share her comments without forcing them.

Deborah: Someone who is positive and kind, but also honest. A good critiquer is someone who puts herself aside as much as humanly possible while critiquing someone else’s work. A good critiquer is giving.

Conrad: Experience. Diplomacy. Respect. Sincerity.

Martha: Someone who reads lots of current works and know what’s being published today, and someone who is beyond reading stories for the pleasure of it (which is huge) and instead, reads to understand how the story works—how character and tension are created and amplified, how story arcs are shaped, how plot issues need to be introduced and resolved. It’s not about fussing with individual sentences as much as having an ability to see a work as a whole. . .I really like it when my readers give me something actionable, for example,
When your characters found this object so soon after it was introduced, you eliminated the tension that might otherwise have been possible.

Setting Boundaries:

How does your group establish guidelines? What are they?

Ann: We meet twice a month. We try to keep gossip and business discussion to while we eat lunch. We do not have a specific time-limit for each manuscript. As long as it takes, we will give to a story.

Henry: I would ask/answer these questions in this regard:

  • What are the requirements for initial membership?
  • What are the requirements for ongoing membership (dues? Hosting?consistent attendance? Quality/regularity of production and feedback?)
  • What are the guidelines for feedback? Do you have a methodology for analyzing the work? Is objective (and potentially harsh) criticism actually welcome?

Sara: When I was in the BABES, we met every two weeks and always started by asking who had work to share and of what type. Then we could divvy up the time as needed, taking into account who was on deadline and who had gotten the lion’s share last time and who just needed some warm fuzzies. It was utterly scientific, but it seemed to work, probably because we met often enough that no one felt slighted.

Deborah: Over the years we have evolved a great working system., which I will describe below. I am in two other groups. One of them has a similar system, the other one does not make copies and does not adhere to the “no talking back” rule. I find that is the group I depend on the least because of that.

Our guidelines/system:

  • We rotate leaders.
  • The leader of the month (we meet once a month) sends out an email to everyone about a week ahead of time to see who is coming, and who will be reading a manuscript. You are not bound to your answer, but it’s nice for everyone to know what to expect, and how many copies to make becauxe
  • We each make copies of our manuscript for everyone to have and follow along with.
  • The morning of, we sign in and say if we’re reading or talking (talking about work matters usually happens during meeting time; chit chat usually happens at lunch afterward, though this, I must admit, is the IDEAL, not always the reality… often there is too much chit chat the beginning because we’re so happy to see each other.)
  • The leader does some quick calculating and figures out how much time we should give to each manuscript.
  • The author reads the manuscript aloud. Others follow along, and there are no interruptions unless something very important needs to be cleared up. Often the author will give a brief intro re the piece, especially if it’s a chapter in a book and people need to know what came before.
  • After the author is done reading, we take five or so minutes to write down our thoughts on the manuscript. This is so the author will have written notes to take home and also that a “group think” thing doesn’t happen.
  • The leader than calls on everyone to talk about the manuscript, not necessarily going over tiny comments (like line edits) but going over the big picture. We always start with something positive. The rule is that the author only speaks if asked a direct question.
  • When people break that rule, I yell (sweetly). Unless I’m the one breaking it, then someone else yells.
  • At the end the author can speak, to clarify, or to ask questions.
  • The author gets all the marked up manuscripts back and when at home realizes how lucky she is to be in such a great group.

At what stage of the drafting process do you share your manuscript with your group?

Sara: I like to get all the way through a draft. I’m not much of a talker or sharer until I’ve put most of the story out on the page.

But I think you can share at any stage, as long as you’re clear about what you need from the group. “Ignore all the little stuff; could you read this just for general structural soundess?” “I’ve polished and polished this novel—is it ready to go out on submission?” “Do you think there’s a market for a picture book about water bottles?” “Look, guys, al I need is some help with a *&^% title for this thing!”

Of course, it’s nice if you can listen with an open heart to all suggestions no matter how you frame your original intent in bringing it to the group. But it does help to be realistic about what you’ll receive, especially in the beginning when you’re feeling your way with a new group.

Martha: I don’t like to bring anything in too early, although I have brought in plot synopses. By too early, I mean writing that isn’t yet as complete as I can get it. So, I can have a fairly finished plot synopsis that I’ll share. But I don’t like sharing the chapter I wrote this morning. There are only so many times you can have people read stuff before their eyes get gummy, and I’d rather get something as good as I can get it. For me, that will never be a first draft. Your mileage may vary. Do whatever helps you finish something and polish it to its highest sheen.

Conrad: I wait until I’ve gone through several drafts and have a clear view of the story. To share the manuscript when the story is still a blur is to invite outside forces to shape it for you.

Deborah: This varies. Usually for me it’s somewhere between the I’d be too embarrassed to show it to anyone and I’m ready to send it in stage. I usually try to bring something I’m having a problem with, not something I’m happy with.

Ann: I don’t bring first drafts to my group. I work it through until it’s the best I can do. That way I don’t get discouraged too early in the game.

How do you go about adding a new member to your critique group? What is your vetting process? If it isn’t going to be a good fit, how do you say no?

Conrad: We require a candidate to submit a piece of writing, which we each consider from the standpoint of craft, story arc, and art. To bring aboard someone whose skill level is significantly lower is to invite problems for the whole group.

We limit our size. My group seems to function best with a core of five or six active members. Any fewer may slow the cross-pollination of ideas; any more becomes unwieldy. Everybody should get a chance to be read and heard at a meeting. Also, to encourage punctuality, the first person to arrive is the first to be critiqued, the second the second, and so forth.

We seek good-hearted people who will fit in—who will respect the process and critique impartially and constructively, without need of ego pampering. Nothing is more demoralizing to a group than a domineering ego.

When we’re not sure about a candidate—we give them the benefit of the doubt. We writers need to believe in each other, and we need to give back to the literary commonwealth.

Henry: I’d be wary of messing with a good group and chemistry, but there are several things you might consider:

  • Create a steep submissions requirement for consideration (e.g., 5-10 pieces of poetry, prose, whatever’s appropriate to your group)
  • Ask for written feedback to some existing pieces of work that the group has already critiqued
  • If the person submits the required work and gives incrementally valuable feedback then they really might be worth adding. If they’re not really serious, the steep requirements will put them off and you won’t have to reject them.
  • Now, if the person submits tons of awful samples and feedback, you will have to choose sides. What’s more important to you…your group or an awkward encounter at the post office? Hopefully it won’t come to that….

Ann: In the years we’ve been together we’ve only added two people to the group. Both times we invited them to come and visit and critique with us. We’ve never had a situation where it didn’t feel like a good fit . . . perhaps that’s because we discussed it extensively before hand and all of us knew the person being invited.

Martha: Ha! We’ve had some debates about this. But in general, making sure the group doesn’t get so large that we have to skim each other’s work is a good rule of thumb. Our group is at a really good size.

Deborah: This is a delicate thing, but since my big group has 11 people in it already, we are just closed. We wouldn’t have enough time with another person.

Do you have suggestions as to how a group can stay on track and keep the momentum going even if there are not pieces of writing to critique at a meeting?

Martha: Why aren’t you bringing your writing? Hmmm? Oh, but I kid. Sort of. The only good reason not to bring it is that you don’t want to spoil your momentum with other people’s finger germs.

If that’s the case, talk about books you’re reading where the author did something cool and interesting. Or, if you can do it without feeling too stressed, talk about a problem with your manuscript that you’re trying to resolve.

If you find yourself not bringing stuff because it’s hard to find time to write, well, duh. It is hard, but you have time (unless you just had a baby or got a new hip). Anyone can find 20 minutes a day. You owe it to yourself and your dream to do that.

One reason you might not be writing is because you don’t know how to get a character from point A to point B, or even what point B should be. This is where your critique group can help you—not so much about thinking of ideas, because this is not hard (“and then the space ship landed!”). They can help you understand your character and the story you’re trying to tell. If you can come up with that two- or three-sentence summary of your story in a critique group meeting, that’s some great forward momentum.

Deborah: You can talk about the business or do writing exercises or all read the same book and discuss.

Henry: Even if you meet every week, the members of your group can and should have something incremental to share. It’s actually a good forcing mechanism to put things down on paper rather than drift in the ether of a novel’s intended development, story arc, etc.

I can speak from experience. The books I write are 400+ pages and part of a series, which requires lots of structure and planning, etc. It’s very easy to convince myself t
hat I need to plan a little more, let an idea percolate just a little longer, etc. Bunk. Start writing – revision is always easier and you’ll be far better served if you commit to a chapter or half a chapter each week rather than some abstract notion that it will “all be ready later”. Use your fellow writers to push you along and accelerate the creative urgency and productivity. Your novel will be finished sooner and will be better in the bargain.

Ann: Honestly that’s never happened in our group. Someone always has something to read and often several stories they’d like feedback on. I would think if people aren’t bringing things, the make-up of the group needs to be reconfigured.

Conrad: I strongly urge critique groups to emphasize their own writing over general literary discussions or group exercises. Everybody should bring 3 to 5 pages to each meeting. (At the very least, bring 1 page.) Writing is hard work. If you want to get better, you just have to do it.

Wow! I cannot wait until tomorrow to find out what these smart folks have to say about the interpersonal elements of critique groups, as well as to read their closing thoughts on the topic!

In honor of these amazing contributors, I have made a donation to the National Wildlife Federation, to help in the oil spill clean up efforts in the Gulf Coast. It’s easy: just click here.

No Responses to “All You Ever Wanted To Know About Critique Groups and Weren’t Afraid to Ask!”

  1. a. fortis

    Great roundtable about critique groups! The crit group I’m in holds cyber meetings, but I’d say it works pretty much the same way. Very valuable–I couldn’t keep on without them!

    Thanks for this post!

  2. Michèle Griskey

    Thank you everyone for your feedback.

    Sometimes I feel my critique group is a rock band, and I hope we keep creating hits for years and decades to come. 🙂

  3. Grier Jewell

    Stupendous panel and discussion. I love Martha’s humor and insight; Deborah’s comprehensively exhaustive guidelines; Ann’s thoughtfulness and generous spirit; Sara’s spot on points about what makes a good critiquer; Henry’s suffer-no-slackers approach; and Conrad’s reminder that writers need to believe in each other.

    And YOU, for bringing this together and for making a connection between the writing process and cataclysmic disaster in the Gulf.