Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Value of Critique Groups

CRITIQUE  “To consider the merits”

 I’ve belonged to a few different critique groups, both online and in-person. We’ve had different rules for each of them, and I’ve put together what I think are the most useful group dynamics, but you should always adapt the guidelines to meet the best needs of your group. Why should you be part of a group? Because it’s really hard to be your own CRITIC. Self-editing and revision, YES, but sending your work out for others to judge the big-picture needs is generally important. Whether you use friends who are already fans or who don’t know you that much, your mom the English teacher or other professional or wanna-be professional writers, it’s just a good idea to let someone else read your work before you submit it.

Group Dynamics: What works and what doesn’t.

When I was a brand-new writer, I had little idea about story arcs, and current trends and fashions such as whether or not to use tags and how often and how to introduce your character. I got caught up in other people’s rules because I always assumed everyone else knew more than I did. While that’s often true, it was a bad thing for me. I swayed with whatever another writer told me until I fell into that huge whirlpool of “Writing by Committee.” I no longer recognized my own work and became trapped in a morass of other people’s ideas.

So…an important rule for critiquing others is that you recognize another writer’s individual voice and unique story-telling. Hopefully other writers will respect your voice as well.
Rules are good and necessary and important—but don’t let them put your fire out. How many of you have read Charles Frazier? Cold Mountain? I don’t honestly know that I would have accepted his work for publication, the way the dialogue goes – it’s more like James Joyce and his huge run-on sentence in Ulysses, or a mess of internal thoughts that never quite make it out loud, but it works.

Secondly, Don’t rewrite for someone else, unless he or she asks for specific examples. This is not your piece, but you are charged with helping someone else grow his or her strengths and skills, not do it for him.

Below are some guidelines to work with a critique group. If you are asking a reader to make suggestions on your completed manuscript, you should give that reader some specific guidelines, such as “look for characteristics that don’t match,” or “holes in the plot,” or “smooth dialogue” or “spelling errors”; if you have an article or non-fiction, you may ask your reader for reactions, did it meet expectations, were your sources clear, and so forth.


Sample Critique Group Guidelines

Groups should set up the meeting frequency and amount of material submitted and method of submission that meets the group needs, whether online or in person. You may not need to set a specific time for meeting, but agree to contact each other as needed. Unless you carefully seek out members who are at your skill level, more than likely members of your group will be at different levels of skill or write in different genres. Respect them all, and ask for the same in return. Learn when to stand up for yourself, but also when to revise. Encourage the group to have a goal, such as helping each other to get published (but also encourage those who are hobby writers), and then find suitable markets and contests to share; find networking opportunities to help each other out; attend other events on occasion, like going to hear an author speak. As far as working together, some of the following guidelines may be helpful.

READ the submission through first, marking only areas you want to return to.

CONSIDER great moments as well as problem moments.

MAKE YOUR COMMENTS clear – use helps like “Track Changes” in your computer program if you’re using Word; if by hand, use a different color ink, sign the page with your name and date, and carefully consider what to spend your time on.

SUGGEST revisions in your area of comfort level. Not everyone is a grammarian, or expert on dialogue or fact-checking, or historical accuracy or big-picture dynamics, or planting the right red herrings in a mystery case. Naturally you should point out problems as well as awe-inspiring moments wherever you are held up in the reading. Do not rewrite for another author.

MECHANIC Areas: Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation, Unclear or confusing sentences/sentence structure, wrong words and over-used words.

STYLE Areas: Point of View lapses, Dialogue tags (too many or too few or repetition), Stilted Dialogue (always try to read out loud either to yourself or better yet to someone else to get the feel for a comfortable speech pattern), clichés, a constant need to explain something, the overuse of telling what’s going on instead of showing it; and especially for non-fiction, the opposite – wordiness and flowery language instead of solid, clear explanation.

STORY PROBLEMS may include: melodrama, inaccuracies, detail discrepancies such as changing character descriptions, action/reaction issues, slow spots, unrelenting tension, an unbelievable action or plot, errors in time, setting, language, or for non-fiction, repetitiveness, mistakes in time/place/who/what/when/why.  

LISTEN/read all the comments from your peers. Develop rhino-hide. If two or more writers/readers have the same trouble with a section, consider your revision. Think carefully about what others are telling you, but keep in mind that this is your story, and you must be comfortable with the choices you make. If you have a problem selling the piece, you can always ask for more help. This is the place to defend the work (not yourself) (courteously), and get it to stellar quality, because once your piece crosses an editor’s desk, you aren’t going to be there to talk about it, nor will an editor take the time to give you a chance to do so – they’re busy and are looking for a gem among the tailings.

ALWAYS SHARE SOMETHING - don't be one of those people who only comes to critique others. If your group contains some of these writers who can't seem to share their work, find out why, and encourage them to participate. You learn both from having your work critiqued, as well as critiquing the work of others.
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  1. Terrific practical advice, Lisa. Critique groups are vital to catch things the writer misses and help the writer learn the craft. I love my group!

  2. Thanks, Lisa. I especially like this point: "Rules are good and necessary and important—but don’t let them put your fire out." Some of the best authors break the rules and excel in their genres.

  3. Critique groups can be funny beasts - sometimes it can be hard to believe in yourself.