Tuesday, February 22, 2011

I've Got Your Critique Right Here

This week, we get to talk about critique groups.

Let me start out by saying that I really am behind the times. For the bulk of my writing 
career, my critique group was whatever copy editor got my article. Of course, this wasn’t a true critique group because it was rather one-sided. I basically kept control of what wasn’t bleeding red.

Nowadays, the best I’ve done for critiquing is Writing.com (and, even with that, I usually have to offer gift points as incentive). I just joined Writer's Cafe so I can't even tell you what it's all about. Besides, my philosophy about critique groups was, for the longest time, typified by this cartoon:

Honestly, though, the times I have tried critique groups, I leave because somebody always hijacks the thing. For example, on one site that shall remain nameless, a few people jumped on me for using adverbs, you know, those words that end in "-ly" and more accurately describe things like verbs and emotions (by their views, I couldn't even say "accurately"; I'd have to be verbose and say "...describe things like verbs and emotions with more accuracy").

Look. Just because someone didn't pay attention in high school English or is too freaking stupid to understand one of the parts of speech we all spent 12 years learning is not reason enough for me to quit.

I mean too many people, including critique group members, have already thrown away the dictionary, judging by the horrible spelling I've seen. No sense adding adverbs to the mix.

Anyway, suddenly, everybody and their mother was carping on me for having the gall and audacity to use adverbs. Somehow I had thought critiques were meant to offer suggestions, advice and corrections.

Okay, that's it for me.

Since that’s all I really have to personally offer about critique groups, let me give you some references so you won't feel like you just wasted 15 minutes of your life.

So, for the convenience of our Wicked Writers readers, I’ll list a few who have compensated me for my time and endorsement (just kidding; I endorse no one):


DON’T see any you like, try creating one of your own. You can either pick C.J.’s brain (at your own peril) or try these helpful instructions courtesy of eHow.com:

1.  DECIDE ON SCOPE. Do some groundwork ahead of time. Some things to think about are: the desired number of members (4-6 is ideal), the genre(s) of the work to be critiqued, whether you want a facilitated group or a free form style of operating, frequency of meetings, and how the group will conduct itself (for example: read works al0ud in meetings, or read works prior to meeting).

2.  ADVERTISE. The most effective way to find group members who are serious is through a local writer's association. Do some research on-line to locate any associations in your area and become a member. Writer's associations often have annual conferences where you can post a notice that you are starting a critique group. Writer's associations also often have newsletters where they will advertise critique groups seeking members. Other advertising vehicles are community newspapers and Craigslist.com, which reach the general public, so expect a wide array of responses from serious to not-so-serious. Your ad should specify any requirements for members, such as genre limitations, location, and frequency of meetings.
Example of an ad:
"Seeking members for Young Adult Fiction Writer's Critique Group in Springfield. Meet monthly. Published and unpublished writers welcome. Contact J.K. Rowling at xxx-xxxx if interested."

3.  SCREEN RESPONSES. Once the responses start rolling in, contact the respondents and have an informal chat. Try to form a first impression to determine whether you think he/she would be viable candidate for your group. Ask yourself a few basic questions. Is he articulate? Does he listen or talk over you? Does he consider himself a beginning, intermediate, or advanced writer? In your discussion you should determine whether he meets the basic requirements specified in your ad: genre, location, availability for meetings, etc.

4.  SELECT MEMBERS. In talking with the candidates, try to form an opinion on their potential compatibility. If you believe you've found a viable candidate, ask him to join on a trial basis. Be clear that if after the first few meetings, you determine that he is not right for the group, you will ask him to leave, no hard feelings. Likewise, if he determines the group is not meeting his needs, he can quit the group.

5.  FIRST MEETING. Hold your first meeting. A neutral venue is best because no one will be distracted playing host. Consider venues like a coffee shop with a private room or a public library. In the first meeting, establish and agree on the ground rules. For example:
* Meetings will be the first Saturday morning of every month.
* Each member will send out material for critique one week in advance of the meeting.
* Members will read the material and prepare comments for the writer.
* Critique will focus on the broader aspects of writing (theme, character development, etc.) rather than line editing.
* Each member will have five minutes to give a verbal critique of each piece being critiqued.
* The author may not interrupt or make comments during the critique; he should just listen and soak it in.

6.  FIND YOUR STRIDE. You may not have the desired number of members in the first meeting, and might have to add members after the group is established. Orient new members to the groups mode of operating. After a few meetings, you may find that a few of the rules relax. For example, you may find that members, as relationships are established, will make comments while their work is being critiqued. Remain flexible as long as the group is functioning well, and members are receiving objective, meaningful feedback on their work.


  1. I hate when all a crit partner (or group) does is chew you out for your spelling or grammar. I want feedback on the strength (or weakness) of my scenes, my plot arch, character development, you know, the stuff that's actually important? You can be a grammar Jedi and still write a shitty story, so please, for the love of gods, don't try to sound smart by focusing on my grammar! :P

  2. Great post Greg! You give sound advice on how to form a group and what it needs to be successful - kudos! I don't plan on doing any face to face, but if I do I'll be checking back here and trying your excellent suggestions.

  3. Greg,
    Wonderful resource of groups, and I'vw saved them as a doc file. This age of ours, where everything is connected through cyberspace, really is made for writers. We have so many wonderful connections, both in person and online, and the luxury of being able to pick and choose until we get something right.

    I agree with the theme you've continued here: the relationship must be positive beyond everything else, and then the suggestions or the critiques are more valuable. Otherwise it's just a tussle and everybody loses. God knows we have enough trouble staying positive without other writers bashing us in the face very directly. Oh! I used an adverb.

    Did I tell you, they are my favorites?

    Really. Madly. Deeply.

  4. Thanks, guys. I agree that critiques should be thorough and in-depth (if you have the time). While I don't expect a NY Times review, I also don't expect to be taken out behind the woodshed for petty things either.

    C.J., don't turn that "woodshed" comment into another novella, please.

    Sharon, nice to see that you haven't joined the crowd dissing my poor, poor adverbs. I mean, as you've demonstrated, the really enhance emotions in stories and add even more description without being verbose.

    J.D., well said. You took the words right out of my mouth (unfortunately, they're copyrighted, so pay up).

    I think one of the downsides to the Internet and cyberspace is that it allows everyone to be a writer. I'm not elitist but we've all seen the horrible writing being done by all these aspiring "writers." Maybe that's why so many of these critique groups aren't really worth it.

  5. Are spanked outside the woodshed? I think I *could* have some fun with that one ;-)

  6. whoops - missing a "you" before spanked.

  7. Briliant, Greg... just loved the lemmings... so much so, I just had to use them myself - I hope you don't mind! :)

  8. Wonderful dude! I am making a copy for my files -- not much to add after that!