Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 19, 2011

10 Power Tips for Critique Groups

We interrupt our regularly scheduled blog for an announcement: Amy Hahn was the lucky commenter who won a copy of Judy Duarte's new novel, Christmas on Nutcracker Court!  Congrats Amy!

Here's our own Jenny Hansen, starting a new series on critique groups.

In my everyday life I’m a training coordinator for an accounting firm, focused on building the skills of my team so that they can do productive work. I’ve noticed through the years that there’s tons of similarity between my training life and my writing life.

Case in point: I’m an avid Leadership Freak follower and I get loads of great advice from his blog to pass on to my team. Below is my "writing take" on a post he did back in August called 10 Power Tips That Build Potential.

Dan Rockwell (aka@Leadershipfreak) believes that people are at the center of everything, and so do I. I’ve talked about this before but, as a writer, surrounding yourself with a great team is imperative to your success. This journey’s just too hard to make a go of it all by yourself.

A large part of my team is my critique group, which is made up of the founding members of Writers In The Storm – D.A. Watt, Fae Rowen, Laura Drake and Sharla Rae. I don’t know what I’d do without these ladies, and certainly my writing wouldn’t be where it’s at  without their help.

Some people have asked me what makes a great critique group. Sharla Rae has been on the critique group track longer than I have so I’ll let her answer that in her upcoming post. I want to focus on how to give and receive feedback in a way that’s constructive and nourishes the insecure artist inside of every writer.

I didn’t make many changes to Leadership Freak’s 10 Tips…writing is a business after all.

10 Power-tips that build a writer’s potential:

1. Always believe in your critique partner. If you believe in them,, they’ll believe in themselves.

2. Put them under moderate levels of stress.
Don’t protect your critique partner from pressure. If their plot doesn’t make sense or they’d get more mileage from a scene by changing POV, you have to tell them. It is the nicest thing you can do for them.

3. Support them when they are challenged by honoring their energy and efforts. As their critique partner it’s your job to help them over that 80th rejection by assuring them that submission 81 might be the one resulting in a sale.

4. Provide resources; but remember too many resources stifle creativity.
This means loan them your craft books, plot with them, critique their work. Then send them off to work their magic alone.

5. Focus on their strengths not their weaknesses.
Don’t get sucked into what you wish your critique partner could do. If they keep writing, they’ll be able to do it someday Take their weaker scenes and do your best to help smooth them.

Ex: I can’t write transitions between scenes well – if the gals didn’t give me that one sentence here and there, I’d probably cry with frustration (cause I’d never get out of that scene…NEVER!)

6. Engage them in the process of setting goals and creating vision.
It’s good to get together at least once a year and set goals and plot out projects. If your critique partners don’t want to do this themselves, ask them to still do it with you. At the very least, ask them to help you review your goals for challenges like ROW80 or the Life List Club…they’ll tell you if you’ve taken on too much.

7. Give them opportunities when they are ready; 80% ready is ready enough.
I’m famous in our critique group for being a little, um…forward. When we are at events like conferences or meetings with editors or agents who are taking pitches, I’ve been known to sell a critique partner right into the pitching session. They don’t always thank me, but no one has killed me yet.

8. Expose them to others who are doing what they could do.
If you know your critique partner would love to write mysteries, pass on the information for workshops that you passed over for yourself "because you don’t write that." Ditto for the experts in your life like the cousin on the police force or the great-aunt who raises Thoroughbred horses. You know people in your life that are subject matter experts. Refer these people to your fellow writers when the occasion arises.

9. Shorten the time-line for completing projects.
Adhere to deadlines within your critique group, the same as you would with your regular day job projects. Since a piece of fiction is never "finished," as writers we have to learn how to let go when it is "good enough" and move on to the next project. Setting deadlines can help make this letting go process easier.

10. Help your critique partners press through excuses.
Work, school, kids, illness. There are a million reasons we can think of not to write. Some are valid (for a while) and some are not. It’s up to your critique people to remind you of the one really big reason to finish your writing projects. If you want to be published, you must write. And revise. And submit. The End.

Everything else is just window dressing.

A word on pain:

Young and emerging leaders writers will rise to the point of pain. As a writer with some talent and perseverance, the simple equation of butt-in-chair and writing practice is often enough to let a writer write a good book. Progressing from "average writer" to the "remarkable writer" we all yearn to be takes passion, conviction, vision, persistence, and courage.

Your critique partners should be there with a word of comfort or a kick in the pants, AND the 10 Hot Tips above, to help you break through to the other side.

How do you handle the critique process? Do you have a critique group? Tell us about them and what tips you’ve found to get the most out of the process.

Happy Writing!

Jenny fills her nights with humor: writing memoir, women’s fiction, chick lit, short stories (and chasing after the newly walking Baby Girl). By day, she provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. After 15 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s digging this sit down and write thing. When she's not here at WITS, Jenny can be found on Twitter at jhansenwrites and at her other blog, More Cowbell.

0 comments on “10 Power Tips for Critique Groups”

  1. GREAT post, Jenny. (Hello, again, btw. LOVED your COWBELL advice today.)

    My crit group is on-line. Sherry Isaac is THE best crit partner in terms of helping me dust myself off and get back to my goals. She and I value the adage "do no harm" in our critiques and reports to each other. She only shouts at me LIKE THIS WHEN I REALLY NEED IT. One MAJOR in critiques is to compliment the good and take care to respect the author's voice when you hit a speed bump in the read. Comment, but don't rewrite for them.

    I recently saw a critique done by a local off-and-on crit partner that had the following (verbatim) imbedded in the text of another writer's work. "WHAT THE...???????" Helpful? Um, no.

    Wish I lived in SoCal or Atlanta. My local RWA didn't yield the local writing group/community I'd hoped. So, I'm moving on to explore other groups in the area. I'll always have my on-line buddies, but I think a local write-a-thon afternoon with fellow writers would help keep me on track. Happy writing. G

    1. Gloria, I do like meeting live better. We meet every Thursday night that we are able and it makes a tremendous difference. Body language goes a long way when you're telling someone they must re-write and entire chapter from the other character's POV. Trust me. 🙂

      p.s. Thanks for being such a wonderful support to us here at WITS and me personally at More Cowbell. My day is always brighter for seeing your smiling face!

  2. How do you find a critique group? I wish I could find one to join! 99.99% of the comments we give and receive end up being that mutual admiration thing on our blogs, but now and again someone has the chutzpah to tell me hey, you used the word back three times in those two sentences...and I am so thankful that I can go fix it. The important thing should be the quality of the writing, not whether we offend each other by pointing out mistakes.

    1. Neeks,

      Sharla Rae is doing a post next week on how to find a critique group and some of the important ingredients in forming and growing one. Things change, people relocate and life happens and you're critique group has to handle that with you (or you need to move on).

      If you belong to any Yahoo Group loops or writing chapters, you can advertise there but be sure to read Shar's post first so you advertize well and get what you want.

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. You lucky devil, to have such a great group on your "team." One of them ... Laura Drake ... has been kicking my butt and each time I submit something, I picture her on her bike and go for it 🙂
    I've had a variety of experiences with writing groups and CP's. They range from a nod and a smile (nice but not helpful) to someone who I trade off books and queries with. I am not as great as she and my other main reader, but each time I read someone else, I get better. Critiquing is a skill that I strive to learn, not only because we should "pay it forward," but also because of the old adage ... when we help someone else, we are also learning ourselves. Thanks for your ten points and for taking the time from your amazing schedule to share 🙂

    1. Florence,

      I feel VERY lucky (and yes, Laura knows how to have what my mama would call a "Donkey BBQ" [that's an ass chewing], but she really does it quite nicely and I always value her opinion). I'm a huge believer in "paying it forward."

      One of the things we do in our group is a Track Changes on the document so that people can see how a sentence can be cleaned up and accept or reject those changes. If it turns out that is of huge interest, we'll post a Track Changes article.

      Thanks for commenting, Flo! And for being such a great supporter of our blog. *hugs floating toward New York*

    2. Awww, thanks Florence (I think!) You know, I don't set out to be the butt kicker with my friends - it's just that I SO want them to realize their dreams, and reach the potential I see in them, I can't help it!

  4. Great reminder Jenny, not only applicable to writing, but parenting, coaching, teaching, grouping, mentoring, working, LIFE!
    And I've learned something new, “Donkey BBQ.” You Southern ladies never cease to enlighten. How about a blog on Southern metaphorical slang! I could use the education.

    1. LOL, that Donkey BBQ phrase was purely my Midwestern mother. I don't know where she got it or if she made it up, but that was what she called an ass-chewin' - I'm glad you like it!

      Sharla Rae is the one who has a gajillion Southern phrases. What a great blog idea, Deb!

  5. Oh I have so much to learn here. I've yet to be part of critique group that hasn't petered out - but all my attempts have been on-line so maybe that's the difference? I've just joined a new one (on-line), so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this will be THE one. Your list is being printed right now!!

    1. Thanks, Bridgette! Did you see that I gave you a plug at More Cowbell today?? 🙂

      On the critique group front, it's a wonderful thing to find a group who understands and roots for your story and wants to help you make it better. Whether you do it online or live isn't as important as finding that magic. You keep looking and I hope you'll tell us how it goes!

  6. Excellent article on critique groups, Jenny. I especially like items 5 and 6. Well said!
    I use the Oreo Cookie Method in my writing groups: positive/constructive/positive to correspond to the chocolate cookie covers, with constructive criticism the sweet stuff in the middle as a reminder to couch your feedback helpfully to preserve the writer's dignity while still giving great rewrite ideas.

    1. Thanks, Lou! And thanks for subscribing...we're happy to have you in the WITS family. 🙂

      No wonder I love being critiqued by you. I love Oreos! Seriously, I like your method and we always try to do the same.

      1. Hey-oh Jenny,

        Cute acronym, WITS. Totally you!

        I also learned from reading your feedback to Florence that you critique electronically. Do you find it takes longer than jotting comments on a hard-copy? In which form do you tend to be more thorough? I feel another blog coming on (for you not me), contrasting in-person versus virtual critiquing.

        Lotsa love!

  7. You a little "forward" 😉 It's good to have all types/kinds of writers (personalities) in a critique group. And, if you have a last-minute "emergency" read, someone who you can turn to. Great pointers.

  8. That's a strong adaptation of Leadership Freak, Jenny. Well done!

    I've been in three different critique groups and those words of wisdom all ring true for the successful give and take that needs to occur. I'm sure that it's also applicable to online critique groups but the challenges there include communication, credibility and willingness to listen to and accept constructive criticism.

    A very thought provoking post. Thanks!


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