Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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July 17, 2013

10 Power Tips for Building a Great Critique Group

Photo by Lisa L. Wiedmeier, WANA Commons (L-R: Laura, Orly, Fae, Sharla, Jenny)

Photo by Lisa L. Wiedmeier, WANA Commons

by Jenny Hansen

My day job as a software trainer is about building the skills of my co-workers so they can do productive work. And you know what I noticed several years back?

There’s TONS of similarity between my training life and my writing life.

Case in point: Leadership Freak is a business and leadership blogger I follow. I get loads of great advice from his blog to pass on to my team. I also routinely read his stuff and put it out on the writing side of my life.

Writing is a business after all.

Below is my "writing take" on a post he did called 10 Power Tips That Build Potential. Dan Rockwell (aka@Leadershipfreak) and I agree:

People are at the center of everything.

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.

The team here at WITS -- Fae, Laura, Orly and Sharla -- is also my critique group. 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 and she wrote a great post about forming a critique group: How to Find Your Dream Team.

Today I'm focusing on how to give and receive feedback in a way that’s constructive and nourishes the insecure artist inside of every writer.

10 Power-tips that build a critique partner’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 my heroine out of that damn 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…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 practice the 10 Power 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 her toddler). By day, she provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. After 18 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 JennyHansenCA and at her personal blog, More Cowbell.

24 comments on “10 Power Tips for Building a Great Critique Group”

  1. What a wonderfully supportive group you have. I can't help but write that I am slightly envious. It took me over a year to find one solid critique partner. Writing is such a solitary sport—what I'd do for some teammates. Going to read your Dream Team post now.

    1. Thanks, Kerry Ann! We're a little stretched out right now with summer vacations and conferences, but normally we try to meet every week, even if it's online. Some of it's critiquing, but some of it is just plain "writer chat." 🙂

  2. Have to agree with Kerry Ann that you and your critique partners have created an unusually nurturing group. Bravo!

    I've been part of many critique groups and none have come close to that level of camaraderie. (However, all of my experience has been with online critique groups, so perhaps that makes a difference? I've recently made myself open to finding an in-person critique group to compare the experiences, but am still looking.)

    I'm in two groups now (both online, both specialized in my genre) and do enjoy the looseness and expertise of our groups. We are focused only on providing critiques. That's it. Both groups are filled with serious writers, all having shared some level of success, a few even very public success, so the critiques I receive are above average in thoughtfulness and technical judgement. However --- however -- I have to look elsewhere for cheerleading, resource sharing, or mentoring. (And, I have found those things, but in other writing groups or with special writing friends.) Funny, no?

    Anyway, I think you and your critique partners should cherish what you have. Being able to bundle all of these skills is wonderful. You sound like good friends, supportive teammates and hard-working writers. Rare, indeed. : ).

    1. Hilary, I think the face-to-face DOES make a difference. Even when we meet online, we use my GoToMeeting account and see each other's faces. HUGE difference in the quality of the meeting. Even voices improves things.

  3. I have been lucky to find support with a fabulous critique group and some truly special author friends. It is invaluable for one's sanity! Wonderful post! Tweeted

  4. I need a local critique group! I have a small online group with a couple of my Texas friends, but we're too far apart to meet in person. *pout* I've been thinking about starting my own.

  5. Yes, yes, Jenny. I have group envy. My local writer's group is not structured as a traditinal critique group because of the nature of its members. I have two BETA readers, but for the most part I am without the kind of support you are able to give each of your writer friends. A good group is a blessing and a wonderful learning tool. Maybe one is in my future 🙂

    1. It is a blessing, and you really need to go looking for like-minded writers. Sharla's post tells you how to form one, if it's really important to you.

  6. Hi Jenny. Great post. I appreciate your 10 suggestions. You all seem to have scored in the critique group department girl! And who doesn't love puppies?

    1. No kidding, Karen...everyone loves puppies (until they chew up our shoes). Yes, we scored, but we also work at it. However, it doesn't feel much like work with this crew.

  7. I have a one-on-one writing partner, and I've just been invited to join an online critique group. I far prefer to do groups online because I've tried the in-person group setting and it just doesn't work for me. I got too annoyed with the delays and the inequities between people. There's no way of wasting time chit-chatting when you're critiquing via email. I've done a course on critique however I'm always looking for more tips, so I love it when blog posts cover this area. Thanks, Jenny!

    1. Yvette, I really believe that you have to allot a little bit of time for chit-chat, but then the rest is work. If you don't spend your time working on your books, it might as well be a social club. Keep looking until you find like-minded people!!

  8. I've been saving your posts because I haven't had time to read them. I'd add one thing, if you write historicals, you have to have a some people in your critique group that do as well. I can't tell you about other genres, but I would imagine that holds true.

    1. Thanks, Ella! We appreciate all your WITS support. 🙂

      I'll confess, Sharla Rae is our only historical author, but she has beta readers who will catch the minute details. We catch the big ones.

  9. I have a one-on-one writing partner, and I’ve just been invited to join an online critique group. I far prefer to do groups online because I’ve tried the in-person group setting and it just doesn’t work for me. I got too annoyed with the delays and the inequities between people. There’s no way of wasting time chit-chatting when you’re critiquing via email. I’ve done a course on critique however I’m always looking for more tips, so I love it when blog posts cover this area. Thanks, Jenny!

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