September 23rd, 2019

The Up and Down Sides of Critique Groups: Is There Value in Finding Your Peeps?

Lori Freeland

Critique groups. Something you want to be part of? Or something you don’t? Ask a few seasoned writers, and you’re sure to get some strong opinions. As a writer, editor, and writing coach, here’s mine—

I’m pro critique group all the way.

Why? Whether you’re a newbie who still uses two spaces after a period or a novelist who’s been writing since everyone used two spaces after a period, there’s a certain energy among effective groups that you can’t help but soak up.

Notice I said “effective” groups.

In my years as a group member and a group leader, I’ve had both super and so-not-super experiences. But I’m still very much in favor of finding people who share your passion. The key is finding the right people.  

The Upsides: What’s so great about belonging to a critique group?

Writers Understand Writers

Likeminded people reaffirm your sanity. Do you yell at your characters? Get up in the middle of the night to voice text a conversation to yourself that they started without you? Do you scribble plot ideas on gum wrappers? Does your imagination travel into dark corners where your regular friends are afraid to tread? Is your Google search history enough to alert homeland security? See? A tribe who gets you is huge.

Writers Offer Resources

Everyone brings a different life experience to their edits. Someone may be a great grammatical editor, someone else may find content errors, and still someone else may be an expert on a topic you’re trying to research. You’ll be surprised at how much “pooling” your knowledge will get you.  

It’s Easier for Someone Else to Find Your Mistakes

No matter how much experience you have, it’s hard to see your own errors. I’m an editor, and I hire an editor. It’s impossible to read our own work with objective eyes. Because we know what’s supposed to be there, our brain automatically fills in typos and missing story parts. Reader’s brains don’t. Let your critique partners point out where they’re confused and nudge you to close the gaps.

You Learn More from Catching Other People’s Mistakes

You pick up things in others’ manuscripts that you might miss in your own. The more you edit, the more you learn how to be a tighter, stronger writer. Sometimes when I see errors in one of my writing partner’s pages, it’s a light bulb moment for my own. 

Brainstorming

There will be times when you hit a wall—in your plot, characters, and ideas. Talking out your problems with the group can help you find direction. I’ve come up with twists, turns, and resolutions I never knew were lurking in my head. What seems like a major block to you might be easily solved by a fresh perspective.

Accountability

Sticking out this writing thing requires discipline. One of the best ways to be disciplined is through accountability. Find others who have similar goals, agree to meet often, and hold each other to that promise. The most productive groups meet weekly. If you’re not ready for that, try every other week until you establish a comfortable routine.

Family

Critique group members who write together stay together—and become a writing family. Your writing family. The more you get to know each other, the more you can help each other. Hearing constructive criticism from people you trust is far easier than having your work torn to shreds by someone you don’t know.

The Downsides: What’s not so great about belonging to a critique group?

Losing Your Voice

One of the biggest cons to a critique group is that the members can start to sound alike. Each writer has a unique voice. Even if it takes a while to discover, it’s in there somewhere. Peer pressure forces some writers to change their voice, while others just slip into someone else’s style gradually without realizing they’ve abandoned their own. And there’s always the temptation to edit other’s work in your voice. Watch out for that. Get to know your editing partners’ unique styles and edit like you’re ghostwriting for them.   

Unbalanced Commitment

One person shouldn’t be doing all the work. The goal for the group is to divide and conquer—especially if you’re just starting out. Go to conferences. Take online classes. Sit in on seminars. Bring back what you learn and share it with your group. If each member takes the other members’ work as seriously as they take their own, the overall edits will become better and better.

Feeling Beaten Down

Different people bring different styles, experiences, skill sets, and personalities to your meetings. Think before you speak. Think before you redline. Think before you criticize. You came here for help—just like everyone else. So help. Don’t hinder. Don’t make your writing family cry. Not sure how to be a good critique partner? Say something positive first, then suggest ways to tighten and strengthen writing or conception issues, and end with something positive. People tend to shut down if the first thing they hear is a correction. They’re more likely to listen to your constructive criticism after you’ve told them something that makes them feel good.  

Disrespecting Time

One person shouldn’t be the center of the meeting every meeting. Respect each other’s time. Be on time. End on time. Elect a facilitator who will keep you on time and on task or set a timer to divide your minutes equally. Some weeks, one person may need more help than other weeks. Be fair. Be considerate.

Quick Tips

Congratulations! You’re helping each other succeed and keeping each other accountable. You’re aware of possible issues and are ready to head them off before they become problems. Here are a few more tips for building strong, encouraging critique groups. 

photo credit: ©Petenceto

Set Your Group Size

I’ve heard the magic three. I’ve worked with groups of five. My long-time group at one point had seven. This is a personal choice. But limit the size of your group to the workload everyone can handle in the time allotted. If you have a larger group, divide into subgroups when you meet. But stick with the same people. Building trust and relationships is crucial to success.

Discuss Expectations

What do the members want to get out of the group? How much work are they each willing to put in? Are they looking for someone to pat them on the back or really help them become stronger writers? Talk about expectations first. Make sure everyone is on the same page.

Meeting Place

Agree on a place and time that works for everyone. Meet somewhere neutral—a restaurant, coffee shop, church, or library—or take turns hosting the group.

Critique Methods

Option 1: Send your pages out on email or something like Google Docs. Read and make notes prior to meeting. You can print out and write on the document directly or make notes using features like track changes and comment boxes and then print the document out or email it back to the person. This work-ahead method allows for a good, in-depth critique but takes a time commitment outside of the group.

Option 2: Print your pages and bring enough copies for everyone to the meeting. Let someone else read your work out loud. It will give you a chance to hear where any places there’s a struggle and to pick up mistakes you may have missed. What the eye misses, the ear often picks up. This do-it-there method negates the time commitment outside the group but gives you a less thorough critique.

Option 3: Form an online group to electronically edit each other’s manuscripts. This is my least favorite method. Yes, you’re able to get an in-depth critique. But there’s something about talking things through that seems to be more helpful. Your constructive criticism is also liable to be taken more harshly when it’s just notes on a page. If this is the way you need to go, make sure to include praise. And consider “meeting” online live every once in a while.    

Formatting

You don’t want the other members of the group to dread your weekly submissions. Send the cleanest, easiest-to-read version of your brilliance.

  • No more than five double-spaced pages a meeting (depending on group size and time allowed). Double spacing allows room for written comments and is easier to see.
  • Read your masterpiece out loud before you submit. The ear catches what the eye misses.
  • Run a spell check with grammar.
  • Use Times New Roman or Calibri 12-point font. No weird font or all italics. It’s hard to read. See below.

No one wants to decipher that.

New to Critique? Not sure what to do? Here are some things to look for.

  • Awkward phrases, sentences, comparisons, or ideas (if it feels “off,” ask)
  • Passive verbs—especially “to be” verbs (was, is, am, are)
  • Ly Adverbs (better to use a strong verb)
  • Too many adjectives
  • Accidentally repeated words (don’t use the same word close together unless it’s on purpose)
  • Vague words like it, that, the, this, things, them (be specific where you can for clarity)
  • Extra words: the, that, had (if the sentence reads clearly without them, cross them out)
  • Redundant words or phrases: Two or more descriptions of the same thing or words that mean the same thing.
  • Paragraph opening repetition: Do the paragraphs all begin the same way?
  • Sentence length (don’t write all choppy, short sentences or cram too much information into too many long sentences)
  • POV: Are you head hopping—moving from person to person’s thoughts? Read up on POV for more information.
  • Action/Reaction: An action must come before a reaction, and every action needs a reaction.
  • Show/don’t tell (He was mad is telling. He threw the chair across the room is showing.)
  • Clarity issues (do you know what’s going on in the chapter, and does it make sense for the story?)
  • Roller coaster emotions: Does the character react inappropriately without a motivation to do so?
  • Information dumps (don’t dump too much information at once and interrupt the story)
  • Action issues (are the characters standing in one place one minute and another the next without you knowing how they got there?)

The longer you edit, the stronger writer and critique partner you’ll become. Remember, the key to a good group is finding the right people. If a group isn’t working for you, look for another. But do some soul searching and make sure you’re not the problem.

Comment below with any tips you have on joining critique groups.

About Lori

An encourager at heart, author, editor, and writing coach Lori Freeland believes everyone has a story to tell. She’s presented multiple workshops at writer’s conferences across the country and writes everything from non-fiction to short stories to novels—YA to adult. When she’s not curled up with her husband drinking too much coffee and worrying about her kids, she loves to mess with the lives of the imaginary people living in her head.

You can find her young adult and contemporary romance at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog and writing tips at lafreeland.com. Her latest release, The Accidental Boyfriend, is currently free on the Radish app.

25 responses to “The Up and Down Sides of Critique Groups: Is There Value in Finding Your Peeps?”

  1. Laura Drake says:

    Fantastic 'one-stop-shop' on critters, Lori! Thanks.

  2. Terry Odell says:

    I've been with the same group for something like 15 years (3 of us, but we just added a new member) and we do everything electronically.
    live in Colorado, one lives in Illinois, another in London, and our new member is in Oregon. We submit chapters as we finish them, offer feedback, usually within a couple of days. It avoids a lot of the problems with a F2F group, although getting out with other writers is still a good thing. My "in person" critique group, while valuable because I was just getting started, was just too slow with its once a month meetings, and did exhibit some of the cons you state above.
    And .. I had the pleasure of meeting my London partner while I was in the UK on vacation recently. We didn't really talk much about writing.

  3. Very good advice. I've been in 3 writing groups. They all had mostly cons to them. Group 1 had an organizer that didn't organize.New people had to introduce themselves. Too many members meeting in different sub groups.

    Group 2 was the perfect size (3 or 4 weekly) but the format was difficult to give good critique. We would read 10 to 15 pages of each others WIP, then give of thoughts about the piece. That was hard (at least for me) especially if the WIP was in the middle of the story or if you are unfamiliar with the genre.

    Group 3 had about 5 to 7 regulars but this was more meditation than critique. "Relax and write..."
    With your suggestions I will try to find a better group.

  4. My on-line critique group is my rock. We are a handful of writers, some published, some just starting out, who hold each other accountable every single day. We use Slack.com to talk, post our submissions and our critiques, offer suggestions, support and resources. Without this daily interaction, my time in the writer's cave wouldn't be the same. And I do wonder if I would have quit by now, having grown discouraged by the rejection letters or the complicated nature of writing/revising/querying. I love my group.

  5. Justine says:

    I love my critique group (3 of us) and value all of the feedback they give, even when I don't agree with it. We each have our writing styles, and I think over time we've learned what our specific styles are, and so try less to reword each other's work, and instead just make a comment that "this didn't work for me" or "the cadence was off." My CPs have also turned into my best friends, which is a bonus, because we're all invested in each other not only as writers, but also as people.

  6. Julie Glover says:

    I've mostly used critique partners, rather than groups. However, with brainstorming in particular, groups have been fantastic for me. I love all your takeaways here. You covered the subject so well! Thanks.

  7. Rick George says:

    I treasure my critique group! Its members don't hold back on pointing out flaws, which is just what I need. We laugh together because we have numerous nerdy moments that only other authors could understand. I like the advice you supply in this article, Lori.

  8. Holly says:

    I've given up on critique groups. Beaten down, voice mutilated, genre trounced, and the worst: the smiley face followed by--but I liked it overall. 4 groups over 10 years. Great advice in your article. Your list is interesting as it lists things I've have yet to be dinged for in a group. (Mystery/suspense with light romance is my genre). Enjoyed reading this blog because last week I almost succumbed to joining a group again.

  9. winonabennettcross says:

    This is great Lori. I am almost three hours away from a Writer's group. I miss having one. I would love to be a part of a critique group. I need to find one willing to work online.

    • Yes, you do! Or maybe find two other people willing to work online and form your own 🙂

    • Emily Bailey says:

      Inked Voices is a wonderful platform for writers to collaborate and critique on-line. I can't recommend it highly enough. It's inexpensive and a great way to connect with writers across genres. There are groups, discussion boards, webinars, workshops. You can even do 'pop up' groups and be matched with peers to start critique groups. I'd be happy to introduce you to the founder, Brooke McIntyre, if you like. Take a look http://www.inkedvoices.com

    • While I belong to a local writer group (which is great), I've also found the online groups, such as Scribophile, to be extremely useful. I've had a few people following my novel since the first chapters and they are from all over the world. It takes some time to find the right people to critique your work, but if you can't find a lot of local support, you might try it.

  10. Fae Rowen says:

    I was very lucky to find my first critique group. There were three of us, and I was the weakest writer. During the same years I also met with a critique partner. The three of them helped me see the major weaknesses in my writing before I found Writers in the Storm.

  11. dholcomb1 says:

    great ideas...must find group

    denise

  12. dianegates says:

    Love your post, Lori! And loved being a part of the Literati! Hope your mom is better. <3

  13. Kathleen Parrish says:

    Thanks so much for the post, Lori. I'm working with two critique groups (having recently retired, I have the time), and both are well worth the time and effort. My Wednesday night group meets twice a month, my Thursday night group is weekly. Both will benefit from your article, especially our new members.

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