Advice For Writers

My first critique group. We gathered to celebrate the publication of another terrific Graham Salisbury book! Front: Pamela Smith Hill, Graham Salisbury. Back: Doris Newman, Liz Vaughn, Carmen T. Bernier-Grand, Carolyn Conahan, and Bernie Meyer.

My first critique group. We gathered to celebrate the publication of another terrific Graham Salisbury book! Front: Pamela Smith Hill, Graham Salisbury. Back: Doris Newman, Liz Vaughn, Carmen T. Bernier-Grand, Carolyn Conahan, and Bernie Meyer.

I've been part of three critique groups over the last twenty-five years. Not only did the members of these groups help me improve my writing, but they comforted me when a favorite manuscript was rejected and kept me going when I thought publication was impossible. We forged lasting friendships and have seen each other through marriages, births, divorces, graduations, and even deaths.

Outlined below are my "Guidelines for Critique Groups." They're based purely on my experiences -- as a writer and teacher. In fact, I use critique groups in all my creative writing classes.

Another critique group. Here we toasted the publication of Carmen T. Bernier-Grand's first novel. Front: Carmen T. Bernier-Grand, Marian Martin; Middle: Dorothy Nafus Morrison, Pamela Smith Hill, Susan Fletcher, Eloise Jarvis McGraw; Back: Milena McGraw, Winnie Morris; Margaret Bechard; Liz Morris.

Another critique group. Here we toasted the publication of Carmen T. Bernier-Grand's first novel. Front: Carmen T. Bernier-Grand, Marian Martin; Middle: Dorothy Nafus Morrison, Pamela Smith Hill, Susan Fletcher, Eloise Jarvis McGraw; Back: Milena McGraw, Winnie Morris; Margaret Bechard; Liz Morris.


Ground Rules For Critique Groups

Critique groups exist for only one real purpose: to help writers write better. They’re based on the idea that good, solid, constructive criticism from other writers can strengthen a writer’s work before an intended audience ever sees the final draft. Revising and rewriting are the underpinnings of all critique groups.

Most writing groups form around a common discipline or audience. The writers share an interest in such genres as mystery, screenwriting, poetry, or serious adult fiction. Groups that cross writing genres usually don’t succeed because it’s hard to comment intelligently on a discipline you don’t write for or understand.

Size and Operation

The optimal size for a critique group ranges from seven to ten writers. This way every writer should have a chance to read and receive constructive criticism on the work she or he wishes to present during a single meeting.

Most groups meet regularly, perhaps monthly or even weekly. In these groups, all members may not have something to read during a given meeting. Yet, they still attend the meeting--to provide criticism and encouragement to other writers in their group. Your role as constructive critic is just as important as your role as writer.

When Your Work Is Being Critiqued

  • Go to critique group meetings expecting constructive criticism rather than unanimous praise.
  • Your attitude toward the group’s comments can shape how productive they are for you.
  • Read a story, chapter, or passage that isn’t too long. Don’t impose too much on the goodwill of other members.
  • Listen to the group’s comments objectively.
  • Don’t get defensive or argue with other members about their analysis of your work.
  • Write down comments that seem particularly meaningful and review them later--when you're ready to revise.
  • If you don’t understand a member’s comment, politely ask for clarification.
  • Don’t pass immediate judgment on the comments you receive; you may find that later on, the comment that struck you as completely irrelevant may have real merit after all.
  • Explain your writing intentions only if it’s absolutely necessary. In general, let your writing do all the talking.

When you're ready to revise, consider your group’s comments closely. Make changes only when you're absolutely convinced your group is right. If several members point to the same problem, you'd better fix it. If there’s one random voice asking for change, consider the suggestion, but make it only if you agree with the member’s analysis.

When You’re Critiquing Someone Else’s Work

  • Take notes as you listen to someone else’s reading.
  • When writers provide copies of their work, make most of your comments directly on their manuscripts, particularly proofreading notations.
  • Take turns. Each member of the group should have an opportunity to analyze what’s been read.
  • Begin your analysis by describing positive points, what you thought the writer handled well. Be specific: “I like the dialogue between Liz and Sandy.” / “Your transitions between paragraphs are very smooth.” / “You use strong, active verbs.” / “Carolyn’s character is very clear and appealing.”
  • Move on to problem spots in the writing, and be specific. “Your vocabulary choices in the third paragraph on page 78 seem too adult for a younger reader.” / “Bernie’s motivations in this scene are confusing.” / “The dialogue doesn’t sound real on page 44.” / “Do you need all this description?”
  • If you notice minor spelling or punctuation errors, note them directly on xeroxed copies (when provided), and don’t mention them in your verbal analysis. That just takes up time. If, however, the writer makes the same mistakes repeatedly throughout a manuscript, politely point them out when it’s your turn to speak.

It’s okay to disagree with another member’s analysis. Someone else may find fault with the writer’s vocabulary choices. If you disagree, say so--and explain why...good-naturedly. Writers need to have a range of choices and opinions when it’s time to revise.

Above all else, be constructive. Your comments aren’t designed to showcase your brilliant analytical powers, but to help another writer create better work.