Critique groups – Three rules for “keeping it real”

For a long time, I was adamantly opposed to having anyone but family members and prospective agents read my books.  Eventually, when I signed a contract for two series with a small press publisher, I had to get used to having people (editors, in particular) go over my stuff with a fine-toothed comb. The process taught me two important things: stand up for my writing when absolutely necessary, and the rest of the time, practice humility. Because you know, I’ve learned that suggestions that frustrate me at first sometimes do make the book way, way better.

One thing I’ve learned through the process of gaining a literary agent is that my writing can always get better. I’ve also realized that what I think is good doesn’t always make sense, and a collection of opinions can be really helpful in appealing to a wider audience (science of statistics, really, although I won’t get into that.)

Enter my critique group. We don’t always agree. We don’t always get along. But what we do have are these necessary items: 1) Trust, 2) A willingness to listen and grow, and 3) Respect for one another’s work. And from reading the acknowledgments from many writers, I know how vital these groups can be to any author’s success.

How did my critique group get to a place of trust and respect? Well, maybe because we’re swell people, but even swell people get stinky sometimes, so let me tell you three things that have really helped.

We all participate. Even if a member doesn’t submit work for the month, he or she is expected to read the submissions if he or she attends the meeting. From the onset, the other group administrator and I were very straightforward that everyone must contribute to the discussion. It’s non-negotiable. The benefit is that the author can sort through the feedback, and if a bunch of people are saying the same thing, then a certain point may be worth addressing. Everything else? A person can take it or leave it.

We focus on the good first. Whenever we begin the discussion on an author’s work, we always, always start with what we loved. This helps ease the author into the water before voicing concerns, questions, or missed opportunities (we never, ever call it the “bad”). A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down, right?

We keep a time limit. And finally, this isn’t “talk about me and all my talent time.” Early on, we realized that to keep things fair and on schedule, we were going to need to set a time limit for each critique. Now, each work gets ten to fifteen minutes (depending on attendance), and when the clock stops, it stops. This means there is time at the end for writers to ask one another questions and discuss things, but at the end of the night, everyone is treated equally. And that makes our group a group worth coming to.

But, as always, I’d love to hear what type of things work or don’t work for other groups. So feel free to share. I’ll be fair-minded:)


3 thoughts on “Critique groups – Three rules for “keeping it real”

  1. Great post! I’ve just been signed with an independent publisher too, and like you, up until now I’ve mostly only had family and close friends read my work but I know I need to broaden that now to help with feedback on the rest of the series. Can I ask how you found/started your critique group?


    • I advertised through a “Jumpstart Your Novel Class” I teach at the local library as well as through my local SCBWI branch. I recommend starting small though. We have nine members, and that’s a lot of reading! (Ten pages each per month.) But it’s been a phenomenal experience so far. Local libraries or writer’s clubs are a great way to start. Most states have local branches for organizations that represent the genre you work in.


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