Monday, December 27, 2010

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Critique Groups Part I

Another resurrected post that all writers should read... especially those who think they are beyond needing a critique of their finest writing. We all benefit from good critique, no matter how old or oft-published. (Last published July 3, 2009. See tomorrow for Part 2.)
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Critique Groups: Gotta love 'em. Learn to see your writing with a reader’s eye, identify your bad habits, and polish your manuscript before you submit to agents and editors. It’s hard at first, often scary. It could even be akin to your first bungee jump. Getting your work critiqued probably won’t kill you, but it could turn you into a writer worthy of publication. Honest.

Alex Sokoloff said it here on June 10th in Top Ten Things I Know About Editing: “Find a great critique group.” In a discussion between author Sylvia Dickey Smith and editor Helen Ginger, Helen advises, “…join a critique group in your area or online – you’ll get help, you’ll help others, and you’ll learn how to edit and critique.” Author, reviewer, and blogger Charlotte Phillips wrote in February, “I recently joined a critique group for the first time ever and must admit, I am enjoying every bit of it. I wish I’d gotten up the nerve many years ago.”

One of the best ways to hone self-editing skills is to meet regularly with other writers and critique their work. Timid souls who might be overwhelmed by larger groups may do best with one critique partner. Unstructured clubs that meet once in a while are useful for hermit-writers who need occasional feedback. Online critique sessions, or meetings via Skype, are helpful if local groups are not available. For most beginning writers, a face-to-face group with established rules and guidelines boosts commitment and productivity.

To find an existing group, take a writing class, post notices at the library, attend a nearby writers’ conference, or contact local or regional writing organizations in your state. If that doesn’t work, start your own.

Based on my experiences with critique groups, I believe they function best when all of the members are writing the same kind of material: fiction and/or memoir, non-fiction books, or essays and magazine articles. Mixing fiction categories within a fiction group can be constructive if members are open to learning about genres they don’t often read on their own. The groups I’m organizing for Northern Colorado Writers follow these guidelines:

1. Critique groups contain six to eight members and meet every other week.
2. Meetings last approximately two hours.
3. Members commit to regular attendance, barring emergencies.
4. A member who cannot attend a meeting still critiques submissions and delivers or sends them to the critiqued members.

The purpose of a critique group is to help members improve their writing skills through revisions and competent self-editing, guide other members toward publication, and provide encouragement and motivation along the way. The critiques need to be honest, but must be respectful and supportive, whether written or verbal. Members understand that critiques are from/to their peers. Comments about story line, voice, and characterization are observations or suggestions. The decision whether or not to implement these suggestions belongs to the author.

In the next Self-Editing One Step at a Time post, I’ll recommend procedures for submitting materials for review and techniques for written and verbal critiques.


Patricia Stoltey is a mystery author, blogger, and critique group facilitator. Active in promoting Colorado authors, she also helps local unpublished writers learn the critical skills of manuscript revisions and self-editing. For information about Patricia’s Sylvia and Willie mystery series, visit her website and her blog. You can also find her on Facebook (Patricia Stoltey) and Twitter (@PStoltey).


  1. I agree with everything, Patricia! Another way to find a group is an approach that a co-writer and I took. We placed a small "ad" in the local paper then interviewed those who responded. After meeting with them and reviewing samples of their work, we chose three to make our five-person screenwriting critique group. It was a great group of one new but trained, a couple not so new and a couple with screen credits.

  2. Great ideas for finding a group, Patricia. I think you really lucked out with the wonderful one you're with now.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  3. Good post and advice. And I agree that critique groups are not for the weak hearted. In fact, NOTHING about this business is for the timid or thin-skinned.

    The Old Silly

  4. I've been in a writer's group for a few years and those are EXACTLY the guidelines we follow. They've always worked for us, and those for whom they don't work...don't last very long.

  5. Good feedback, everyone. I like your group's recruitment process, Helen. One of the fiction groups I recently formed for Northern Colorado Writers needs a new member, so we'll be doing that type of screening and interviewing.

    And Bill, I know what you mean. I think it's the time involved in the submission and critiquing process that intimidates some, but those who choose that route demonstrate the kind of commitment we need to finish a project and begin the next agonizing round: submissions to agents or publishers.

  6. I've belonged to the same critique group for over 20 years. Some of the members have changed. We do best when we have 6 or less. We meet nearly every week and everyone brings 10 or less pages to read and everyone gets a copy.

    Of course the members can write on the copy while the author reads, one by one the others give their critique--no one interrupts.

    Then it's up to the author to decide what she will use or not.

    I feel like it's the first editing of my work and I truly appreciate it.

    Marilyn a.k.a. F. M. Meredith

  7. Thanks for the insight. I'm definitely going to look into that. I have to say, it sounds like I might be curled up in the fetal position crying for my "safe space" after my first few critiques, but I know it's for the greater good and the honing of my craft, so I'll take the plunge! Thank!!

  8. A good critique group is absolutely essential for a writer, unless you're a real natural, which most of us aren't!

    Morgan Mandel

  9. I'm always amazed at the numbers of writers who don't think they need a good critique. Usually it's the ones who aren't published and/or making a living at writing, and wonder why. Often they simply don't have a clear assessment of their own work, because they are the only ones judging it. They need a good, solid critique, and they they need to refine the work and re-submit for another critique. It's a simple process... just not easy. Especially not on the ego! Taking the criticisms to heart is tough... for some people impossible.

  10. What would be really nice would be having the entire group operating with the same writing philosopy or methodology. Could use Ingermanson, Brooks, Bell or whomever.

    This way, the group has criteria to work against.

  11. My own critique group has helped me so much over the seven years we've worked together. Now I start new groups for Northern Colorado Writers, so we're doing our best to spread the word.

  12. Pat: What do you do when a regular member is drafting new material for several months to a year, and is not ready for critique?

    Also, I've heard that many groups will look at something only once, because they've already given their feedback, which the author is free to accept or ignore. This keeps groups from getting stuck in loops like "I still think you should have..." But it also means that you may have nothing to share with the group during a year of revision, either! What is your opinion about this?


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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