Teachers Write: About Critique Groups

Hi, everybody! Some of you have been asking if it would make sense for you to form smaller groups within the Teachers Write community to give one another feedback in addition to what we’re already doing, and that’s a fine idea. So let’s talk about critique groups.

A critique group is a small group of people (usually 2-6) who write and agree to read one another’s work from time to time and provide feedback with the purpose of helping one another improve. Critique groups can happen in person — if you live close to some other writers, you might agree to meet once a month at the local coffee shop for this — or online, in which case you’d exchange pages of writing via email or set up a system with folders in Yahoo Groups or something similar.

They can be made up of people who are at about the same level (beginners, folks revising first novels, etc.), people who write the same genre (YA, MG, picture books, nonfiction, etc.) or people who write different kinds of work but have an appreciation for what the others write, too.

Sometimes, critique groups operate on a schedule (each week, writers take turns sending maybe five pages for critique by the others) and sometimes they’re more informal (people share work when it’s done or when they need feedback, and others critique as they can. This is more common with experienced writers, I think, who tend to have deadlines and less predictable schedules.)

Sometimes, it takes a while to find the right critique group. People sometimes post new critique groups or openings in established ones at the SCBWI site or on Verla Kay’s discussion boards for children’s writers. Sometimes, you express interest in this, and someone else has filled the spot already or seems to be a better fit for that particular group. Do not take this personally or read anything into it at all. It happens. It happened to me numerous times when I was looking for a critique group, and if it happens to you, it doesn’t mean that you’re not a good writer or a nice person or anything else. It only means that your “just-right” critique group is still out there.  And sometimes, people join a critique group and then realize it’s not a good fit, so they drift away. All of this is part of the process, and it’s okay.

I’ve been in a bunch of critique groups over the years, all full of great people and talented writers. Some have been better fits than others, especially my current group with writers Loree Griffin Burns, Eric Luper, and Liza Martz.  Though we write different genres, we all appreciate one another’s work.  We run into each other at conferences & retreats sometimes, but our group operates mostly online (via Yahoo groups) and we don’t have a set schedule.  I also have a couple other good writers friends with whom I swap manuscripts sometimes.

Last summer, I wrote a pretty detailed piece on how to critique a friend’s writing for the Stenhouse Summer Blogstitute. It uses one of my editor’s revision letters as a mentor text for how to critique someone’s writing in a way that’s constructive and rigorous without making that person feel sad or frustrated or so angry they want to shove their crummy manuscript up your nose.  You should read that here. Go ahead…and then come back. I’m going to get a cup of coffee while you do that….

So…do you think you might like to be in a critique group?  I can’t create one for you…or tell you who to have coffee with, but I can provide a place for you to talk with other like-minded people who feel the same way and might want to connect with you.  We’ll do that early next week. After that, you’ll be on your own to make arrangements with the people you meet on that post and figure things out.

Watch for that post on Monday, in addition to our regular Mini-Lesson Monday.  But today…I’d like to invite your questions about critique groups, and I’d like to invite authors to comment and share a little about how their critique groups work.  I think you’ll see that like writing styles, there are many critique group styles, and the “right” one is the one that works for you and your writing partners. A respectful, supportive tone is essential, but beyond that, you can figure out how to set things up.

Questions? Comments? Critique group models or tips to share? Fire away!

This entry was posted in TeachersWrite. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

27 Comments

  1. Posted June 14, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    I participate in two critique groups. One is a mixed genre group including: suspense, short story, essay, adult fiction, children’s fiction. I’ve been with this in person group for 11 years. We meet January through May once a month. There are 8 members who submit something each time. My other group is also an in person group, all children’s authors this time. I’ve been a part of this group for around 4 years. We meet once a month. We submit when we have something ready to show. If no one has a manuscript, we still meet and discuss projects and industry issues. What I appreciate about both groups is that we all want each other to succeed. They are honest about my manuscripts — what is working, what isn’t. When something isn’t working, they use kind words and give me the most helpful comments. They celebrate the good news! And they are there, too, for the disappointments, usually with chocolate!

    • Posted June 14, 2012 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      Thanks for sharing this, Jennifer – how could I have forgotten to mention the chocolate?!

    • Posted June 14, 2012 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      Hey, that second group sounds exactly like one of mine . . . oh, wait. It is.

  2. Posted June 14, 2012 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    I have an in-person critique group of writer friends that used to meet every month, but has suffered some scheduling hiccups of late. We all write in different genres and are fairly informal, normally submitting small chunks of work that we read at the meeting (no one can commit to reading outside of group time, as I’m the only professional writer in the bunch). I also have long-distance readers and with them, I send the complete manuscript and get feedback on the whole work. Both groups give me important feedback, but it is especially nice to have the in-person group, as writing is such a lonely exercise at times. It’s nice to meet real people in a real place:)
    Kate, I love your blog post about giving feedback. It’s such a delicate art, giving someone comments on their creative work.

  3. Posted June 14, 2012 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    I just wrote a guest blog post for Darcy Pattison’s “Fiction Notes” blog earlier this month that discusses my two crit groups. You can check it out here: http://www.darcypattison.com/writing-life/critique-groups-x-heads-are-better-than-one/

    • Posted June 14, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      That’s one of mine, too. Wow, both my critique groups mentioned out of the blue! 🙂

  4. Posted June 14, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    I participate in two critique groups. For are picture book focused. The first group is a local group consisting of five members, for a little over a year now. We were put in contact with one another via SCBWI. We have a standing commitment of meeting the third Thursday every month at our local B&N. We “try” to submit our MS or query/cover letter to each other 1 week before the meeting. No is required to submit something every month. At the meeting we go over our comments. We do the typical sandwich model of giving comments, positive-critical-positive. It really is much easier to hear the critical stuff when you hear that there was at least one thing the reviewer liked. I think what helps us keeping on track is that we have a fixed time and location, treating it like a job as opposed to a hobby. We also formed an online private FB group so we can share information about writing tips, ask questions to one another, etc.

    My second group is an online critique group that formed out of the 12×12 Picture Book Challenge, group consist of 6 members. Each week someone submits a MS and everyone has 1 week to comment. The people in this group are a varied bunch, some published and some not. I like having two groups as a get different perspectives.

    The third place I go to get comments is from the Rate Your Story, rateyourstory.blogspot.com, this is a free on-line service available to all authors. You submit your work according to their guidelines and in roughly ~2 weeks you get an anonymous rating from 1-10 and sometimes helpful feedback. They have a panel of published authors that review the work. I recommend this service, when you think you are done revising but not sure.

    Having a critique group is a must, I could not have progressed in my craft without it.

  5. Posted June 14, 2012 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    I’m currently in a five-person, in-person critique group. We meet twice a month (more or less), and those who wish to have a critique submit ten pages around the group. Sometimes all five of us have something, sometimes just one or two people. That person reads the section aloud while the rest of us follow along with our copies. I’m the only NF writer, and we’re all MG or YA, and it works great. If a person in the group requests a “full” ms reading, we devote one entire session to that manuscript (having all read it in advance). I highly, hugely, recommend it!

  6. Posted June 14, 2012 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Sorry if I’m throwing around initials too willy-nilly. NF=nonfiction, MG=middle grade (8 to 12yo), and YA=young adult (roughly 12 and up)

  7. Posted June 14, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    I’ve been in the same critique group for seven or eight years now. There are four of us — all writng for children (although the occasional memoir sneaks in). We meet once a week, usually at Barnes and Noble (all of us have flexible schedules). We submit to each other the night before and try to give everyone a 1/2 hour. This group has become my lifeline — writing can be so solitary, but these ladies are my best friends and the fiercest advocates for my work! They are also brutally honest. Sometimes it’s a tough half hour — but my writing always gets a little better each time. 3/4 of us are published and now we are beginning to collaborate in interesting ways. I’m writing magazines articles with one person and discussing a new series idea with another. A good critique group is the best thing on the planet… maybe even better than coffee.

  8. Posted June 14, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    Yes! You should all go join critique groups! (I wish they had them for other things, like cooking dinner and gardening.)

    My two quick take-aways:
    1. When you hand something over to someone else to read, make sure you don’t think of it as finished! That’s one of the mistakes I see people make when they join a group for the first time, and that’s where disappointment sets in. You’re giving your peers your work because you want feedback, not a pat on the back, and while I’m sure you’ll get plenty of back-patting, it’s the feedback you really want!
    2. There is usually one person who is the “just right” critic for your work and one person whose criticism you will always take with a grain of salt. But sometimes the seemingly wrong person to critique your manuscript will still get it absolutely right.

    My current critique group meets every other week. We read stories aloud and edit them on the spot. It works better than I’d thought it would initially. Previous groups have done the read-in-advance-and-write-up remarks, but the magic always happens during live discussion, where people can play off of each other.

  9. Posted June 14, 2012 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    I’ve been running a monthly critique group at my local library for 10 years. We’re a committed bunch — all SCBWI members, all MG or YA novelists. Over the years, we’ve had some bumps and bruises. Two people quit. One moved away. We asked one member to leave (that was difficult, painful and necessary). Recently one of our members died. We’ve had hurt feelings, joys, disagreements and our fair share of envy. But through it all, we’ve become much better writers. I do NOT think I would have published had it not been for my group.

    So, because I feel so certain and passionate, I thought I’d throw out some suggestions/comments/advice regarding critique groups. Hope this helps!

    1.) Congratulations! You’re a writer! Now you must take on an additional title: editor. Dozens of people can give you critiques. Someday you might be lucky to work with an editor. But ultimately it will be up to YOU to figure out what advice to take, what will help or not help. Critique groups provide you with opportunities to get comfortable with hearing differing opinions.

    2.) I think it’s terrific that Kate is able to connect with her critique group online. It’s a great option for people who aren’t able to meet face-to-face. But if possible, try to meet in person. Some of the best advice I’ve received has come from discussions. Here’s how we work: two weeks before our meeting, three members send out 20 pages of their WIP. We read these at home, make comments on the manuscripts, write a page of feedback, and bring everything to the meeting. We then spend a half hour talking about each manuscript. When it’s my turn, I try to never speak (even to clear up questions) because I don’t want my thoughts to interfere with their comments. Sometimes the best comments are the ones that come out of these conversations.

    3.) In the beginning, I secretly hoped that my groups would find my manuscript so perfect and wonderful that they’d have nothing to say. Now, I’m disappointed when they don’t find something “wrong.” It took years to get to this place. Don’t feel discouraged! Everyone, especially in the beginning, feels personally attached to his/her work. It takes practice and experience to be able to separate the two.

    4.) If possible, form your critique group with other children’s book writers. Writing fiction for middle schoolers is not the same as writing fiction for adults! Also, we have defined our group even further. No picture book manuscripts, plays, poems or nonfiction. We do, however, include different genres. In one evening we may see a fantasy middle grade novel and a realistic YA novel. But they’re all novels.

    5.) We are friendly with each other but we aren’t all best friends. For years, I didn’t even know the names of some members children. This isn’t because we’re not interested but rather we treat ourselves as professionals. We are there to work. We meet at the library at a set time, on a set day. I’m not sure it’s possible to always be honest with each other if we’re also great friends.

    6.) The first five minutes or so of our half hour talk is always dedicated to the positives of the manuscript. It sets the tone for the rest of the discussion.

    I much more to say about this, but I’ll stop there. Happy to answer any questions! Good luck.

    Karen

  10. Posted June 14, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    I belong to two critique groups, both of which grew out of writing classes. One is a mixed-genre bunch, YA,adult fiction, memoir, non-fiction. We meet once a month and look at 10 pages from two different works. We submit a week prior and return line edits and a paragraph or two about what is working, overall comments, a guess at what comes next. The second group is online. We review in a similar fashion, up to 10 pages from two or up to 20 from one. We meet in an online chat once a week – this group is the heart and soul of my writing support. All writing YA or MG, most of us met for the first time at SCBWI LA last year. This year we will take a retreat together for a long weekend after two years. Both groups have had to seek new members as one or another writer has either withdrawn or not been able to contribute, so as to take the pressure off of those of us who are faithful contributors. It’s tough to be in the rotation every other session.

  11. Posted June 14, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    One thing I found very helpful in the last year was when Maggie Stiefvater ran a critique partner finding thing on her blog last year. I exchanged fifty pages of a story with someone there. While we didn’t end up partners, we both gained valuable outside feedback. It’s ok to try out a critique group or partner and decide to split ways.

  12. Posted June 14, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    I facilitate a face to face group that currently includes 5 members. In addition to all of the great advice already shared I’d like to echo a few points and add a bit more.
    1. Define how you want your group to operate (do this together) and write it down. Our group is very informal, but we have a “Writer’s Manifesto.” We all agree to follow what we wrote and to call each other out if we’re not meeting it. There are many kids of writer’s groups and critique groups. Ours is specifically geared to helping each other improve with the ultimate goal of publication in the children’s/YA market. This does NOT mean writing groups focused on writing together or offering only gentle encouragement are not meaningful or valid or useful- that’s just not what we’re about. We are always kind but we dig deep to offer meaningful critique. It’ s working for us… two members have books coming out over the next year. If you are new to writing, this may not be the kind of group for you. In fact, I started in a supportive, writer’s group. When I realized I wanted more critique- suggestions for improvement- I started my current group. Be clear in your own mind about what you need and want from a group. Then go find it or start it.
    2. Learn to separate yourself from your manuscript. This is, perhaps, the hardest, yet most important thing you need to learn to do. Critique of your writing is NOT critique of you as a person.
    3. Celebrate accomplishments together. Decide what to celebrate and stick with it. If your’e new, perhaps you want to celebrate the completion of a novel or submitting your work for the first time. In our group, we celebrate when members land an agent, sign a publication contract, and sometimes other smaller successes (this depends on each member). For us, that now means going out for a drink AFTER a meeting. (Get the hard work done first!) Find what works for you.
    4. A final note on how we operate: We meet once a month at our local library. Members send work to the group (via email) one week before a meeting. We write notes and bring them to the meeting to discuss. Some of us now send those notes electronically (we use the comment feature in MS Word). We bring notes to the meeting and email them that night before leaving. When someone is ready for a full read of a novel, they ask who is able to do a full read and provide copies. We usually deliver our feedback individually in that case. Since we’re so flexible, we sometimes read for each other between meetings. I took advantage of that this month. I’m going on vacation and wanted to submit something to an editor before I leave. I knew I wouldn’t have enough time between our meeting date and my departure, so I asked members if they’d read in advance. All were able to do so and my ms is now nearly complete. Members may choose to say “no” to special requests and there will be no hard feelings.

  13. Marcie Atkins
    Posted June 14, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    I have an online picture book critique group that I met during a picture book marathon a few years ago. We exchange picture book manuscripts once a month. My in person critique group is made up of children’s lit writers of all genres and ages. We meet once a month at a local coffee shop to talk craft, business, and critique each others’ work. We were almost all strangers when we first started, but now we really have clicked as friends. I also have an online group from my MFA program. We started out critiquing and holding one another accountable for finishing our theses. Four of us continued even after the theses were turned in. All three of these groups have kept me motivated and producing work. I feel guilty for not subbing.

  14. Posted June 14, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    I have two groups: one of fellow writers and one of readers who don’t also write. I find that each group adds something to my writing and I appreciate having two different types of feedback.

  15. Georgia Parker
    Posted June 14, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    I am very interested in finding a critique group. It sounds like so many of you already have groups, but if there is anyone interested in trading some YA fiction, please let me know. parkerg@trinityprep.org

    Also, I participated in a webinar today hosted by WD. It was led by agent Mary Kole and focused on characterization. It was terrific!

    • Kelly Mogk
      Posted June 18, 2012 at 1:50 am | Permalink

      I’ve had my eye on those webinars! They look great, but I wasn’t sure if they were worth the expense. It’s nice to hear from someone that’s actually seen one. 🙂

  16. Gae Polisner
    Posted June 14, 2012 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    Maybe this is too basic, and my apologies if it is, but one of the things I’d love to share with you is how important I think it is, when you become a critiquer, not to try to change another person’s voice. By this token, it is helpful if you find writers whose voice you really like and vice versa to be in your particular group. If you notice on my Friday Feedback, even when I’m doing my super–speed edits, I am NEVER changing someone’s voice or words or telling them to say things another way. I sometimes take words away because what they have there, in their voice, will shine moreso, if I do so. Otherwise, your job is not to change HOW they write or HOW they tell a story — or rewrite their words — but to give constructive crit as to what feels confusing, or missing, or where you feel the pace slows or speeds up too fast etc. Where there are holes in the story. I’m sure reading Kate’s editorial letter will show you that… but I always feel badly when new writers get into a critique group and in an effort to be helpful, someone starts really rewriting their stuff. It’s probably safe to assume that since so many of you are teachers, you already know this, but it seemed (maybe?) worth the five minutes to type this comment to bother. I hope so. xo Gae

    • Posted June 14, 2012 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

      I totally agree with this…I have read for people working on their National Board Certification and we were taught to ask questions and to guide people to clarifying what they are talking about. Also, as I read, I always look for examples where writing can be tighter – just like you are saying. It’s easy to confuse writing how we talk as using voice but I don’t think that’s the case very often. I think voice shines through when writing is more concise and to the point, there isn’t all of the extra words to get in the way of the specific voice.

  17. Gae Polisner
    Posted June 14, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    also, I wish we could edit our comments. That last sentence wasn’t quite English. More apologies.

  18. Posted June 14, 2012 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad to hear people say it’s okay to join a group and decide if it’s a right fit and for it to be okay to leave a group if it’s not. When I was in high school, my English classes were part writer’s workshop. We had to do peer conferences all the time. I always found value in sharing with others but when it came down to someone reading my own writing and giving me quality feedback, there were only one person who seemed to be truly honest with me but also specific about giving me feedback and encouraging me to really look closely and think about my writing – whether I agree with her or not. She’s still one of my closest friends and frequent reader today. I value her opinion on my writing more than anyone because of her ability to be honest with me but also to recognize what needs to be done.

    More than anything, joining a critique group sounds the scariest of anything we have done for Teachers Write. I don’t mind sharing for Friday Feedback and I love hearing what other people say but I feel like if I were to join a critique group I would want them to be more than just a cheerleader for me. I would want someone serious and hardcore to be able to push me to really improve my writing (but at the same time also being supportive). Maybe I’m being too picky…but I didn’t realize how nervous joining a critique group makes me hesitant until I read this post and realized how high my expectations would be if/when I join one.

    It does make me feel better to know it’s okay to switch around until I find a good group and that it is something that seems important to take part in.

    More great stuff, Kate and everyone else! I am learning so much! It’s amazing.

  19. Posted June 15, 2012 at 12:47 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the upcoming post on Monday. I am really excited for it. I also enjoyed (and look forward to revisiting) the comments from others about their critique groups. I remember your Stenhouse post from last year – I loved the glimpses into that aspect of the process that you provided.

  20. Maryanne
    Posted June 16, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    I am a complete beginner. How do you form a critique group? Where do you find “members”? I am wanting to explore writing a picture book and woulk love some tips and perhaps others who are interested to join? Scary, too, but will make me accountable and think “aloud”. Thanks!

  21. Posted June 16, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if anyone else is in the Los Angeles area in this group?

  22. Kelly Mogk
    Posted June 17, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Before I connected with my local NWP site (North Star of Texas! Woot!), sharing my writing was so far outside my comfort zone it nearly gave me panic attacks! The summer I spent working side by side those amazing women was the first time I really started to understand the importance of having a critique group. I strongly suggest getting in touch with this fabulous group of educators to any teachers out there!
    I have been stalking the SCBWI site because I crave some writerly connection, but I’ve been too afraid to join! It’s that old “Who am I to call my self a writer??” monster trying to drag me down… I’m excited to hear more on this topic on Monday!

One Trackback

  • By Teachers Write: Setting Up Critique Groups! on June 18, 2012 at 2:02 am

    […] Last week, I wrote a bit about critique groups — and after I blogged, a whole bunch of super-smart writers popped in to  offer tips and leave comments about how their critique groups work. If you haven’t already read that post, you should go check it out before you continue reading here. […]

  • Find Kate Online