Finding or Creating a Critique Group That You Love

I am currently in a critique group that I love. It totally works for me. And it’s only me and one other person. I’d love to have more people in the group, but it’s not that easy to find someone who is on the same schedule as you, and who looks at critique groups the same way you do. My time and my writing are precious, and to spend a couple of hours giving good feedback, offering constructive criticism, and getting back, “yeah, I liked it,” or “that didn’t work for me,” is just not good enough for me these days.

Many years ago, when I rediscovered my passion for writing, I was lucky enough to live near Denis Ledoux, the author of Turning Memories Into Memoirs. I took a local class that he taught at the Lewiston Public Library every Tuesday, which just happened to be my day off from my medical practice. Coincidence? I think not.

One of the many gifts that Denis gave me during those classes was the ability to critique other people’s writing and the ability to hear my own work critiqued without taking it personally (at least, not very often!)

All of the writers in the group were writing about different periods in their own lives. We did not have a fictional character to hide behind. To this day, whenever I am asked to critique someone’s work, I use the format Denis gave me.

First, I say what I liked about the piece. I give concrete examples: I liked this word, this phrase, that sentence. I thought this metaphor worked well or that this last line is perfect, “because it brings us full circle,” for example.

Then, I say:  “If this were my piece, I might change this phrase…because…” Again, I give concrete examples, and I give a reason. It’s not enough to say, “I didn’t like this phrase…” that’s just personal opinion and every other reader may have a different opinion. To say “This phrase didn’t work for me because it took me out of the story–I was trying to figure out who was speaking,” is a more concrete, helpful example.

The three years I spent with Denis and a small group of memoir writers many years ago and the lessons I learned there have stayed with me. I have been in multiple critique groups since, most in person but I’ve also tried on-line critique groups, and I always come back to those basic phrases:  I liked this… and: If it were my piece, I might change…x, y, or z.

Denis taught me to critique the writing, not the writer.

I was in a critique group once that fell apart because one writer was writing a novel that took place in Hungary. Another participant was from Hungary and didn’t like the way her countrymen and women were being portrayed. She took it very personally.

Another time I was in a critique group and shared a story about a difficult time in my life with one of my sisters (I am lucky enough to have three). Another participant in the group told me I was “giving away my power.” She was right, but since the story was about my 14-year-old self, I didn’t find the comment very helpful.

So here are the rules of my critique group (currently two members, but open to more!)

  1. Critique the writing, not the writer
  2. State what you like about the piece. Give concrete examples.
  3. State what you might change about the piece if it was yours. Give concrete examples.
  4. Be respectful of word count limits and time limits.

In other words, obey the Golden Rule. Give the critique you wish you could get for your piece.

What has your experience been with critique groups? Have you found them helpful?

Diane MacKinnon, MD, is currently a full-time mother, part-time life coach, part-time writer. She is a Master Certifiied Life Coach, trained by Martha Beck, among others. She is passionate about her son, her writing and using her mind to create a wonderful present moment.  Find her life coaching blog at http://www.dianemackinnon.com/blog.

45 thoughts on “Finding or Creating a Critique Group That You Love

  1. Diane,
    I, too, have found the one-on-one critique group the right approach to assist me with my writing skills. My critique group (aka best friend) introduced me to writing over five years ago. We both have been in 3 or 4 groups during that time and found the experience to be similar to yours. Liking or disliking a piece does not help or motivate a writer to improve. That is a reader’s responsibility to like or dislike the written words. Our weekly get-together starts with lunch and girl-gab and then 3-4 hours of critiquing the week’s efforts. We give our positive feedback first, suggested changes next and finish off with suggestions for places to submit and then challenge each other with a prompt. We write for 3-5 minutes on a topic suggested by the other person and then read them back for feedback for the possible development on that day’s free writing. Often, one of us goes on to write a new story based on that prompt. Sometimes, one of us writes a first line, gives the paper to the other for the next line and continue back and forth until one of us kills off the bad guy or ends the story. Ha. We leave feeling refreshed in our writing, anxious to put more on paper and happy after a day’s outing with a friend.

    • Hi gypsgma,
      Wow, what a great process! Those classes with Denis Ledoux that I mentioned used to last three hours, and I loved every minute of it. I’d love to have a whole afternoon with my critique group partner–someday, we will. Thanks for sharing how your critique group works. Sounds very productive and a lot of fun, too!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  2. I agree totally with starting your critique with what you liked about the piece. I am in a writing group and when I am critiqueing someones work I also keep this in mind; Will my comments help the writer craft a better piece of writing? Also when you critique a piece of work, thinking about things like language, pace, imagery, plot etc helps you to as Diane says ‘critique the writing, not the writer’. I usually find that my writing group are able to hone in on weak spots in my writing that I, myself, am already aware of so sometimes critqueing just confirms what you already know.
    But effective criqueing should help you craft a better piece of work.

    • Hi Suzietipp,
      Thanks for your comments about critique group. I agree that a critique should help you craft a better piece of writing. One thing I didn’t mention in the post is that my critique partner and I read our work out loud–that’s a great way to find weak spots!

      Happy writing!
      Warmly,
      Diane

  3. Being a writer is a lonely craft, and getting constructive criticism, or criticism that actually might improve your writing is hard. But a writing group is the way to go. Finding one is difficult, but doable. I also have a writing group that’s worked for me. So much so, that some of us are setting up a magazine. Loved your post! Go writing groups that work!

    • Hi Sofia,
      Wow that’s great that you are starting a magazine with your writing group! Finding the right group takes a lot of work sometimes, but it is well worth the effort.

      Best wishes with your writing group, your writing and your magazine!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  4. “Coincidence? I think not.” – Jung called it “Synchronicity” – the fortuitous coincidence that happens for a reason – and for whatever reason, I’m sure it happens.

    • Hi unpub,
      I agree. That first “class” was my first writing group and it was ideal for me as a self-conscious newbie because we had an experienced leader who gave us the structure to critique each other’s work well. Since then, I’ve been in a number of other writing groups that didn’t work as well, but I’ve kept trying as I know how well it can work.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Warmly,
      Diane

  5. Diane, I am the friend Gypsygma meets with every week and I must say that since we have been meeting she has improved not only her writing skills, but her table manners, eating habits, and her relationship with her husband and family. She still has plenty of shaping up to do, but with my diligent and sacrificial efforts, I believe there is hope for her where there was once so little hope. I marvel at how far she has come since the days of our meetings with a large writers group. Yes, I am pleased to take full credit for her vast improvements, both personally and professionally. She has blossomed like a delicate petunia under my care.

    • Hi Helen,
      Where would gypsyma be without you? Thank goodness you have been able to share your wisdom with her–especially with regard to her table manners!!

      You two are lucky to have each other. Happy writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  6. I would love to join your group. I am exploring writing at this point in my life. I have an English degree so I definitely know the words. It’s putting them onto “paper” in an order that makes sense to others (and myself) that is challenging me at this point. Perhaps seeing what others do it and how they do it will help me, as well as help them when I read their words. Let me know if I can help you…and eventually help myself.

  7. Excellent advice. I am new to the writing group experience, but I have already noticed how some people are too polite or too opinionated for the feedback to very useful.

    • Hi MarinaSofia,
      I agree, many people are just too polite to be helpful. I used to meet a group of writers at Barnes and Noble and we would write for 10 minutes as a response to a prompt and then read them to each other. In that instance, it was appropriate to say only what you liked about the piece, because it was at such a beginning stage. But if I’ve worked on something and bring it to others, I want to know what doesn’t work!

      Too opinionated doesn’t help, either. Say what you think and then let it go. It’s not your piece!

      Keep trying to find a good writing group. It’s worth the work when you find a group that strikes that balance and gives you excellent feedback!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  8. Excellent advice! I’ve been looking for a critique group or even a single person to help further my writing. It helps to have someone who isn’t attached to the story offer insights that you may not be able to see. I think they also help keep you on track with the story.

    Thanks for the advice and encouragement!

    Kat

  9. Here’s a similar model I learned as a teacher:
    P- Praise something specific about the piece.
    Q – Ask a Question that clarifies the writing, either for you or the author.
    P – Suggest something specific to Polish in the piece.

    It even works for students who are peer editing because it’s so formulaic.

    Charlene Oldham
    http://www.charleneoldham.com

  10. Diane, your critique group rules are totally perfect. I am fortunate enough to have found a couple of smart-aleck but very enthusiastic and very discerning folk online who do for me what Denis did for you! Praise be!

  11. Diane, I’ve had a mix of experiences with critique groups. A lot of people just wanted to rewrite my book. I think your 4 rules should be the basis of every critique group. 😉

    Recently I found one person who really clicks with me and we are working through our books together. It’s been a very rewarding experience.

    • Hi headywriting19,
      Keep trying! My first experience with the group was so great, I thought it would be easy to find a writing group when I moved to New Hampshire, but it wasn’t! I went to a lot of public writing groups in the area and checked out online groups. I worked through one rewrite of my novel with an online group, but we all finished our rewrites about the same time so the group ended. Now I’m happy to have one person I can meet with to critique our writing.

      Don’t give up!
      Warmly,
      Diane

  12. About a year ago, I started my own writer’s group when I could not find one to join. It’s been a real mixed bag. I facilitated the meetings to get things started initially, people responded well, we discussed format for meetings. I even scheduled a speaker – Jamie Wallace. Over the months, some have dropped out, a couple of new ones showed up. I would like to say there is at least one person who is serious as I am about having a critiquing group and the process of writing. Mostly, lots of hobbyists. I had a bad experience with someone who thought they shouldn’t be critiqued at all, another who went off on a tangent after a critiquing session (a little creepy). Like MarinaSofia, I’ve often found people too polite for feedback to be helpful although we’ve had great talks about the writing process. I’ve stepped back in recent months asking other members to facilitate, and notice the group is dwindling.
    I’m not sure I’d want a one-on-one, but I’d love to be part of a small group of 3-5 writers who want to share, give constructive feedback and are able to lead as well as follow in a group setting.
    I’ve visited two other writing groups I discovered since starting my own – one was led by a dictator who was the only one allowed to edit, give feedback or decide content of meetings. The other was a Christian writing group – excellently structured in terms of critiquing methods, which I’d like to model, but I’d perfer a more casual style with contributing writers offering more than one genre to critique.
    I’m going to keep looking…anybody from Southern NH? Want to join me?

    • Hi Laura,
      That’s quite the journey you’ve described! All I can say is, keep trying! One writing group that I was in started to fall apart due to time (people took more than their share) so I offered to the the timekeeper. I actually figured out how much time each reader had (say 20 min) and asked them how they wanted their time broken up. Some wanted to read for 20 min and get written comments only, others wanted to read for 10 min and have 10 min for critique. It worked really well. I’d just propose whatever rule you think is important and ask for agreement from the group.

      Warmly,
      Diane

      • I haven’t tried that approach yet…sounds like that would definitely work better for some people so I’ll bring that up at our next meeting! Thanks for the suggestion!

      • That is so true! That’s what many writers complain about – that some people like to take more and even steal some works from others. Your model regarding to timekeeping sounds great to be adapted, Diane! Thanks for sharing the ideas..

  13. Your post helps me how to structure and format my critique process, as I would usually struggle between what to say what I really think without offending the writer or other readers. I also wish a handful of readers who read my writings would follow your golden rule as well. It is very difficult to find someone who shares the same passion in writing and reading as I do, and it is even more difficult to find someone who can give constructive critique that I could use/apply to my writing. Thank you for your words of wisdom.

    • Hi Who Knows,
      Thanks for your comment. If you have a writing group, you can always set new rules and ask for agreement from the group. Then you can wait and see what happens. I find that the structure is very helpful and people appreciate it, but not everyone is comfortable asking others to stick to the rules. So having one person be the time keeper or the organizer can make the whole group more comfortable and more effective.

      Good luck!
      Warmly,
      Diane

  14. glad I read your article about critique group since this is something I’ve been trying to figure out regarding to my passion with writing. Well, the passions that has been abandoned for quite a while! 😦 I am recently re-starting with two blogs now..to still find my style and form of writing..other than my strengths and weaknesses..

    I’ve read some of the comments here and you’re all just triggered me to soon start a critique group, probably on facebook since most of people from my country are still into facebook. I am interested with the group that Diance’s talking about though, seeing that is still open for new members. I am not english native speaker but reading the rule of your group I found them as something I respect and love to maintain in the group critique. But I don’t know if you have further criteria for prospective members to join..

    • Hi aktifistri,
      Congratulations on rediscovering your passion for writing! I’m glad you are writing again.

      My critique group (all 2 of us) is actually not open right now. We meet weekly, very early in the morning, and we are happy with the way it is working right now so we are not looking for new members. Maybe at some point we will.

      Keep trying to find a writing group, either online or in person. It’s worth the effort of finding one.

      Good luck!

      Warmly,
      Diane

      • Hi Diane, thanks for your warm reply, I appreciate it. The reason why I took a chance to ask was because you wrote as I quoted below:

        “I’d love to have more people in the group, but it’s not that easy to find someone who is on the same schedule as you, and who looks at critique groups the same way you do. My time and my writing are precious..”

        and this:

        “.. (currently two members, but open to more!)”

        So I honestly surprised with how you answered me by saying, “..so we are not looking for new members”. Not to mention that you seem interested to other commentator’s interest to join the group as well (nmberlinancy).

        I hope this won’t give me ‘trouble maker’ label though, I just want to share my confusion.

        Either way, I can reasonably see what might be your points as it also stated on the 1st quote above. To maintain and live a very focus group regarding to our passion will possibly turn into sorta ‘burden’ when the members do not share a very close/similar backgrounds (culture, environment, languages, skills and experiences, and so on). Furthermore it would probably cause counterproductive to the whole process. Not to mention the meeting sounds like in-person-meeting (not online). I should have thought further before I asked to not put both ourselves in an awkward situation. Anyways, your articles and the blog itself are great and inspiring. They contribute to the urge of living my blog and making the critique group with my fellow. Thanks for inspiring me Diane, and looking forward to read your other articles! Warm regards 🙂

    • aktifistri – I understand your frustration. I started my own group by running a local ad through craigslist for people in my area. I was surprised to get lots of responses, which I then weeded through and arranged a meeting at a local bookstore cafe. Also, check your local library – many libraries have writers groups that meet there. Good luck!

      • Hi Laura,
        Good advice! I did all those things (except craigslist, but that’s a great idea!) and I just kept trying, because I knew what my goal was: To find at least one other person that shared my commitment to writing and who found my comments helpful and vice versa. It’s worth the work when you finally find that person (or persons, if you’re really lucky!)
        Happy writing!
        Warmly,
        Diane

  15. Hi aktifistri,
    Sorry for the confusion. I did ask one other person to email me off the post, but it was basically to say what I said to you. When I saw your post, I just decided to put it out there that we weren’t an open group right now rather than ask you to email me offline.

    While I really would love to work with a critique group that is 3-4 people, I envision that as evolving over time, with both me and my critique group partner finding someone we both know and are both excited to invite to join our group. I know that we are going to miss out on working with some excellent writers in the short-term, but we are very protective of our group as it is working so well for us right now and it has not been easy to find and make happen.

    So thank you for pointing out my inconsistencies, and please keep looking until you find your own excellent writing group. Very best wishes to you!

    Warmly,
    Diane

  16. Pingback: Monday’s Musings -Critical Thinking – UNWASTED WORDS

  17. Hi Laura, thanks for sharing your encouraging experience. It’s great to hear people experiences to give us more perspective. Library.. I live in China now, there is a big provincial library here, I found it’s so rare to find an English speaking critique group partner; either the locals can’t speak English enough for such purpose, or the foreigners who are writers are just doesn’t share the mutual needs yet. I’ll keep trying anyways..I am sure it’s only a matter of time 🙂

    Diane thanks a lot for kindly explaining what you meant. It’s fully understandable. Not too long time ago, I tried sharing the idea of critique group with someone I know in person (she’s a professional writer) because I feel she has the integrity and quality that I’m looking for from a critique partner, turned out she has her own critique community already, and feels happy with the way it works. But the door is still open for us in the future when we both feels a stronger needs to have one together. For the moment, I’ll try to focus on building my form and consistency first. Then probably start making a public invitation when I feel ready.

    Best wishes to you all!

    • That is a bit of a dilemma for you aktifistri! But here is another option – trying goggling the term “online critiquing” or “critique group online.” You will get hits on several sites that offer you the option of exchanging with other writers online. Is there a board to post on at your library where you can advertise for a group to start? I’m quite sure somewhere there must be at least one or two other people who are willing to share with you! Keep trying – don’t give up! It will happen eventually.

      • Good idea! I didn’t think of those ways yet. I’ll try both ways. Where there is a will there’s always a way, no? 🙂 It’s hard to give up with lovely and supportive people like you and Diane around! Best wishes to you all..

    • Hi aktifistri,
      Wow, no wonder you are having a hard time finding a critique group. When I lived in Europe in the ’80’s, I sometimes had a hard time finding books to read in English, never mind someone to critique my writing with! I think it takes a lot of courage to ask someone to critique your work (and to offer to critique theirs), but it is also a great way to put it out there to the Universe. You will get a response, maybe from a totally different source, but the Universe will respond (in my humble opinion.) Have you ever checked out The Writers Chatroom? They are at http://www.writerschatroom.com and they host online chats every Wednesday and Sunday evenings (EST). Hope Clark is a guest chatter every quarter and they have lots of inspiring authors on their chats. Also, they are a great resource. I know someone on there was talking about an online critique group recently, but I don’t remember the name.
      Good luck with your writing!
      Warmly,
      Diane

      • Hi Diane. true, I believe as well that the universe will respond – thanks to internet technology and the inventors! I will put my wishlist (critique group) out there (or, here? lol) when I am fully ready with the commitment as I am now just begin some works that need to be focus on. Thank you so much for the link, I will definitely check it out asap. Thanks again for your support. Enjoy the spring! 🙂

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