View Full Version : Using a critique group to the best advantage

03-25-2010, 10:31 PM
I've recently joined a critique group where the pages that are being read are passed out at the meeting and then comments are written and given back to the writer. There's also some verbal discussion.

The group is open to all kinds of writers but it's mostly fiction with some poets. All levels of experience and published/not published/hobby.

I'd like to make good use of these comments (verbal and written). I know it's totally up to me whether or not to incorporate the suggestions into my work, but I'm having trouble keeping them organized. I look through the notes but then don't know how to keep track of them ...

Any suggestions? I'd like to hear how other critique groups function and how as a writer you use them.


Aggy B.
03-25-2010, 11:02 PM
Well, my experience with a critique group was at the college level so it's been a little while. But I've been dealing with sending stuff to beta-readers and getting notes back which is not all that different, just that with a group you see the people face to face.

I usually read through everyone's notes first. A lot of times there will be some overlap - issues/points that all of them thought needed work/clarification/etc. Sometimes it's a general issue ('need more description of settings'). Sometimes it's something more specific ('This dialogue is stiff and doesn't fit the character').

Once I've read through the notes once, I go back and start figuring out what I need to change. First I make a list of the general things I need to change. Those are things I'll probably have to think through for a bit before I start writing. Then I open up (or lay out if I've got paper copies of everyone's notes) the different copies and my own copy (in a new document, of course). I go through page by page and make corrections (things like missing words or unneeded dialogue tags, misspellings, bad comma placement, etc) as needed from all the notes at once.

It can be kind of slow going, dealing with three or four or eight different sets of notes at once, but if you take it page by page it's not so bad. This is also why I suggest reading all the notes through at least once before you start making edits/corrections. Some suggestions you may disagree with. Others you might like but you'll need to do heavier revising. If you know what everyone says it helps to get an overall picture of what you feel needs to be revised.

If it's easier, you might also transfer all the notes onto a single paper copy. I do this sometimes when I've done some editing on my own plus gotten notes back from a reader. I go through and add their edits to my own (when they seem to be applicable) so it's all on one copy instead of shuffling through four or five sets of pages.

Hope this helps.

03-25-2010, 11:05 PM
first, i'd say take all the comments with a grain of salt. especially from non published writers.

My technique is still messy but...:

read them all.
note the categories in you head or on paper (confusing point, voice, dialogue, syntax, etc.)
read them again in the context of your categories, and compare to see if they're saying similar or different things.
consistent feedback is good it means you need to further examine a point. not that you need to change that thing outright to what they suggest, just examine it and understand what it's missing instead of hitting.

Layla Nahar
03-26-2010, 12:00 AM
I was in an critique group that worked out really well - and a big part of what worked was getting our feedback spoken (in addition to written feedback) I'm offering a description in case you might want to consider proposing something like it to your current group. Having the spoken feedback gives you the same material, you can remember it pretty easily, plus refer to the written crits

This is how we worked it out-
A subset of members handed out their writing in advance to everyone in the group, and the group had two weeks to read & write up comments

When we met, we gave spoken feedback. We started by giving our positive comments, and after the group had offered 3 positives, we gave our crits. The writer was forbidden to explain or justify what s/he had written - his/her only role was to listen. At the end of listening the write was able to ask questions. (some people put their questions on the drafts they handed out for comment)

this group worked out really well. (I really want to do a group like this again). The format was based in part on Peter Elbow's (yes - Elbow) 'Writing without Teachers')


03-26-2010, 12:51 AM
I have a critique group of 8 people. We've been meeting once a month for about 4 1/2 years now. Half the group hands out their pages at a meeting, while the other half has their previous submissions critiqued. We do the written critiques between meetings...and then have discussions on each one at our meeting. When the meeting is over, you have 7 versions of your critiqued work...quite often the suggestions are the same...but not always. So I know what you mean...that's a lot to keep track of. When I get home I read every critique and highlight any suggestions I like...then go through and make the changes I agree on and ignore the ones I don't. I have to do this as soon as I get home...if not, I could end up with several months worth of critiques to go through and that's just too overwhelming. I suggest you just read all the suggestions, highlight the ones you like and immediately make the changes that you are comfortable with.

Linda Adams
03-26-2010, 02:20 AM
In the group I was in, we sent out about fifty pages to members about two weeks before. They'd read the material, mark it up--we didn't do line editing--and have discussion of the comments. Because of the area I'm area, we always drew a lot of published non-fiction writers who wanted to write novels--usually they disappeared after three chapters when they realized it wasn't going to be like writing a non-fiction book. The one thing I liked about the group was that they hadn't really been exposed to "The Rules"--if you did something that broke a writing rule, they didn't trot out the rule book (at least for the most part; we did have an adverb rule guy for a while) to admonish you for breaking them. I'm evidently a pretty big rule breaker--I haven't been able to get a critique since without being pounced on rule breaking.

On dealing with the comments, I mainly listened and asked questions for clarification. I only took notes if it was something I thought I would forget. For the most part, if a comment made sense to me as something that needed to be fixed, I'd remember it and fix it later. Sometimes it needed to percolate in my head for a while, too, so I can understand what the problem exactly is.

However, it should be noted that I treated the comments very differently than other people receiving critiques. I've seen some people take the comments verbatim as automatic changes and update the manuscript. I only want to know what the problem is, because I'll fix it myself. So I don't save or try to organize the critiques (which would be a lost cause, since paper is my enemy).

One of the things I consistently noticed though was that critiques often picked up on problems, but identified them incorrectly. I remember getting a critique of the first fifty pages, and not one comment was the same as another--from ten people. Yet, each comment actually pointed at the same problem, but no one identified it. So sometimes you have to read into it and ask, "Is something else causing this?"

03-26-2010, 02:30 AM
Hi, Junie

My critique group sounds similar to yours. All levels welcome, any kind of writing welcome. We also pass out hard copies and we read our own piece aloud as the other members read along silently.

I think it's easiest to make good use of this format by taking along a notebook. You can jot down each member's thoughts as they share them in a column for each member's name. Later, you can write down the written notes they give you in the same notebook. Then later on you can go over each member's ideas when you're alone and consider whether you think they'd help your work.

I have really enjoyed the face-to-face critique group I attend. Even the members who are in it only as a fun hobby, and don't have aspirations to write full-time as I do, have had good thoughts to share on my work (and everybody else's!) When you really click with a particular group, it's a good feeling.

Have fun with your group! :)

03-29-2010, 01:02 AM
Hmm, well, I've never been a part of a critique group, per se; but if I were, I'd certainly do most of what's stated in some of the posts above - but place the non-published writers in a separate category.

I wouldn't casually cast aside a non-published writer's thoughts (as I gathered from defyalllogic's post); rather, I'd place them in the avid reader's category. they may not be published yet, but it doesn't mean they don't know what they'd like to read. Aren't the opinions of general readers your ultimate goal?

Again, it's just the opinion of someone who's never been a part of a critique group. I've learned something from this though. Perhaps I'll start one!

03-29-2010, 02:51 AM
Taking the feedback with a grain of salt is good advice, though I don't think I'd differentiate as much between published/unpublished as I would between experienced and inexperienced. Not just writing experience but critiquing experience as well. Some of the best feedback I've received has been from people that are voracious readers, but hardly write at all.

03-29-2010, 03:55 AM
Hmm, well, I've never been a part of a critique group, per se; but if I were, I'd certainly do most of what's stated in some of the posts above - but place the non-published writers in a separate category.

I wouldn't casually cast aside a non-published writer's thoughts (as I gathered from defyalllogic's post); rather, I'd place them in the avid reader's category. they may not be published yet, but it doesn't mean they don't know what they'd like to read. Aren't the opinions of general readers your ultimate goal?

Again, it's just the opinion of someone who's never been a part of a critique group. I've learned something from this though. Perhaps I'll start one!

Red font is mine!

I had the same thought after reading that particular post. Why only consider the published writer's critiques? You're ignoring a vast amount of valuable input if you follow this 'advice'! Just because a writer is unpublished doesn't mean they don't know the craft or have something valuable to say/add. In fact, I'd bet many unpublished writer's are just as good if not better than those who are published. I don't even put them in a "separate" category--I want derail this thread by going off on a tangent about getting published (talent, luck, submitting the right MS at just the right time, etc.??) ;)

To dismiss someone's input just because they're not published (yet)? This is very shortsighted...IMHO.

03-29-2010, 06:36 AM
it's not to say they don't know how to read or write. it's to say that if you're looking to sell, would you prefer the advice of someone who has sold before or someone who hasn't? if you're looking to publish scifi would you want a nonfiction lover? if you're writing flash fiction would you want someone who has never read it?

If you had to choose to get your critique from a full time editor, an elementary school teacher, a 16 year old, a house wife, an accountant, a published author in your genre, or a stranger in the supermarket, who would you choose?
It depends on the type of work, the stage you're in, and the type of feedback you're looking for.

I would gladly take context and syntax and other such advice from a reader. any reader. but I mean if you are trying to polish your final draft for sending and you have the conflicting input of someone who's done it and someone who hasn't I would take the opinion of the person who's made it happen.

everyone will have an opinion of how things SHOULD be. their style and tastes vary. I would also value the opinion of an avid scifi reader critiquing a scifi piece over that of someone who just isn't that into scifi.

I was more speaking to the major question that's posed when you have some one critique your story: What would it take to get this sold?
If you've sold, your answer is still speculative but grounded with experience.

03-29-2010, 10:13 PM
A group with writers of varying genres and levels, and where the work is distributed and critiqued during the meeting just doesn't sound very productive to me. Perhaps it would work out well for a beginning writer, but once you get some experience, you might want to look for, or form, a smaller group comprised of writers in similar, broad genres (e.g. fiction, nonfiction, poetry) and of similar levels.

I suggest similar levels simply because it takes an awful lot of work to critique beginning writers. If you are serious about your own writing, the intensity of that kind of critique can drain you. It's not fair or helpful to them if you can't give them that. You can always teach a workshop to give back to those who helped you when you were at that level. I taught senior citizens for six weeks through the Salvation Army once in workshop fashion. It was a blast.

I've never been in group where the work was distributed and critiqued in the same meeting. I can't imagine that I would be able to give any real thought to the prose without some time to take it in at my own pace. I prefer groups where either the work is emailed ahead of time or it's distributed at the previous meeting. Then, as someone else noted, writers can verbally critique each other's work during the meeting and the person receiving the critique can refer to the notes for more details.

I really don't think it matters whether a writer is published or not. What matters most is how well-read the writers are. When it comes to beta readers, I prefer avid readers to writers. I'm thinking that when I finish this next novel, I'm going to offer a book club lunch in exchange for critiques. It would money well-spent.