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10 Tips for First-Rate Critique Groups

10 Tips for First-Rate Critique Groups

November 20, 202315 min read

Discover in this post …

  • What’s a writing critique group?

  • How can joining such a group benefit me and my writing?

  • What are the ten most important guidelines for a successful group?


Why Join a Critique Group?

“Writing is a solitary endeavor.”

You’ve probably heard that line before. But is it true for you? Do you prefer to be alone while you write, or do you enjoy being with company? Would you rather write by yourself at your desk, comfortable couch, kitchen table, etc., or at a coffee shop or restaurant alongside other writers?

Writing can often seem like lonely work, but at some point, whether early or late in the process, collaboration is essential. You can share segments of your story with a critique partner or group as you write, or you can wait until your first draft is finished. What works best for you may be different from what works for others. But when it comes time to accept outside feedback, it’s important to select people who encourage you, challenge you, and help you become a better writer. Critique partners and editors can both provide excellent feedback, but today I’m going to focus on critique groups.

First, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. A critique group can take many forms, but when I say “writing critique group” in this post, I’m referring to a live group (either online or in person) that allows you to swap chapters or scenes with other writers and share specific feedback regarding what’s working and not working in each other’s stories.

Why is a critique group valuable? Why do I view it as an essential part of the writing process? Because if you find the right group—which will likely involve some trial and error—you’ll thicken your skin, improve your writing, and learn to view your story from the perspective of someone who isn’t you.

In his early twenties, Brandon Sanderson founded a writing group with Dan Wells and multiple others. Both Sanderson and Wells are now incredibly successful authors. You might think that two successful authors coming from the same group sounds like a coincidence, but I’d argue the opposite: it was a direct result of serious collaboration and critique. There’s something magical about an effective critique group, something that pushes you to become the best writer you can be.

Nicole Whisler Writing Coach

So why isn’t every writer in a critique group?

Usually, it comes down to one of the following reasons:

  1. We’re unaware of the benefits. We’ve never given this topic any thought.

  2. We already have an effective system in place (critique partners, editors, etc.).

  3. Our primitive brain tends to avoid fear and seek pleasure. We’re wired to avoid unpleasant circumstances whenever possible—and it can be discouraging to hear someone expose our story’s weaknesses.

  4. We aren’t sure where to find a group of people we can trust, so we remain in inaction, convinced that getting an outside perspective isn’t that important. Surely we can judge our own writing and be self-sufficient.

But it’s not a matter of intelligence or skill. It’s a matter of being one person, intimately close to your own story. With an effective critique group, you can open your eyes to others’ perception of your work in a way that’s impossible to do alone.

The magic only appears, however, if you find the right group. A group that leaves you feeling wholly disheartened every time you attend, wondering if you’re meant to be a writer because clearly you lack any talent, probably isn’t serving you. But don’t worry—creating a successful critique group with other serious writers is within your grasp! Here are ten guidelines to adhere to if you want your group to thrive:


1 - Set expectations.

If you’re starting your own critique group, be sure to talk with the other members and set clear guidelines at the onset that benefit everyone. When people know what to expect, they’ll feel safer showing up and contributing to the discussion.

You’ll want to come up with your own expectations, but if you’re looking for examples, here are a few:

  • This is a group for all types of fantasy writers. All subgenres and content are welcome.

  • We’re testing out this group with the understanding that anyone can come or go. You’re welcome to suggest improvements if you feel the group could better serve you in a certain area.

  • Please be positive and encouraging to others in the group! We’re here to make each other better writers, not tear each other down.

  • Include both strengths and weaknesses in your critique of others’ work. Start with the strengths. (I strongly recommend this one! Just as a group of cheerleaders is unhelpful to a writer—“Yay, you’re doing so great! Keep it up!”—so is a group of negative Nancies who never have anything positive to say about others’ work. All writers have strengths and weaknesses, and a critique group is an ideal place to address both.)

If your group isn’t open to everyone (maybe you want to exclude erotica or specific content you’re not comfortable reading), that’s okay! Just make sure it’s clear to everyone so that no one joins the group and feels unwelcome because they weren’t aware you didn’t read their genre or material.


2 - Select a group moderator.

We’ve all been there: trapped in a room with a person who just. Keeps. TALKING.

Or maybe you’ve felt helpless, listening to someone verbally attack another group member’s writing and wishing someone would interfere.

That’s where a group moderator comes into play. It’s essential to appoint someone who can be firm with time limits, advocate for other group members, and give everyone an opportunity to speak.

Lacking a moderator is the best way for the group to dissolve into chaos. Choose wisely, and consider appointing a co-leader who can moderate when the original leader is absent, help direct the flow of conversation, and/or serve other admin tasks as needed.


3 - Decide on your methods.

Critique groups will often go through a period of trial and error as they discover what works for them. This is a normal and integral part of the process!

If your group meets in a live, in-person setting, they might prefer to read each other’s scenes beforehand, then come prepared to spend the full time providing feedback. But maybe that’s not realistic for them. Maybe they never know who’s going to show up, so it’s better for them to spend the first hour swapping and reading each other’s scenes, and the second hour giving feedback.

You’ll also want to decide whether it’s best for your group to take turns giving feedback—going around the circle or table in order, for example—or letting anyone jump in at any time to promote a natural conversation. Some groups even provide a time limit per person so that critique members have equal time to speak.

Other questions you’ll want to make sure to answer before your group’s first session include the following:

  • How often are we planning to meet? Once a month? Once a week? (There’s no wrong answer here, but you’ll want to be confident you can provide stability and consistency for group members. Avoid starting something if you’re unlikely to follow through.)

  • How long will each session last? (The critique group I used to co-lead lasted two hours, but sessions can be longer or shorter depending on your group’s preferences. Some trial and error here is a great idea.)

  • Will we meet in person or virtually?

  • Where will we meet? (In Panera? On Zoom? etc.)

  • What’s the maximum word count each member can submit for each session? (Consider the frequency of sessions, number of group members, and breakdown of the session itself as you make this choice. For example, if you meet once a month, have only four group members, and read everyone’s pages before the live session, it’s feasible that you could read 5,000 words from each person. But 5,000 words a week from ten other group members might quickly become overwhelming.)

Once everyone is clear on how the group works, and the methods are effective, writers will be more likely to show up consistently—and spread the word to their writer friends!


4 - Start with big-picture issues.

Your critique group members are not your proofreaders. If they catch small grammatical errors and typos, it’s up to them whether they’d like to mark those corrections as they read your work. But I don’t recommend spending time discussing those nit-picky items.

Instead, as you share your impression of others’ scenes, focus on big-picture items like …

  • Did you connect with the characters?

  • Did the scene have a sense of forward momentum? Did it make you want to know what happens next?

  • Did everything that happened make sense?

  • How did you feel as you read the scene? Was it how the writer wanted you to feel?

If you have extra time at the end and you want to discuss smaller items, that’s up to you and the group. But if your group gets on a tangent and spends twenty minutes debating whether your protagonist’s name fits their personality—well, those twenty minutes could have been better spent.

Nicole Whisler Writing Coach

5 - Avoid arguing or explaining.

I get it—someone is critiquing your baby, and they just don’t understand XYZ about your story. So you speak up and correct them, thinking that poof! Now you’re good. Now they’ll see what they were missing and stop being so harsh and pointing out a plot hole that doesn’t exist.

The problem is, if it’s not clear on the page, the plot hole probably does exist. It doesn’t solve the problem to tell everyone that you have the answer written on a note card on your desk at home, and that readers might not discover the answer, but never fear—there is an answer. Readers can’t consult the author with their questions anytime they want. You won’t have the opportunity to explain the intricacies of your story to readers once your book is published, so put those important elements on the page.

Remember that the members of your critique group are there to give their impressions of your work. If someone says they were bored by one of your scenes, don’t try to convince them they shouldn’t be bored because there’s actually a lot of subtext going on, and they should have recognized it. Instead, work on altering the scene to bring those layers of subtext closer to the surface.

6 - Focus on your feelings.

When giving feedback on someone’s scene, it’s much better to use language like “I felt ____” than “You should ____.”

Your feelings are going to tell the writer whether the desired emotion came across on the page. Writers want to know if your reaction matched the way they wanted you to feel. So “I felt bored here” or “I felt confused” are actually incredibly useful pieces of feedback. Tell the writer that, then leave it up to them to fix the problem in their own way.

If you say, “You should have added an action scene here” or “You should have skipped all this backstory,” you’re providing the fix, not the problem. Unless you’re an editor or a highly experienced writer, suggesting a solution can often lead writers astray. And as writers, we often find it fulfilling to devise our own solutions anyway.

As an exception, it can sometimes be helpful to brainstorm potential fixes in a group setting, but you’ll want to make sure an editor or experienced writer is present so they can clarify why those ideas might or might not work.

7 - Listen to patterns, not preferences.

If one person says something about your story that you strongly disagree with, don’t take that person’s word as fact. Always question why they feel the way they do. Are they your target reader or not? (If they’re in your critique group, I’d hope they read your genre regularly, but this isn’t always the case.) Do they have your best interest in mind? Often, they’re trying their best to help, but sometimes group dynamics can come into play in a negative way. Maybe they’re upset by the feedback their scene received and lashing out at the next person, whether consciously or subconsciously. Get curious and don’t always take feedback at face value.

If not one, but four people express the same opinion, however, you’ve got a pattern. Look into that pattern to try to understand it. Does everyone dislike your main character, while you love her? What exactly do they dislike about her? Does she complain too much? Is she inconsistent in a way that feels confusing to readers? Does she stand back and allow events to happen rather than act with agency in the story? Those are fixable problems.

But if people are expressing their preferences (such as “I’m just so sick of main characters with red hair” or “I personally hate the friends-to-lovers trope”), don’t pay them much heed. They’re entitled to their likes and dislikes, and you’re entitled to write your story the way you envision it.

8 - Use gentle words.

It’s funny that the “weak” words editors (myself included) commonly delete or alter in a client’s manuscript (such as “a little,” “a bit,” “maybe,” “perhaps,” “seems,” “kind of,” etc.) actually work really well when critiquing someone’s work!

Writers have egos. The words you use to critique their writing make a world of difference in the way they receive it. You can make the same point in multiple ways. Which of the following puts you in the most receptive mood?

  • “You totally lost me here. This part makes no sense whatsoever.”

or

  • “I was a little confused when XYZ happened. Can you clarify how these scenes are connected?”

When writers feel like you’re on their side, they’re much more likely to appreciate your feedback and find the inspiration to fix the problem and improve their scene—and as a bonus, your friendship remains intact.

9 - Separate your identity from your story.

You and your writing are separate entities. Try not to confuse one with the other. When critique members provide feedback, they’re not criticizing you as a person, however much it might feel like it. They’re commenting on a piece of writing and trying to help you improve it. If you can aspire to view your story more objectively, you’ll see opportunity in others’ feedback rather than a personal attack.

Yes, you’ve poured hours, days, weeks, perhaps even years into your work—but as much as possible, separate your soul from your story.

This is no easy task. After all, your writing is a reflection of your taste and skill to some extent, but it’s important to train yourself to deal productively with what may feel at first like a personal attack. Channel those negative feelings into something that serves you. The more you view your writing as a tool to be sharpened, rather than an extension of yourself, the more you’ll naturally learn and grow as a writer.

10 - Know your vision.

Nicole Whisler Writing Coach

Sometimes it’s tricky to know whether to accept someone’s feedback. Do you stand your ground, or do you alter significant story elements in hopes of bettering your writing and connecting with more readers?

To answer this question, you need to be deeply connected to your vision for your story. If you want to write a fantasy romance, but two of your critique group members gang up on you and say they despise cheesy love stories, don’t give in right away. Ask yourself what you had in mind for your novel. Most readers enjoy love stories (there’s a reason romance is the highest-selling fiction genre!), so the question is simple. Do your critique members hate all love stories, or do they think the romance in your novel isn’t working? If they hate love stories, that’s on them, and you don’t need to change anything. But if the romance in your story can be heightened, by all means, ask them to clarify what came across as cheesy or unrealistic so that you can go about fixing the issue.

If others have a different vision for your book, you don’t need to pay any attention to it. It’s not their book. Be true to your vision, but listen to common sense. And above all, keep learning and keep writing! One page at a time is how you’ll get where you want to be.


Are you already in a writing critique group? What practices have worked for you? If you haven’t ever joined a critique group, how might joining one benefit you? Take action today and discover groups in your area! You can check for groups at your local library, on Meetup.com, or on online sites like Scribophile. Or you can launch a group of your own. Either way, don’t give up until you find one that challenges and encourages its members, one that keeps you on a consistent path toward the writer you want to become.


Do you want to learn how to write a story that makes your target readers stand up and cheer? If you’d like support from A to Z (from brainstorming to drafting to revising to publication), book a Discovery Call with me to see if you’re a good fit to join my book coaching program, Fantasy Footsteps: Road to Publication. And if you haven’t done so already, grab your Free Guide on how to hook readers from your story’s start!


Nicole Whisler Edits

Nicole Whisler is a developmental editor and book coach who specializes in working with writers of fantasy novels. Prior to editing, she taught English and creative writing full-time for six years. She is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, a member of the Professional Editors Network, and a leading book coach for the Coach Foundation. She lives with her husband and three daughters in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where she leads an in-person writing critique group at her local library.

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