Monday, April 13, 2009

The essential ingredients of a successful Writer’s Critique Group

Patricia Smiley here…

I consider myself an expert on critique groups. Since I began writing, I’ve been in five of them and a member of one group for nine years. For the uninformed, a critique group is a gaggle of writers who meet on a regular basis (usually 3 hours once a week) to criticize each other’s work. I know that sounds sadomasochistic and it is.

Some people shun writer’s groups because they believe criticism stifles their creativity. That’s a legitimate concern. However, I find critique groups helpful for several reasons: (1) They connect me to a community of writers; (2) Writers are also readers who offer me a sounding board to determine what works and doesn’t work in my writing; and (3) To feel pain is to know you're alive.

In my experience, I have found that writers join critique groups for various reasons, including he/she:

  1. Wants to be praised by his peers as the next Hemingway.
  2. Has nothing to do on Wednesday evenings.
  3. Gets free food during the break.
  4. Has a crush on the blond who writes erotica.
  5. Is filled with rage and hostile envy and needs a place to vent.
  6. Wants to become a better writer.

As you have already guessed, only those writers subscribing to number six meet with much success because critique groups aren’t for the faint of heart.

Here are some qualities of a perfect writing group member. He/she:

  1. Is a voracious and eclectic reader.
  2. Knows the difference between things like “point of view” and “voice.”
  3. Knows what suspense is, how to create it, and how to teach others how to create it.
  4. Has no hidden agendas.
  5. Never says, "I don’t read crime fiction because it’s all crap."
  6. Knows how to compliment as well as to criticize.

Groups work best when they adhere to the following principals:

  1. The perfect critique group has a leader who controls the show and doesn’t allow psychodramas or bullying.
  2. Members show up on time and come prepared. “My dog ate my prologue” is not an acceptable excuse.
  3. There is a time limit or a page limit on what each member reads. Attention hogs need not apply.
  4. The writer is never criticized only the writing.
  5. Attendance is required even if one has nothing to read. Writers must give as well as take.
  6. The writer listens attentively during the critique without interrupting, justifying, or chastising the dunderheads who do not “get” what he's trying to say.
  7. The writer thanks the group for their insightful comments and refrains from bitter tears until she is at home sucking Chianti through a straw.

The next writer's critique group is now forming. Anybody want to join?

***Congratulations to Paulie***

Our very own Paul Levine's latest tome, Illegal, which was just released but is already in its second printing, has been the recipient of glowing reviews, including this one by Jon Land at The Providence Journal in Providence, Rhode Island.

“… the most original, offbeat and wholly entertaining thriller of the year so far. Levine is a brilliant stylist as well as storyteller, reminding me of James W. Hall and Rhode Island’s own Don Winslow, whose ability to turn a phrase keeps us turning pages just to see what they’re going to say next…it’s all about creating quirky heroes who fish, surf or, in the case of Jimmy Payne, fight to hold themselves together with whiskey and paper clips.

"In fact, everything about Illegal is satisfying. It’s one of those rare thrillers that reaches every level it strives for and hits a bull’s-eye with every staccato phrase Levine fires off. Timely, tumultuous, and in a word, terrific.”

Congrats Paulie. You make us Nakeds proud.

Happy Monday!


  1. I was in a writing group for a while but I got confused because there was so much disagreement about what worked and didn't work. It got so bad I was afraid to read anything so I quit.

  2. The most important thing you have to learn in a group is what to ignore and what to listen to. I was very fortunate because members of my group were all brilliant writers and excellent critiquers. I listened carefully to every word they said and usually made adjustments based on their comments because they were generally spot on.

  3. Thanks, Patty. That Providence Journal review made my day.

    As for your critique group, if I join, may I steal all the good plot ideas?

  4. Paulie, I just started reading Illegal last night and already I know the review is well deserved.

    And you can only steal good plot ideas that I don't steal first.

  5. But it's okay to have food during the break, right?

    Thanks for introducing this subject, Patty. I think that critiquing is a learned skill, which means that there is a learning curve, and that participants need to have half an eye on the progress of the group. That requires more time and devotion than many writers are able to summon.

    Along with that, many writers are probably more runs with scissors than plays well with others.

    And then there are the groups in which there is a more or less perfect communion of respect and sympathy....

  6. "...perfect communion of respect and sympathy."

    Love that phrase, which is no surprise because you are one of those brilliant writers I was talking about who also epitomizes that perfect critique group member.

  7. And of course eating food at the break is allowed and chocolate is manditory.

  8. James O. Born4/13/2009 4:45 PM

    That's an accurate review. basically best book ever. By a west coast lawyer turned TV writer between the ages of 48 and 65 over six feet tall.

    No it really is that good.


  9. Thanks, James O. Always good to get your input :O)

  10. My mother-in-law PRAISED Illegal (Kindle version--so no photograph of the author, which always helps Paul's chances).

  11. So I guess we shouldn't email all of our blackmail-worthy photos of Paulie to your M-I-L.

  12. Keep it coming, fellow scribblers. I love all attention....praise and ridicule. (I am an only child).

    Gotta go now. Having a drink with Ridley's mother-in-law.

  13. If she looks anything like your real M-I-L, it should be an interesting adventure.

  14. Great Article!

    I identified with 'wants to be a better writer' :)

    I have not written well or much. But I know I have potential- I have seem glimpses