Monday, August 26, 2013

Critiquing Without Losing Your Mind

Today, my writing friend and fellow blogger, Kristin Nador, is guest blogging her thoughts on how to find a critique group, share your writing, and give critiques without losing your mind. She offers a lot of great tips. So glad to have her here! Enjoy her insights, and be sure to visit her blog. (I've included links below.)

Thanks to The Chipper Muse for letting me share today. I love writers who have the heart of a teacher, helping writers be their best with positive encouragement. The Chipper Muse is all of the above.

My first experience being critiqued in a writers’ critique group:

After pushing aside my social anxiety, I attended two meetings of a local critique group (no longer in existence). It seemed my speed: beginning and intermediate writers eager to improve their craft.

The third meeting, I brought a short story for critique. My voice shook as I read my piece. My knees knocked during the five or so minutes of silence while the group studied it. 

A man sitting across the table from me, who I’ll call Attila, looked up, slammed his fist on my handout, and bellowed, “You’ve got to show, not tell! There’s too much telling, not enough showing. Show, don’t tell!” Then he lectured for ten minutes, spit flying and landing in his writerly beard, as he proceeded to ‘teach’ everyone this lesson. No one else commented, then they moved on to the next victim, I mean, critique.
Sometimes, critiques make
us feel this way, don't they?

I wanted to crawl under the table. Somehow I kept my composure. Afterwards someone patted me on the back and said “That’s Attila. He’s very intense about writing.” They added in awestruck whispers, “He’s a published author, you know.”

Did I need to do more showing and less telling? Definitely. Did I need to be told like this? Probably not. 

I’ve grown as a writer since that meeting, but I’m glad Attila ranted that day. It taught me the importance of researching critique groups, and of learning the proper way to give and receive critiques.

Some tips to finding the right critique group for you:

1) Be willing to ‘try out’ different groups before you commit.

Don’t keep going if the group doesn’t meet your needs. Be honest but polite with other members if you decide to move on. Critique groups are not a ‘one size fits all.’

2) If you think you might like to join a critique group, listen, observe, and ask questions:
  • What is the average writing level of the group - beginner, intermediate, or seasoned?
  • What happens at a meeting? Small talk or critique? Are they lions, lambs or owls: do they tear a piece apart, only give pats on the back, or impart wisdom when needed?
  • Is there an established structure?
  • Do the writers submit consistently?
  • Is there an atmosphere of encouragement, or is there tension and competition?

3) What are YOUR expectations? Do you need an objective eye or are you just looking for validation?

True story: ‘Reb’ attended our critique group for the first time. Instead of the instructed
5-6 pages, he brought 16 pages for feedback and insisted we read the entire piece. His work was haphazard and lacked continuity. Even with the gentlest of critiques, he became defensive, rejecting it as ‘not understanding the genre.’ He stormed out before the meeting ended.

Don’t be that writer. 

If you aren’t ready for true critique, try a class at your local community college. Writing classes teach students about craft as well as how to receive critique in a safe structured environment. Good critique groups aren’t there to stroke your ego, but to challenge and stretch your writing skills.

In some critique groups, the trouble is not with the structure or level of critique, but with lack of respect or selfish attitudes. 

At one critique group meeting, ‘Mimi’ proudly passed out her piece for critique, and asked that she be allowed to read it aloud, as she ‘knew where to emphasize for emotional impact.’ As she read, each of the writers in attendance, a mixed group of men and women of various ages, began to shift in their seats.

The reason: the piece was a detailed description about an event of sexual abuse of a child, written in a very seductive manner. The writer had not warned anyone of the nature of her piece. One woman left the room. Worse, a group member’s child was in attendance and heard the entire thing. (Another tip: don’t bring young children to adult critique group meetings.) The rest of the meeting was spent debating the inappropriate nature of the piece. No other critiques happened.

Want to avoid being an Attila, Reb, Mimi, or other critique group drama queen? Here are some tips:

When giving critique:
  • Be honest, but use the sandwich method: note something positive, then something that needs improvement, then something you like or that they’ve improved upon.
  • Be specific. Not ‘Good job’ but what about it makes you like it. “I like how you show how John is feeling by the look on his face.”
  • Don’t ‘rewrite’ the story. That’s their job.
  • You are critiquing the writing, not the genre. Maybe it’s not your favorite genre, but that doesn’t figure into a critique.
  • Critique as you’d want your piece critiqued.
  • If your critique skills need improvement, don’t let that deter you. Practice.
When receiving critique:
  • Be prepared. Print enough copies for everyone. Don’t expect a detailed critique when you read the piece out loud from your computer. If your group has a critique sign-up, show up when you sign up.
  • Brace yourself. Some people are less than tactful. Develop a thick skin. You’ll need it if you intend to pursue writing as a career. Agents and editors are not in business to spare your feelings.
  • Ask if the group will consider R-rated or controversial subjects first.
  • Don’t defend yourself. Listen, take notes while people share their thoughts, and remember they want to help you. If you defend yourself, you are basically saying that the person’s opinion is irrelevant and you aren’t interested in it.
  • Thank everyone for critiquing whether you agree with the opinions or not.
  • Come to a meeting with an open mind. Look for helpful suggestions, but stay true to your vision. As a wise man once said, “Chew up the grass, and spit out the sticks.
Today I’m part of a small critique group that helps keep each of the writers in it challenged, accountable, and encouraged. It’s possible to find the critique group for you without losing your mind.

Happy Writing!

In 2007 Kristin Nador's desire to be a published author, left dormant for many years with a busy life as a military wife and homeschooling mom, sparked again with a simple statement from a writing teacher: "NOW is the best time to write." Since then she has had a short story published in a national magazine and had two short stories and a poem win prizes in writing contests. Kristin is currently working on a contemporary suspense novella. She is a member of Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc. and the current vice-president of Tulsa NightWriters. On her popular blog, kristin nador writes anywhere, she invites other creatives to journey with her and discover their best creative life through posts on writing, creativity, and blogging. Kristin lives is Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, with her husband and Pinkerton the Cat.


  1. I've been in and departed from some local writing critique groups over the past four years and totally agree with this assessment.

  2. I've been in face to face crit groups and online. My online group of International women writers works very well for me. People come and go but there is a core group that has been around for many years. I've been in face to face crit groups that have been similar to what you've shown here, Kristin. A lot comes down to having the right attitude when you put your work before a group and ask for a critique. 'Ask' is the keyword here. I think anyone who wants their work critiqued has to accept the suggestions, or at least consdider them, in order to grow as a writer. If all the writer wants is praise, they need to re-evaluate their reason for being there. Far too long a comment, so I'll quit. You do bring out some very good points in this post.

    1. Glad you stopped by, Nancy. You're always welcome to comment long when you need to, so no worries here! IWW sounds familiar to me. Can anyone join? If so, let me have a link and I'll post it for readers who are interested in checking it out.

  3. I agree, Nancy, especially with your point about attitude. Sometimes writers, especially newer writers, may not understand the purpose of critique. They are eager, sometimes even desperate for validation, and they want people to praise their efforts. When they receive criticism, given as constructively and positively as possible, they take it very personally. If they aren't prepared for honest feedback, it can even affect their future writing decisions. Writers do have to come to a critique group with an attitude that they want to improve their writing, and need to improve their writing, and be open to constructive suggestions. If not, critique groups are probably not for them, or they may need to get more comfortable with it in a classroom setting first. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

    1. Kristin, I particularly love the idea of taking a class in writing to wet one's feet in the whole process - writing, revising, getting critiques... And a good teacher will help make the feedback process constructive, so that writers can learn how to both give and take critiques. Lots of community colleges and continuing ed programs offer writing classes, and I've taken them myself at times and found them very helpful.


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