Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Right Critique Group
By Guest Blogger Renea Winchester

Finding the right critique group is almost as important as landing an agent. The solitary process of writing permits authors to fall headlong into a deep, blinding love with their work. Those who weave words onto paper are often pregnant with multiple characters, giving birth to each one after months, or years of arduous suffering. With so much time and effort spent building this relationship, it’s almost impossible not to adore the people you create. Which is exactly why you need a critique group; even those who write the most perfect book filled with seemingly flawless characters can overlook minor faults.

Critique groups should contain fellow authors who are knowledgeable yet respectful of your work. The first time I braved a critique group was disastrous. The room was filled with twenty authors. By that I mean, “real” authors with PhD behind their name and multiple books proudly displayed on their shelves. At exactly 6 pm, stapled sheets of manuscript were launched down the table. I grabbed the pages and it began. Words, spoken aloud, tumbled about the room while I followed along, pen-in-hand, searching for a mistake. Three minutes later, the excerpt had been read. Two minutes of comments were allowed, then it was someone else’s turn.

This fast-paced reading bonanza continued until I thought my head would explode. The diverse group read screenplays, book proposals, works of fiction and non-fiction. Contrasting genres and subject matter force us outside our realm of expertise, which is an important task in order to grow as an author, but the quality of their work made me realize I was way out of my league.

My apprehension grew with each new critique. Even though everyone welcomed me, I lacked confidence. Instead of paying attention to the written words, my thoughts wandered. There was no way I would whisper a word from my lips. Instead, I wanted to bolt from the room, rush home and burn everything I had ever written.

It would be several months before I attempted another critique group. This time, only five authors met. I calmed my nerves and settled into the chair. The group leader explained the rules: read up to seven pages of double-spaced manuscript; listen to the responses; offer no defense; final decision and changes are your call. I nodded and focused on the manuscript given me by an elderly gentleman. When he had finished reading, he looked around the room waiting for comments. I noticed seasoned members of the group exchanged reluctant glances as if to say, “you go first, I went first last time.”

Finally, someone spoke. Using a soft voice, with eyes downcast, she pointed out minor errors, not mentioning what I felt were glaring mistakes. Suddenly, the elderly man slammed his fist on the table, loudly argued his point, and cursed. I’ve always heard how difficult it is to receive constructive criticism, but his outburst left me shaken. No one had to give me “the look,” I kept my mouth shut about his work, and mine.

Finally, I found the group for me, one with a balance of published authors and greenhorns; a group with a mixture of genres that stretches my creative muscle. The group has given me the confidence to finally read my work aloud, listen to their suggestions, keep the curse words to myself, and hopefully grow as an author.


Renea Winchester resides in Atlanta, Georgia. Her work has been awarded the Appalachian Writers Association Award, and has appeared in numerous magazines as well as Chicken Soup Teens Talk High School and the Cup of Comfort Series. Her first book, In The Garden With Billy, will be released summer of 2010. Her story about Billy was aired on WABE 90.1FM. She may be reached at Her blog is


Karin Gillespie said...

Great choice of topic. I’ve been thinking of critiques a lot lately after having gotten a couple that seemed needlessly unkind. Not the criticism itself but the delivery of it. In our critique group we are careful about how we use language so critiques don’t feel like personal attacks. We never use the word “boring”; we talk about pacing issues. Characters are never annoying or unlikeable; instead we question if they are sufficiently sympathetic.
We don’t make bold statements: This character is one-dimensional; instead we say “could you bring more depth to this character?” And always, instead of giving a laundry list of problems, we make our critiques are solution-oriented as possible. Of course we never ever forget to point out the things that work in a piece. This is a great topic for discussion. Has anyone ever felt they’ve gotten an awful critique? How does critiquing work in your group?

Anonymous said...

I love this quote by Brenda Hillman: "The best writing teacher helps students to identify what is idiosyncratically best in their work and exploit it."