How to Choose a Critique Group That Will Make All the Difference

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Writing can be a lonely passion. Who understands that better than other writers? It’s one reason critique groups can’t be underestimated. The main goal of belonging to a group is to continually grow your craft and build a strong connection with other writers in an objective yet supportive environment.

Some writers seem to hold back from joining a group because of fear their critique partners will slice and dice their manuscript, crushing the writer’s dreams forever. Okay, I’m exaggerating . . . maybe. Even if this were the case, you’d rather hear it from a group of fellow writers before it reaches an agent’s or editor’s desk, wouldn’t you?

If you are one of these writers, first recognize you are stunting your career. There is no better way to grow than to learn how to accept honest critiques. So breathe deeply and take the risk FORWARD to find a critique group. With today’s technology, you aren’t limited to a local group. Members can email manuscripts and critiques to each other and share the cost of video conferencing or use Google+ hangouts and other similar options for your group meetings.

Next, be aware that critique groups vary depending on their members. How will you know that a group is right for you? There is no magic answer. You just have to try some out. Give yourself an adequate chance to connect with a group. Sometimes it takes a while to get to know and understand other people’s personalities and idiosyncrasies. But if the blending of your personalities or goals hasn’t happened after a reasonable amount of time, you need to try another group, because the current one isn’t benefiting you.

Here are criteria to help you to decide if a group is a good fit for you:

  • Do you feel comfortable with most of the other members? Ask each group you visit what their main objectives are. Do they match what you think you need in your writing career?
  • Do some—preferably most—of the members write in a similar genre? If you write how-to books on parenting and the rest of the members write contemporary and historical fiction, it isn’t the right group for you, even if it feels like a fit in every other way. The other members don’t have the expertise to give you helpful critiques, and worst case, their suggestions might even be detrimental. Conversely, you don’t have a matching set of writing skills to contribute to their writing needs.
  • Are there varying levels of skill among the members? The ideal group would include members who are published and whose level of craft is more advanced than yours, as well as those newer to writing whom you can help. You’ll feel like you’re not only on the receiving end but are also contributing to the group. The end result will be a boost in your confidence, and you’ll probably discover something applicable for your own work while helping another member.
  • Is the group’s level of order and timeliness similar to yours? This value is more important than you might think at first. Members tend to gravitate to a group that shares their own penchant for order and promptness. Some groups are more relaxed about deadlines for critiques, while others insist members be punctual. Frustration can build if there is a mismatch in this area.
  • Do you feel a growing level of trust within the group with everyone genuinely supporting each other and striving to help each other achieve your best work? In this kind of safe environment, constructive criticism is given and received positively.
  • Don’t forget to pray for discernment and listen for the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

Why else is belonging to a critique group important?

  • Think back. How many times have you read a piece you’ve written and overlooked a glaring mistake until someone pointed it out? Your manuscript needs to be seen by fresh eyes. It’s preferable to have at least two or three critique partners. If more than one critique points to the same problem—or strength—you’ll have confirmation where you’re doing well and where you need to make corrections. “Plans go wrong for lack of advice; many advisers bring success” (Proverbs 15:22).
  • One of your partners might be especially good at picking out plot problems, another at characterization issues, and another at technique, grammar and punctuation. Group members learn together, and the positive results are evident in each manuscript.

If you’re in a critique group, what have you learned from some of your partners recently? How did you know your group was right for you? And how did you find your group?

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57 Comments

  • I’ve been online in a journal/blog community since 2001. These people are deep thinking, honest and sharp women who are as true as the sky is blue. I trusted a few of them to read my MS and give me their feedback. Each of them gave me things to ponder but one in particular had the honesty to tell me what was missing. She was kind enough to spell things out in black and white and in 12 point font. She was the core of the crit team, she had insight and wisdom that blew me away and made me look hard at my work and justify my words and choices. Her sweet toughness made me work much harder. From her, I branched out a little further and added more critical eyes from all walks of life. From lawyers to pastors, HAZMAT directors to homemakers, each of them were/are readers/writers who added thoughtful, articulate and brutally tough insights to my MS. The hardest thing was letting my characters suffer and grow, even when I just wanted them to be happy. Come on, they were my friends, I didn’t want to hurt them!
    I now have 3 of their MS’s waiting for my eyes, with a partnership on the back burner. A full third of the people in my crit group are not Christians, which makes things interesting. When those who do not believe are inspired and moved, then I know I’m on the right path. What is most gratifying for the first and toughest of the tough crit partners, is that she barely made it through high school and lives on, or below, the poverty line. She has now begun her own MS and refuses to let her economic limitations take her gifted imagination down too.

  • Kate says:

    Thanks Mary for a thorough analysis of how to choose a group. I’ve heard several author friends mention critique groups and one is especially happy with his on-line group.

    I’ve hesitated to make a commitment to a group, and then leave, but I feel like you’ve given me “permission” to search for the right group.

    I am not part of a group yet. I do have an author friend who writes in the same genre as I do, and she’s a good critique partner. I’ll be interested in the comments to find out how others found their critique groups.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Kate, if you’re a member of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), you can get help finding an online critique group or possibly local if there are other members in your area. You can also look into sources in your local area. Being in a group as opposed to only one other partner gives you several perspectives. I hope you find a good fit quickly.

      • Kate says:

        Thank you Mary for the feedback. I am a member of ACFW and have participated in a few of the “loops.” I’ll have to look for info on critique groups in my genre.

        I really appreciate all the comments here..so much to glean from! Thanks everyone for your honesty and for taking time to share your experiences.

        I think my hesitation has been because it’s hard to “break up”….just as Kathryn Elliott described. But I know I must take the risk…and start with a “trial period” like Lindsay Harrel mentioned! I’ll find a group soon!

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    I’ve been part of several groups, none of which were quite right. One was supportive and responsive, but too many different genres. Another had the genres right, but the intimacy never developed. I’m afraid trial and error is a part of finding the right group!

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Yes, it is, but don’t give up. The leg work you do now can serve to save you the expense of a professional editor later on as well as develop encouraging writer relationships. And of course pray for Jesus’s direction. Sometimes it takes a while for group to mesh together or for a new member to feel at home.

  • Michelle Lim says:

    I’ve been in a few different kinds of critique groups. A larger critique group at my local ACFW chapter is where the read aloud and comments from a wide range of writers comes in. I learn from the diversity of the group and have lots of opportunities to give back.

    My close critique buddies are amazing! One is multi-published and a beautiful wordsmith, another is fabulous at dialogue and grammar and is recently agented another is the one that helps me pull out the characters in my story. We help each other online, but occasionally on the phone as well. They are my core group.
    (There are a few others that are on the fringes and I critique with them also from time to time. One particular such buddy is fabulous in my own genre.)

    One thing I have found to be immensely important in critique groups is that your strengthens are different. Sometimes we are drawn to people with similar strengths to our own, but that doesn’t always bring out the best in our writing. With diverse gifts every member of the group can help everyone else regardless of experience level because they are talented in different areas.

    One other thought is the idea of craft buddies/critique buddies. I like to think of my group as craft buddies. There are times we critique each other’s work, but often we hone each other’s writing craft skills by brainstorming, sharing links, reading a scene and looking for a skill that needs work, etc.

    And most of all, I have to agree that following the nudge of the Spirit on this one is HUGE! Finding the right blend of craft partners is a gift and the best gifts come from above, so be listening for that gentle nudge.

    This is a fabulous post, Mary!! There are always tons of questions about critique partners floating around the writing community. This advice is so helpful for writers. I appreciate the thorough information! A link to be shared for sure!

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Excellent point, Michelle: different strengths within a group makes for complete critiques. And great input about other benefits to be gained from being in a critique group. Thanks for sharing.

  • Thanks for this great post, Mary!

    I’m excited to finally be taking this step forward in my writing career. I wanted to be sure to find the perfect CP, and I am hoping I have. We’ll begin a trial period this month. I’ve also just joined an in-person critique group; there are three of us, and we plan to meet once a month by Skype or in person. I’m hoping that both will be beneficial and will help me to grow as a writer!

    • Kate says:

      Lindsay,

      I really like the idea of a “trial period” for a critique partner or group…I think this idea has really helped me be OK with the idea of leaving the group if it’s not a fit! Thanks for sharing!

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Thanks for your two great points, Lindsay. A group can start off as a trial run. Less pressure in that, and it lends itself to making adjustments and evaluations along the way.

      And Skyping (or Google+ handouts) are an excellent suggestion for long-distance groups.

  • Tiana Smith says:

    I’ve had to pick and choose within critique groups. I joined one critique group a while back, but only a couple of the members really felt like a good fit, not the whole group. Our group eventually unraveled, but I still critique with those two original members. This happened again with another group I joined. So, now I have about 5 people who I critique for and who critique my work, though we aren’t part of an official group. I call them my critique group, but they also have other people that they turn to and they don’t all know each other.

    One of the biggest things is writing in the same genre. I’ve received advice that I knew wasn’t right for my story or age group because that person wrote high fantasy, or adult fiction. Sometimes with a critique group, you also have to be fairly secure in your own writing to know when to take their advice and when to leave it.

    • Elissa says:

      I agree that genre can be a serious issue. Some writers understand multiple genres (because they read them) even if they only write in one. But I’ve found that many have trouble giving a useful critique when the genre is one they simply don’t “get”.

      Some people even have a bias against particular genres. How can you get a fair critique on your historical romance when the reviewer claims to “hate” romance?

      As you say, knowing when to take or leave advice is hugely important.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Tiana. I’m sorry you’ve had some disappointing experiences, but it’s good that you can still connect with the partners you felt comfortable with. Is it possible to for all those you critique with to meet together on Skype or Google+ hangouts to form a closer-knot group?

      You stated well the case for having partners who write in the same genre you write in and knowing when not to take certain advice.

  • For a number of months I’ve be wrestling with how to exit my current critique group, (too many genres), in favor of a WF focused group, but it feels a bit like a break up, “It’s not you, it’s me.” :-) Everyone is very supportive and professional, so I know my choice will be respected – but still, making the move is difficult.

    • Kate says:

      Kathryn,

      I love that name…it’s mine too! Anyway, thanks for sharing… the idea of “leaving” has been one of my big fears in joining a critique group! I hate to make a commitment and not fulfill it! Hope you’ll find another group that will meet your needs!

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Being professional, those critique partners will certainly understand your reason for leaving. Kathryn, you didn’t mention if you have another group you plan to join, but it might be best to find another one before you leave this one.

  • Anita Mae says:

    Great post, Mary. And you’re so right about having different critters look at your work.

    I started with one critter, a multi-published romance author with a major in English who I found on line. The relationship didn’t last because I disagreed with so many of her suggestions. Likewise, she discounted all of mine. Now, 5 yrs later, I look back and realize she was right on some counts, and I thank her for bringing those to my attention.

    Around that time I joined the ACFW and found their Critique group program. I don’t know what the actual title is, but you signed in and they assigned you to 2 or 3 other critters and gave you a code name like Crit #00. Although Crit #00 broke up when the ACFW began their huge and current Critique group, one of those gals is my permanent critter. I wouldn’t think of submitting anything without her look-see. However, as you mentioned, she has her strengths, mainly plot holes and keeping me tuned to the storyline. As a teacher, she also catches my grammar and basically makes me look good.

    Two years ago I was invited to join a group blog with the overall intention of being a support group for each other’s writing. All contest divas, we’re basically at the same writing level, but each have our own areas of expertise. It’s gratifying to know that when I need something critted yesterday, I can send it to the group and at least one, usually more Inky sisters will drop what they’re doing and say, send it.

    Out of the 12 Inkies, 2 seem to jump faster when my call goes out. One picks me up on GMC and wants me to dig deeper (tells me when I’m boring her). The other critter is on a different brain wave than I. She doesn’t ‘get’ my nuances or hints. ie She can’t read between my lines. At first this irked me until I realized that not all readers are going to get them, either. The result is that I now add a bit more explanation so the reader has a hint of what I mean without ‘talking down’ to those readers who would’ve caught it the first time.

    Would I trade any of my critting team? Nope. God has blessed me with these wonderful women and I’d really like to keep them with me on this journey we’re taking together.

  • What a great post, Mary. I’m not in an official critique group, but I have two critique partners who each bring unique strengths and insights to my writing. Sometimes it’s a painful process, but I’m thankful for the way they sharpen me.

  • I have been and am now in some wonderful critique groups, but I was also briefly in a few bad ones. One online group wasn’t well moderated and the person who started it expected people to critique her things several times a week but never critiqued anyone else’s. A local face-to-face group I tried long ago consisted of secular writers whose work included soft porn. When I shared my Christian children’s mss they just patted me on the head, said things like, “Very nice, dear” and went on to critique the “real” writing. I’ve also been in groups where people argued about every suggestion. I guess they only joined because they wanted praise. Badly run groups or those that are poor matches do more harm than good, but good ones are great. Besides helping each other’s writing improve, we become close friends.

  • What an awesome list! Thank you. I found working in several crit groups I’ve encountered some really awesome CPs in which I am very grateful for.

  • I’ve found myself in a very unique position with my crit partner. We met at ACFW conference in 2008, in one of Susan May Warren’s brainstorming LNC’s We’re a perfect fit, even though I write historical romance and she writes cop suspense. On the surface you’d never think it works, but it does.

    I love reading suspense and mysteries, but I can’t craft them to save my life. I do, however, have a gift for figuring out the entire suspense/mystery thread in the first three chapters. Her goal is to keep me stumped until the reveal, and she knows it’s good.

    Her love of history is nearly as deep as mine, and while she’s written a good historical, it’s not quite as good as her suspense. The way she helps me is finding places to go deeper with my POV and she helped me find my voice and niche. I’m writing about French Creole Louisiana, which she finds unbelievably fascinating, even before she met me.

    We brainstorm, hash ideas out to see if they’re worth brainstorming, gauge how good a scene is by the number of goosebumps present on the reader’s body, and to top it off we’ve become very close friends who can share anything and know it’s a safe place to do so. We Skype, we talk on the phone, we email back and forth sometimes in excess of 40 times a day. Right now we’re doing what we call Pandora marathons where we’re both writing at the same time with a Pandora station playing.

    Right now we’re both playing in the science fiction/fantasy world on the side (though mine is more all-consuming right now) and totally sucking each other in to something neither would normally read. That’s generally a good sign.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Rachel, you are blessed. Thanks for sharing you positive experience and making the point that similar but diffrent genres can work together if critique partners have complementary gifts.

  • Skye says:

    Thanks for the encouraging blog. I really need to find a new crit partner/group after losing one that I’d come to really rely on. I sold a manuscript recently, my first, and was complimented by the editor for the quality of the work – I know that a lot of that compliment belongs to my crit partners, one in particular, so I know how critical it is to have a good working relationship with a critique partner or group. For me, the hardest part isn’t going to be a willingness to put my stuff out there, it’s finding the right people to work with. Thanks for the encouragement to end my pity party and get it done.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Skye, thanks for stating the case for the positive impact a group of critique partners can have on the quality of one’s work. I sincerely hope you find a new group of partners who complement each other and have the same positive effect on each other’s work.

  • Thanks for the reminder. I think I need to really pay attention to finding a new group. I’m in a face-to-face group now, but the members are so lax that it feels more like a social club than a crit group to me.

    I usually find my crit groups through searching writers’ discussion boards or by word of mouth at conferences. I prefer groups that require sample writing before allowing new members in, just because it helps to know if the new members are writing in genres and at levels that make them a good fit for the group. I also prefer groups that are mandatory participation groups. I don’t mind chit chat, but I really want my crit groups to be about working more than socializing. I have plenty of other groups for socializing.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Excellent advice, Sally. Thanks for sharing. I hope you find the type of group you described soon.

      Thanks also for suggesting places to look for a critique group.

  • I found my critique group by signing up on a lonely clipboard at the back of my first one-day conference with Oregon Christian Writers. We met the next month–I joined a small, but already formed, group. We are different than most as we send ahead, up to 15 pages, and come with line edits and general suggestions already done. Still, we spend hours going over those 15 pages.

    We’ve opened the group a few times, but no one else clicked the same way, so it’s just the three of us. People can apply to join and go through a trial period. I know that soundest elitist, but we’ve been together 10 years now and we don’t want to risk what we have worked so hard to form.

    We’ve critiqued whole manuscripts when someone was on a deadline, turning it into a potluck and whole-day meeting. We’ve seen each other through births, adoptions, divorce, and remarriage. And changes of genre. Not only are they my writing buddies that deserve credit for part of my Christy nomination and Carol nod, but they are my best friends!

    (I joke that they MUST BE better critiquers than I am because I’m published and they aren’t yet!)

    • Judy Gann says:

      Christina’s group is excellent! But, nonfiction writers, be warned. They invited me, a nonfiction author, on a retreat and were the first to encourage me to come over to the “dark side” (their words)and write fiction. :-)

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      I agree writers conferences are some of the best places to look for a critique group. And trial periods are wise both for the new attendee and for the established group. You are right to protect the highly functioning group you have. You are blessed.

  • Miranda says:

    Very helpful tips on how to find a crit group Mary. Thank you! Must admit, the part of finding people that write in similar genre didn’t occur to me. Not only would the members be of little help to me, but so would I to them.
    Great Post!

  • Amanda Dykes says:

    Mary, thanks for these tips. I’m praying for the right partner(s)/group now, and this helps me know what to look for and also how to prepare in order to be useful to them. :) Have a great weekend!

    • I may be a bit late in this, but wanted to just say that I would love a couple of critique partners. I’m working on my first novel in historical fiction, so if anyone is interested in just chatting and seeing if/how we could help each other, send me a note! I enjoy this blog and all the commenters here.

      • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

        Christina, thanks for joining the discussion. As has already been mentioned, one of the best places to look for a group is at a writers conference where you can meet and talk to people face to face.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Amanda, thanks for adding the most important part of anyone’s search for the right group: PRAYER. Pray, trust and rely on his promise, “But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:13).

  • Cindy R. Wilson says:

    Very wise post. Good critique groups can be a huge blessing and I definitely think it’s smart to ask yourself and your group questions before joining.

    I found my group through blogging, which was an awesome way to do so. You kind of develop relationships with people, writers, out there, and get to know what they write, what they’re like, and how committed they are. My critique partners have taught me so much – everything from how to strengthen my plot to how to make more loveable and relatable characters. They’ve also been a support system not only with my writing but with life in general. Again, such a blessing :)

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Cindy, thanks for sharing your success story finding a group through blogging. Good idea to have this thought in the back of your mind when you are commenting back and forth with other commenters too.

  • Dale Rogers says:

    I live in a small town, and there’s only one critique group I know of. It’s been publicized through our library, and I’ve been going for almost four years. Although it’s taken some time, there’s a warmth growing among us, and some good suggestions have been made. (But some have been just plain wrong.) The most helpful thing to me is letting a member who’s strong in the common sense department take my ms home and make notes. He points out logistic problems I’ve never even thought of.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      I’m glad you’ve had a measure of success with your local group, Dale. Fortunately, in this day and age you aren’t limited to local groups. If you can get to writers conferences or develop compatible relationships with other writers on blogs, you may find an online group that will be a greater blessing to your growth as a writer.

  • Judy Gann says:

    When I made the switch from nonfiction to fiction I knew I needed the help of someone further along the fiction writing journey. For four months I prayed for a critique group with at least one published novelist.

    Thanks to my agent who helped form our group, God placed me in a critique group with not one, but three multi-published novelists. I learn so much from, not only from their critiques of my writing, but from reading their chapters. They’ve shown me how a novel comes together–beginning to end. They all write historical fiction and I write women’s fiction. But, my different genre hasn’t been a problem for us.

    At first I worried that I, a newbie, would have nothing to offer them. But, they say my greatest value is my reader/librarian perspective.

    This is my third critique group and in the past I experienced many of the problems some of you have mentioned. But, pray and keep trying to find a good fit for you. There’s such value in “iron sharpening iron”.

    Thank you Bonnie, Sarah, and Ann. You’re the best! Wendy, thank you for bringing us together.

  • This has been the most difficult part for me at this stage, and that’s finding critique partners who aren’t so busy (their own deadlines) that you get lost in the shuffle.

    It’s such a strange brew to come up with and I feel sad at times when I see a great, functioning crit group. I have stuttered and started so much. It’s hard when the best group I’ve ever been in was the first one, way back in the day.

    But I agree with your list. This is great advice. Praying is a given. It will happen when you least expect it (at least I hope so!)

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Ah, you brought up a new point that needs to be considered as well, Crystal. One requirement of any group should be that the partners be committed to each other with their time if they’re going to be part of the group. I hope your finding a group “when you least expect it” happens soon.

  • “Don’t forget to pray for discernment and listen for the Holy Spirit’s guidance.”

    Excellent advice!

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    For a long time I resisted joining a critique group and waiting was a mistake. Even though I’m not a good fit for my current group (as per some of your bullet points) it’s still been a great experience, helping me to grow as a writer and improve my work.

    Some will surely disagree, but my suspicion is just about any critique group is better than no critique group!

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