4 Ways to Make the Most of a Critique Group

Today’s guest post is from writer Susan Cushman, a monthly regular here at NO RULES. Read her personal blog, learn about the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop, and follow her on Facebook or Twitter. Cartoon used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at Inkygirl.com.

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” (Aristotle)

“I was confused by your use of third person, omniscient. Wouldn’t it work better in first person?”

“Why did you write this in present tense? I think past tense is a safer way to go.”

“This piece really starts on page fifteen. I would ditch the first fourteen pages.”

If these comments sound familiar, you’re probably part of a critique
group, or participated in at least one workshop. It can feel a bit like
childbirth, with a room full of people watching and giving advice while
you push.

Or, if you know how to hold onto yourself (it’s your baby, after all),
you can take the advice that works for you and leave the rest, like they
say in 12-step meetings. (One reason advocates of AA and Al-Anon say it
works is because “there are no rules.”)

My first manuscript
critique workshop was in 2008, at the Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers
Workshop in Oxford, Mississippi. The MFA faculty-led critique process
was an eye-opener. The critique leader gave each of the 16 participants
an opportunity to “set up” his writing sample for the group—explaining
if it was a complete short story or essay, or part of a larger work, for
example—and then he would let the other students give feedback first.

about fifteen minutes, he would give his own advice. During this time,
the person whose work was being critiqued would remain silent and take
notes on the comments being offered. At the end, the writer would
respond, asking questions for clarity, but trying not to defend the
work. After all, the purpose wasn’t to prove that his writing was
perfect, but to learn from the feedback. This process is called

Five of us at that workshop decided to form a
writing critique group, using the methods we had learned. That group
remained active for about three years, and while we don’t meet regularly
now, we stay in touch and continue to encourage one another. Three
years and six workshops later, I remain a fan of the workshop process,
but I’ve also learned a few important lessons along the way.

1. Sometimes it’s hard to hold onto yourself in the face of greatness.
One summer I participated in the late, great Barry Hannah’s “Wednesday
Workshops on the Square” in Oxford. I have a great deal of respect for
Barry’s work, and for him as a person. But our writing styles are very
different, and there were times when I had to work hard to remember that
it’s OK to disagree with someone who is famous and successful. Of
course I gleaned much benefit from his feedback, and I’ll always hold
onto my writing samples that have his red-inked comments on them, but at
the end of the day, it’s my work.

A well-known author who led a
creative nonfiction workshop a couple years ago felt strongly that the
main character in my essay wasn’t believable. “She’s just too good.
People aren’t like this. You need to show her human side.” A couple of
the other students in the workshop agreed with him.

I spent the
next year considering those words and revising the essay, before I
finally realized that the essay was true to its main character—a dear
friend whom I nursed during her dying days—and I wasn’t going to change
that. I began sending it out for publication. After three or four
rejections, I wasn’t discouraged. Last month the essay was published in a
new literary journal, with my friend’s character intact. All it took
was for the right editor to embrace the work.

2. Be discerning.
This self-awareness is especially helpful when other students at workshops are offering their (sometimes) less informed advice.

“Have you thought about killing off Uncle Jack instead of Aunt Sally?”

Keep in mind the source of each comment during the workshop and weigh
the feedback accordingly. When critiquers have work that is already
published, I always listen more attentively to the criticism.

don’t sell your fellow students short, because even beginning writers
are sometimes the best first readers of your work. Remember that
everyone at the workshop is also trying to improve his own writing. It
takes discernment and selective hearing to take the best and leave the

3. Learn to handle conflicting advice.

Another difficult situation arises when two faculty members offer
opposite advice, which happened to me at a workshop last year. I was
trying to achieve a stream-of-consciousness style, using parentheses to
set apart interior monologue throughout my novel-in-progress, an
approach Michael Cunningham used successfully in The Hours. One
of the faculty members for the workshop liked the approach, and
encouraged me to use the parenthetical phrases more selectively, and to
make each one really exceptional—the way a writer might treat metaphors
in his work. The other leader didn’t like my use of the parentheses at
all, saying that they distracted the reader from the story. The students
in the workshop were split in their opinions on this issue. So I
returned home, read over all my notes, re-read samples of published
works that I consider models for my work, and decided which advice to
hold onto and which to leave behind.

Students were also
conflicted over how graphic I should be in scenes where I describe
sexual abuse that happens to the protagonist when she’s a young girl.

“We need more specifics in this scene—show us what happened, don’t just tell us.”

“No, we get it from the implications. Leave something for the reader’s imagination.”

Both of those are good comments. Again, it was up to me to take the best and leave the rest.

4. Cultivate humility.
next bit of advice might sound contradictory to my encouragement to
hold onto yourself, but I think it’s also important to cultivate a
degree of humility when your work is being critiqued. There’s no need to
defend or explain. At almost every workshop I attend, there’s at least
one person who reacts strongly to his fellow participants or faculty’s
criticism. Sometimes it goes like this:

“I was confused about the plot line here, on page 8.
What’s the time frame? Is this action happening in the past or the

“Oh, you’ll understand that later. It all becomes clear in chapter six.”

So, is it okay for the reader to be confused for six chapters? I don’t
think so. The writer could have benefited from the reader’s questions if
he hadn’t been so concerned about explaining himself. It’s hard not to
be defensive, but humility is helpful in this setting.

If you’re
nervous about attending your first manuscript critique workshop, or
cautious about joining a writing group, I hope these thoughts are
helpful. I’d love to hear about your experiences in critique workshops
or groups—please leave a comment and join the conversation!

There are lots of great workshops and conferences around the country, but I’ll close by mentioning two:

?The Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop, June 10-12, Oxford, Mississippi (which might be full, but sometimes people drop out)

The 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop, September 23-25, Memphis, Tennessee (registration is open, with 10 of 20 spaces still available.)

Z4813c_SurvivalGuide.jpgLooking for more help with critique groups? Check out WD’s own Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide.

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14 thoughts on “4 Ways to Make the Most of a Critique Group

  1. Susan Cushman

    Roselle: I was part of a group that I didn’t feel was helpful a couple of years ago, so I dropped out. They were, like yours, mostly reading poetry, and I was the only member seriously pursuing publication. And the more serious group that I was part of for a few years began to meet less frequently, so I found a critique "buddy"… a writing partner, and we share our work via email attachments and critique eachother’s work. But it took me several years to find this person–someone you feel is on your "level" and as serious as you about improving her writing. You might find someone like this by attending a workshop, which is how my writing partner and I met. But even if you do’nt meet someone like this in person, you might research some writing blogs and see if you find someone that way. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Roselle Zubey

    This was a really great article.At the same time a question arises. What do you do if the only critique group available to you at this time is of no help to you? There is a writing group in my hometown, but the vast majority of the members are poets so poetry is the only area of writing that is critiqued. I really don’t feel that the group would be of any use to me since that is the case. I did go to a meeting once and read from one of my stories. The only feedback I got was that my story was drawing the person in. People I know say that I should still go. Should I?


  3. Susan Cushman

    Theresa: What you’re expressing is that angst we all feel as writers when we receive conflicting feedback, as I mentioned in this post. Just remember that in the end, IT’S YOUR BOOK. I don’t know which sub-genre of fiction you’re writing in, but you might look at several successful published works in that genre (literary fiction? fantasy? sci fi? commercial fiction? chick lit?) and see how they deal with this issue. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    Yasmin: Good luck with your novel, and thanks for reading!

  4. Yasmin Selena Butt

    Jane, I absolutely loved this post. My first novel Gunshot Glitter is being critiqued at the moment for the very first time, so it’s a very new experience for me. What you’ve written has given me a bit more confidence in knowing how to handle the feedback constructively, not personally and most of all healthily. Because it’s a good thing and I know my book will all the better for it! Thank you for this : ) x x

  5. Theresa

    I attend a critique group that has been a huge help to my growth as a writer. Two of the members I respect the most have told me an important plot point in my novel is unrealistic. Others, some of whom read the genre (the other two don’t and neither have published fiction) haven’t mentioned it as problematic or openly commented on it. I agree the event in question may never have happened in reality and may not happen, but it is possible, if even remotely. My characters explain why they want it to happen. I’m still proceeding as planned, but now doubt has been planted in my mind…

  6. Susan Cushman

    Andy: Actually, a manuscript critique workshop will help you improve your work. Then it’s up to you whether or not you pursue publication. But lots of these workshops also include talks on getting an agent, preparing a book proposal, and other info about pubishling. So I guess you should just see what each workshop/conference has to offer and take your pick. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  7. Andy

    Thanks for the response, Susan. It sounds like a good idea to include an Open Mic along with the workshop at Yoknapatawpha. To give the performers some of what they desire 🙂

    I think it’s wonderful that the paid workshops exist to help people improve their work. Now I wonder if there are workshops for people who want to improve their work but aren’t seeking publication?

  8. Susan Cushman

    Andy: I forgot to respond to your last question. Usually writers understand what kind of workshop they are registering for. I haven’t met anyone who has paid the money (usually over $300) to attend a workshop where faculty-led critique sessions are the centerpiece, if they weren’t interested in the critique. Maybe it happens, but I just haven’t seen it. Everyone I’ve ever met at these workshops is serious about getting feedback to improve their work and seek publication.

  9. Susan Cushman

    Andy: I’ve visited writing groups that focus more on writing for pleasure and reading one’s work aloud for pleasure, and those groups are wonderful, but they serve a different purpose than critique workshops and groups, which focus more on helping the writers hone their work for publication. At some writers workshops (like the Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop I mention at the end of my guest post, above) there are times for "Open Mic" during the weekend. During this time anyone who wants to may read something aloud, but not for the purpose of receiving feedback–just for the sheer pleasure of sharing the written word orally. Both venues are wonderful. Thanks for commenting.

  10. Andy

    Great post on an interesting topic!

    Something I find helpful is to look up occasionally while reading a piece aloud in order to gauge the audience’s physical and energetic response.

    Some groups encourage the writer to hand a piece over and let someone else read it aloud to the group, making it even easier for the writer to gauge the real-time response of the group and to hear the piece in a different voice.

    I think there is room for further exploration of the local workshop group to be considered as a venue for sharing work that isn’t really going anywhere after the reading. For example, my local group draws fiction writers and poets who actively seek publication as well as poets and others who read their work seemingly for the sole purpose of reading it to people, almost as a performance in its own right. All are welcome and we provide similar feedback to everyone, though I think the act of reading is more important for some participants than is the critical feedback.

    I wonder how Susan and others feel about having writers with such different goals in a workshop group?

    I wonder if there are writers who show up at the bigger national workshops who are more interested in the performance aspect of the workshop group rather than the specific critique?

  11. Susan Cushman

    Darrelyn: Someone actually made a very similar suggestion about a chapter I submitted from a novel once:-) I think I just smiled and said, "thank you." It would have become a completely different book, of course. And sometimes maybe a suggestion like this could lead to a better book, but it was pretty huge.

    Judy: Thanks for pointing out the paradox I was trying to explain. Well said!

  12. Judy Croome

    An excellent post. Points 1 & 4 highlight the paradox of being a writer: one has to have an ego big enough to survive the rigours of writing…but one has to be humble enough to accept constructive criticism and advice.

    Will retweet this!

  13. Darrelyn Saloom

    Wonderful post, Susan. I’m still chuckling over "killing off Uncle Jack instead of Aunt Sally?” But I agree, there is much value in attending workshops. I can’t wait to read about this year’s event.


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