Gag Orders, And Other Rules To Get The Most From Critique Groups

As many here know, a good critique group can be a writer’s best friend. They give us feedback, moral support, and camaraderie. I’ve belonged to several critique groups over the years. Some groups have been extremely helpful, others less so. Over time I’ve developed a few rules, which I apply only to myself. These self-imposed rules help me extract the most benefit from any type of critique group:

1. Gag Order Rule Number One. When hearing feedback during a critique, I may not interrupt the critique with long-winded explanations of why I wrote something the way I did.

It doesn’t matter why I wrote it that way. Someone is telling me it doesn’t work. I must accept it and move on.

2. The two-thirds validity rule. 

If two-thirds of the group gives the same feedback, it’s probably a valid criticism. I must pay attention to it.

3. Apply feedback, improve. Rinse, repeat.  

We all know people who get the same feedback from the critique group, month after month. And yet their writing samples consistently reflect the same issues, month after month. I don’t fret about these people. I just don’t want to become one of them.

4. Expect to hear about problems, not solutions.

Critique groups are going to tell me what’s not working on my  pages. They usually won’t be able to explain how to to fix a writing problem, because very few people actually know how to fix problems. Fixing things is my job, not theirs. 

5. Gag Order Rule Number Two. When I disagree with the feedback, I nod solemnly, pretend to make a note, and say nothing. 

So these are just my rules that I use to keep me sane and productive in any type of critique group. Do you have any you can share?

21 thoughts on “Gag Orders, And Other Rules To Get The Most From Critique Groups

  1. Stick with one group long enough to separate the wheat from the chaff. I have no idea what chaff is, but I recognize it when it constantly criticizes, belittles, and attempts to sound superior.

    The wheat, on the other hand, points out the good then suggests what improvements might help. It’s not until you get to know a group that the distinctions between the two become apparent.

    • I’ve seen this too, Amanda. Consistently negative for the sake of negative, without solutions. I prefer a better balance from individuals, people who give a thorough honest review yet also suggest solutions or are capable & willing to explore options, within whatever time constraints the group may have. Whenever you find individuals with that good balance, keep them very happy…and maybe occasionally wash their car.

    • I’ve only had one group that had a real problem member. She would get emotional and defensive about any feedback given to her. We finally all quit the group and gradually reassembled later–sans the problem child.

  2. I haven’t found a group yet that makes me totally happy. For the most part, they tend to have too many arbitrary rules to inhibit any real conversation over a review (to explore possible fixes) or the group’s focus is only on reviews (thereby perpetuating the craft problems the participants could be fixing if they knew how). I’d love to find a small flexible group (4 tops) who are willing to keep an open agenda based on the needs of each member. One meeting I could use a scene review, another I could ask for a brainstorm session on scene/plot development. And I’d like the same 4 members to consistently participate in the work of others, even if they don’t have anything to submit, because they want to help. I’ve found individuals who fill this need for me now, but I haven’t found a group that works for me yet.

    Thanks for your post, Kathryn. I like your advice.

  3. I’ve been in a couple of “live” groups, and am now working with an on-line group of 3 people. We’ve been together for probably 5 books each, so we know what we need and tend to cut to the chase. Being on line, there’s no knee-jerk, “how could you possible say that?” reaction.

    However, when I was starting out, I wanted/needed to know WHY things weren’t working. I needed to know HOW to fix it. The ‘sit in silence’ rule didn’t work for me, because I wanted to know how to improve.

    • That’s where it’s easy to get disappointed in a critique group. Anyone who is a good reader can usually tell when something isn’t working. But not nearly as many people can tell you “why” it’s not working, or how to fix it. Worse, some might give you a wrong solution, sending you down all kinds of dead end paths until you feel frustrated. That’s why I limit my expectations of any critique group. I only want to know from them what doesn’t work. Fixing it? That’s my job.

  4. Thanks for the list and yes, gag orders are much needed in critique groups:) I think it takes a special group to be able to really be helpful. Sometimes you just get such off the wall advice you don’t know what to do with it (or worse, contradictory advice). I think sometimes you just luck out (like I did in California) but now I rely on a few beta readers who can really tell me what’s working or not.

    • That’s why I don’t look to a group for advice about fixing things. I figure any good reader can notice what doesn’t work. The fixing of it is really up to me. Once I stopped expecting to hear solutions to problems, I was much happier.

  5. I changed my name for my blog, which of course changes it here as well. I am the poster formerly known as Wren.

    What I am curious about is how you find these groups. As my new name implies, I live far from civilization. The internet is my connection to the outside world. Is there a website one can look for such groups?

  6. She-Hermit sounds much more intense, but I like it! I know there are some online critique groups available, but haven’t tried them. Perhaps someone else could share their experience? I found my original group through my local Sisters In Crime message board.

  7. I’ve been meeting with my critique group–six of us who are all published authors–for so many years that I can’t remember when we started. We’re friends as well as critique partners, and this compatibility is important. We not only critique each others’ works, but we provide support and encouragement through the ups and downs of our careers. Going to critique provides an incentive to write, but we cut each other some slack if we need down time. We still show up, because our opinions are needed by the others. And inevitably the person whose career is in a slump is the one who sells two series next. We are gentle but honest, and I wouldn’t be where I am without them.

  8. I’m thrilled with the group I work with at Compuserve Books and Writers Lit Forum. It’s where Diana Gabaldon hangs out and started out. There are a lot of very successful published authors who started out in the workshops.

    I used to post in the workshops, but I’ve branched off into a posse that gets along well and we are professional enough to not get offended with tough critiques. I still post snippets of the work if I’m fidgeting with something for others to comment on as it’s good to have fresh eyes. So, that might be a place to check out if you’re interested in reading, writing, or improving your writing.

    One rule I have when critiquing is sandwiching. Find something positive about the work and point out what they’re doing right. They need to know they nailed something. Couch the criticism in a way that isn’t antagonistic. Even if you feel like it, don’t say, “This is where I hate your mc so badly I want to rip her throat out and I tossed the manuscript in the trash.” Try to close on a positive note. Point out the things that work and with some work on x,y, and z, this will be a much stronger piece.

    If you can think of a way to fix the problem, suggest it. One person is having problems iwth keeping her pov straight. I did this too when I first started writing. We suggested she pick which character is going to be the pov character and then she can only express what that character would see, feel, hear, smell, taste, think etc. It was remarkable how quickly the light bulb came on.

    I’m having a problem with going deep enough in deep 3rd pov, so one of my crit partners suggested I rewrite the scene 1st person. It’s interesting what a difference that makes. I cut my epic fantasy to 130,000 words to match some mythical word count meter and when I did I cut all internals as well as a lot of arcs and characters. Now, I’m having to retrain myself to stop worrying about word count and write the danged story.

    Anyway, those who don’t have crit groups might try Compuserve. If you do the workshop, they do a crit exchange program you exchange so many crits in payment for uploading a crit the first time, after that it’s crit for crit I think. Aside from the workshop, there are always people who are looking for crit partners and they’re all good people. You’ll find the ones you click with pretty quickly.

    • Thank you for sharing those resources, Julie! Your suggestion for “sandwiching” the positive around constructive negative is an excellent one. Thanks for sharing that!

  9. If I may…

    Going sideways off-tppic, sort of, but…

    These look five good rules for day-to-day living/working/family time as well as in the semi-regular critique group…

    Just my pair o’pennies…

    • G. Smith, I hadn’t thought of it, but you’re absolutely right! Reminds me of an article I read in the NYT about how a woman applied dolphin-training techniques to her husband, with great success! As I recall, it involved showing no reaction to undesirable behavior, and rewarding positive behavior. (She rewarded positive behavior with compliments instead of the dolphin-preferred toss of a mackerel, I believe!) 🙂

    • I first got that piece of advice from a book by William Goldman, I think. He was describing how he handled the endless, nonsensical notes he’d receive on a screenplay by suits in the production office.

  10. I’ve had my nose to the grindstone all day working on a tight deadline. Finally came up for air!

    Great tips, Kathryn! I’ll share them tomorrow when people on the East Coast are still awake!

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