Should One Seek A Critique?

By John Gilstrap

On November 1, 2010, I was a reluctant founder of a critique group that was designed to help a group of professional writers better. Everyone lived in Northern Virginia, so we could meet in person, and since I had the biggest basement (and a Big Boy Job at the time, which put constraints on my ability to come home and head out again) we agreed to meet at my house. In my rumpus room, as it were. Thus was born the Rumpus Writers, aka Rumpi.

Since then, Donna Andrews, Art Taylor, Ellen Crosby, Alan Orloff, and I have met every month, with 100% attendance by everyone. That’s 138 meetings. The madness of the pandemic drove us to Zoom, but the record remains. Among the five of us, we have published (or have under contract) 92 books, 53 of which came out since we started getting together. In addition, we’ve written and published 109 short stories and edited 12 anthologies.

Collectively, we have been nominated for 55 major industry awards, of which we have one 36. Awards and nominations include: Edgar, Derringer, Agatha, Lefty, Toby Bromberg, Anthony, Barry, Library of Virginia People’s Choice, Romantic Times Readers Choice, Dilys, Macavity, Thriller, Shamus, Alex, Mary Higgins Clark and (believe it or not) the Gourmand World Cookbook Award.

Full disclosure: I was resistant to joining this group back in 2010 for several reasons. First, I am loathe to share unfinished writing with anyone. I didn’t understand the point of wasting other people’s time reading something that I already know is not up to snuff. Second, groups consisting of busy people tend to fall apart quickly. People don’t take their commitments seriously and I feared that the group would devolve into a massive time suck.

I didn’t really know any of these other authors until our first meeting. I had crossed paths a couple of times with Donna Andrews, and had chatted a couple of times with Ellen Crosby, but that was the extent of it. I made my concerns clear on our very first meeting. Not only were they well received, they were shared by everyone. That’s when we made the commitment that we would never miss a meeting. We’d figure out a way to get together once per month, come hell or high water. So seriously have we taken this commitment that there’ve been a few times when no common dates were available in a given month, so we’ve doubled up the meetings on the previous or subsequent month. There’s never been a twelve-month period when we haven’t met 12 times.


The meeting starts at 7 pm. Read: 18:59:60. Every meeting starts with news of both the personal and business variety. The news is sprinkled with a hefty serving of gossip, too, but there’s an ironclad rule that nothing said leaves the room. Given recent circumstances in the news, we are officially more secure and honorable than Supreme Court clerks.

The chatting lasts for about an hour, and then it’s time to get to the business of critiquing. In turn, we read aloud from that week’s submission. Then, there’s a round-robin of input and we move on to the next submission. It’s rare that everyone has something to read on any given night, but it happens from time to time. Most submissions are in the range of 12-15 pages, but they’ve gone as high as 30+ pages. I think I am the record holder on a complete short story, but I needed to know if the payoff actually paid off.

Rules of Engagement

This one’s pretty easy. We’re honest without being snarky. One of my most frequent comments is, “Nothing happened in that scene.” It’s easy to do. You get caught up in exposition or dialogue and action gets lost. A comment I hear about my own work more often than I’d like is, “That emotion felt unearned.”

Then there’s the occasional knife to the heart: “That whole thing just didn’t work for me.”

Occasionally, there’s disagreement between us when offering a critique of a member’s work and we talk through it.

The target of the critique remains silent, taking it in until the end, when it’s fine to seek further input.

Pre-Validation Means A Lot

I think a large part of the group’s success is driven by the fact that none of us has anything to prove. We’re successful as authors, we’ve got established audiences, and we don’t seek abject approval (though it is always welcome). After all of this time, we have grown accustomed to each other’s voices on the page, and every one of us routinely violates the rules that we’ve heard in conferences and such are inviolable. Most of the time, those violations work for the story, or are a part of the author’s style.

What pre-validation does in a group like this is eliminate the need for forced praise before getting down to the business of what doesn’t work. We all know and respect that we’re capable writers. As such, we are also able to choose for ourselves which bits of advice we’re going to take, and which we’re going to ignore. When the meetings end, nobody feels bruised, and the friendships remain intact.

What Does This Mean For Writers Seeking Critique?

Over the years, I’ve sat in on critique sessions among amateur authors, and they all make me squirm. Attendees often are far more interested in hearing how brilliant they are than how to make things better. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the writers who are convinced they suck and therefore never process the good stuff they hear. Then there are the competing egos and genres, where the MFA graduate insists that the mystery or romance that someone else has written isn’t literary enough, or the genre writer who thinks a literary piece doesn’t work.

All too often, feelings get thrashed and no one has a good time.

I tell people who are looking for honest critique that almost all external input is harmful unless you have a strong sense of yourself as a writer. You need to find an honest neutral gear in your creative self where you are able to absorb the compliments and the criticisms with equal cynicism. Accept if only for the sake of argument that the other parties are coming from an honest place, but don’t assume that the reader who liked the piece is more accurate in his assessment that the one who did not.

As I’ve written in this blog before, the fact that the person with the critique bears the title of teacher does not imply infallibility. Sometimes, in the grand scheme of things, they can be flat-out wrong. On the other hand, they could be brilliant. How are you to tell the difference? I have no idea.

Now to you, TKZ family. Have you belonged to a critique group? How did it work out for you?

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

16 thoughts on “Should One Seek A Critique?

  1. I’ve never been part of crit group. I’ve heard good and bad reports. If it’s a good one like yours, John, huzzah. But oft times there’s a sour apple, or a teaching sheriff, etc. I can see a young writer getting tied up in knots, esp. if sharing just pages. I’ve always been an advocate for plowing through and writing the whole doggone thing. Try fixing it yourself. You learn so much that way. THEN get it to some trusted beta readers.

    Mrs. B is always #1 on my list. She’s tough. But fair. I usually do 98% of what she suggests. Then take her out to dinner.

  2. Thanks for the insight into your critique group, John. It sounds ideal. If only I could pass the pre-validation standard for such a group.

    I’ve been in a group that meets once a month and listens to and critiques 5-minute snippets. I think that feedback is often helpful for the members. Attendance at the sessions varies, which limits the depth of understanding that your group achieves.

    I’ve also done several 6-month monthly workshops at Cuyahoga County Library. While here too the lack of continuity is limiting. I have received good feedback in these sessions.

    One problem is always the subset of group members (or beta readers for that matter), who have learned the “rules” and take care to point out how many adverbs, passive voice construction, and “tellings” one is guilty of. (Not to mention that these people sometimes don’t know what passive voice is, calling all kinds of things “passive voice” that aren’t.)

    My skin is thick enough that even when I was just starting out and made some serious mistakes I wasn’t crushed. But it’s always dicey in a non-validated, fluctuating group, to know what’s helpful and what’s harmful.

  3. Early in my career, I was involved with a MWA critique group for one night. I learned absolutely nothing and spent most of my time helping the unpublished. Hence why it’s important to choose a group of writers who are at similar points in their career. Like your group, John. Later, I had a wonderful critique partner. We’d send a chapter at a time, and we helped each other in many ways. It was a kinship, beneficial to us both. Sadly, time zone differences, schedules, and tight deadlines ended our critique sessions, but we both became a better writers because of our partnership.

  4. Thanks for the peek behind the curtain, John. Hope you’re having a good week.

  5. The local writing scene was pretty pathetic when I began writing so no in-person critiques. I’ve worked one on one with a number of writers, mainly through RWA chapters, and it was by snail mail. Ancient times, in other words. Later, I was a working writing teacher, and it wasn’t to my advantage to give it away. It was also hard to find someone who could actually offer me advice that was worth anything.

    But, over 30 years ago, I connected online with a bunch of authors who turned out to be fellow victims of a start-up publishing company, and we connected via Yahoogroups. Trauma bonded us, and we became friends who understood what the others were going through as writers. Several of the writers were much further along in their careers, and they offered advice although never critiques. I did my teacher thing, sometimes. We shared births, deaths, and silly stories about our lives. Now that most of us have retired or left writing, we still exchange birthday greetings and personal news. Finding your tribe as a writer is a very powerful thing.

  6. John, thanks for this post. And thanks for the points on what made your group successful. I would love to be part of such a group, but there is none in my small community.

    Similar to Jim’s comment, I’ve completed projects, done light editing, then sought the input from beta readers. I like to work on the problems after the whole book is written, so I can see problems in relation to the whole. If the opportunity ever arose to join a critique group that functioned as yours, I would certainly give it a try.

    Thanks for the advice, and congratulations on the success of your group.

  7. Great post, John. I agree with your take on critique groups. I’ve belonged to four over the years. I only really benefited from the last one, which I co-founded with another published author (we’d both had short fiction published in magazines). That last group was more like yours.

    To be honest, I’m reluctant to recommend them these days, because, as you noted, if a writer isn’t confident in their voice and their story telling, the group can cause a lot of harm. I saw it in two groups in particular.

    I prefer a trusted first reader, or a few beta readers to a “critique group.” Reader reactions are what I’m after, not “critique.” As always, YMMV 🙂

  8. John, thanks for this rundown on how your group works. For almost 35 years, I’ve been in many critique groups, starting as a rank beginner among other rank beginners, and progressing to work with multi-published, award-winning authors.

    Early on, the main value from a group was accountability. We all promised to turn in a submission each week and that taught discipline and kept us focused on the goal of finishing.

    I doubt I would have finished my first novel w/o the CG’s help. CGs have gotten me out of many corners I painted myself into. They also help brainstorm new plot ideas.

    Yes, there have been a few horror stories along the way. In two different groups at different times, the same lawyer walked out in a huff and, with the second group, almost came to fisticuffs. He died w/o ever publishing a book b/c he was so much smarter than the rest of us.

    Some groups petered out b/c we reached a point of stagnation. Others became coffee klatches.

    I’ve been fortunate to seek out and find serious writers who truly wanted to improve their craft (rather than simply receive gushing praise). Those are the writers I continue to work with.

    Hint: to raise your work to a higher level, find people more accomplished than you are. Currently I’m in a Zoom group with members of International Thriller Writers assoc. who have serious chops.

    Some writers are lone wolves and that works for them. I’m one who benefits from being part of a community.

  9. I’ve belonged to two in person critique groups and a small handful of online groups. Moving to my relatively remote area stopped the live interaction, but by then, my current group of three was well established. We’ve been together for 15 years and most of our guidelines are like yours. However, we’ve yet to have a ‘live/Zoom’ meeting since one of our members lives in London, and the time thing is problematical, as is his work schedule. (I did get to meet him on my trip to the British Isles, and that was cool.)
    We do everything via an online io group, submitting a chapter at a time. This has proven much better for my way of processing, as listening to a chapter read by someone else has never worked for me. We submit in Word and make notes, comments, point out the obvious errors on the file. Our guideline is no more than 3000 words, but we’re flexible if needed.
    Submitting online also means we can fit our critiques into our schedules.
    We’ve been together long enough, and although our credentials don’t come close to your group’s, we don’t feel the need to hand out warm fuzzies. What we want/need is to know what’s not working. Rarely do we respond with more than a “Thanks. Will address” unless we have a question such as, “I don’t understand what playing bags means.”
    It’s worked well for us.

  10. Wow. Enjoyed reading about your great critique arrangement. I don’t have any crit group horror stories, but neither is it easy to establish/maintain a crit group. I ran a crit group for 5+ years. First few years were really consistent, but then people move, lose interest, life intercedes, etc etc. We submitted say 10 pages a week ahead of time & came prepared to discuss at the meeting. People knew better than to get snarky & attack, but instead just offer honest criticism (the good and the bad).

    The only thing in your example that would not work for me is reading aloud. I don’t know why, but I have a hard time processing book content audibly. That’s why, unlike millions of people, I do NOT listen to audiobooks. So I don’t feel I could offer a good critique for a piece that I had to listen to, versus read.

    This is something I’ve got to think about for myself. I hope to have a new draft manuscript ready early next year (the last couple years have been dead as a door nail) so I need to line up whom I will get input from for my work.

    I did have someone I knew vaguely crit a short story in the last year. Feedback was okay except for the annoyance of feedback about not being “politically correct” in the story (a story in a historical time period). Your post is a reminder to start thinking about lining up resources for critiques. Sigh. I don’t look forward to the hunt.

  11. I’ve been attending writing workshops since 1985 and earlier. Over the years, we’ve found these rules helpful:
    • No political or religious discussions.
    • 1,200 word limit.
    • Give us your title, genre, chapter, and a brief recap.
    • No published material.
    • Don’t defend your work.
    • Avoid cross-talk, argument, and personal anecdotes.
    • Be gentle and respectful.
    • Start with what you liked.
    • Be specific.
    • Be honest.
    • No repeat reads.
    • Provide helpful handouts.
    Not everyone is comfortable with hearing, “Nothing much happens in that chapter.” Better to ask them, “What changed in this sequence?”
    And, yes, some material is best developed solo, then sent directly to beta.

    • Here I am. Late to the dance as usual.

      It’s not a bad idea to hear what other folks have to say, but I agree with your rules.

      These works are peoples’ babies and it’s always good to be kind and handle with care and respect. People don’t sign up to a writers’ group to be abused. There’s no substitute for personal contact, either. It’s a lot easier to be an ass if you’re separated from someone’s fist by several hundred miles of wire.

      I’ve joined a couple that I’ve been attending and so far so good, even though I am learning that just because people write in radically different genres than I do, it’s OK and it’s up to me to render a rough approximation of what I am expecting.

      Nobody likes trolls, either.

  12. This post couldn’t have come at a better time. Having recently finished the first draft of my first novel, I am into the first edit. To identify problems my eyes no longer see (couldn’t see the trees for the forest), I sought a critique group. We connected online through Meetup. My work is much improved thanks to their comments.
    I try to reciprocate by pointing out things others have been kind enough to point out; show don’t tell, action verbs, deep POV, etc. They don’t seem to care. No one in the group is a published author; novel, short story on otherwise. Neither does it seem they aspire to be. Should I keep my mouth shut?
    I am the only one in the group working on an action thriller. Do those lessons only apply to me? Do other genres thrive on -ly adverbs? I would like to help if I can but don’t want to be a pain in the neck. Any advice?

    • I’m not familiar with Meetup, but it sounds like you’re encountering the primary problem with critique groups: Many people don’t care to receive input. Should you keep your mouth shut? I dunno. I am disinclined to put effort into critiques that go unappreciated, but I also get the concept of paying forward. Perhaps you could ask if they’d like to have input.

      As for the lessons you’ve learned, I think that’s great. Be grateful. It sounds like you’re trying hard to improve your craft. As for the rest, I’m on the record here in TKZ a gazillion times expressing my belief that there are no rules to writing. I personally strive to avoid -ly adverbs because I think they weaken otherwise strong writing. That said, JK Rowling was addicted to them, and her series seemed to do okay business.

      • Thanks for the advice. I feel like they want feedback on their writing just like I do. Maybe they just want validation. I’ll ask if my comments are helpful.’s a site where like-minded people can connect over a mutual interest; fly fishing, ukulele, hiking, throat singing, even writing. You name it, there’s a group.

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