Writer's Notes

Critique Groups: 3 Keys for a Productive Writers’ Critique Group

DTF Red Sky

By Deborah Taylor-French

Critique groups for writers serve many purposes. Writers’ groups can keep us on track with our goals like families help members grow and celebrate milestones. Functional or dysfunctional, writers’ groups can help us or hold us back. We can learn from reading with an eye to what works and how others convey stories. We can embrace and acknowledge the thousands of ways to express feelings, thoughts, and actions, which pump life into written ideas and stories. A well-functioning writers’ critique group can advance our abilities and productivity. More importantly, a group can act in several ways to improve our skills, style, clarity, and marketability of our work.

Before You take the Plunge to a Critique Group

  1. Are you interested in learning and changing your writing? If your answer is no, please don’t join a writers’ critique group. There are other types of writers’ groups for you.


  1. Do you like helping others? If the answer is no, you should seek help from an editor and beta readers. Critiques are best as two-way streets.


  1. Do comments help you revise? Not all writers feel receptive to readers’ impressions and questions. If comments confuse or upset you, work with only one reader or professional editor at a time.

Do you feel confused or angry at other’s comments on your writing? Then proceed with caution. Know you have other options. A well-chosen first reader or editor can help.

On the other hand, if you’re curious what your writing means to other people, do join a writer’s critique group. An attitude of mutual helpfulness must be part of why writers join groups. Not only should you be able to answer, yes to all three questions but also the other members of your potential group should too.

Caution: Not All Writers’ Critique Groups Produce Positive Results

  • Be picky.
  • Visit different groups.
  • Ask do I need a face to face group?
  • Know that online groups are not for every writer.

Insightful Critiques Moved My Story onto the Page.

Two critique groups assisted the development in early drafts of my first novel. I learned TONS from my writing group. I consider myself fortunate to have found a positive minded and a mature set of writers. Those four writers read and made detailed comments or questions on my drafts. In our meetings, each writer read aloud his or her work. The group discussed that piece of writing then the author had a few minutes to ask questions of their readers.

Due to readers expressed confusion on my references of fictional time and character motive, I realized the essential parts of my story still resided in my mind. These repetitions of discovering I had failed to write down specifics known only to me, pointed me to what I needed to do to make my story more readable and engaging. Due to a vivid imagination, I had those story facts but had never placed them in my draft. Soon, I learned to choose from the most potent essential objects, feelings, and metaphors. These details expressed and defined my characters, setting, and action more clearly. I learned from writers/readers to include a fleshed-out range of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic descriptions. I overcame a habit of leaving 30% of scene details in my imagination.

Gradually, I learned to go deeper onto each page of fiction. Soon, my fiction writing gasped a subtle use of subtext and humor from reading my writers drafts. Essential details. In each critique, we pointed out what worked in each other’s drafts. Insightful readers pointed to specific word choices, character action, dialogue, and thoughts, which helped to steer the story. Of course, some of our comments were more effective than others.

As I continued to participate in critiques, my written languages skills grew more vivid and effective at communicating my stories into final drafts. Through weekly meetings, my critique group writers taught me to trust the strengths I had as a writer. Believing and using my writing strengths became vital in my long-distance run to my first novel.  Novelists need staying power for the arch of writing 50,000 to 100,000 words has hundreds of challenges. The years of work to produce a coherent novel-length book felt like a daunting challenge. I thought of myself as a marathon runner in training.

Writing one book, for most people, presents a considerable challenge. Because I wanted to write a series of Dog Leader Mysteries I had to reframe endless revisions and draft edits to seem manageable.

Key 1: Positive critique comments grow better writers.

I cannot stress this too strongly. Our format trained us to always remark on the skills, insight, and best elements of each piece of writing. Our marginalia notes, plus verbal comments, ALWAYS began with what we liked, what worked, and what made us want to read more. We looked for what made written passages ZING, SING, and FLOW.

We don’t only learn from our mistakes. We learn from what we do well. We learn from the skills others positively reinforce. We become far more willing to keep repeating behaviors and skills we know others like or find valuable.

Take Dogs for Example

Behavioral studies show dogs learn faster in favorable environments. Canines must have their positive behaviors reinforced. Cookie words, receiving treats, and praise made dogs repeat what they did right. Similarly, we do better when we know what we’re doing right. In functional families, we know our value. Our positive behaviors receive praise or rewards. Our loved ones shape our behavior.

Key 2: Make Clear Critique Agreements

In our meetings, we set up a group knowledge base and agreements with each of us reading Peter Elbow’s book, Writing Without Teachers. The importance of this step cannot be stressed enough. Research showed that creative writing students did not get better through negative criticism alone. These students improved their writing skills when an amount of time became devoted to hearing what they did right.

Key 3: Mutual aid and patience transform critique groups beyond critique

Critique groups raise our empathy. They expand our knowledge and show us myriad ways writers solve similar story problems. They also tend to build friendships, the best lasting support to help us with the business of writing, too. Want a beta reader for a blog post? Need to contact published authors or experts to secure book blurbs for your first book? Want to be more successful in marketing your books?  All these and more valuable progressions can come from a trustworthy and caring critique group.

Positive feedback turns out to be the most effective way to grow as a writer. Who knew? Sure, we can all learn from our mistakes. Even from the mistakes of other writers. Imagine an acknowledged discussion, with notes on what a skillful writer you are. How would that advance your understanding of what works in your writing? Even if you have a reliable and helpful critique group, you have much to gain from pointing out what worked, what made you laugh, what made you want to keep turning those pages.


Deborah Taylor-French, Photo by Cindy Pavlinac
Deborah Taylor-French, Photo by Cindy Pavlinac

Deborah Taylor-French writes mystery, myth, and poetry.

Her Red Sky at Night: Dog Leader Mysteries can be purchase at Amazon Books

Copperfield’s Books and on iUniverse Bookstore At iUniverse sells this book at the same price as Amazon Books.

Deborah blogs to “save dogs’ lives & dog lovers’ sanity” at Dog Leader Mysteries (.com). For six years as Redwood Writers’ Author Support Facilitator, she has nurtured writers at monthly meetings. Redwood Writers is the largest a branch of the California Writers Club.

A former guest artist for California’s Artists in the Schools, Deborah holds a master’s degree in dance education from UCLA. She taught dance as a discipline, an art form and as cultural heritage in private and public schools throughout the State of California.

She has raised five adopted dogs, three pet rabbits, and one daughter. Deborah lives with her family in northern California, plus Tokyo Tuxedo, one sassy adopted house rabbit.













Writer's Notes

Critique Groups: Critiquing for success

By Mary Feliz


Whether we’re at the puppy stage or sailing over tricky hurdles, writers need training, support, guidance, positive feedback, and constructive criticism.

From conferences on a grand scale to critique groups on the smaller end, authors push ourselves and our writing to greater heights when we work together. We smooth over the rough spots in our manuscripts, lives, and career trajectories while celebrating successes others might need a microscope to observe.

Finding or creating a critique group is the subject of another blog. I’m of a mind that they work best when you nail the perfect combination of similar skill sets and objectives.

But what if you’ve found the perfect group? What can you expect from the experience? How can you make the most of it and minimize frustration? The first step, I believe, is recognizing that you have at least three (and maybe more) roles. First, you’re there to provide feedback. Second, you’re there to receive constructive comments on your work. Third, you’re a social member of a group in which people will feel vulnerable. The relationships within the group may be more high-maintenance than you’re used to in other spheres of your life.

Good critiquers:

Provide timely feedback based on the writer’s needs. If an author’s spouse is a grammar whiz and punctuation police officer, she won’t require line edits, but she may need your take on whether her dialogue rings true. Don’t waste your time and hers. If she has a Monday deadline and you don’t get back to her for a month, you’ve squandered goodwill on a fruitless chore.

Find something good to say. No matter how awful you consider a submission, find something useful to say. Was the formatting impeccable or did a three-word turn of phrase capture your attention? Mention it. Doing so nurtures relationships, but also makes it easier for authors to listen to your recommendations for improvement.

Find something that could be better. No one’s writing is perfect, particularly in early drafts. Blockbuster authors may write too-wordy passages, dialogue that sags, or unimaginable plot twists. Even if a submission blew you away with its brilliance, find something that could be improved. No one appreciates a critique group member who consistently responds with “terrific, you’ve outdone yourself.”

Good critique-ees:

Say thank you. Each critique took time away from a group member’s writing. There is nothing authors value more than their time.

Look beyond the comment. Prolific genre-busting English author Neil Gaiman says, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” No matter how bizarre a comment seems, something tore the reader away from your manuscript long enough for them to write you a note. Even if you disregard their advice, examine the passage to determine what might have made a reader stumble.

Busted? Be grateful. When I struggle with a passage in my novel and decide it’s good enough only to have an editor later tell me there is still a problem with it, my initial reaction is that of a child sheepishly caught in the act. I’m angry, then thrilled that someone brought me to task for wimping out. I take the reader’s advice very seriously, even if their solution is not my solution. For example, in my latest book, my editor suggested the murderer needed more explicit motivation—something about the character didn’t ring true. He offered suggestions. Instead, I shifted blame to a new character I wove into the story. That move provided a double-barreled benefit. I fixed the nagging problem and created what I hope proves to be a very satisfying plot twist.
Don’t argue. And don’t continue ask for feedback as you fiddle with your manuscript’s faults. If you need more help, consider taking a class or asking another friend, beta-reader, or editor. Nothing kills a critique group faster than someone who keeps asking for advice on the same tired paragraphs.

Reveal expectations and needs. If you’re on a deadline, let your critique partners know. If you need a quick read and response on a specific portion of the work—rhythm, characterization, believability, etc.—let your readers know that, too.

Overall advice:
Critique groups are meant to be helpful and fun. If your group feels burdensome or feedback isn’t useful, take a break, change the structure of the group, or bow out. Likewise, if a group member becomes argumentative, incapable of meeting deadlines, or provides useless feedback, consider asking if the group still meets her needs.

A supportive critique group is priceless, but the organization that needs care and feeding. Nurture it. But don’t hesitate to end an unsatisfactory group experience. A lousy critique group is worse than no group at all.

FELIZ Author HeadshotMary Feliz writes the Maggie McDonald Mysteries featuring a Silicon Valley professional organizer and her sidekick golden retriever. She’s worked for Fortune 500 firms and mom and pop enterprises, competed in whale boat races and done synchronized swimming. She attends organizing conferences in her character’s stead, but Maggie’s skills leave her in the dust. Address to Die For, the first book in the series, was named a Best Book of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews. All of her books have spent time on the Amazon best seller list. Visit her website at
FELIZ Disorderly Conduct (4)Professional organizer Maggie McDonald balances a fastidious career with friends, family, and a spunky Golden Retriever. But add a fiery murder mystery to the mix, and Maggie wonders if she’s found a mess even she can’t tidy up …

With a devastating wildfire spreading to Silicon Valley, Maggie preps her family for evacuation. The heat rises when firefighters discover a dead body belonging to the husband of Maggie’s best friend Tess Olmos. Tess becomes the prime suspect in what’s shaping up to become a double murder case. Determined to set the record straight, Maggie sorts clues in an investigation more dangerous than the flames approaching her home. When her own loved ones are threatened, can she catch the meticulous killer before everything falls apart?


Writer's Notes

June Writer’s Notes: Writers’ Clubs

By Thonie Hevron


copp rw book club
Book signing at Copperfield’s Books, Santa Rosa, May 31, 2015

I would still be wandering the authorial stratosphere if I hadn’t found Redwood Writers. I’d written a book—a thriller set in my very own backyard, Sonoma County. By Force or Fear was penned while I lived on the other side of California, missing Sonoma County so much that I set my story there. It was my way of coping with homesickness. When I moved, I lost the manuscript. Luckily, I found the outline on a thumb drive and re-wrote it. It was even better than before!


In 2004, my husband and I finally moved back to SoCo. While reading the newspaper one day, hubby found a writers group called JumpStart that met in our town. It’s leader, Pat Tyler, introduced me to reading my work in a group. She also fostered my scribblings, steering me to the local chapter of the California Writers ClubRedwood Writers. Finding a group of dedicated writers who encourage each other was a huge step forward. Under their superlative leadership, I attended club sponsored classes, workshops, and panels. Each monthly meeting has an hour-long teaching session as well—featuring different topics such as the business of writing, craft tips, promotion, marketing and social media. From all this input, I was able to formulate a plan. Roughly it looked like this: write, write, write, query, learn, write, speak, blog, learn some more. I mapped out my next novel in outline form. After all, I’m a retired law enforcement veteran and structure such as this helps me keep track of all the strands of my story. While I worked on my story, I found a critique group, Thrillerz. After joining Redwood Writers, this was the best thing I could’ve done.

More on critique groups in July.


Over the course of these meetings, I realized that I needed to build a platform. I knew I had to expand my audience, but the term marketing struck terror in my heart. After all, I was a writer—solitary, shy, withdrawn from the general population. But wait, NO, I wasn’t solitary. I had Redwood Writers, then the Public Safety Writers Association, then, Sisters in Crime. Redwood Writers (RW) hosted (still does) bi-monthly salons for authors to read their work to each other. The intent was to dip writers’ toes in the swamp of public speaking. There also were Open Mics held at several different venues (all of which I participated) and an annual member book launch for 10-12 RW authors to debut their books. Above you can see a few of the events RW sponsored. I volunteered to emcee a few of these gatherings and polished my public speaking as well as met some terrific people.


Conference pic
Thonie- during the Pen to Published Conference 2014 


I did those but felt I needed more. So, I volunteered to co-chair a Redwood Writers’ Conference in 2014. The lead up to the event was where the rubber met the road: I attended every monthly club meeting to publicize the conference. Yes, I got up in front of a crowd of 75 or so people and made announcements. I’m by no means OVER my stage fright but I can certainly manage it. I’ve even tackled some other, unrelated fears such as driving over bridges.

Who knew what doors Redwood Writers would open?

How important is your writers club to you? What unique feature does it offer? Check in to Writer’s Notes on Fridays in June to see what other authors have to say. June 8th features Camille Minichino’s penchant for joining clubs. Natasha Yim talks about the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators on June 15th, on June 22, Leeann Betts gives 6 reasons to join a writers’ club, and on June 29th Paty Jager will offer her thoughts on the subject.

Writer's Notes

When is it THE END?: Terry Shames

T Shames Unsettling Crime_coverNot So Fast, Honey by Terry Shames

Done! Finished! The End!

I wrote several novels before I got published. When I sent them off, publishers said, “Close, but no cigar.” I always thought that if I wrote just one more book, the new book would leap the hurdle. I thought secretly, as I know many pre-published authors do, that it was “them,” not me. It took an important workshop to force me to reconsider. In the workshop, author Sophie Littlefield cautioned that if we were writing one book after another and not getting published, we ought to consider that it was not “them” (publishers) at all—it was the book. She said she knew from personal experience because she had written many books before she finally hit her groove. She urged aspiring authors to reach deep inside to write the best book we could write.

Immediately after the workshop, I came up with the idea of the Samuel Craddock series. It seemed as if it had always been there, waiting for me. I gave the first book to my writer’s group to read, and they loved it. They said I had finally found my voice. The only problem was that the end came too fast. It wasn’t the first time this criticism had been rendered in the books I wrote, but it was the first time I took it seriously.

This time I really pondered what I had to do to satisfy readers. What did not work in the end? I realized it wasn’t what I had written that was at fault, but what was left unwritten. In general, the book had depth, so what was missing? If I had gone back to my old habit of simply dismissing the critique as irrelevant, I would most likely have missed what now seems to me to have been the obvious “real” ending.

Last year, when I wrote the sixth book in the series, An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock, I hoped I had finally mastered getting to the end. I was satisfied when I sent it off to my agent. Not so fast, honey! My agent said it wasn’t really finished. After grumbling to myself that it couldn’t possibly be true, I knuckled under yet again. I asked myself these questions:

1)    Have I resolved every aspect of the crime? In one of the books, I had hinted at the resolution, but had not put it in an actual scene. I realized that it’s important that the reader have the catharsis of being present for the resolution. In “Unsettling,” the answer was no, I had not resolved every aspect, but I had accounted for why it couldn’t be so—it was in my original intention.

2)    Had I met my original intention? Sometimes in the writing, a book strays from the original goal. This is okay, but the end needs to address what actually happens in the book.

3)    Have all the characters been accounted for? In the first book in the series, I added the last chapter after my critique group said it felt unfinished. I didn’t know enough to actually ask myself these questions, but by luck I came up with a “finishing” chapter that accounted for a character who had slipped away. And this turned out to be the answer to how to finish An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock. One of the characters I loved had simply dropped off the page. It took staring into space and really considering how to bring her back in before the answer came to me clearly. I actually cried when I got to the real end.

Had I depended only on myself to get these books right, the ending to all of them in the series would have been stunted. Why can I not see this for myself? I think it’s because I’m so glad to get to the end, that I stop writing the best book I can write, and just write a “good enough” book—the kind that got rejected again and again before I got published. That’s where a good critique group or a good agent who reads critically comes in. I keep hoping that one day I will be able to ask those three important questions on my own, but until then I depend not on the kindness of strangers, but of people I trust to help me get it right, all the way to the end.


Terry Shames writes the award-winning Samuel Craddock series, published by Seventh Street Books. It’s her understanding that fans of the novels fall into two categories: women want to marry Samuel Craddock, and men want to be him! Find more about Terry on her website, You can also find her on her author Facebook page,


Cop loc auth close upMalice cover

Read Thonie Hevron’s books:

By Force or Fear, Intent to Hold, and Malice Aforethought are available through Amazon.


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