Thursday, November 3, 2011

Fresh Eyes: The Importance of Critique Groups by Wendy Nelson Tokunaga

With the mega-popularity of self-published e-books and National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in full swing, it seems that everyone I run into is in the throes of working on a novel. But it’s the rare writer who can come up with a winning read by writing in a vacuum. It’s always important to get feedback on your writing to make your work the best it can be. But how do you go about it?

One of the best ways to grow as a writer is to join a critique group of fellow writers who meet in person (or perhaps online) to give constructive feedback on each other’s work. While I prefer a group so I can get a variety of opinions, some writers rely on a sole critique partner to give them the input they need to get through the next round of revisions. No matter how good a writer you are, having a pair of fresh eyes to look at your prose is almost always helpful at spotting weaknesses in plot, characterization, hackneyed phrases, boring passages, plausibility and just about anything else. When you’re so enmeshed in your own work, these flaws can be hard to recognize, but can jump off the page to an astute writer/reader.

And a critique group can be a great source when you want to brainstorm new ideas, bask in supportive reassurance that you’re on the right track, or get a whole new outlook on a novel that seems dead in the water to you, but actually might still have some life in it. And another benefit that a critique group offers is deadlines. I find it an excellent motivator to produce new material when I know my critique group is expecting twenty pages by a particular date.

Obviously you need to find the right fit and the right balance of nurturance, support and honest-but-helpful criticism. This can take time and some trial and error. An incompatible critique group member can upset the whole delicate balance so those who are selecting a new member and those who are “auditioning” both need to be careful.

Although critique groups can be extremely beneficial to the writing process, there’s also the danger of outgrowing your group. Your writing may ascend to the next level and the caliber of feedback just might not be so helpful anymore. Critique groups can also become incestuous, where members get to know each other so well that they no longer can be objective about the work. When such obstacles arise, even though it might be painful, it just could be time to bid farewell and seek out another group.

And where can you find a group, whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned veteran? Try networking with fellow writers at writers’ conferences, both in-person and online, and connecting via social media sites. Or join a local writer’s networking group and put out the word. There’s also a new website you might want to check out called Ladies Who Critique that puts like-minded writers in touch with each other. And for lots of great tips on critique groups, there’s Becky Levine’s book, The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide.

I know I’ve learned a lot from my critique groups and crit partners and I learn even more about my own writing by returning the favor and giving critiques to others. How have critique groups helped (or hindered) you as a writer?

Wendy Nelson Tokunaga is the author of the novels “Midori by Moonlight” and “Love in Translation,” both published by St. Martin’s Press. She is also the author of the non-fiction e-book, “Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband.” Forthcoming for her in Spring 2012 is an essay in the anthology “Madonna and Me” from Soft Skull Press, and a short story in the Young Adult “Tomo” anthology of Japan-related fiction to be published by Stone Bridge Press. She teaches writing at Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio and University of San Francisco, and also has her own manuscript consulting service. Visit her at:


  1. Wendy: Great advice! I joined a critique group last year and besides the obvious need for feedback, I agree with you that the deadline issue was an unexpected added benefit for those of us who need more structure. Thanks for the post! Cheers! BCC

  2. I couldn't live without my critique buddies Wendy! They've saved me over the years from flat characters, ridiculous plot twists, and just plain bad writing.

    but you have to find the right folks. sometimes taking a class and getting an idea of how people participate and what their writing is like can help...

  3. Great post. I was with a critique group for over five years and then I knew it was time for change. Now I use beta readers but good ones are hard to find. (Most are too nice!)
    But you're right. So important to have another set of eyes.

  4. Great post, Wendy! I've never had much luck finding a good critique group, so now I rely on a pool of fabulous readers. Some friends, some fellow writers-- all offer great perspective!!

  5. I rely on my critique group. But things change and, like you said, you do need to be flexible. After moving on from my first novel, submitting 20 pages at a time didn't feel right. Now I wait until my book is finished get feedback on the whole work. So my critique group turned into readers.

  6. Thanks, everyone! Yes, Cindy, it can be a great benefit to have people willing to read your whole book. And I do love the idea of beta readers too. :-)

  7. Very true! I have learned so much from my writer`s groups and the gentle comments we give each other every month.

  8. Having a deadline is key, and a benefit to critique groups, in general. I've always had problems, though, finding a group that worked! I find people are too nice, in general. (What does that say about me?! :) If I have two or three good friends reading my work (including my husband and agent), I am pretty happy.

    Great post!

  9. Thanks so much for the Ladies Who Critique mention Wendy! You know how much I believe in the importance of a good CP (or several) and I think your post covers a lot of important points; critiquing relationships, like every relationship, grows and change with time and it's important to acknowledge that.
    Fresh eyes, indeed :)