Tag Archives: critique

Critique Abundance


by Jude Walsh Whelley

Last Thursday it was my turn for critique with the Plot Sisters, the five amazing women writers who read and respond to my work. I am new to this group, they have been responding to one another’s writing for several years. We respond to only one writer per session and she has the entire two hours devoted to her work. I gave the Sisters one essay that I wrote  more than a year ago and found as I was cleaning out my documents files. I read it over, realized I could do a much better job with it now and revised it to give to the group. And then I trusted them with a newly hatching piece, only partly written, a true first draft.

They responded to the revised piece first. I can see how my craft has improved! These years of writing almost every day, taking craft classes, reading widely, and attending workshops is paying off. I am a better writer. I had a good start on that essay, I liked the content, but could tell it better. I now have the skill set to be able to look at my work and know what to do to improve it, so I made some changes and expanded the work before sending it to them.

The changes I made were only the first step in getting to a polished piece, a piece ready for submission. Having this critique session with people I trust and respect, gave me a more complex level of response, elevating the essay’s potential. The Sisters gave three forms of feedback: their comments during the session, the writing with either hand marked or track change comments, and a few paragraphs of general critique and suggestions. The photo above was the treasure I took home after the session. Talking over the piece, listening to their remarks and criticisms, seeing it through their eyes, made me want to rush home and immediately begin revising.

They responded differently to the second piece. Recognizing that it was not fully developed, they responded tenderly, simply saying what they liked and what drew them in and what potential they could see. I felt like the egg I had been sitting on, keeping warm so it could grow, was passed from nest to nest and returned to mine a little more developed within its shell. And that now there was some pecking from inside that shell, signaling it was ready to enter the world.

 You can surely see why I titled this post Critique Abundance! I left that session energized, inspired, and easy to revise. Thank you Plot Sisters!

Jude Walsh Whelley writes fiction, memoir, and poetry. She lives in Dayton, Ohio. This post was previously published on her blog, Writing Now.

Cycle 4.2 Critique–Group Ears, Eyes, Voice, and Heart

Wizard altar 4 weblog

by Janet Grace Riehl with Stephanie Farrow

We want to do good and help our sister writers. We join groups to do just that. When like minds come together with the same purpose—intent on trust, kindness, and truth—everyone benefits. How do critique groups produce virtuous rather than vicious circles?





Doing Good

· A good match between writer and group encourages writing. Thoughtful critique makes work stronger.

· Beyond the individual piece by the individual writer critique offers the entire group lessons in effective writing. What is good writing? How do we do it? How do we communicate beyond ourselves? Discerning critique opens our eyes to new ways of thinking and confirms what we’ve already intuited or believed.

Who are you as a group?

Know what kind of group you are. Here are a few possibilities.

1) Witnessing—Story Circles “encourage and facilitate story-sharing” without analysis or correction. Susan Albert in “Writing From Life: Telling Your Soul’s Story,” says: We are mutual presences, simply, and in that attentive being-with, that delicate, careful listening, we help one another bring forth—ourselves.” (p.12)

2) Listening Back is a term I coined as an alternative to “feedback”. How can you be useful and specific in your comments while creating a cozy, supportive environment? Clive Matson’s “syngenetic workshop” (having the same origin) illustrates a version of listening back.

Clive’s Crazy Child process is based on the writing itself. Group members take notes on the piece they’re hearing and reading in order to repeat memorable lines exactly; clearly and positively they say why these work. The author also takes notes and speaks only at the end. (Clive’s complete process is on Pp. 16-17 “Let the Crazy Child Write.”)

3) Craft-based or genre-based groups focus on developing writing skill in more detail. Such groups may be directed towards refining work to present to the marketplace.

How to Critique?

Be a Girl Scout: trustworthy, kind, and truthful.

Trust.  Act and speak so that each writer in the group feels that her work is respected.

Kindness. You would never say to a new mother “What an ugly baby!” Remember that the writer is showing you her literary baby.

Truth. If your group is one that gives feedback, make it specific, honest and respectful.

Kindergarten Rules: Structure

Choose someone to facilitate the group. You might choose to rotate this role. The facilitator keeps the critique on track and redirects unhelpful  feedback. A timekeeper is useful as well.

Set up levels of feedback. These levels provide ready made goals for each person’s turn. Ask the writer what she wants and address only that. For example, does she want her piece to be witnessed as she reads it? Does she have a specific question about craft (perhaps pacing or length)? Is she open for a broad band response? Grammar and nitpicking is off the board.

What did you like? The humor? Beautiful language? Skillful structure? The idea behind it? Specific passages? Be specific.

Follow up with concerns and suggestions. Is the writing clear? Is the language appropriate to the genre? Where and how can she improve her writing? Be specific.

Manuscripts at the ready. When we have the written words in front of us, we can more easily be helpful and specific. Small changes can be noted in the margins. These copies go back to the author at the end of the critique with names at the top.

Note it! In addition to individual notes on the manuscript, appoint a recorder to capture group responses and suggestions during the discussion.

Anything else? Have you addressed the writer’s questions? The writer may want to follow up on comments.

With practice and attention your critique group can, as Denise Levertov says, allow each woman “to say or sing all that she can, and to deal with as much of the world as becomes possible to  her in language”.

How does the writer contribute to a good critique? Tune in next month.


Pose questions about practical creativity; give ideas for future cycle themes; and join in the dialog in the comment section below.

See the Creative Catalyst archive at: http://storycircle.typepad.com/scn/creativity/

Go to http://www.riehlife.com to sign up for a free download of a 10-minute audio from“Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music.”










Cycle 4.1 Art of Critique


EcoArts Walk, Lake County, N. California. Reflections.

by Janet  Grace  Riehl

I once cried during a critique.

It was an MFA upper-level course in visual storytelling taught by two eminent photographers. I had petitioned to get into the course, arguing that my life experience fulfilled the lower-level entry requirement. I’d gotten in, participated, and then blown it by crying during a critique of my work. Before the next class the instructors ambushed me at the top of the stairs and strongly suggested, to the point where I felt threatened, that I drop the course.

To sit back and observe critique as a sociologist, anthropologist, or psychologist can be an entertaining pastime—as long as it’s not your own work on the table. I’m surprised there aren’t plays, comic strips, and situation comedies based on the stereotypical types that surface during critique: the Ding-Bat, the Sonorous Voice of God, the Professor, the Meanie, the Raconteur.

Unfortunately, critique—peer or professional—is rife with possibility for misuse, misunderstanding, and misery. In the very worst situations there can be a scoring of points that turns the critique into a virtual blood sport. The writer’s work takes backseat to the critiquer’s social and personal agendas. Small wonder that some writers dread the very word.

Critique. For myself, I dreaded it. I hated it. I learned from it.

Fortunately, after the disastrous experience in the photography class, I had the joy of encountering a teacher, Betsy Davids, who fully understood the meaning of critique and its purpose. She regarded critique as a form of appreciation, a time of joining with the piece and giving back to the artist who created it.

During critique she grew quiet and made the piece the object of contemplation. She then took the class on a tour of what she saw and how she responded to it. She responded to each element—texture, color, shape—and how it affected her feelings and body. Her response to our artwork was fully considered and intimate.

Betsy was there for us, not to make herself more grand. She was there to help us and to know our art and art making more fully. If there were goofs, gaps, or gaffes in our work, she knew how to point these out gently. Her responses inspired us to go back to the work and try to improve it.

Although Betsy was critiquing visual art, her process would have been equally beneficial for writing. Good critique focuses on the writing—not the writer, not the critiquer. Its purpose is to help the writer make her own work stronger. Ideally, there’s no place for chest thumping or ego massaging or denigration of the writer such as in the experience I related above.

Oh, and how did that incident turn out? I’m proud to say that I held my ground with the two professors, stayed on in the course, and earned an “A.”

In our next post (4.2) we’ll talk about how a group can best benefit individual writers.


Pose questions about practical creativity; give ideas for future cycle themes; and join in the dialog in the comment section below.

See the Creative Catalyst archive at: http://storycircle.typepad.com/scn/creativity/

Go to http://www.riehlife.com to sign up for a free download of a 10-minute audio from“Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music.”