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Jul 4, 2024

Are Critique Groups Right for You? Tips From Gennifer Choldenko

Guest post by Gennifer Choldenko

I have been in critique groups on and off for most of my career. I’m here to tell you that they can be wildly helpful and bracingly unhelpful–the trick is how to make them work for you.


The Good

My first crit group was the best. It consisted of two people who turned out to be a huge blessing. My first published novel, Notes from a Liar and Her Dog, had a real edge to it. The protagonist Ant, short for Antonia, was a difficult person. 

Later crit groups I’ve been in (I’m on my fourth now) wouldn’t have gotten Ant. One of my first rejection letters from a publisher said, “I know this is wonderful writing and I know kids like this exist, but I can’t stand reading about them.” 

But my friend and critique partner Susan Nunes is a brilliant writer and reader. She got what I was trying to do and gave me gentle guidance as I brought my protagonist to the page. I’m not sure I would have gotten that book written much less published without her. And since that book launched my career as a novelist, I owe her an awful lot.

With my newest novel, The Tenth Mistake of Hank Hooperman, I got a lot of help from my current crit group.  More help than I’ve had for any book I’ve written for a long time. Most of the critical comments were very much on target. But not all of them.

The Hard but Good

One of the first comments I got for this book almost derailed me. 

I had written (and sold) seven chapters of a novel about an eleven-year-old girl who was in foster care. I tend to like to research while I write and write while I research. One day, while researching foster care, I came upon some information in a manual for foster parents that hit me so hard I could hardly breathe. The next day I abandoned what I had written and began The Tenth Mistake of Hank Hooperman. 

When I brought the first chapter of this new novel to my crit group, one person said it wasn’t that interesting and I should go back to my previous novel. 

That was hard to hear. But I knew how riveted I was when I wrote about Hank. And so I took a deep breath and did my best to shrug that comment off.  

When I brought the next chapter, that member seemed to accept my choice and I never heard another word about it. In fact, she came up with a really good idea for making the book stronger. 

The Good but Hard

About a year after that, I had a crit group experience with The Tenth Mistake of Hank Hooperman that I’ve never had before. I generally have a sense of how people are going to respond to my work.  But in this case, I was completely blindsided. 

I brought a chapter to the group that I thought was solid. Every single person in the group hated it.

To give context here, by this time my crit group had a good sense of who the characters were and where I was going with the book. After hearing their comments about the chapter, I knew they were right, so I went home and dumped the entire chapter.

It had taken the book in a direction that didn’t fit the feel of the book. More importantly, it was too much information about a character that wasn’t consistent with the way I had characterized him thus far.

I have a terrific editor in Nancy Siscoe. I’m sure she would have suggested I delete that chapter if she had seen it. But it’s always better to turn something into your editor that is as strong as you can make it.   
Since my critique group was a big part of the writing of The Tenth Mistake of Hank Hooperman, I thought I’d offer 8 critique group tips.

8 Tips for Making a Critique Group Work for You

  1. Try different groups. Yes, it takes effort to find a group.  But with so many crit groups on Zoom, you have a lot of choices.  (SCBWI can be very helpful with this.) Find the right group. The wrong critique group is like walking three miles in shoes that are two sizes too small.
  2. Figure out the lens through which each person views the world. Everybody has strengths, weaknesses, and biases. Understanding what those are can help you know how to take the critical input that person offers. If you have a member who hates poetry novels and that is what you’ve written, take that into consideration when you listen to their comments. Or if you’ve written on a subject that one of your crit group members has an extremely strong response to, keep that in mind when reflecting on her feedback. 
  3. When you are critiquing: Be kind. Be gentle. Be honest. Expect the same from the other members in your group.
  4. When you are critiquing, reveal your bias. If you are critiquing a chapter of something in a genre you can’t stand and never read . . . tell your crit group partners this.
  5. Forget about the shoulds. If you don’t feel comfortable in a critique group, don’t be a part of it. It doesn’t matter if that group has a lot of big name authors or published authors or whatever. If it isn’t right, it isn’t right. Period.
  6. Ask yourself if you are ready to share. You may have a great crit group that isn’t right for what you are working on right now. Maybe you’re writing something experimental, something in a new genre, something exceedingly personal. Or maybe your piece is new and unformed, and you haven’t yet found your feet with it. Maybe it’s still mostly in your head. Think hard about whether this is the right piece and/or the right time to bring your piece to your crit group. 
  7. Write down comments that are made about your manuscript. Don’t respond in the moment, and don’t get defensive. The next day, when you’ve had time to think about the comments, see if they feel like they fit. If they don’t, let them go. 
  8. Is this the right time in your career? There are advantages to crit groups:  networking, emotional support for a volatile career, skill building, early takes on new chapters, soft deadlines, etc. But there are disadvantages too. You can get derailed, depressed, and disheartened. Don’t be afraid to try a crit group, but don’t be afraid to let it go either. There are many highly successful authors who have never been in critique groups. Trust yourself to know what works for you.

About Gennifer Choldenko

Gennifer Choldenko is the author of eighteen children’s books including Al Capone Does My Shirts, a Newbery Honor Book, and the recipient of twenty other awards. Gennifer lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her loyal husband and naughty dog. Her most recent book, The Tenth Mistake of Hank Hooperman came out in June. Her next novel, Mouse and His Dog, the second in the Dogtown series, co-written with Katherine Applegate, will launch in September.

Find her at GenniferCholdenko.com and on social media:

About The Tenth Mistake of Hank Hooperman

When eleven-year-old Hank’s mom doesn’t come home, he takes care of his toddler sister, Boo, like he always does. But it’s been a week now. They are out of food and his mom has never stayed away this long… Hank knows he can’t do it on his own, so he and Boo seek out help, despite the risk of involving social services and being separated.

The Tenth Mistake of Hank Hooperman has garnered 4 starred reviews thus far and is a Junior Library Guild selection.  It is an Indie Next pick for July and August 2024.  And an Amazon best in the 9-12 age category so far this year.

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