How to Stay Popular in a Writers Group

by Joe Bunting | 20 comments

Writers groups can be an incredibly rich experience. In fact, you can learn more about the craft of writing from a good writers group or creative writing club than you can learn from a thousand blog posts on writing.

How to Stay Popular in a Writers Group

However, at the same time, a bad writers group can be a waste of time, and if particularly dysfunctional, can even be incredibly damaging to your confidence and your writing.

If you're part of a writers group, how do you take it to the next level? And if you're looking for a writers group, how do you make sure you choose the right one?

Looking for a writers group? We're about to create a new group in Becoming Writer, our online writers group and writing workshop. If you're interested, click here to learn more and join the waiting list.

Good Writers Groups Critique

Here's the rule to judge a writers group by:

Good writers groups give good critiques. To grow your writers group, then, you must learn how to give better feedback.

Critiquing isn’t just a normal part of most writers groups, you may find it to be the best part.

However, if you’ve ever received a bad critique, whether it was poorly thought out or just straight up wrong, you know that sometimes critiques can do more harm than good.

With that in mind, let’s talk about how to give feedback as good as any New York editor, and then how to take it like a pro.

3 Steps to Giving the Best Feedback

Before we begin, let’s all acknowledge something about the nature of criticism: it sucks. Criticism is painful at it’s best, deeply wounding at its worst, and can often cause lasting impact to our writing and self-confidence.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, one surprising thing about criticism is that it’s also incredibly useful for creativity. In fact, researchers have found that criticism is far more effective for generating ideas even than brainstorming. Here’s Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at Berkeley:

While the instruction ‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.… Authentic dissent can be difficult, but it’s always invigorating. It wakes us right up.

At The Write Practice, we always strive to critique in a way that is both encouraging and invigorating, and that’s why we follow the following three-step process to giving feedback.

The Oreo Method to Critiquing

What’s you’re favorite part of an Oreo? If you’re like me, the best part of an Oreo is definitely the two cookies (I especially have a weakness for Oreo cookie milkshakes).

In the same way, the best parts of a critique that follows the Oreo Method are the two cookies (the filling is the tough part!).

Here’s how the Oreo Method works:

Step 1: Give positive praise.

The first step of building your Oreo sandwich is to start by talking about all the things you liked about the writing piece you read.

  • What is unique or effective about their writing style?
  • What did you enjoy or respect about their characters?
  • What is a phrase or paragraph that especially stood out to you? Why?
  • Which authors that you’ve read do they remind you of?

The key here is to be as specific as you can, and to describe exactly what they did that was effective.

What if you can’t think of anything good to say? Then you’re not reading closely enough. I’ve edited some pretty bad writers, but even then, I’ve found that when I’m struggling to find something to praise, it’s my fault, not theirs. I find that as I look back at their writing and read closer, I will always find many things to praise.

The golden rule of critiquing is, “Seek first to understand, not to be understood.” Your job as a critique partner is to draw out what’s best about their writing. Don’t you want the same thing from your critique partners?

If you can’t give positive feedback on someone's writing, you’re not reading closely enough. (Share that on Twitter?)

Step 2: Give constructive feedback.

Next, the filling. It’s time share your negative feedback.

Honestly, I find it’s usually easier to talk about what I didn’t like than what I did (perhaps that says something about me!), but that’s why the first step of critiquing is so important. If you don't give positive feedback, the writer you're critiquing may not be able to accept your negative feedback.

Again, be as specific as you can. Say exactly what didn’t work for you, and give precise examples. Here’s what I mean:

I really liked the way you drew us into the scene by describing the setting as if we were actively walking through it. I especially enjoyed your description of Manhattan here: “Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward.”

However, I found that your language was overly stiff and formal, especially when you use words like “thence” and “circumambulate,” which are so far out of common use I had to look a few of them up. I think you’ll find that people will be able to connect emotionally with your novel much more easily if you used a more informal vocabulary.

See how specific I was? Easy enough, right? (Bonus points if you know which famous novel I was “critiquing.”)

Step 3: Give more positive praise.

You always remember negative criticism more than the positive praise you get, and that’s why it’s so important to complete your Oreo sandwich by overwhelming them with something positive.

What I find is that I’m much more ready to take the negative feedback if it’s surrounded by insightful, positive praise. “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,” right?

Hint: If you run out of nice things to say, copy and paste something from Step 1.

Positive. Negative. Positive.

That’s the formula for giving a critique that can transform someone’s writing (for the better!).

Why We Critique

It’s easy to avoid giving this kind of feedback. It can be incredibly time consuming. It can also be difficult to give tough feedback to writers you don’t know very well. Wouldn’t it be easier to just say, “Great story!” And move on?

Be better than that. Be a writer who cares about the craft enough to say the hard things as well as the good things. And at the very least, be a writer who cares enough about your own writing to give the kind of feedback you hope to receive in kind.

More Resources on Writers Groups:

How about you? What other tips do you have about critiquing? Share below.

PRACTICE

Give a good critique! Go back to an earlier post on The Write Practice, choose a practice to read, and then leave a critique using the Oreo method described above.

And if you're looking for a good writers group, click here to learn more about Becoming Writer.

Happy critiquing!

Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

Want best-seller coaching? Book Joe here.

20 Comments

  1. Dave LaRoche

    I run a critique group, six years now, and find your article well seasoned and on target except for two things. The first is the title, personal popularity is not the writers goal, in group or in store. Good writing and presentation, a full plate of related knowledge, and the ability to communicate it strikes me as the writer’s goal – that and a few bucks in the pocket. Your title is a turn-off for me.

    Number two is the approach. I regularly attend a workshop, the leader of which is years in the industry as author, coach, content editor, acquisition ed, and publisher, I like her. Not because she is nice, but because she tells me things I can use. Of course she is friendly, but her approach to critique is all business, and those under her tutelage dearly appreciate that. I/we don’t have time for nice – only time for learning and applying. Those in the group I run, also appreciate that “get to it” approach.

    Thanks for the article, most of what I use or will use tomorrow.
    Dave

    Reply
    • Annie Freewriter

      Dear Dave,
      Not all critique groups are like yours, nor are they the best fit for all or even most people.
      I suggest you could talk about what works for you on your own post/blog.
      I love this post and the style of critiquing it suggests. And the title caught my attention.
      This is not a critique of you by the way.
      The best to you in your writing career.

    • Joe Bunting

      Hi Dave. I appreciate your own (Oreo sandwiched, no less!) feedback. I will say that while personal popularity may not be your goal, I do think it’s too much of a generalization to say that no writers have it as one of their goals.

      Also, like you, I’m not interested in nice. But I think all of us want to know what we did well and what we did poorly. If someone gives me a critique that just focuses on what I did wrong, it doesn’t help me nearly as much as an approach that says, “Do THIS more! And THAT? Don’t do THAT ever again?” If that makes sense. My guess is that the leader of your critique group is more like the latter.

      It sounds like you have a fantastic writers group, one that I’m a little jealous of. Thanks so much for reading and sharing your feedback, Dave.

  2. Lauren Timmins

    Well, reading Mr. LaRoche’s opinion, I first have to say that every writer’s group is going to work differently, and therefore certain techniques and criticizing methods will work for some, but not others. As for the title, I read it as a reference to staying “popular” by being a good contributor to the group. I don’t think any group of people who want to better themselves want a member who can’t contribute. I also have to say that I have never been in a writing group specifically; my opinions are based off my experiences working in group projects.

    I personally like the suggested method of critique. Positive feedback paired with negative feedback makes me want to work harder and tells me what I’m doing right. It would work well for “green” writers like myself who are still searching for their voice and style. For “seasoned” writers, I can understand cutting straight to the weak points.

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Thanks Lauren! My feedback: your disqus profile pic is awesome. 😉

  3. PJ Reece

    I’ve been in the same critique for six years… and our trust has grown along with our no-nonsense approach. I understand that some people are too sensitive to hear hard criticism, but ultimately we’ve learned to value everybody’s reaction. I see each critique as indicative of how many readers will receive the material. If I’m okay with losing those readers, then no problem. But it’s not hard to embrace almost every criticism, make some adjustments, and thereby embrace the larger audience. It’s the sport of revision. As for being popular in a critique group, I don’t think anyone is unpopular who speaks the truth.

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      So many good points, PJ!

    • Susan W A

      “It’s the sport of revision” … now who wouldn’t want to join in !

  4. Dawn Atkin

    Hi Joe
    Great post.
    I personally prefer the ‘sandwich’ approach for giving and receiving feedback.
    On this site I am also acutely aware of the diverse stage of writing and age of writers that are participating.

    Often my 15 minute practice is rushed, and just as often there are grammatical oversights and typos. However I do enjoy responses that say what specific ‘bit’ readers enjoy and what could be improved. I find the constructive critiquing offers insights. What readers do like and where they can see room for improvement are both equally valuable to me.

    Thanks
    Warm Regards
    Dawn

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Exactly Dawn. We’re our own worst judges of our writing, and so it’s so important to have a mirror held up in the form of a good critique. I’m so glad that this community has been helpful to you. You certainly are a valuable part of it. 🙂

    • Dawn Atkin

      Cheers Joe. 🙂

  5. Steve Ogden

    Love this!! It applies anywhere in life (not just in writer’s groups), and reading it makes me aware that I need to refocus on this.

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Indeed it does, Steve. Although when critiquing your spouse, it helps to add a couple of extra cookies!

  6. Kellie McGann

    Joe,
    I know a place/group that could use this advice!
    Speech? 🙂

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Haha. Thanks Kellie. I’ll do it!

  7. Katina Vaselopulos

    Joe, I love this post. like all others. Out of the ten readers who read my manuscript, only four gave me constructive criticism, and two of them were editors. It’s not easy praising and criticizing because we don’t take the time to read carefully enough to see both the good and the ugly. I hope my other readers are. I am working on it.
    Thank you,
    Katina Vaselopulos

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Exactly, Katina. It takes a lot of time and energy to give writing the feedback it deserves. It’s great that you found four people to give you solid feedback!

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    Reply
  9. Young_Cougar

    Great advice Joe! Yea, I love the 2 cookies and the middle is the hard part. <3

    Reply
  10. darkocean

    I like this post, very much thank you. I hate oreo cookies though EWWW blea! I find them bitter. I do love the frosting though. The golden oreos are, yum!

    Reply

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