Musing on the Perfect Critique Group

January 30, 2019 by Kathy Berklund-Pagé


Many years ago, I read that getting feedback on our writing is like taking our baby to the pediatrician. It is not the same as a visit with friends. A visit to the doctor means our baby will be poked, prodded, measured and weighed. We expect this. While we want our friends to say our baby is beautiful, we want the pediatrician to tell us if she is healthy. The article said our critique group are pediatricians for our writing “babies.” Bedside manner is not important. Competence and expertise are.
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After fifteen years of critique groups, I’ve decided I don’t agree with that author. Not entirely. It’s not that I don’t need or want a pediatrician. I absolutely do. I need my writing to be poked, prodded and measured. But at the same time, I want to also feel like I’m showing my “baby” to friends. I need them to say things like, “This character is so much fun… This paragraph is amazing… Your writing makes me think.” It’s encouraging to be told your writing is perfect. (I know because it happened to me… But only once.)

Knowing they are fans helps me set my emotions and ego aside when they say things like, “Your character wouldn’t say this, do this… This description makes no sense to me… Your pacing is off.” It helps me not defend myself — even when the whole group hates my “baby.” (I know because this, too, happened to me…But, happily, only once.) Knowing I was among friends helped me listen and sort through their comments for the tiny seed of truth.*

What does it take to be a good participant in a great critique group? Humility, I think. A commitment to grow and learn. The first group I joined was like that. Three years in, I wrote an article I called: Five Reasons Our Writer’s Group Was Doomed—But Is Doing Just Fine, Thank You! The title is a bit over-the-top, but also accurate. As aspiring writers, our group was a mess. There were gaping holes in our writing skills and we had no idea how to critique. To complicate things, we all wrote in different genres. Memoir, “how to” articles, poetry, literary short stories, children’s fantasy, historical fiction. We were as different as different could be – but none of that mattered. What mattered was that we were aware of how much we didn’t know and were committed to learning… together.

A few years later, I moved to another city and was able, for the first time, to attend writing classes. There, I met others who also wrote for tweens and teens and we formed a group. We each had different strengths and we became better writers for sharing them. Along the way, we raised a glass to each other’s successes and mourned each other’s pain.

All told, I participated in three groups over a period of fifteen years. Were they perfect? Of course not. We’re human. We made mistakes. Our comments were not always helpful. But we grew and got better. We worked at being both truthful and kind. We tried to remember that we are walking on holy ground when we give a critique. I’m grateful to have had both pediatricians and friends for my writing babies. I need both and I’m a better writer and a better person for them.

*In the interests of full disclosure: that’s only partly true. It’s really hard to sort through comments when everybody hates what you wrote. That scene is still sitting in a drawer. However, interestingly enough, they all hated it for different reasons and I’m fairly certain it’ll come out again… I’m almost ready.

About this Contributor

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Kathy Berklund-Pagé was born in the United States, which—as her Canadian husband loves to point out—is not her fault. She spent several years in France as a teen and young adult. While there, she learned French double-quick (no one her age spoke English) and met a handsome Canadian. Despite their best efforts, they fell in love, so they opened an atlas and said, “Where do we want to live?” The beautiful Quebec City won. Two decades and three children later, they moved to Montreal, where they still live.

Visit her website by clicking here.