On Critique Groups by Michele Bacon


For years, I’ve had a cadre of early readers: a computer programmer, a YA librarian, a middle-school English teacher-turned-attorney, and one author. The Four have edited each of my manuscripts, first as the story is forming, and then as I am polishing the last draft. These people know all my writing tics and weaknesses, and together they spot every mistake.

I love them dearly.

Lately, though, they aren’t enough. The Four are professionals with families and—you know—their own stack of books to read! It would be unfair to ask them to read every paragraph I revise on a whim (except my spouse. Sorry, spouse.)

This summer, in my search for something more, I sought local writers who were willing to read YA and adult contemporary work. Lucky for me, my Seattle neighborhood teems with writers of all stripes.

Now I am one of six. We submit work to one another monthly and gather to critique and talk craft. Together, we write fiction, memoir, and creative nonfiction. We’re penning novels, essays, short stories, book-length memoirs, and personal histories.

If you are a writer, find a critique group. Right now. My critique world has changed my (writing) life.

Each month, five other writers review 2000 – 5000 words I have written. When a character veers off course, they know. When I contradict myself, they know. When my writing is unclear, imprecise, offensive, or plain, they know.

Having another writer critique a manuscript in progress is invaluable. Five others is heavenly.

We five writers approach the table with completely different perspectives. I bring the grammar, syntax, and spelling (and, let’s be frank: those things can be taught.) Kristina sees the world in images and metaphors; I’m trying to borrow her glasses. Meg is a deeply-feeling person, and is emerging as the sounding board for emotionality in a piece. Ruth focuses on structure and story, so she harnesses the big picture. Elisabeth knows when I’m breaking rules and challenges my characters’ motivation. Mary Jean knows details—what is superfluous, what is missing, and what could add to a character or story.

We complement each other. Participating fully forces me to abandon my word-count goal two or three days each month. That sacrifice is absolutely worth it.

Each month, I send my words off into the void and file the work I receive in return. For ten days, their work is a gift. When I need a break from my characters, or when I cannot write another word without clearing my head, I can read a short story, an essay, or a chapter written by these women I now call friends. And we all are better for it. Our work is better for it.

My manuscript in progress is now a whole different beast. In addition to being grammatically correct and character driven, it has feeling. It boasts a strong and nuanced structure. It includes—GASP—metaphors and imagery. It is rich and full, without overflowing. And I couldn’t have done that alone.


Michele Bacon is the author of Life Before, which will be released June 6, 2016. She lives in Seattle with her husband and three children. For more information, follow her on Twitter or head to her website.


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