To Be a Valuable Critique Partner or Not To Be: Some DOs and DON’Ts of Participating in a Writers’ Group

A critique group should be one of the most valuable tools at a writer’s disposal.

Three members of the Crack of Dawn Writing Group getting together to produce those mss our respective critique groups will lovingly rip to shreds later...
Three members of the Crack of Dawn Writing Group getting together to produce those mss our respective critique groups will lovingly and appropriately rip to glorious shreds later…

Your rough drafts may be totes gorgeous and amazeballs, but believe me, if you haven’t had anyone else who’s knowledgeable about writing and/or your genre take a look at it and give you some honest feedback, your manuscript probably isn’t done. A critique group of writers supporting each other through constructive discussion about what works, and what doesn’t so much work, is worth one’s tender ego being a little bruised now and then after finding out one’s first draft is not the burnished gold one thought it was.

That said, sometimes you might find yourself in a critique group that’s not a good match for you. Sometimes the personal chemistry doesn’t work so well. Sometimes you need to move along and find other writers to work with, and that’s okay, too.

So I’ve decided, after being asked questions about all of this in several interviews over the last year, and after realizing I’ve spent the last twenty years either participating in or leading critique groups, to write a blog post about the dos and don’ts of being in a writers’ group.

In preparing for this post, I asked a lot of other writers, those in my current group and some not, for their ideas about good critique group etiquette and professionalism: what you can do, and what you can avoid, to make your––and everyone else’s––experience more positive and productive. There were a lot of common threads, and many of the items you’ll read on these lists were echoed by several of the contributors.

I’d like to thank Casey Fleming, Christa Forster, David Jón Fuller, Adam Holt, Brenda Leibling-Goldberg, Tyson Morgan, Meredith Moore, Shirley Redwine, Lucie Scott Smith, and LiAnn Yim for their input. And if you, dear reader, have some further suggestions on what a critique group participant should or shouldn’t do, please contribute to the conversation in the comments section below!



When it’s your turn to present to the workshop, assuming your group reads the manuscripts ahead of time, DO SEND YOUR WORK OUT TO THE GROUP EARLY so they all have enough time to read it carefully, rather than rushing––or not reading it at all until the night before the meeting. Each group will determine what kind of prep time they need, based on the number of pages each person presents and how many people are sharing their work at each meeting.

Again assuming your group reads manuscripts ahead of time, DO READ EACH MANUSCRIPT BEFORE THE MEETING, more than once if you can. (If you have time, reading it through once and then making notes on your second pass works well.) Have specific notes to give the person. Commit to the time and effort to make a good try. Give it your best effort, even if you don’t love the manuscript.

WILLINGLY ENTER THE CONE OF SILENCE. It’s a hard skill to learn, but it’s so important to keep one’s mouth shut while others talk about your work. LISTEN FIRST and don’t argue with the critics. Wait until they’ve finished, and only then ask questions about the issues they raised. If there is a significant misunderstanding on anyone’s part, it’s better to clear that up before getting into a protracted debate, but there’s also tremendous value in just listening to the effect your writing has on a reader, rather than interjecting partway through and curtailing discussion. Remember that when your work is published and available for a wide audience to read, you won’t be standing over every reader’s shoulder explaining stuff, and you need to see whether your manuscript can stand on its own, whether what you intended to get across on the page actually comes through. Keep quiet until the Redirect, or until the very end.

Alex Haley said, “Find the good and praise it.” DO GIVE NOTES ON WHAT WORKS in the manuscript. People learn better from praise than they do from criticism. Cheering on a great line, a plot twist, or character insight­­––and being able to say why it works––is so meaningful. It’s too easy for writers to feel like our work––particularly our rough drafts––just plain sucks. Getting notes on the parts that don’t work helps, but so does hearing when we’re on the right track. It really helps, in fact, to start your commentary with the praise; if you can start by looking for the good in another writer’s work, it builds trust and helps the writer find a voice and a path. Just picking apart someone’s work mercilessly is counter-productive.

DO STAY ON TOPIC. Keep focused on the writing and feedback. It’s completely normal and acceptable for a writers’ group that’s been working together for a while and that’s built up a solid rapport of mutually respectful, trusting, cordial relationships to be social when they get together, but if you do, keep this part of the meeting confined to the very beginning or very end of the meeting. In my current group, for example, we always eat dinner together when we meet, and we socialize or catch up or chat about writing in general or writing opportunities we’ve come across that we want to share over dinner, and when we’re about done eating, we know it’s time to get down to manuscript business.

BE RESPECTFUL. Keep the writer’s goals in mind, rather than trying to rewrite the manuscript in your own style. Your comments should be about the writer’s goals and about the craft, not about your own tastes or preferences. Focus more on the reaction the manuscript provoked in you, rather than on how you would rewrite it or what the author should have done. Some good advice is to help “make the story more of itself,” which reminds us to examine what the writer wanted to do with the piece––and make recommendations accordingly. (Another way of looking at this is the adage, “It’s not all about you.”)

GO INTO WORKSHOP READY TO HEAR COMMON PLACES OF CONFUSION. Make a list beforehand of what you think could be improved in your draft. Nine times out of ten, good writers already know what’s wrong and just need that list confirmed by other people and re-articulated so they can start to fix it. That process makes the critique feel less personal. In other words, “They’re not tearing my piece apart, they’re helping me see clearly what I already know but am too immersed in the work to approach with clarity.” If you have specific questions you want the group to address, you can do so in Redirect or (if your group allows this) include a short list of questions with your manuscript (if your group reads them ahead of time).

KEEP YOUR OWN COUNSEL. Ignore overly prescriptive advice. Not everyone follows these rules, and it’s important to remember that you’re the one writing this manuscript, not anyone else. If you’re feeling squeamish or discomfited by the critique you’ve received––either because it’s unproductive or because it’s pulling you in numerous different directions––it’s helpful to remember this is your work. Sometimes you need to go with your gut.



DON’T MONOPOLIZE THE DISCUSSION. Speak your piece concisely and make your point, and then let someone else speak. If you’re in a group where the critics take turns giving their commentary, and you have more to say after everyone else has had a turn, ask if you can add something. If you’re in a group where the conversation flows more like a dialogue, an open discussion, then pay attention to your involvement so that everyone gets a chance to contribute.

DON’T DISPARAGE THE WRITER’S WORK OR GENRE. Use your imagination and allow the author’s work to grow; don’t try to kill it before it blooms. Even if the manuscript isn’t in your genre, don’t treat it like it’s covered in snot. Everyone has different tastes, and if you’re going to work together, you need to respect each other and each other’s work. It may not be to your taste. That’s okay. Rise above your personal preferences and be a professional. Ron Carlson said the workshop participant’s job is to help the writer understand what her piece is trying to do or be and then give some thoughtful encouragement about how to get it there, rather than trying to bend it to the critic’s tastes. To that end, consider Andre Dubus’ essay “Letter to a Writer’s Workshop.” In short, honesty is good––but negativity, just destructive.

DON’T COMPETE. You’re not there to be the best in the group; you’re there to learn from each other. Be open to the idea that you will all learn from each other. If you were the most competent writer in the room, it would be really tough for you to ever get any better at your craft. Plus, competition really inhibits the kind of trusting rapport a group needs to function well.

DON’T SHOVEL ON THE B.S. As one of our contributors said, “I’d rather have someone be brute than dance around the subject.” There’s a difference between honest praise and kissing up, and anyone whose ego is smaller than Texas can recognize it. “Be encouraging at all times” is very important and worthwhile advice, but this doesn’t mean insincere flattery will be helpful in any way. Be diplomatic and kind, but respect your fellow writers enough to be genuine, too.

As one of our contributors advised, “DON’T USE THE F-WORD.” Be diplomatic and respectful in your choice of language. No personal attacks. And if you’re in a situation where someone is launching them at a member of the group, DON’T TOLERATE IT.

DON’T MAKE THE MISTAKE OF THINKING YOUR WRITING IS YOU. It’s something you produce. It’s not personal, nor is it a reflection of your worth as a human being. Keep this in mind because no one is there to judge you. They’re there to improve their work and yours, so don’t be overly offended by criticism or overly enamored with praise of your ramblings. Just listen, learn, improve, and enjoy. Don’t get defensive, or the people critiquing your manuscript will be less likely to give you worthwhile, honest feedback. The important corollary to this, of course, is simple: DON’T MAKE THE MISTAKE OF EQUATING THE WRTER WITH THE MANUSCRIPT. That’s just uncool.


I (and the other contributors to this piece) hope you find these guidelines useful. As with any set of rules, of course, you and your group will settle into a dynamic that works for you all. But establishing your rules of engagement early on can save a lot of heartbreak and stress later. Writing and critiquing and becoming better at your craft can (and should) be a fun, productive, valuable process.

May you find an excellent critique group, and when you do find it, may you stick with them. It’s one of the best ways to avoid having too solitary a life, too narrow an echo chamber. It’s one of the best ways to make your work better.

In Which I’m Interviewed About Writing…

One of the writers I met this month at DFWCon, Laura Gokey, asked me to do an interview on her blog about writing, and I was happy to oblige!

Thanks, Laura, for the opportunity.

You can find my interview by clicking here.

Also look around on her site at the fun stuff, including some YA book reviews and descriptions of her own interesting fiction projects.


Cover Reveal for the New Anthology!!!

Hey there!  I have something exciting to share with you all: the front cover of The Milk of Female Kindness: An Anthology of Honest Motherhood.

Milk of Female Kindness front cover

For more information about this book, click here.

I’m so excited to be included in this project, which contains a couple of my poems and a couple of my essays.

Click here to purchase the anthology from Amazon, or contact me directly at for a signed copy.


An Astrodome Memory

A lot of people in my fair city are quagmired right now over what to do about the Astrodome. Called the Eighth Wonder of the World, this monstrosity of a stadium has been vacant for years while several million people try to decide how to vote on what they think should happen to an architectural freak show, a massive structure that holds as many memories as one could fit into its cavernous reaches and then some.

photos from Google Images, listed as coming from
photos from Google Images, listed as coming from

It’s not just that the building itself is unique or that it was the first of its kind. It’s not that it’s pretty (because it’s not, particularly, and growing less so as it creaks into decrepitude). But the Astrodome is just so personal a place to so many people in this city.

And maybe that’s why the ballot options have been so silly, why voting on the Dome’s fate has been such a difficult scenario. When we go to the polls, we don’t get to say what we actually want to do with it. In the most recent election, the choice was to make it a convention center or…not. Well, of course we don’t need another convention center there, and of course the cost to convert the stadium for that purpose would be astronomical. No one wants to pay those taxes. The problem, of course, is that the alternative to the convention center appears to be, in the absence of a consensus otherwise, to tear the thing down – which will also impact taxes. (Duh.)

But lots of people don’t really want to tear it down, either.

The current plan – if I’m keeping up with the discussion – is to raze the building and make it a surface parking lot. That kind of makes me want to vomit. It’s the sort of ugly and boring “solution” that makes people around the country think Houston is full of stupid people with no sense of aesthetics.

A pair of Rice students, who won a contest to come up with creative solutions for what to do with the Dome, suggested turning the Dome itself into a massive parking structure, and then breaking up the zillions of acres of existing surface parking around the structure into parcels of really valuable real estate. Those parcels could be sold to retail shops and restaurants for a boatload of money, because frankly, that land is worth a lot, and the development would help revitalize the area, which it desperately needs. Plus, those retail and dining establishments would have a ready audience every time an event finished at Reliant Stadium – the even bigger stadium next door to the Astrodome that made the Dome obsolete in the first place.

(If you’re not from here and are starting to wonder what the hell is wrong with us, I won’t tell you that’s an unreasonable question.)

To be honest, I don’t technically have a dog in this fight. I have opinions on what they should do with the Dome, but since I no longer actually live in Harris County, I don’t get to vote on it. (The suburb where I do live is one of the most frustratingly irrelevant places to live if you have any interest at all in politics or city development.)

And I’ve never been a big sports fan, so my attachment to the Dome is not rooted in that. I spent plenty of time in my youth going there for football and baseball games, for rock concerts and the rodeo. When I turned ten years old, for my birthday (which falls in the middle of rodeo season), my godfather took me to see Crystal Gayle and Eddie Rabbit in concert. I liked Eddie Rabbit’s music, and Crystal Gayle had the longest hair I’d ever seen, so I loved her, too. When I was a freshman in college, I saw Faith No More, Metallica, and Guns ‘N Roses there. The acoustics sucked. But that day I had rounded up my little brother and one of my friends from their respective high schools, getting them out of school early to go to a rock concert (with their parents’ permission), and that story is hilarious.

But it’s a story for another time, because the most important memory I have of the Astrodome has nothing to do with any of that. It’s of a baseball game I attended there in eighth grade, but I don’t remember whom the Astros were playing and didn’t care that day, either. I was only mildly impressed by the skybox reserved for us. I remember thinking the food was pretty good, but it seemed odd to have the game playing on a television in the lounge when we could just step outside the door and see it on the diamond below. Our seats in the stands were near-ish to the top of the structure, and I remember watching birds that had gotten into the stadium flying around near the ceiling, and thinking how strange it was to see birds’ nests in the joints of the steel rafters.

The reason I was at this game had nothing to do with baseball and everything to do with writing.


The Houston Chronicle had sponsored a city-wide essay contest about Houston for students that year. My Creative Writing teacher had assigned all of us in class to write an essay for the contest, and I had written from the perspective of a bird flying over the city. I remember nothing else about that essay except that a few weeks after the contest, I received a letter in the mail congratulating me on winning it.

I was not the only winner, of course, but I was one of the few from my grade level. Another boy from my class who was in Creative Writing had won, too, and we were going to be honored, along with the other contest winners from each grade level, in the middle of an Astros game that spring. And as a prize, we would each be given a certificate and a watch. A nice watch, from Gordon’s Jewelers. A watch decorated with 14K gold, a watch with a diamond in it.

I was pretty excited when that letter came in the mail. I read it in disbelief then showed it to my parents, who also read it in disbelief.

“You’re going to go onto the field during an Astros game!” they exclaimed, excited for me. “They’re going to give you a really nice watch!”

“They sure are!” I must have said. And then, “What on earth am I going to wear?”


The question of what I would wear wasn’t actually hard to answer. My mom had bought me a cute new outfit for that year’s Christmas Dance, a hunter green knit skirt and oversized sweater with big black stars all over it, the height of fashion at the time.

The question of why my essay had been chosen among the winners was a tougher thing to figure out. I had been plagued that year with writing failures.

My new column in the school newspaper had flopped. It was called “Ask Angélique” and meant to be a helpful information-gathering service to my fellow students. (Remember, this was almost a decade before the Internet existed for civilian use: encyclopedias and dictionaries were important books every kid needed on a regular basis.) The shoebox I’d optimistically decorated with construction paper and markers and placed in the school library was stuffed each week with inane questions ranging from the disrespectful and tacky “Are you a virgin?” to the cruelly impossible “List all makes and models of cars ever created. Example: Buick Skylark.” The worst part? I knew who was writing these questions. I had been going to school with these kids since kindergarten, and I knew their handwriting, and I understood the askance looks they gave me after I read their otherwise anonymous questions.

A short story I’d written in Creative Writing class one day when I’d had the flu and hadn’t been sent home from school yet had earned a D for being only three paragraphs long – hardly representative of my usual work – and that assignment had sat on top of a stack of graded papers on the edge of our teacher’s desk for everyone to see every day for a week. (A couple of the boys in my class sneered that D in my face for the rest of the year.)

A long fiction project I’d been working on for months in my spare time – a novel I was writing about my cousins and me, on notebook paper with a pencil, so I could easily edit it – had been ruined the week before when my little brother had opened a large bottle of bubble solution in my closet and accidentally spilled it all over the pages, blurring the manuscript beyond recognition.

And a few months before, one of those cousins in my soaked manuscript – one of my closest friends in the world – had unexpectedly died, taking with him my desire to play the piano and my ability to know how to properly express grief. My teacher was getting tired of reading my poems and essays about how much I missed him.

The thought that I might ever experience success again had pretty much fled. So when I turned in my essay to my teacher, I forgot about it, and when I got the congratulatory letter in the mail, I taped it to my closet door, next to the pin-up posters of Ricky Schroeder and Duran Duran, so I could see it every day and remember that this had really happened.


We went to the Dome on the appointed Sunday afternoon. A representative from the newspaper and another one from the jewelry store guided all of us through the ceremony protocol. After the fourth inning, we would all file down onto the field and stand in a semi-circle behind the pitcher’s mound. The man announcing us would speak each of our names into a microphone, and our names would appear in lights on the giant marquee. The crowd would go wild as, one by one, we walked from the semi-circle to the tall woman with big curly blonde hair and a smart skirt suit, and she would hand us our prizes. Then we would walk back to the semi-circle, and when it was all finished, we would return to our skybox for the rest of the game.

from Google Images — listed as coming from

There are a few things I remember about that awards ceremony. One was that you couldn’t actually hear your name being announced, because the echo in the Dome was like its own physics experiment. You watched for your name in lights and hoped the kid before you could decipher the noise better than you, so you could follow his lead. My black flats crunched the Astroturf with each step, a noise I felt more than heard in the din of 35,000 screaming fans. The blonde smiled primly at me when she handed me the certificate and the watch box. I walked back to the semi-circle with a ringing in my ears and couldn’t wait to open that box but managed to hold off until we got back upstairs. Not all of the other kids were so polite.

My mom, waiting for me in the skybox, looked proud of me when I came back up. “You looked so pretty out there,” she said, smoothing down the impatient curls of my waist-length hair. I handed her my certificate so she wouldn’t try to help me as I fumbled the box open. I wanted that moment to be all my own.

The watch had a round onyx face and a narrow, black leather band. The face had nothing on it but a diamond where the twelve would have been. All three hands were made of gold, and a gold border rimmed the face, in which was etched Roman numerals to mark the hours. The glass was made of clear crystal. It was a beautiful watch, and someone had given it to me because something I had written was good, a determination made by complete strangers who didn’t know me or love me or have to tell me they approved, by people who didn’t hand the essay back to me, saying, “You certainly have become opinionated.”


I went to the Astrodome many times, but no other time I went really matters. And so, when they tear it down – since it doesn’t appear that anyone in charge of the situation has enough sense to stop it and do something useful and productive with the space – this is what I will remember.

Birds nesting in the ceiling.

Terrible acoustics.

And 35,000 screaming fans lauding a fourteen-year-old girl, rock star like, for a piece of writing that, forgettable though it was, made her believe in no uncertain terms that somewhere she would have an audience, and for that, must have been brilliant.

Haiku Contest Closure and Some Changes ’round Here

So now that the US government is back open for business, the Government Shutdown Haiku Contest is officially closed.  We had so many great entries!  Thank you to everyone who participated.  And in the comments this contest elicited from across my various social media, the general consensus from many, regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof, could be summed up in this non-competing poem:

“Crisis averted
in the eleventh hour.”
Nice work, pudknockers.

Later this weekend, I’ll be posting all the entries for the contest and giving you, the readers, an opportunity to vote on your favorites.  Majority wins in this poll, and the winner will receive a copy of TimeSlice.  Look for more details and the actual voting in my next blog post.


You might have noticed there was no Fashion Friday post yesterday.  I thought about doing one on lariats, which are a fun and versatile jewelry accessory, but I couldn’t get a decent picture of the one I’d made.  I thought about doing one on the trauma of haircuts — yes, really — but it felt too indulgent even for me.  I thought about featuring a hat, but the cool weather we had at the start of the week dissipated again.  In short, nothing was really coming together in time for yesterday’s scheduled post.  So I let it go.  Maybe I’ll revisit those ideas again later.

In my realm, Fashion Friday is a “blog project,” something (much like the Rêveurs Revelation Fashion Project) that I find entertaining and fun and which gets me posting on a regular basis even when I don’t have something more literary to share.  And periodically I evaluate how those blog projects are doing.  The inciting incident for Fashion Friday was that I wanted to bring hats back into fashion, and then it just expanded into other accessories.  It’s been a way for me to indulge a hobby of mine while also, sometimes, writing about more meaningful things (such as body image or beauty or self-confidence), and it’s been a fun way to get other writers involved in my site as guest contributors.

Now that autumn is here and hats are back on the horizon, we will see more of those, because I do still want to see them make a bigger comeback even in places where it doesn’t get snowy and cold for several months out of the year.  And I’m still very much open to having guest bloggers contribute to this series.  I will still, from time to time, write pieces about those issues I mentioned.  But I’m not going to go nuts trying to post something every week for the sake of posting something every week.  It’s not that there’s anything wrong with weekly posts — that is, ultimately, my goal in general — but these other things are just taking up more of my time than I have right now.

The reason for this is actually a good thing:  I have a bunch of pots on the writing stove, as it were.  Look for news about a magic realism novelette coming out in the not-too-distant future.  I may also be re-releasing one of my books of poetry that’s gone out of print.  I’m continuing work on the fantasy series I’m in the middle of — the first novel of which is currently being shopped around and which is sitting on about half a dozen agents’ desks at the moment.  The book review assignments are piling up around me.  I’m also itching to start a new novel, a stand-alone, and the NaNoWriMo‘s siren song has already begun its perilous waft to my ears.

So yeah, there’s a lot going on.  But it’s good stuff, and as much as I love my hobby, I want to devote more time to the literary stuff.

I am intensely grateful for all the new readers who have joined the Sappho’s Torque community since the inception of Fashion Fridays.  All of you, please feel free to query me if you’d like to do a guest post!  I hope you continue to enjoy the other treats on the blog between future Fashion Friday posts.

I’m considering some other changes around here, too.  You might have noticed a few little tweaks to its appearance over the last couple of months.  (Maybe not, though, as they’ve been subtle.)  I’m looking to spruce things up even more in the near future.

Exciting developments are afoot in the world of Angélique.  Stay tuned.

And watch over the next couple of days for the Government Shutdown Haiku Contest voting opportunity.  Thanks again to everyone who entered!


Government Shutdown Haiku Contest

While the government shutdown may or may not have been inevitable, you probably knew I’d find some way to attach a haiku contest to it, especially after the 2012 Republican Primary Haiku Contest and the 2012 National Political Conventions Haiku Contest both did so well.

Here’s a little refresher on what constitutes a haiku:  It’s a very short poem whose origins are primarily Japanese, whose three lines are measured in syllables numbering 5-7-5, and which (as we often learn in elementary school) traditionally has something to do with nature.  There are a couple of other considerations here, too, for the poetic purists.  A good haiku will entertain a play between pure description and commentary on the subject matter.

So here we go!  Enter as many haiku as you like, in the comments section below.  Contest is open for as long as the government isn’t.  (And who knows how long that will be?  Better get your entries in soon!)

The prize is a book of poems:  TimeSlice.  This anthology of poets who live in or are connected to Houston, some through their teaching in The University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program, was published by Mutabilis Press and contains a wide array of gorgeous verse from both the “literary” and “underground” poetry scenes in 21st-century Houston.  A few of the poets featured include Edward Hirsch, Carolyn Adams, Tony Hoagland, Varsha Shah, Adam Zagajewski, Robert Phillips, Iris Rozencwajg, and Ken Jones*.   (Click on the above link to MP’s site to see a list of all the poets included.  It’s quite a list.  It’s quite a book.)

Ready?  Get set…  Haiku!


*  Full disclosure:  I’m in the book, too.



Querying at the DFWCon Gong Show and Living to Tell the Tale

It was the last hour of the conference. All weekend, writers and agents and editors and industry professionals of all kinds had been networking, learning, teaching, finding polite and impersonal rejection, or feeling gratified that their ideas had merit. And now, all the people who were left had situated themselves in the ballroom for The Gong Show. Continue reading “Querying at the DFWCon Gong Show and Living to Tell the Tale”

They Say A Picture Is Worth…

…what, something like 1,000 words?  How about 250?

Check out this incredibly cute picture:

No caption this time. That’s YOUR job.

Now, if you please, come up with a little story to go with it!  No more than 250 words, please — just leave your entry in the comments section.  Deadline is this coming Sunday 11/25 at 11:59 p.m. central time.

I’ll try to make a poll for the entries, and then the winner of the readers’ choice poll will win a guest blogger spot here on Sappho’s Torque, on a mutually agreed upon date.  Won’t that be fun??  Yes!  Yes, it will!

For all those of you in the U.S. and all you U.S. ex-pats out there, Happy Thanksgiving.  If you have a holiday this week, then you have some free time.  Enter this story contest.  And if you don’t have a holiday and/or free time this week, enter it anyway, because nothing says procrastination like entering an internet contest.

Cheers!  🙂

P.S. — Please feel free to spread the word about this opportunity.  I’d love to see how far this thing can go.