Advanced Writing Groupage

Lev AC Rosen is the author of All Men of Genius, a steampunk novel inspired by both Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The novel follows Violet Adams as she disguises herself as her twin brother to gain entry to Victorian London’s most prestigious scientific academy, and once there, encounters blackmail, mystery, gender confusion, talking rabbits and killer automata.  Rosen received his MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College.  He lives in Manhattan.

So you’ve read my love letter to my writing group and now you want to know more – how our group works, and how it’s lasted so long.  Well, here are some more advanced tips, for once you’ve found that special writing group, and you know you want to make it last.

  • Respect.  This sort of goes without saying, but if you don’t respect everyone in the group, then you’re not going to get much out of critique.  You’ll just be like “eh, what does that schlub know?” and ignore them.  Pro-tip: If you find yourself doing this with everyone who reads the book, your problem isn’t them.
  • The “I feel” rule.  Especially when first starting out, it can make a big difference to remember to express all critique – positive and negative – with “I feel” or something similar.  Make it clear you know it’s only your opinion, not some greater truth and the writer must obey you.
  • Positive and Negative – this goes with the above, but don’t forget to say nice things, too!  Encouraging people to continue is important.  I always find the more “this needs work” sections of critique more useful (obviously) but those positive ones lets me know what’s working and makes me feel good about what I’m doing and want to continue it.
  • A quiet, private space to meet.  We meet at someone’s apartment.  Lately it’s been mine, since I’m sort of centrally located, but when our friend had a small child we met at her place so she didn’t need to get a sitter.  Peoples houses are good – if you’re not comfortable, or don’t have the space, there’s also places like schools and churches which might rent a small space to a group.  I mentioned above once being in a group that met in a restaurant.  I cannot tell you how awful this way.  People talking, you’re trying to eat and critique at the same time, sauces on pages, taking notes while your food gets cold.  It’s chaos and it doesn’t foster easy flow of conversation the way you’d think a restaurant would.  Eating with writing group is great, but do it after the critiquing period.  Like your mother said, it’s rude to talk with your mouth full.  The key is to have a quiet, intimate space where you can really hear each other.
  • The Grain of Salt.  This is what I call the knowledge that when you give someone critique, they might not agree or take your advice on everything, or some days, anything.  Everything you say is taken with a grain of salt; you come from a place on that day at that time and the author comes from a place and maybe those places don’t meet.  It’s still important that they hear what you have to say, but don’t get offended if they nod and say “well, I don’t want to make the protagonist more sympathetic, I sort of like that you’re angry at her.”  It’s their story, after all.  In grad school, we’re taught not to write for the other person, that is, to give advice, or response “I didn’t feel I understood why she killed him” vs giving specific suggestions “if he said he was planning to blow up the city a page earlier, then I’d get why she killed him.  Also, she should kill him with a bomb, not a gun, because it’ll have more resonance.”  This is important in grad school.  In writing group, we ignore it.  But when we do go into the world of making specific suggestions, it is either at the writers request (“I want the reader to get why she’s killing him here, and clearly you guys aren’t.  How do I fix that?”) or with a caveat (“Okay, so I’m totally writing your book for you here, but what if she killed him with a bomb?”).  This is risky business, and I don’t recommend it til everyone feels really comfortable.  But then it can be the most useful sort of brainstorming ever.
  • This isn’t a competition.  If you’re concerned with doing better than the people in the group, if you’re comparing yourself to them, or you find them comparing themselves to you, then stop.  You should all be trying to help each other.
  • The Letter.  I recently discovered not all writing groups did this and I was shocked.  Obviously, when you read the pages you’re critiquing, you should be red-penning it, if you have a red pen.  But more important than that is the letter!  It can be written on the back of the pages, it can be bullet-point, but write to the writer saying what you liked and didn’t like in the piece.  That way they have a file to consult.  They should be taking notes, of course, but those letters help them remember who said what and why.  So write a letter.

In case you’re wondering about the logistics of my group in particular, we meet every other week, we critique one person a week, and we usually don’t hand out more than 100 pages.  So everyone has 2 weeks to read.  Sometimes, one of us will have a finished draft of a novel and they’ll want to hand the whole thing out (so it can be read in one fell swoop).  When we do this, the writer asks the rest of the group how long they’ll need – usually 4 weeks – and hands it out 4 weeks ahead.  We still do group and critique others in the meanwhile, but the pages have been handed out early.  Also, if you can, I highly recommend printing out large works and binding them for group.  They will appreciate it, and so will you when you go back over their notes.

So that’s our formula.  You have to find your own, of course.  But again I say find yourself a writing group.  They will make you a better writer.  Possibly a better person.  And if you’re lucky, they’ll also become a little family.








A Love Letter (to My Writing Group)

Lev AC Rosen is the author of All Men of Genius, a steampunk novel inspired by both Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The novel follows Violet Adams as she disguises herself as her twin brother to gain entry to Victorian London’s most prestigious scientific academy, and once there, encounters blackmail, mystery, gender confusion, talking rabbits and killer automata.  Rosen received his MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College.  He lives in Manhattan.

Hey Baby,

We’ve been together a long time – over four years.  That’s longer than I’ve been with my fiancé.  And you’re still everything I need to keep up.  Sure, I won’t lie, there were others before you.  I remember one really bad evening spent over bad pasta with a woman who wouldn’t stop talking about the sales figures of her self-help book.  I didn’t know what she was talking about, but apparently, I wasn’t impressed enough, and she got mad.  I left soon after that.  I took another woman who was with us that night with me.  We got a few others together, and we’ve been together since.  Yeah, baby, you’re the best writing group a man could hope for.



I love my writing group.  And I think every serious writer who isn’t actively taking classes in writing should have one that they love, too.  I don’t mean readers – people you show your work to when it’s done.  I mean people you meet with regularly, who show you their work in progress and you show them yours, and you all talk.  Why is this important?  Let me bulletpoint it for you:

  • Let’s face it, writers spend a lot of time in their heads, and socialization is important.  Not just for hygene, but because when you’re working on something, you’re so close to it you can’t imagine how others will see it.  Perspective is important
  • It keeps you on schedule.  If you know you’re handing out pages to a group of people on such a date, then you have those pages ready.  Otherwise you’re wasting their time, and if you’re wasting the time of people who want to help you, you should feel ashamed.  So yes, it keeps you on schedule.  With guilt.
  • Critiquing other peoples work helps you keep your own editing-brain fresh.  Knowing what you like and don’t like in another piece of writing – and having to verbalize that like and dislike in front of them (Critique is different from Criticism) makes you realize what you like and dislike in your own writing.  It helps you keep your own perspective fresh
  • Brainstorming.  You know what has to be done in a story, or what you’re trying to do, but for some reason people aren’t getting it.  So tell your writing group.  They’ve read the work, and when they know what you’re aiming for, they can help you understand why it isn’t there yet.
  • The most obvious and important thing, which is really a combination of all the above, is that you get feedback and encouragement.  You get energized to keep writing, you get excited about your work again, and you see what’s working, and what isn’t.

So what makes a good writing group?  Ours has been together longer than most (fingers crossed this article doesn’t jinx it), so I feel okay saying what I think makes it work.  Others in the group might disagree.  I had a professor, David Hollander, who suggested writing groups should assemble the way bands do: you put up a flyer saying “Seeking Writing Group: Likes: Kafka, Voltaire.  Dislikes: Tolstoy” and see who you get.  I’ve never been in a band, so I have no idea how that comes together, but I know my writing group and I have different tastes.  We all work on different things as well; from YA to historical fiction to scifi to literary to memoir.  But I think Hollander has a good idea there – you want people who are going to be open minded to what you’re trying to do, not people who are going to say “why are you writing steampunk?  That stuff sucks.”  So open-mindedness is important in joining any group.  If people in your group say something like “I don’t like mysteries” before even reading, and you’re writing a mystery, then don’t try to win them over.  And if you’re someone who says “I don’t like mysteries” find a writing group that matches your tastes.

That said, I’d compare getting a working writing group together more to dating than forming a band (again with the disclaimer that I have no idea what forming a band is like).  You need chemistry.  You need to click with the people.  Everyone has to bring the same level of commitment and understanding, and everyone has to be there because they want not only to get critiqued, but to help others.  My writing group laughs a lot.  And we socialize outside of group.  If, after a few meetings, you don’t see yourself becoming friends with the people in your group, maybe it’s not the group for you.  Being friendly, and knowing, absolutely positively that everyone there wants only what is best for each other will make writing group so much more fun and useful.




A Critique Template for Authors and Writer’s Groups

Patrick Hester is an author, blogger and Hugo Nominated Podcast Producer/Host who writes science fiction and fantasy. He is represented by Bob Mecoy for his fiction. His Functional Nerds and SF Signal weekly podcasts have both been nominated for Parsec awards and the SFSignal podcast is nominated for a 2012 Hugo Award. You can usually find him on twitter when he’s not writing (or even when he is).

A couple of years ago, I wanted to take the next step in my journey to become a published author. For me, that meant joining a writer’s group and getting some feedback from other authors. I found a well established group (founded in 1996) with a good mix of authors (folks who write poetry, science fiction, fantasy, horror, general fiction) and, after a few months of visiting (similar to auditing a college class except I was expected to read all of the material and comment/critique as well), I was welcomed as a member and could submit my own stories.

The critiques I received were well thought out, composed and, most importantly, helpful. So much so, that I started feeling guilty about my own critiques. At times, I would read a submission and stare at a blank page without a clue what to write. Over the next few months, I noticed a pattern. Some folks talked about plot, others were focused on characters, sentence structure, syntax, grammar and even dialogue. No two critiques were the same but when you put them all together, you had the big picture. I wanted to reciprocate and offer up the best critiques possible, so I created a form – a critique template I could use for every submission. With it, I can deliver a consistent and, more importantly, useful critique to the author.

Today, I’d like to share that form with you and look at each section.


Here I have the Story Title, Author, Date and my own contact information in case the author wants to follow up with me later. In General Thoughts, I want to summarize my Initial Impression of the story, list the Pros and the Cons and deliver the Bottom Line – did the story work for me?



How was the Pace and Flow? If I struggled reading through for some reason, or couldn’t stop turning the pages, I need to note that here. What were the Strong Areas of the plot? Maybe it was the development of the main character’s backstory. Weak Areas –- was there an info dump that put the brakes on? Loose Ends – you mentioned a snickerdoodle in a way that made it seem important, but never returned to it or explained why. Stand Out Moments –- Holy crap that was the best fight scene ever! Stumbling Blocks -– your faster-than-light travel depends on thousands of gerbils running in little exercise wheels, and that just doesn’t work for me… Comments –- add anything about the Plot that doesn’t fit into the spots above.


Are the characters in this story Believable? This is subjective, I know. Did you believe that the cop in the story would rob someone? Would the drunk anti-hero save a kitten from a burning house? Are the characters Well Formed? Is there enough detail to let you immerse yourself in the character? What are the Strong Areas of the characters? What are the Weak Areas? Comments – add anything about the Characters that doesn’t fit into the spots above.

Sentence & Paragraph Structure

People either have a lot or a little to say about this section. For me, I narrowed it down to two areas where I feel comfortable commenting: Vocabulary and Word Territory. Vocabulary is important (especially in a short story) and I like to point out where someone has done really well or where they could improve by changing out just a few words here and there.

As for Word Territory, well, this is basically where the author uses the same word or phrase enough that it stands out in the text. I tend to circle these words on the manuscript, drawing lines between them so the author can see them flipping through. Then I list the major instances here. Example: “Search your document for ‘that’, ‘quickly’ and the phrase, ‘working up the courage’ – you use these a lot.” For myself, I recently cut the instances of the word ‘that’ in my novel manuscript down from 1,147 to 659! Comments – add anything that doesn’t fit into the spots above.


Even if you get everything else ‘right’, a character’s dialogue/voice can take the reader out of the prose if it doesn’t flow correctly or feels forced or wrong. I have personally had people point out a bit of dialogue that they felt belonged to a different character in the manuscript – and they weren’t wrong. In this section, I point out Strong Areas that stood out to me, and Weak Areas that could use some work. Comments – add anything that doesn’t fit into the spots above.


This section is for a couple things that don’t fit anywhere else: Readability and Conflict. Readability goes to the manuscript as a whole – is it readable from start to finish? Conflict is about the conflict within the manuscript, the challenges that the characters have to face or work through. Did it work for you? Was it believable? How about the resolution(s)? The Comments space is for all other comments or thoughts you might have on the manuscript that just didn’t fit in a section above.

Bullet Points

As I am reading through a submission, I might have a thought or reaction to a scene, passage or bit of dialogue. I put a number and circle it at these points, then use the Bullet Items section to gather those thoughts for the author.


There you have it –- my Critique Template. This is not meant to be the definitive source, just a starting point. Many people in my group have already modified this template for their own style and to include areas they prefer to comment on. You can too -– I’m offering up this template as a free download. Use it well.

As a last thought, don’t focus on fixing everything. Be positive where you can and provide encouragement when it is deserved. Yes, you want to help the author produce the best story possible, but your critiques should be constructive, not crushing.