Friday Speak Out!: Take Your Clothes Off and Other Critique Group Advice, Guest Post by Donna Volkenannt

Friday, March 09, 2012
Take Your Clothes Off and Other Critique Group Advice

by Donna Volkenannt

For more than fifteen years I’ve belonged to critique groups. Over the years I’ve learned to discern good advice from feel-good advice and constructive critique from destructive criticism.

I’ve also received some sweet—and strange—advice.

My first experience was in a feel-good group. Feedback consisted of “I like it,” “I really like it,” or “I really, really like it.”

The leader encouraged us to call ourselves writers, yet he referred to publishing “the P word.” According to him, writers shouldn’t be concerned with publication; probably because he’d written several books—all of them unpublished.

The benefit from that group was I became confident enough to call myself a writer. I also made several friends who, like me, wanted to learn about the business of writing. One friend and I both had grown children and husbands who supported our writing dreams. She and I traveled to conferences, met agents and editors, and used “the P word” freely. Oh, and we both got published.

Eventually we helped form a group which was focused on publishing. Some in that group were were overly critical and not open to new writers. After much soul searching, my friend and I started a group of our own, which welcomed writers of all experience levels.

For the past several years, our critique group has met each Tuesday morning. Some mornings as many as 15 writers join us. We are serious about writing and publishing but don’t take ourselves too seriously. Our motto is: "Be candid, but kind."

The following are words of advice I’ve learned over the years:

1. Check your ego at the door. Your work is being critiqued, not you.

2. Everyone’s opinion counts. Sometimes the best suggestions come from surprising sources.

3. Don’t monopolize reading or critique time. Join the discussion, but don’t interrupt.

4. Follow the rule of three. If one person makes a suggestion, consider it. If two people point out the same problem, take a careful look. If three or more make the same suggestion--take a serious look.

5. In the end, the work is yours. Use what helps and ignore the rest.

6. Don’t argue, explain, or defend during critique. It wastes time and energy.

7. Be gracious. Being critiqued is a gift. Smile and say thanks, even when you don’t agree with what's said.

8. Never quit. Be persistent. If one group doesn’t work, find another or start one yourself.

9. Write legibly. After I read a personal essay, one critiquer told me I needed to be more open. When I got home I read his comment on my first page. “Take your clothes off.” I was shocked. Then I re-read, “Take your gloves off.” Whew! Since then I’ve reminded our members to please write their comments clearly.

10. Have fun. Write because you love to—oh, and keep your clothes on.

* * *
Donna Volkenannt is a Pushcart Prize and Spur Award nominated fiction writer, a book reviewer, and an essayist who was recently awarded First Place in the 2012 Humor – Global Category of the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition. Her works have appeared in more than 100 publications. She lives and writes in St. Peters, Missouri, with her husband, two grandchildren, and one knuckleheaded, but lovable, black Lab. When not carpooling, running to the pet store, or trying to meet deadlines, she blogs about books, writing, and the mysteries of life on

Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!



Sioux Roslawski said...

I can't imagine why you were shocked with the advice, "Take your clothes off." (ha)

This had marvelous points, along with a bit of comic relief. Your first group sounded like the first group I was in---a mutual admiration society. The only difference? We went straight to, "I loved it." I KNEW parts of my writing were not lovable but since I never got any constructive criticism--or any criticism at all--I didn't grow as a writer.

Thanks for some great reminders, Donna. #!, #2 and #7 especially resonated with me, and since my comments are often hastily scrawled, I definitely need to remember to write legibly. (But I will always think of my penmanship with a smile.)

Sioux Roslawski said...

Ooops! I guess I liked #1 so much, I noted it with an exclamation mark instead of a number. ;)

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Great post, Donna! I especially like this part - "discern good advice from feel-good advice" - so true. :)

Karen Lange said...

Great post, Donna! I've thought about starting a group, and these will come in handy if I do. They'll come in handy in general too - thanks so much for your insight.

Unknown said...

Hey, Donna...this is from that writing friend who traveled with you for years and helped start several groups. And everything you said is absolutely true. A "really, really liked it" group won't help your writing. A "I liked it, but," group is where you learn. Critique groups are not only fun, they're absolutely necessary if you want to be published. And a whole lot cheaper than going to a freelance editor. Hey, we should start charging! Keep writing, you're a gem.

Bookie said...

Love #4 because some new writers feel crushed when comments are made on their "baby". But they are only comments and do not mean a writer HAS to change a line, a word, etc. Your one-two-three rule is sound direction for listening to advice.

Anonymous said...

Donna, I'm a BIG fan of the rule of three as well--and that you'll know you're in a good critique group if you're growing as a writer.

I'm not such a big fan of wearing clothes or writing legibly. But I do both, for the sake of my critique group. :-)

Donna Volkenannt said...

Hi Sioux,

I was really surprised when I misread the "take your clothes off" comment. Maybe it wasn't his handwriting as mush as my vision. I've bought new glasses since then. ;-)

Hi Madeline,
You are right. Thanks for leaving a comment.

Hi Karen,
You should take the plunge and start a group.

Hi Cactus Country Lou,
You are right. An "I really like it, but," group is the kind that helps.

Hi Bookie (Claudia),
Thanks. It took me awhile to realize that piece of advice worked.


Donna Volkenannt said...

You are so funny! I bet your critique group is a hoot!

Unknown said...

I love your motto: Be candid, but kind. As an editor who comments on things all the time, I have a sign over my desk that reminds me to consider what I love about a piece first instead of what's wrong with that piece. It shifts how I read everything.

Your group sounds wonderful!

Donna Volkenannt said...

Hi One Minnesota Writer,
Thanks for your comment.
Your editing philosophy sounds wonderful.

Brenda's Barnyard Creations said...

Donna, I really enjoyed your advice. Like you and your (ahem) friend, my first critique group was no help. I think everyone who joins a critique group could benefit by reading your post.
I especially like, Be candid, but kind.

Donna Volkenannt said...

Hi Brenda,
Thanks. I'm sure you know who my first writing friend is. She is a friend to many writers.

Margo Dill said...

Well, since I have some inside information. . .I was smiling during this entire post. But I'm dying to know whom you thought wrote, "Take your clothes off!" LOL :)

Donna, this is a great list and you are a great member of a critique group. I only wish I could still go on Tuesday mornings, but I am doing something pretty fun with my time now, too. :)

Congrats, also, on all your success--you always give so much credit to your critique group, but the words originated with you!

Linda O'Connell said...

Donna, I have been in several critique groups too and I must say when I get constructive feedback I feel compelled to tackle my WIP again. These are excellent points. And i laughed out loud about the gloves.

Melissa Ann Goodwin said...

Would have been funny if you took your clothes off and were suddenly inspired!

Donna Volkenannt said...

Hi Margo,
We miss YOU! But I know how busy you are with Katie ruth.
I'll give you a hint as to the mystery man with the penmanship problem. His initials are NN, and he's a famous local St. Louis legend in the Country-Western music world.

Hi Linda,
Thanks. I laughed, too. It was an embarrassing momen, and I'm glad no one was around when I first read the comment.


Donna Volkenannt said...

Hi Melissa,
No chance of that happening!;-0

Sally said...

I've really appreciated all the advice you dispense at your blog. I've begun channeling my energies into creating quilts and channeling my writing through my blog. Someday, maybe, I'll kick another story out for a trial run. I'm tucking all these tips away for that day. Thanks.

Val said...

Thank goodness you re-read it, and didn't chuck the whole writing thing to pursue a career as a stripper!

I don't have a critique group. But I wholeheartedly follow #10.

Tammy said...

Wonderful advice, all of it! But #9 will make me be a little more careful with my bad handwriting from now on!

Lynn said...

Love the article - great advice and since I take myself so seriously, I need to work on #10 - even though I have fun in my critique group, I just need to have fun overall when it comes to my writing.

BECKY said...

Hey Donna! I just had an "Ah Ha!" it was Mr NN, huh?! :)

While reading this, and the other blog posts I've read recently about this critique group, I feel SO priviliged to be part of it. I really do. Even though you welcome everyone, I'm pretty sure it was YOU who first told me about it, and "invited" me. I've said it before....I've learned so much, and continue learning every time I'm there. I do believe it's part of the reason I haven't finished my memoir yet....I needed to grow as a writer...and keep growing. (emotionally, not physically!)

Donna Volkenannt said...

Hi Sally,
You are so sweet. I love quilts. They are so inspiring, and each has its own story to tell. Have you thought about writing a story about quilts?

Hi Val,
The only stripping I've ever done is stripping wallpaper--oh, and stripping wood off furniture to repaint. :-)

Hi Tammy,
My handwriting can use some help, too, but it's my eyesight I'm worried about. ;-0

Hi Lynn,
How true. Writing is hard work, but it can also be lots of fun!

Hi Becky,
You got it. The comment was left by Mr. NN. We are happy you are in our group. Honestly, I learn more from listening to others read and give critiques than I do from reading my own. And don't worry, by the time you finish your memoir it will be spectacular!


Alexandra said...

I'm not able to find a writer's group. Do you have suggestions for me?

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