Friday, July 06, 2018

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Writing Critique Groups

By Ryan Van Cleave

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: As the saying goes, "You get out what you put into it," and that holds true for critique groups. The right approach can lead to great results, and Ryan Van Cleave visits the lecture hall today to share some tips on making the most of your critique group.

Ryan G. Van Cleave is the author of 20 books, and he runs the creative writing program at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida.

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Take it away Ryan...

Some writers sing the praises of their crit group, while others quietly (or openly!) wail and bemoan theirs. In my 20+ year writing career, I’ve found myself in both types of groups. The best were truly amazing. The worst? They always fell apart after enough sessions of dysfunction and ineffectiveness.

So what makes some crit groups work and others implode? I’ve seen oodles of articles online about this very thing and yet I still hear about fellow writers struggling to find the right match. What’s the secret sauce? When I chatted with Janice Hardy about doing a piece for Fiction University, I wondered: “What can I share that’s different?”

And then it came to me.

The other day, I was re-reading Stephen R. Covey’s ridiculously successful book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and it struck me that reframing his tips for life success could transform them into useful advice for crit group success. Let me show you what I mean.

Habit #1—Be Proactive

What it means for Covey: Stay positive. Take responsibility for your own behavior. Focus on things you can actually do something about.

What it means for writers: If you don’t yet have a writing group, find one. If you do have one and it’s not working well, make a sincere effort to help it become effective. Don’t just sit around whining about it. Do something. Start today.

“You’re in charge of you,” one of my daughters once said to the other. That’s exactly right. Be the one in charge of your own writing life. Don’t lament the past or worry about the future. Start right now and commit to improving your writing group situation.

Habit #2—Begin with the End in Mind

What it means for Covey: Plan first. Act second.

What it means for writers: Take a moment to envision what a helpful, effective writing group would look like. (I’m shocked by how many writers are stumped by this.) Take the time to jot down at least a dozen goals/attributes/characteristics. Be specific, such as: “A good writing group shares up-to-date information on literary agents during every single meeting—both the who-moved-where as well as the who-sold-what-to-where stuff.” Or: “A good writing group insists every member send out no fewer than three submissions per year, and we hold each other accountable for doing that.”

Then bring your new short- and long goals into focus by sharing them with your group.

Habit #3—Put First Things First

What it means for Covey: In order of importance, follow through on the things you came up with via Habits 1 and 2.

What it means for writers: Three things, I think.
A. Start each session with lively conversation about the world of writing and publishing. What great books are you reading? What do you like about them? What new deals have you seen? What insights into the writing process do you have? Remember that you’re all interested in publishing in some fashion. Don’t lose track of that!

B. When responding to manuscripts, deal with macro issues as well as micro ones. Agents and editors won’t read a poorly-formatted manuscript, nor will they suffer misspellings and grammar guffaws. Make sure that the basic stuff is in order before getting into the nuances of character development and conflict. Similarly, don’t fret about query letters to agents if you’re still only halfway done with draft 1 of your werefox quadrilogy.

C. Don’t be suckered into doing the easy/fun stuff first. It’s not urgent. Stick to your plan, whatever it is (Habit 2).

Habit #4—Think Win-Win

What it means for Covey: Everyone should come out with a benefit.

What it means for writers:
Every writer should be improving—not just individual manuscripts, but their overall ability to write. The pace at which this happens doesn’t matter so much as the overall trajectory does.

This reminds of me of my second-grade teacher Mrs. Anderson who always advised our class: “You’ve gotta give to get.” Not a bad way to live life, is it?

Too many writers genuinely aren’t interested in helping others win. Sure, they show up to meetings. Sure, they’ve read the peer work in advance. Sure, they mumble platitudes and/or point out some comma gaffs. But the #1 thing they’re there for? To help THEM win. No one else. They’re like self-serving literary mercenaries.

Note: Don’t be a self-serving literary mercenary.

Note: Don’t be in groups with self-serving literary mercenaries.

Note: Covey also thinks that a “no deal” option is always viable. So if there’s no win potential for you in the group? Maybe it’s time to exit, pursued by a bear.

Habit #5—Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

What it means for Covey: Don’t ignore people. Don’t pretend to listen. Don’t have selective listening. Choose to be fully aware and attentive when listening, or you’re not really listening at all, are you?

What it means for writers
: Empathetic listening is listening with the goal of clarity and understanding. Those who respond to the writing of others often dive right in without much thought. Try seeing the world of the story through the lens of the story as well as the lens of the author vs. your own autobiographical, ideological, and editorial lens/bias. Do this, and you’re well-prepared to offer valuable insight and assessment.

Habit #6—Synergize

What it means for Covey: Two heads are far better than one. Creative cooperation is king.

What it means for writers:
If a writing group can’t get this going, they’re missing the point entirely. The other day, I took a picture book manuscript to my group and after ten minutes of discussion on it, one of them said, “This part here feels a lot like back matter, so maybe put it there?” I suddenly saw the piece in a new way. While I didn’t take that advice exactly, I did reframe certain parts as sidebars to set them off from the main text.

That’s one of the ways you know you’re in synergy, says Covey. You end up with an idea that’s better than you or someone else independently had—their input helped bring about a new alternative. (It’s like the chocolate + peanut butter phenomenon. A Reese’s is SO much better than even those two awesome components.)

Another sign that synergy is cranking along nicely? You see things in a new way and you feel a fresh sense of energy. That’s why I love going to sessions with my current crit group, The Picture Book Peeps. To crib a famous line from Jerry Maguire: “They complete me.”

Habit #7—Sharpen the Saw

What it means for Covey: Take care of the most important tool you have—yourself.

What it means for writers: For writers, this means to fuel your brain (read!). Care for your body (exercise!). Make meaningful connections with others (socialize!). Get away from it all (meditate/spend time in nature/pray!).

Maintain a balance in all areas of your life, suggests Covey. But he’ll be the first to admit that self-improvement isn’t easy. As writers, we have to be mindful about it and continually practice the art of self-improvement. If not, we’ll either find ourselves with a writing group that’s ineffectual, indifferent, or even hostile. Or we’ll find ourselves flying solo and wishing we had someone to bounce ideas off, help with grammar and story development, and support us in a host of vital ways when we need it.

So thanks, Dr. Covey, for your terrific ideas. As far as I’m concerned, you deserve every single royalty dollar that your 7 Habits of Highly Effective... book series earned.

Let me offer one final tip to writing group members, though. Despite my current group ending each crit session with a sincere “Thanks!”, I still sent a private “Thank you!” email to the member who offered that back matter comment I mentioned above. It was glorious to see how much better my manuscript was after I made those changes. And she was elated to know her input made a difference.

I think Covey would agree—those are indicators of a highly effective writing group moment.

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Are you a high school writer who wants to win prizes for your writing? Here’s the 411 on Ringling College’s annual free-to-enter contest for high school authors.


  1. I'm glad I found this post. I am starting a new writers group for children's authors because there isn't one in my area. However, I have never belonged to a group before so I can't quite envision how they should run. This list helps tremendously! Thank you.

  2. Lots of deja vu in your article. Now I feel good about my thoughts/reactions to suggestions that were a bit bizarre and not relavent to my MS. I belonged to a few critique groups, left each one and will probably leave this current one. On to another. Would love to find a critique partner living nearby or perhaps on the I-net. Had beta readers who were very helpful. Now almost done with current re-write. Great post. Thanks you for your article.