Carolyn’s Critique Guidelines for Happy Writers

By Carolyn Howard-Johnson
Author of the multi award-winning HowToDoItFrugally series of books for writers


These are guidelines that will help workshop leaders and critique group participants achieve more rewarding group experiences. The guidelines were distributed to all those who joined a critique group for the Glendale Library system I founded. They are informed by classes I took and classes I taught for UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, years’ of experience leading critique groups, and some guidelines used by therapists in group sessions.

Following these guidelines should reduce a participant’s anxieties about plagiarism, sensitive feelings, copyright violations, fear of success, fear of rejections and other issues.


With the understanding that all writing is unique and valuable, criticism will be offered as opinion only. Each critiquer offers suggestion(s) with no other intention than to help the writer who is sharing his or her work improve that work. 

With the understanding that all critiques are offered in the best interest of the work submitted, the author of that work accepts criticism without defense.

                       No one will be required to participate at any level of critiquing until she/he is ready. Observers may be encouraged to do so, but are welcome to sit out until they feel they can share.

Each participant reads from his or her work. He or she may suggest aspects of the work he or she would particularly like the group to address. As an example, if the work is not yet ready for a line-by-line typo hunt or grammar correction, the reader may say so. The reader may also choose to not to limit the group’s focus.

Critique Group Guidelines

  1. As a guideline, each critique should begin with some aspect of the work the critiquer finds valuable or interesting. Suggestions for improvement are made after that. Please, no exception to this guideline.

  1. Each work will be submitted one week, critiqued the next. The reader brings a copy for each critiquer in the group—usually five to twelve.  Double spaced. No more than ten pages (This requirement may vary depending on the size of the group.)

  1. The author will read her/his work. Those who wish to offer suggestions will be allowed to do so. At that time the author whose work is being critiqued will listen only. She/he may take notes but may not explain his/her intentions. The reason for this is rooted in sound psychology; if a person is thinking about what he/she is going to say, she/he cannot absorb the recommendations. Also, the purpose of critique is to learn how one’s work is perceived so that changes might be made if the author wishes to do so, not to defend grammar, spelling, formatting, content or any other aspect of the written work.
~Guideline for accepting suggestions: Take what you like, leave the rest.
~If the writer hears the same criticism more than once, he/she should give
that suggestion more serious consideration. The author needn’t indicate
whether or not she/he plans to make suggested changes.

  1. Each critiquer is given no more than three minutes to critique a work before she or he yields to the next critiquer. These time limits may be adjusted depending upon the number of participants.

  1. At the end of each critique session, the author whose work has been critiqued may ask questions pertaining to her/his work.

  1. When critiquers answer questions posed, there is, again, no defense of the reader’s work. New questions may be asked to clarify. The idea is always to listen and absorb 

  1. Because a critique group works so much better with regular attendance we ask that each participant commit her/himself to one full season of meetings and to come prepared to critique at least one submitted work.

  1. Any genre may be submitted for critique. We ask that if someone is critiquing an aspect of a genre with which she/he is unfamiliar, he/she say so. Suggestions made based on experience rather than taste only might be weighed more seriously by the submitting author/reader.

  1. Much like a panel leader, your critique leader is expected to limit time spent on discussions when necessary, jump in with alternative viewpoints when opinions offered are different from accepted literary standards, and help the group avoid destructive altercations.        

  1. During the first few minutes of each meeting, each participant is encouraged to share hopes and successes. The reasons for this are:
    • Sharing is good experience for the pitches and other marketing skills that may be needed later on in the process of writing/publishing.
    • Sharing gives others in the group resources that they might use in their own writing and marketing.
    • Sharing—of the deepest sort—is what much writing is about. Sharing our successes and failures in a group setting is part of that process.
    • Sharing gives others an opportunity to be supportive.

Note: Critiquers and readers should be especially alert when the material offered is not a complete work, say a chapter or a scene. Critiquers may be confused about things like timelines and characters. The reader simply takes that into consideration when deciding whether or not to make changes based on the criticism.

This is a group for all levels, those who are published, those who write with the goal of eventually publishing, and those who prefer to write for themselves and/or families. Each of us has something to offer others; each of us has something to learn from others. Each participant is welcome to form critique groups of their own from members within the group. These groups may be based on genre or skill level. But we ask that those who do so return to share their more advanced skills with new members as frequently as possible.

~Carolyn Howard-Johnson is a multi award-winning novelist and poet and the author of the bestselling HowToDoItFrugally series of books for writers including The Frugal Book Promoter: How to get nearly free publicity on your own or partnering with your publisher in a new expanded and updated second edition, .


Martha said...

Wow, thanks for all the great information.

Debbie A Byrne said...

This is good to know. I have wondered exactly how a critique group should work.

Mayra Calvani said...

Thanks for the great guidelines, Carolyn. I shared them on FB and Twitter!

Margaret Fieland said...

Carolyn, thanks for the guidelines. On listening without defending -- I work as a computer software engineer, and at a previous job we held design reviews and code reviews. They, too, had guidelines. A moderator ran the meeting. The person being reviewed was allowed to ask questions for clarification, but NOT respond to any of the issues.The moderator took notes and sent around the list of issues. Sometimes the moderator had to prevent over-eager participants from defending their work, but the system allowed all concerned to back down off the defensiveness and really respond to the issues.

This applies just as much to writing fiction or non-fiction as it does to design specifications or code for computer programs. It's hard to see our own code/design/writing objectively because we make so many assumptions. A key in my computer work turned out to be that I knew what I was doing -- eg, I'd read and absorbed what was in the manual. Not always true -- hence the frequency of the "RTFM" (read the manual) as the answer to technical questions.

Christine Rains said...

This is very close to how my writers' group works when we meet once a month. Though sometimes the critiques take a lot longer than three minutes! It would be nice if we were restricted to that time, but we're a small group and a few of the writers like to ramble! The group has been incredibly helpful and I've learned so much from them.

Magdalena Ball said...

Fantastic Carolyn, not only for those looking to set up a critique group but for participants. In fact they're good guidelines for all critiquing processes.

Black Cow

Heidiwriter said...

Excellent, Carolyn. This is much the same as the critique groups I have been involved in. Critique groups need to be a safe and supportive place to share your work, but also offer constructive, useful feed back.

Karen Cioffi said...

Carolyn, what a great post - full of great pointers!

And, I agree with Peggy. We're so close to our own work it much too difficult to actually see what's written. We're way ahead of ourselves because we know what we mean, what we intended. This is one of the big reasons why we need to be part of a critique group.

Karen Cioffi Writing and Marketing

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent post. Thank you for this information.


Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

Great suggestions Carolyn. Love number 3 - it really is important to take the info in. Carolyn you should publish a book on critique groups!

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