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How to be a Superb Commenter at your Writing Group

Writers’ groups are meetings where authors gather to read their work and get critiques from others. They often meet weekly or every other week. Usually, writers of just about any genre and skill level are welcome. Whether you are reading or commenting you can learn much at critique groups. I’ve been a member of writing groups for years, and unfortunately, I’ve attended some groups where certain people don’t make any comments, or worse, waste time with useless comments. These suggestions will help you be the best commenter you can be.

Speak up

The first point is obvious—be sure to make comments. I’ve seen writers’ group members who attend week after week, read their work and expect a helpful reaction, but yet never comment on their colleagues’ work. This is the equivalent of attending a potluck dinner but failing to bring a dish to pass. You may think your comments aren’t going to be helpful, but don’t underestimate yourself. Other writers attend the meeting to get comments; don’t let them down.

Don’t engage in excessive praise

Don’t say about a colleague’s work, “Your story is wonderful. I wouldn’t change a thing.” No story is that good. You’re wasting everyone’s time and unnecessarily stroking the ego of the reader. One of my writing adages is, “Every writer needs an editor.” Similarly, every writer needs someone to read and react to their work.

Don’t hog time

Some people like to hear themselves talk. That doesn’t mean others like to hear them talk. Briefly and succinctly say what you want to say and let someone else talk.

Don’t excessively repeat what others have said

This one’s a little tricky. Most groups I’ve been in have pointed out that if one person makes a suggestion, it may or may not have merit. But if two or more have the same suggestion then the writer needs to seriously consider it. The trick is to briefly agree with a colleague. Say, “I agree with Nancy when she says the sentence that starts on line 93 is confusing.” That’s all you need to say.

Balance praise and criticism

Few works are so bad that you can’t find something good to say. None are so good that you can’t find something that could be improved. Try to do both. Be honest, of course. But balance your comments between suggestions and commendation.

Don’t offer personal anecdotes

No one is going to care about what happened when you were 22 and had just graduated from college, even if you think it’s relevant to someone’s story. Only talk about your colleagues’ writing. Your goal is to help the writer improve his or her work, and nothing more.

Follow the platinum rule

The platinum rule says to treat others as you think they’d want to be treated. So, how do others want to be treated? That should be pretty easy to figure out! Ask yourself “Is what I’m about to say true?” “Is it kind?” “Is it necessary?” Never be nasty and don’t make fun of someone’s story. Editors have a saying, “If in doubt, leave it out.” The same applies to your comments.

If you follow these guidelines you’ll become a valuable member of your writing group.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Joe Wisinski