Monday, October 26, 2009

In Writing Critique Groups, Trust Nobody

By Ken Kuhlken
Fiction Mentoring Track instructor

Everybody who reads your work is liable to respond differently. Even in a group of smart, knowledgeable writers or editors, you might get responses ranging from abject boredom to wild acclaim.

The graduate school I attended is famous, so good writers apply. I went there expecting that most every participant in the workshops would give me wise insights. Most of them didn’t.

But I didn’t need the comments of 15 people. From the critiques of two or three with whom I felt some accord, I learned plenty.

Everybody brings his background to his reading. When a reader appreciates my work, I know it could mean he relates for his own reasons. Or he may dismiss my story in reaction to something personal, such as a hurt he suffered or a bias with which he has armed himself. A person who grew up with alcoholic parents may bond with a story about a boozer or recoil from it.

Suppose several readers point to some problem. Odds are good your story has failed to communicate the way you’d like it to. But that doesn’t mean the readers’ suggestions for fixing the problem are correct. They’re worth considering, but not necessarily the best way to solve the problem.

When critiquing an early draft of a novel by Kevin McIlvoy, I noted that a certain section dragged. I suggested cutting some details to speed it up. Kevin later told me he’d solved the problem by adding to the section, using more details that made it more gripping.

Your task is to listen to critiques with your mind open, then ponder each comment as much as it deserves, all before you decide whether to revise. And if you decide to revise, consider suggestions, but also look for alternative ways. Suggestions can come from other people, but revisions have to come from you.

Ken Kuhlken’s novels have been honored as finalist for the Ernest Hemingway Award for best first novel, won the Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin’s Press Best First Novel competition, and been chosen as a finalist for the Shamus Best Novel Award.

His Tom Hickey California Century novels are: The Loud Adios (1943), The Venus Deal (1942), The Angel Gang (1949), The Do-Re-Mi (1971), The Vagabond Virgins (1979), and coming in May 2010, The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles (1926).

At the Florida Christian Writers Conference, he leads a group in the fiction mentoring track.

Visit Ken at and


  1. Carolyn SwannerOctober 26, 2009

    Great article..very helpful. I hope to be at the conference and just keep learning and writing.

  2. Ken, so glad you're coming back to the 2010 conference. After attending your fiction mentoring track last year, I highly recommend it.


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