Guest Blog: The Secret Power of Critique Groups (Helen MacKenzie)

Our second guest blog reveals the secret behind the success of three of last year’s finalists. Helen MacKenzie (UV2020), whose extract was Hagstone, illuminates the power of giving and receiving feedback to improve a writer’s chances of success. 

The Secret Power of Critique Groups

I used to be scared of critique groups. The thought of showing people my work, let alone getting feedback, was terrifying. I couldn’t do it. So I didn’t. I scribbled alone, telling myself that I was a good writer, that I didn’t need anyone’s help, and that I would make it on my own.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Maybe I would have. I’ll never know. But what I do know is that it wasn’t until I joined a critique group that my writing began to improve – and I started to do well in competitions such as Undiscovered Voices.

I’ve been trying to figure out why this was. It’s because a critique group gives you a circle of people willing to commit time and attention to your writing, your story and your characters. For free.

Ideas to tighten your plot, advice about your voice, reassurance that you’re on the right track: a critique group can give you all of this and more. And yes, they might sometimes tell you things you don’t want to hear – but after a little reflection, you’ll be grateful for it. And your chances of gaining an agent or winning a competition will dramatically improve.

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Much of the magic of a critique group also comes from having to critique other people’s work. It’s time consuming but I’ve learnt a huge amount about my own writing from critiquing someone else’s. The number of times I’ve commented on something and then thought, ‘Oh! I do that too…’

And that’s the key. Because most folk in a critique group are just like you: willing to try; scared of criticism; but not afraid to work at becoming a better writer. You learn together. Laugh together. You become friends.

SCBWI has a lot of critiques groups, but I was nervous at first to join one. But the first group I approached was happy for me to come along and observe, and I saw for myself the trust and respect that the members of the group had for one another. It was very reassuring. It taught me that a good critique group will encourage as well as critique. It will give feedback in a positive but useful way, and your confidence and your writing will improve as a result. If it doesn’t, it’s probably not the right critique group for you – try another.

I had no qualms after that initial meeting and joined in properly the next month. In fact, I’m such a convert that I’m now a member of three critique groups, one of which I run. It makes for a lot of reading – and writing – but this is actually another plus. I try to submit different chapters to each group and they’ve been a great way of getting my word count up.

So, if you’re thinking of entering Undiscovered Voices, why not polish up your writing with a critique group first? It won’t hurt. Will definitely help. Because when I entered UV2020, two members of my critique group also entered. We worked together, polishing our submissions and synopses. And guess what?

We all got in.


Helen MacKenzie writes YA, middle grade and the odd picture book. She was included in Undiscovered Voices 2020, received a Scottish Book Trust New Writers’ Award in 2017 and has been shortlisted for the Kelpies Prize, the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition and longlisted in the Bath Children’s Novel Award. She is a member of SCBWI and runs a SCBWI Scotland YA critique group.

Helen lives near Edinburgh and when she’s not working as a copywriter or entering writing competitions, she’s annoying her family on Zoom.

You can find Helen on Twitter @W1shfulth1nker

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