SPECIAL FEATURE Critical feedback during social isolation

Have you come to rely on your writing buddies? Feeling lost without their input? In these times of social isolation, you can still meet up and share work. Caroline Deacon explains how to make it work.

If you are already a member of a critique group which usually meets face to face, then don’t despair, it’s relatively easy to move this online. There are various platforms you can use; FaceTime, Google Hangout, Skype are the ones you are probably already familiar with, but a newer one is Zoom which is proving really useful. In order to meet up, everyone needs to download the software, but it’s free to use for up to 40 minutes of meeting time, or longer if someone has a paid account. Lately, Zoom seems to be allowing people to bypass the 40-minute limit quite frequently.

How to use Zoom

One person acts as ‘host', scheduling the meeting and sending invites to everyone who wants to attend, with a login and password. You could offer an open-house meeting on Zoom , but then you are at risk that some random stranger could gatecrash it and disrupt things. Much safer with a password, and Zoom does all this for you by default.

You can have any number of people in attendance; view them all by clicking Gallery view (in one of the corners of your screen). One of the drawbacks of meeting online is that you miss the body language signals which let you know when someone is about to speak, so people can talk over each other without intending to. This can freeze the sound and make everything a bit stilted. So if there are several people it works best if you all mute your microphones and unmute them when you want to speak. But look on all this as a positive for a critique group; it’s much easier to stay on topic and listen to your feedback without interrupting! It does mean someone should chair, but that’s a good thing.

There is also the option on Zoom to share documents. Whoever puts it up on screen has to scroll through it while others watch. You might find this useful, but I personally think it’s better if you all look at your own copies.

Running the meeting

Agree how you’re going to proceed. One option is to send work round beforehand and read it through, making notes of what you want to say. Then the chair can invite each person in turn to comment. Afterwards (or before if you prefer) you could email the documents back to each other with your comments.

Another way is to take turns to read a short extract out loud. This can work really well. You have to agree a word length, remembering to allow time for people to comment. Or you could ask someone else to read out your sub, leaving you free to concentrate on what it sounds like.

Whatever you decide to do, I would suggest you start by going round and giving everyone an amount of time to say how they’re feeling and coping. These are hard times, even for naturally reclusive people like writers, and letting all that stuff go at the beginning will allow you to focus on the writing. And do leave time for a sign off at the end. This is just a moment or two to each say what you’re intending to do going forward.

And if all goes well - agree a time to meet again!


  • Even if current affairs are getting you down, writing can help you feel grounded.
  • Try to keep your normal writing routine going as much as possible. If that’s impossible, have another look at this article about writing in times of disruption.
  • Being at home all day doesn’t necessarily make it easier to write. Work out your optimal times for writing, reading or editing, and structure your day around this.
  • Cut off access to the internet when you’re writing
  • Use Pomorodo. There is a great app Be Focused for this.
  • Leave your writing at the end of the day so that you’re motivated to go the next day. For instance, don’t finish the chapter, or plan out the next one but don’t start it.
  • Link up with another writer. Check in with that person at the beginning and end of your sessions.
  • And if you are not yet a member of a critique group, join one! Have a look at this article.

Caroline Deacon lives in Edinburgh and is the author of several childcare books. She now writes MG and YA and is agented by Lindsay Fraser of Fraser Ross Associates, Edinburgh. Find her on Twitter @writingdilemmas and at www.carolinedeacon.com

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