Monday, March 14, 2011

Online Critique Groups

by Rachael Renee Anderson

Probably the brightest thing I did this year was become involved in a critique group. Even though I live in Utah, where there are many other LDS writers, I wanted an online group for its flexibility. Turns out that online groups can be just as effective, if not more so, than meeting once a week with a regular group.

Over time, our group has adapted, tried new things, and now we have a model that works great for us:

1) We've decided to keep our group at 6 members or less. Any more, and it's too big.
2) We utilize each other for help with: plot outlines, writer's block (if we come to a standstill and need a push), and final review. Or any other questions/concerns we need help with.
3) When we've written and revised our ms, we give it to various friends or family (alpha readers) to look over, mainly for plot holes, incongruities, etc. One group member wrote a middle-grade fantasy and had several jr. high school students (his target audience) look it over for him. Then after we receive alpha comments back, we revise yet again before turning it over to our group, which operates as follows:

  • We ask one member (whoever is available at the time) to begin reading it. Once they have 4-5 chapters done, they upload it to our group message board before continuing on. This gives the author the chance to revise the chapters before another member of our group looks it over. It's sort of a review, revise, review, revise process. That way, each version gets better and better, resulting in a ms that's ready to be submitted.
  • We've decided that 2-3 thorough critiques are the perfect number to request from each other. Editing a full ms takes a lot of time, and with 6 members in our group, it gives us the chance to say "can't do it" if we are particularly busy or don't have the time. In other words, we don't need to critique every ms in our group.
Note: Look for members who are willing to participate as much or little as you--people who will be fair and not take advantage of the group. A group can't be effective if everyone doesn't pull their own weight. For example, if we want 3 people to look over our finished ms and we plan to submit two books in a year, we know we should critique 6 other manuscripts throughout the year to keep things equal. It's sort of an honor system.

Another note: As you critique, be sure to be completely honest. Most authors can handle criticism, and it won't do any good if you can't be honest (sometimes brutally so) with the manuscripts you read. But be sure to point out the good also. (This is a biggie!) It's easier to only write comments about the problems you encounter, but there's definitely something to the saying, "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." After all, the main purpose of a critique group should be to lift, inspire, motivate, and make each other a better writer. That can't happen in a negative setting.

If anyone else participates in a critique group, I'm sure we'd all love to hear some of the things you've learned as well. What works/didn't work for you?


Rebecca Talley said...

I don't know, I think my group is pretty awesome and is filled with amazing authors--including one nominated for a Whitney. I'd be hard-pressed to find a better one. :)

AllMyPosts said...

Well, I never had a group, I think I should go for one!! the idea is cool!!

but again, the group must be fair, people must be interested and should be ready to take the weight!!

thanks for the suggestions and warnings!!!

Chas Hathaway said...

Do you have any suggestions for a guy who just can't bring himself to critique? I love receiving critiques - I beg for them. But when it comes to my turn to tell someone what's wrong with their writing, I just. Can't. Do it. I feel like I'm kicking them in the face with manure-covered boots.

Me and about four or five others even started a writing group awhile back, and everything was going great until it came time to critique. No matter how I tried, I couldn't tell people the problems with their work. I'd spend two hours trying to write out a simple critique that was clear and direct, and it would include much praise and encouragement, but just writing the words, "You may want to fix..." or "I think it would improve the structure if you..." was agonizing the point of my finally dropping the group altogether. I loved receiving criticism of my work, and I knew it was only fair for me to give it in return, but ugh. UGH!

I don't know what my problem is, but I just can't do it! Is this making sense? Do you have any suggestions?

Rachael Renee Anderson said...

Chas, I know how you feel. But I also know that there's nothing worse than giving a ms to someone, only to have it come back with, "Sounds great to me!" I feel like I've wasted their time and mine. It's important to remember that by giving your honest opinion, you are giving them what they want and need. That being said, I always tell people that they need to take my comments with a grain of rice (forgive the cliche). There's never one right way to fix a problem or make a ms better, so ultimately the author need to take any and all suggestions and use only the ones they think will improve their ms.

I hope that helps! I think maybe you're too sweet. :)

Steve Westover said...

Rachael, Great post. I've never used a critique group but I keep telling myself I need to.

I worry that I wouldn't be able to give it the time the other group members would deserve so for now I keep flying solo.