By its very nature, the Internet attracts writers-both good and bad. The result is a thriving on-line community dedicated to the art and craft of writing.
One way to participate in this community is to become involved in a critique group. Such groups function much like traditional writer’s groups, with two main goals: To help members improve their writing skills, and to provide a sense of support and camaraderie.
Most critique groups work through e-mail, though some are now being hosted online as well. Members submit material (stories, poems, articles, etc., depending upon the focus of the group), and are expected to review and comment upon the material submitted by others. Frequently, such groups expect members to comment within a specific timeline (e.g., within a week of receiving a submission) and/or to critique a certain number of submissions per month.
Like traditional writer’s groups, not all on-line critique groups are created equal. Some are considered highly effective, others less so. Some have advantages over groups that meet in “real time,” while others share some of the disadvantages of traditional groups (and some disadvantages that result from the electronic milieu).
Some of the advantages of an on-line critique group include:
- Convenience. You don’t have to worry about scheduled meetings; instead, you can submit and review material when it suits you.
- Speed. Responses come within hours or (at most) days; you don’t have to wait for the next “meeting” for feedback.
- Frequency. Some groups permit submissions as often as once a week.
- Cost. There are no “dues” to pay for space rental or refreshments; plus, you don’t have to pay for “copies” to hand out to the group.
- Anonymity. Some enjoy the “facelessness” of an on-line group. You don’t have to sit in front of the entire group, redfaced and squirming, while someone cuts your submission to shreds. Anonymity also helps if you’re shy about commenting on another person’s material. If you wish, you can conceal your identity completely with an on-line pseudonym.
One-line critique groups share some of the same problems as traditional groups, with a few additional problems of their own:
- Amateur feedback. While some groups accept “professionals only” (i.e., published writers), others are open to all. That means you may receive feedback from someone who knows far less about writing than you do.
- Personality conflicts. In any group of writers, you’ll encounter fragile and/or overinflated egos. You’ll find writers who dominate discussions, flood the group with their own submissions, are hypercritical of others, and/or who accept no feedback on their own work.
- Gossip. Most critique groups prohibit “discussion.” Many operate in conjunction with a special-interest list group, and prefer that chit-chat be limited to the list rather than the critique sessions. However, not all groups are well moderated (meaning that messages are not reviewed before being posted), which means that you could end up with an inbox full of meaningless chatter.
- Overload. Because an on-line group is not limited by real-world time constraints, you may find yourself inundated with submissions. As a result, you may find yourself doing more critiquing than writing.
- Anonymity. This can be as much a disadvantage as an advantage. Sometimes, “facelessness” encourages individuals to indulge in rudeness or unprofessional behavior, with no fear of censure or direct retaliation.
While every group has its own guidelines, most have similar expectations. You will be expected, for example, to participate actively in the critiquing process-often with a required minimum number of critiques. If you don’t provide regular (and timely) critiques, you may be placed on inactive status or removed from the list; you will almost certainly be prohibited from posting your own submissions.
You will also be expected to behave professionally and courteously at all times. Critiques should be polite, respecting the efforts and sensitivity of the writers. “Flamers” and rudeness often result in dismissal from the list (members become extremely irritated if a “flame war” breaks out between two or three participants). If an issue or submission needs to be discussed in greater detail, most groups prefer that this discussion take place via private e-mail rather than through the list.
Critiques are expected to be thorough and detailed. Avoid comments like “I liked it” or “It was a really good story.” Why did you like it? What made it good? What worked? What could be improved? Critiques should be constructive, emphasizing the strengths of a piece whenever possible. (Sometimes, admittedly, it isn’t possible!) Be specific: If a piece is flawed, point out the precise problems and suggest solutions if you can. (Many groups appreciate a critiquer with a good grasp of grammatical issues.) At the same time, don’t nit-pick over every misplaced comma or errors that were clearly unintentional.
When your own material is critiqued, it is often considered polite to thank the critiquer (whether you agree with the comments or not). Some groups permit “discussion”-that is, you can respond to a reviewer’s comments and clear up areas of confusion. Any such response should be concise and courteous; even if a critique angers you or seems to have completely missed the point of your material, keep your own response professional. (Perhaps because this professionalism is sometimes breached, some groups permit no discussion of critiques, and require that any further comment be handled by personal e-mail.)
Finally, members are expected to respect the confidentiality and copyright of fellow participants. Besides the obvious rule of “no plagiarism,” this also means that members may not forward or share submissions with people outside the group.
Before submitting to a critique group, you will have to become an official “member.” Sometimes this means agreeing to a set of guidelines; sometimes it means becoming a member of a special-interest list-group. Some groups (such as Writer’s Internet Exchange) require a writing sample to demonstrate your skills.
Whether your submissions or critiques are sent via e-mail or posted online, certain formatting requirements are involved:
- If sending material by e-mail, always submit material (submissions or critiques) as text in the body of your e-mail. Never submit attachments; other participants often can’t open them, and they require extra downloading time that can be a problem for participants who must pay for connect time (such as overseas members).
- Observe the specified maximum length. If your material runs longer than the maximum, be sure that you have permission from the group moderator to submit. If your material exceeds 4000 words, many e-mail programs will automatically split the transmission into two separate messages (or more).
- Do not include any special formatting commands in your text, such as italics or boldface. If it is necessary to indicate italics, do so by enclosing the title or phrase in asterisks: “John Smith, author of *The Canadian Hound,* notes…” (It’s also considered acceptable to put titles in quotes.) You may indicate emphasis with CAPS, but do so sparingly.
- Make sure your text “wraps” instead of using line breaks. Since different e-mail programs support different line lengths, line breaks can cause some extremely uneven (and unreadable) text.
- Be sure to indicate paragraphs either with an indentation of at least 5 spaces, or with a blank line. (If you have long paragraphs, spaces are helpful; if you have lots of one-line paragraphs, as in dialog, indentations work best.)
- Remove all punctuation that involves special characters. This includes smart quotes and smart apostrophes. If you’re using Microsoft Word, for example, turn off “smart quotes” in your preferences menu. Otherwise, your material will end up with bizarre and distracting symbols where your quotation marks used to be. (Tip: To remove problem punctuation, simply save your file as a “text only” or ASCII file first, then copy that file into your e-mail message.)
Finally, polish, edit, and proofread your material to the best of your ability. Critique groups do not appreciate “rough drafts”-they recommend that you take as much care with your submissions as you would in submitting material to an editor. Critiquers quickly lose patience with members who don’t bother to do even a computer spellcheck, let alone a visual proofreading. (Critiquers also lose patience with members who have been advised to “clean it up” on previous submissions and who continue to ignore such courtesies.)
Will a critique group make you a better writer? No; only you can do that. It can, however, provide a source of editorial assistance in spotting weaknesses, inconsistencies, or typos that you might otherwise have missed. It can give you a chance to share your own experience and expertise, which can be rewarding in itself. And perhaps best of all, it can help you escape the isolation that often comes with being a writer. Meeting with fellow writers, even on-line, can help remind you that the joys and frustrations of this business are shared by others. You are not alone!
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com and the author of more than 300 published articles. Her books on writing include Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals (Second Edition), and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests.