Sunday, February 5, 2017

How to: Online Critique Groups



So you’ve decided to join an online critique group? Good for you! When guidelines are established up front and followed, online critique can be enjoyable and boost your writing level.

An underappreciated aspect of critiquing other writers’ work is that you are less emotionally tied to every word and can discern where something stops working. It has been my experience that evaluating how a story is put together will cross over to your own work and help you to elevate your craft.

For critique to be constructive, praise the parts that are working as well as note where something doesn’t work. Articulate in a kind and helpful manner why it doesn’t work for you. Offering suggestions on possible different directions to take may be welcomed.

Who is a good match up for you?
(This may surprise you.) Any publication-minded writer who is familiar with story structure, who has a keen eye, and who has a kind way of phrasing their observations. I have had critique partners since the 1990s, so I know this to be true. The genre matchup between your work and your critique partner(s) need not be identical. Also, while it may be helpful if the other members of your critique group are at a similar place on their publication journey, it doesn’t matter as much as you might think.

Family members, best friends, or anyone who might rubberstamp your work to avoid hurting your feelings are rarely desirable for critique partners. Also, be on the lookout for toxic critiquers. These folks find fault with everything, and their input is rarely constructive. My advice? Bow out of that situation and try again.

What are your exchange parameters?
In general, the larger the group, the smaller the page count swapped (i.e., it would be arduous for a group of six people to swap 25-30 pages every week; 10 pages is a better amount for a larger group).For groups of two or three writers, 20-25 pages is a good ballpark number. Most groups use standard margins of one inch, double spacing, and a standard font such as Times New Roman size 12. Using Track Changes in Word gives you a way to add comments in the margin of the page. If your members aren’t familiar with Track Changes, another option is to use all caps or a different color of font for your remarks.

Clearly define what input you are seeking. For a piece that’s highly polished, a writer may want to know where you were tempted to put it down. For a first draft piece, a writer might want to know if the story flows, if the characters are believable, and so on. This may be author-specific or manuscript specific.

If you have more than two people in a group, decide if the critiques go back to the author or to the entire group. It can work either way, and it can also stimulate a discussion post-critique, if that’s what your group wants to do.

When will your group meet?
Keeping to a schedule is a good idea. That way, there are fewer surprises on submission dates. Decide upon frequency of submission and expected time of response. Some groups exchange weekly, some every other week, or some only at the beta reader stage. Whatever works for your group is the right answer.

Where will your group meet?
Most online critiquers opt for getting the exchanged files in their email Inboxes. Some may set up private social media groups for the exchange of files. Others may elect to connect via phone or a video chat service such as Skype.

How to critique
 Avoid stomping on someone’s dream. It takes a high degree of trust to put your work out there for peer review. The same people you are swapping with are also reviewing your work. Instead of offering negative feedback, provide constructive comments.

It is easy to make line edit suggestions, but grammar and punctuation are rarely the primary focus of an online critique group. Instead, critique partners often note story construction weaknesses, characterization inconsistencies, timeline issues, lack of setting in a scene, slow pacing, opening or closing hook needs strengthening, missing beats, untagged dialog, head hopping, and so on.

Showing vs telling is a common critique comment. If you notice an author “told” something instead of “showing” it, make a constructive comment to illustrate a showing in this situation. The goal is not to rewrite the work, but to offer a suggestion so that the author may own that revision.

Give praise where praise is due. A particularly well-drawn character, hero or villain, is a treat to readers, and the author should be praised for getting this right. Perhaps the dialog sparkles, the pacing is spot-on, or the settings are three dimensional – make sure you tell the author you noticed.

Writing styles vary. You want your critique partners to respect your style, so respect theirs. Style and voice are individual, and your goal as a critique partner is to make sure the work you are reviewing reflects the author, not your personal style.

Be kind. Nuance, humor, and tone don’t come through well during a critique, so make remarks in a neutral way. If you don’t understand something, say that instead of saying “you did something wrong.” Asking for clarification will help the author figure out what areas of the work need strengthening.

In summary, offer constructive feedback on writing craft elements in a neutral manner. Respect voice and style. Provide an example, if needed, for clarification of your remark. Praise aspects of the sub which are well done. Remember to be courteous and professional in how you phrase your remarks.

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