Set up an On-Line Critique Group
By Lazette Gifford
Copyright © 2007 by Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved
With the coming of the New Year, one of the goals many writers set for
themselves is to get a manuscript ready to go to a publisher. Setting
up a group to critique each other's work can help make the editing and
submission project much easier.
While face-to-face critique groups are nice in some cases, the Internet
is a wonderful boon for writers when it comes to these groups. Unlike
face-to-face groups, you are not limited to the people who happen to be
close at hand, no matter what genre they write or what their
experience. The diversity in people available to makeup online groups
is a great assets.
However, just throwing together a group of people and hoping for the
best will rarely work. An online group needs purpose, guidelines, and a
helping hand to keep things pointed in the right direction.
You might think founding a critique group is simple: get a group of
people together and pass around manuscripts and critique each other's
That's the easy part. However, there are refinements to the purpose
that are important to look at.
Step 1: Who are we?
Often a sense of identity can help a critique group. Face-to-face
groups have this built in -- the members are all from the same area, so
they already have a common link. Finding that link for on-line groups
can be more difficult.
Do you want this group to be dedicated to a single genre type? There
are good and bad points to both sides on this one. A single-genre focus
can help a group find common ground, understand the basics of each
other's work, and fulfill expectations when it comes to critiquing.
Having a mix of genres can add some interesting insights into many
works. There are often mysteries in stories, or a romantic subplot, in
just about any kind of story. Having a mixture of mystery, romance,
science fiction and fantasy (for instance), could help in specific
However, sometimes a writer needs specific help in the genre he or she
is writing. Expectations are not the same for the different types of
stories, and having someone who understand those needs can be useful.
If you are going to mix and match genres in your group, try to attract
at least two of the various types.
Strictly critiquing or more?
Are you going to include things like chat gatherings to discuss
stories? Regular challenges? Other non-critique-related fun? Having
the option to join in other things might be a good idea, but if you are
going to require it, make certain everyone knows from the start.
Step 2: Size and Structure
There is a fine balance between a group that is too small and insular
and one too large to handle. It can also be difficult deciding on the
rules of how the group works, especially when the people have no set
time to meet, and are working the critiques into their own busy
schedules. Again, the Internet is a great help in this respect, because
people can have more leeway in when they turn material in -- but not
having some bottom-line requirements can leave some people waiting
indefinitely for help while they've contributed more than their share to
How large do you want the group to be?
Some people believe that having a large group of people for a critique
group means that there will be more critiques, but I've actually seen
the opposite to be true in many cases. The members sometimes feel
overwhelmed by the number of pieces up to critique, and not being able
to do all of them, feel it is unfair to do any of them.
A limited number of people -- usually no more than ten -- can generally
keep up with each other's work over a short amount of time. They are
also more likely to come to an agreement about how things should work.
Who critiques and when?
If the rule for the group is that a person who gets a critique has to
return a critique, then a large group can be a very difficult problem to
control. If one person happens to get a large number of critiques, he
might not have the time to return them all and be forced to quit the
Someone who needs more work than others can often be 'overlooked' in
favor of giving easy critiques to the better writers. This can happen
even in a group with roughly the same level of writing expertise,
because one of the group will always need more help than the others.
One of the best ways to handle this, especially with a smaller group, is
to go in a definite cycle from person 1 to the last. Person 1 places
their material for critique and the others have to offer critiques in
that time. Then move on to number 2 person, etc. The first few will be
people who have things ready to be critiqued, while people who are not
quite ready can ask to be at the end of the list, where they'll have
more time to prepare.
A less structured format may work better for your group, however. If
so, the important part to remember is keeping track of who has done work
and who hasn't. If someone repeatedly offers things to be critiqued,
but rarely critiques others in return, they may need to have new
material pulled until they meet some kind of quota.
On the other hand, however, there are times when a person will have to
bow out for a while, and such excused absences shouldn't count against
them. A critique circle has to be fluid because writers cannot always
work to a schedule.
Step 3: What is a critique and what gets critiqued?
An odd problem that critique groups have is deciding what constitutes a
critique. This is another area in which the group should be fluid.
Sticking to a set form for critiques limits what the person may
otherwise offer if they feel free to write their feelings in their own
There does need to be at least a bare minimum for the critique. It
might be a set number of words -- not counting anything that is copied
and pasted from the original document. With a set number of words the
person is required to say something about the story, and if they have to
think about it, they will come up with points that they might otherwise
A basic list of critiquing ideas (such as How to Critique from Forward
http://www.fmwriters.com/help/community/crit_rules.htm) can give the
people a base from which to work -- but it should always be stressed
that the person doing the critiquing should feel free to work outside
the set format, as long as they offer helpful information.
What to say for good and bad
There can be times when one of two things happen: The story is very
badly written or the story is very well written. Both of these can
present problems to the person critiquing, and in turn can cause
problems for the group.
In the case of bad writing, following a template like the one above can
help focus on some of the issues. A line critique may be the worst
thing to do in such a case, because if there are multiple, recurring
problems, the amount of 'critique' may be overpowering, and the writer
will abandon the project as hopeless. A few lines to point the person
toward overall problems (You need to study the use of commas, you should
look up 'saidisms' and when not to use them, etc.) can do far better
than marking every misplaced comma. Always remember that a critique is
meant to help the writer. Giving too much at once may not be the best
way to do it.
Finding something the critique thinks is very nearly perfect can create
a different problem. A critique that says nothing more than 'This was
great!' can't be considered a real critique. In this case, using the
template to show exactly how and why it worked so well can be a help.
Sometimes, knowing why something works is as important as knowing why it
When is a manuscript ready for critiquing?
One of the reasons I've seen critique groups fail is because the authors
throw their first draft material into the pile to be critiqued without
making any of the corrections they could easily have made themselves.
Then, once the piece has been critiqued and everyone points out all the
easy to fix things, the story goes back in to be critiqued again. The
people doing the critiquing get worn out. They get bored. They stop
Stories should never go to be critiqued before they are the absolute
best that the author can do. This keeps the actual critiquing focused
where it should be: on helping the author improve the story and showing
him aspects of technique and grammar he might not have already known.
One way to keep this from happening is to limit the number of times any
piece can go through the process. A critique group should not be used
as a personal editing service. It's a waste of their time and will not
help later, when the story is ready for real critiquing, but they've
already read it once or twice and are no longer 'fresh' to the work.
Step 4: Who's in charge here?
The problem with starting a critique group is running it. The person
who starts one is often doing so specifically to get critiques and
really isn't interested in keeping things going or dealing with any
problems that arise. Having a plan on how to deal with the problems,
though, can help keep things going with a minimum of effort.
No matter how careful you are, there is always a chance that someone
will not fit in with the group. Having a simple 'this is not working'
out is the best way to handle it. The process might still be difficult
and you will always risk the chance of hurting someone's feelings,
however you have to keep the entire group in mind.
Some groups have tried to do a 'everyone votes' method of removal.
Unfortunately, this often polarizes the group into two camps and causes
more problems than a simple removal would have.
Problems can be caused by a personality that doesn't fit in, or an
inability to do the work of critiquing to the standards the group has
set up. There can also be trouble between just two members which can
make it harder to find a solution. A 'test run' period of a few weeks
can sometimes work best, with the understanding that being turned down
is only a matter of compatibility, and is no reflection on the writer
What kinds of problems?
Besides the issues of personality and compatibility, a new member might
not be willing or able to create critiques that measure up to the
standards of the group, or she might write material that is of a style
or nature that the others don't feel comfortable with. These sorts of
things you can't know until the person is working with you.
A long time member can also become a problem, especially if 'real life'
starts taking a chunk of time that would otherwise be devoted to writing
and critiquing. In those cases, a leave of absence might be the best
answer, rather than dropping the member from the group.
As the head of the critique group, you have to take anything that is
said or done outside of the group with a shrug. If some member writes
in her journal that the stories are lame, then you have to decide,
dispassionately, if that makes the person a bad member for the group.
If the person picks out a specific member the attack is more personal
and can cause bad feelings. It still might not be a reason for
dismissal, but rather just a shift in procedure so that they don't have
to critique each other.
Keeping things rolling
Prodding and pushing people to critique and post can be difficult
sometimes. If there seems to be a pattern to the slow down, setting
aside 'vacation time' for everyone might be in order. It might also
help to do some of the 'game' things I mentioned earlier -- writing
exercises and such to keep people visiting the group even when they
don't have something ready to go through critiquing.
Warnings about Posting On-line
If you are going to do an
on-line critique group, be sure to make it a private site where no one
else but those with a password can read the material. More and
more publishers are considering anything posted in an open site as
'published' (placed before the public). Besides, if you are
looking for a small, easy-to-work-with group, you don't want to have a
lot of strangers barging in with their opinions.
There are many places on the
Internet that can provide such a spot. LiveJournal, with it's
'Friend's Only' option is one way to do it. Forward Motion (www.fmwriters.com)
provides private critique circles with access limited to only a few
Critique groups sometimes start out strong and then fade almost as
quickly, unless there is something holding them together. That
something has to be the leader of the group, who is willing to do a bit
extra to help keep the group active and interesting. It is not
difficult work as long as you are aware of potential problems and
consider how to deal with them. Sometimes writing alone is not
enough of a tie since writing is such a solitary business, even in the
age of the Internet. Creating a group that will stay together and help
each other all the way through publication is not easy, but it can be
well worth the effort expended.
Critique groups are
important and helpful for writers. Creating one to suit your needs
can be far better than trying to fit into a group that doesn't fit what