Vision: A Resource for Writers

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Workshop:

Set up an On-Line Critique Group for 2008

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 work, right?

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.

1.             Genre limits
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 instances.

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.

2.            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 the group.

1.            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.

2.            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 group.

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 ways.

1.            Basic requirements

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 gloss over.

A basic list of critiquing ideas (such as How to Critique from Forward Motion: 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.

2.            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 didn't.

3.            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 caring.

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.

1.            Member problems

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 himself.

2.            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.

3.            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 members.

 

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 you need.