How Online Critiquing Can Help Your Writing
by Moira Allen
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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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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!
Find Out More...
- The Benefit of Critique Groups, by Michele Acker
- Critiquing Poetry (Including Your Own), by Gwyneth Box
- Fundamentals of Fiction III: Critique Groups and Writing Groups, by Marg Gilks
- Giving and Receiving Critiques, by Dawn Copeman
- How to Get - and Take - Criticism, by Victoria Grossack
- Processing Feedback, by Joni Cole
- Critique Group Links and Information
Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen
This article originally appeared in Byline
This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.|
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.
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