The use of critiquing groups for fiction writing has become very easy since the advent of the internet; rather than trying to find interested people in your immediate vicinity, you have the entire online world as your potential selection pool. The purpose is to both submit your own stories to be reviewed by other readers and writers, and to pull your weight by reviewing others’ stories in return.
I belong to Critters, a critiquing group for genre (science fiction, fantasy and horror) fiction, and I find it well-organised, well-run and valuable. However, I don’t often submit stories to be critiqued, for reasons that I will get to. There are many, many, others to choose from depending on your preferences and genre.
The benefit of having strangers (as opposed to family and friends) cast an eye over your fiction is obvious. As with any objective third party, they can both see flaws you don’t see and remain unafraid of hurting your feelings by pointing them out.
People in an online group also often have a skillset (in writing and editing, or at the very least, lots of experience in critiquing) that those closer to you don’t have, and therefore their comments are more to the point and specific than the vaguer ‘not quite right but can’t say why’ comments of the less experienced.
However, the pain of having a story torn apart is obvious too (I admit to being more thin-skinned about this than I should be). The other downsides of submitting to an online critiquing group like Critters are that:
1) Despite repeated warnings to be diplomatic, giving the critique over the internet rather than in person can lead people to be harsher than they perhaps would be if having to say the words in real life…receiving the critique in writing just compounds this (as anyone who’s had an email misinterpreted will understand).
2) Supplying your real name means the sex of critiquee and critiquer is generally apparent…hate to say it, but I generally find male reviewers to both be condescending towards me and my “little story” (yes, actual quote) and extremely grudging when handing out praise compared to female reviewers. This would be an issue even in real-life groups but they perhaps would be less male-dominated.
3) Related to the previous point, you can’t pick your audience of critiquers…I write for myself, which means I write with a particular audience (young(ish), female, enjoys characterisation, romance, and not being hand-held by the author) in mind, so getting fifteen critiques from men and/or people who can’t stand deliberate ambiguity, is not always very helpful to me or the story.
Certainly, I would never consider submitting the book I wrote last year, which I am in the last stages of editing before submission for publication, to Critters…it’s a YA fantasy fiction intended solely for teenaged girls. The Critters pool is simply unsuitable for it.
4) You also can’t pick your timings…receiving 15-20 hard reviews in the space of a few days, particularly when I didn’t realise the story was coming up in the queue and it happens to coincide with a bad writing week anyway, is not brilliant for my self-confidence or my enthusiasm for the short story in question…
These are issues that you also might want to consider when and if you’re choosing a critique group online. You’re probably wondering why I belong to a group at all. Well, firstly, as I said, I am too thin-skinned about these things and am working up to submitting more.
However, the main reason is that for me, the real value in belonging to a critiquing group is not in submitting my own work, but being allowed to cast an editor’s eye over the work of others in the same genre.
That’s not to see what other people are writing about or get ideas or plots or anything nefarious like that. It’s simply that the more I see ‘mistakes’ (by which I mean, things I would avoid doing) in other people’s writing, and learn how to put into words what bothers me about a story, the more I am able to recognise the same issues of pacing, voice and plot in my own stories.
In turn, the more I learn how to cast the critiquing eye over my own characters and scenes and dialogue, the more I feel I can trust my own judgment rather than necessarily undergoing that objective third party review (I’m not denying the need for an editor, by the way, just the notion of automatically submitting work to a committee rather than going with your own instinct).
I do still believe there’s value in letting other eyes onto the work…but if I can trust myself to do my own harsh rip-apart critiquing, relying on a trusted friend then becomes more feasible: they can act the role of the audience and give feedback, rather than being expected to act the role of the critiquer and give criticism. I trust you see the difference?