Getting Involved in the Writing Community

Cold Outside by the Italian Voice, Flickr

Cold Outside by Italian Voice, Flickr

This article covers the following:

  • My experience with the local Vancouver writing community
  • How online critiquing works
  • Pros of online critiquing
  • Cons of online critiquing
  • Tips for using an online critique group successfully

In October of this year (2010), I volunteered at two writing and reading festivals, the ViWF and the SiWC and they were very valuable and enjoyable experiences for me.   I met a lot of writers, local and international, and I even had the chance to have conversations and learn from several successful authors.

One of the more memorable moments was at the SiWC with Robert Dugoni, an amazing speaker and teacher, and author of six books.  I have never read anything by Dugoni and I may never  because I’m not much into crime fiction, but his ‘query letter workshop’ was packed FULL of useful information, and his speech at the closing gala had the entire audience on their feet, cheering and inspired.

One thing that stood out to me was his firm advice to share your work with others, and he suggested many ways to do this, including joining an online critique group.  The part about sharing your work was not new to me, but online critique group?  Really?  A few days later, when I’d had a chance to digest the two events (which took place during the same week in October), I sat down and did some research.

I have since joined Critters, which was only one of many groups out there on the web.  So far, it appears to be very well organized and secure, but most importantly, I am learning a lot through reading and editing other people’s work.  This week is my turn for people to read and critique my work, so I will let you know how it goes.

See some helpful critique group links, lists and other blog posts about critique groups.

Update February 2012

For the last few years, I’ve been using critters.org to gain insight into how the general public will perceive my book, and to that extent, it has been an invaluable tool. The level of attention that critters give to their critiques is truly astounding, especially since they aren’t getting paid (although they do get critiques in return). I’ve received tons of amazing feedback and some great tips that I have definitely incorporated into my writing.

How online critiquing works

You sign up to the secure, members-only part of the site and put yourself into a queue. Each week, you choose the work of at least one other writer in the batch of writing at the front of the queue, and write a critique about that writing. When your writing comes to the front of the queue, other people will read it and give you their thoughts.

Pros of online critiquing

This system works exceptionally well, thanks mostly to the operator of the site, Burt. The following is my own list of positive features and benefits of the critters.org site in particular, though I guess this would apply to many online critique groups:

  • It’s cheap. In fact, it’s free! I have honestly spent thousands and thousands of dollars in classes and editing fees in the past 15 years of my writing career, and as an editor and writer, I constantly have people asking me to read their work for a reduced fee. Unfortunately, this just isn’t possible because I do need to pay my bills, so I confidently encourage them to find an online critique group, with the knowledge that it will truly help them.
  • You will become a better writer. I think that this is absolutely the biggest benefit. Through editing other people’s writing on a continual basis, you will become a better writer yourself. You will figure out, time and again, what works for you and what doesn’t. Through reading what you like in other people’s writing, you will find out what you like about your own. You might just discover that the gaping plot hole you found in that lady’s story is very similar to what you did in your own story, and you’ll be so shocked to discover it!
  • The advice and criticisms can be incredibly informative. I have received reviews that were worth a lot of money. Some people on this site truly give their best; some of the people who have reviewed my writing have been published writers themselves, English teachers, very caring, and all around brilliant editors.
  • You build up relationships with other writers. It was really great to find out weeks later that the author I had critiqued appreciated my critique so much that they returned the favour and critiqued my own writing. Over time, I felt like part of a community and I was exchanging emails.
  • You get to choose what you critique. I liked the fact that I could choose to read what I felt interested in (rather than just having to read what was thrown at me, like I did hundreds of times in classes that I paid thousands of dollars for), and I really got to read very enjoyable stories!

Cons of online critiquing

With so many benefits listed above, what could possible be wrong? Well, there are some things to look out for, that’s for sure, especially for young writers or people with delicate sensibilities (anyone who cries easily).

  • The critiques can be tough. I know because I received and wrote a few tough ones myself. Some people just don’t like your writing, and maybe that’s because your writing needs improvement and maybe it’s because it’s not their taste. Either way, if you are a budding writer, who, like most beginning writers, takes everything that everyone says to heart, then you could extinguish the small fire of your writing passion before it ever has the chance to grow into something.
  • It’s a bit of a clique. There are obviously members of the community who have the feeling that they rule the roost.

Tips for using an online critique group successfully

Some of the following things I learned from being part of other online communities, and some of these things I learned through my experience with critters.org. I hope you find them useful.

  • Don’t take anything anyone says to heart!!! Please! There are some mean/super insensitive people who get really irritated by poor grammar, or weak plots, or whatever have you. But, if you believe in your concept, don’t let these people get you down! Take the criticisms that you understand, that resonate with you, the ones that you say, ‘yes, I knew that was weak, he’s right’ and work on that one point.  Forget the rest, let them go… fly away.  Just like you are not obligated to like every type of writing, no one is obligated to like yours.
  • Go one step at a time.  You might feel inundated with different types of criticisms on all facets of your book/story: grammar, voice, plot, syntax, structure, characters, etc. There is only so much you can improve, only so much you can do, or understand.  Even though you want to write a best seller right out of the starting gate, you can only take that path one step at a time.  And even if you do write a best seller out of the starting gate, then it is highly likely you would look at that book years later and say to yourself, ‘My god, did I write that?!’  Your writing style and ability will grow slowly over time.
  • Do great critiques if you want to get the most out of it.  Your critiques will be returned in favour, and if you want to become part of the community, then, at least in the beginning, you will need to prove your worth by doing great critiques before people will take you seriously.
  • Follow the rules!  Seriously. It’s a small community.  If you are rude it will come back to you.  People will tear you a new one. Generally people are very sensitive about their writing, so unless you want that guy to come back and tell you all about why your writing sucks, then find a way to tell that guy nicely why his writing didn’t work for you, and how it might have worked better for you.  Be diplomatic.
That’s about it.  I would completely recommend using an online critique group–it has been a transformative and very  helpful experience for me.

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