Thursday, October 12, 2017

Becoming a Better Writer: Getting Critiqued

Like any other art form, writing is essentially a solitary pursuit. However, the end product can be greatly enhanced by feedback. For a writer, getting critiques is an essential part of the writing process.

Critiquing can be considered an art form unto itself. In order to write a good critique, you have to understand the elements of fiction: characterization, character development, plot, story structure, pacing, conflict, descriptive writing, scene structure.

There are also larger editorial considerations, such as whether the characters' motivations make sense, if plot points seem natural or contrived, and if the internal logic is consistent.

There are no hard and fast rules for any of these things (and it would be a mistake to utilize a checklist of "writing rules," because the best writing ignores them), but simply keep these points in mind when something makes your "eyes stop." If you are tempted to stop reading, it's usually because the author has hit a snag. It's up to the person writing the critique to figure out exactly what that snag is.

The object of the critique is not simply to point out flaws, but to suggest how those flaws can be addressed. The whole purpose of a critique is to make a work better, and to bring out the best in the writing, not drag it down.

Here are some critique groups that have been of benefit to both aspiring and professional authors. Several have been in existence for over twenty years, which means they have earned the trust of writers.

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Critters

Critters is a member of the Critique.org family of on-line workshops/critique groups, and is for serious writers of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. You get your work critiqued in exchange for critiquing the work of others, both of which are invaluable ways to improve your writing. It's run by Andrew Burt, former vice-president of SFWA and his "army of software minions." Critters is free and is funded solely by donations.

In addition to chapter-by-chapter critiques, Critters also offers whole novel critiques. (Read about novel critiques HERE.) Novelists should make a "Request for Dedicated Readers." An RDR is like an ordinary entry in the queue (it's often added to a chapter group), but when that entry comes up for reading, it becomes a request for Critters to devote themselves to reading your entire novel. Your RDR generally consists of a description of the novel and any special constraints unique to you (e.g., a publisher's deadline).
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Critique Circle

Critique Circle operates on a format common to many critique groups: you earn credits by critiquing works in order to get your own work critiqued. Members submit their stories to the story queue, and "pay" credits to do so. Only a certain number of stories will be displayed each week, so you may have to wait a week or two for yours to come up, depending on how much queue activity there is. When a story comes up for critique, other members can read it and submit their critiques to the author, thus earning credits. Stories stay in the queue for a week, which runs Wednesday to Wednesday.

To help with queue wait times, there is a Newbie Queue. Your first story must be submitted here and, if you wish, you can submit up to three in total before moving to the other queues. When you join the site, you get two free credits, and you can use these towards the "cost" of posting your first story. Additional credits are earned by critiquing the work of other writers.

Stories in the Newbie Queue can receive up to five full critiques, while stories in the other queues can receive an unlimited number of critiques. Once your story in the newbie queue has received 5 critiques of more than 150 words each it will be put into older submissions.

When posting a story, authors have some choice in who can view their story. For example, some authors will specify that only people who have been members of this site for a month can read their story. That’s why you may not be able to view all the stories in the queue.
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Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror

Charges a membership fee of $49 a year. The first month is free.

The Online Writing Workshop is open to all writers of science fiction, fantasy, or horror, both aspiring and professional. Writers improve here through the reviews and ratings given their works by other writers, and through reviewing the work of others.

After becoming a member, you may submit your work, review the work of others, and participate in workshop discussions. Other members will also be able to read, rate, and review the work you submit.

Since reviews and ratings are what improve people's writing, the workshop requires that you contribute reviews in order to be allowed to post your own work. And because all members should have a good chance of getting their work reviewed, there is a limit on how many pieces any member can submit at once.

You need four review points to post an active submission. You're given four review points when you join the workshop, so you can post your first submission before contributing any reviews. After that, you earn one review point for each substantive review you post, with a bonus point awarded if that submission has zero reviews.

[Note: Many speculative fiction writers swear by the Online Workshop.]

You can read their member agreement HERE.

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Rom-Critters is a Yahoo critique group for writers who are "actively and seriously pursuing a career in romance writing." This is an age-restricted group, requiring that you be over 18 and have a Yahoo account in order to sign in.

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Scribophile

Scribophile is one of the largest and most active writing groups online. Here you can:
  • Post your writing to get detailed, insightful feedback from other writers on how to improve it;
  • Chat and discuss with other writers from around the world in their writing forums;
  • Network with like-minded writers in special-purpose writing groups.

Scribophile also runs contests, maintains a blog, and offers writing advice.

The "currency" of Scribophile is karma. You earn karma points by writing critiques for the writing of others, and by having other members react positively to your critiques by marking them “constructive and enlightening." You earn more karma points for critiquing work in one of the spotlights versus critiquing work that’s not in one of the spotlights. The longer the critique, the more points you’ll earn.

You spend karma points on posting your writing for critique, giving virtual gifts to other members, and for a few other things around the site.

It costs 5 karma points to post a new work for critique. Each post should be no longer than about 3,000 words; longer work can be posted in parts and linked together during the posting process. Usually members post chapter by chapter, or a single short story or flash fiction per post.

You can read a guide that explains how to use Scribophile in detail HERE.
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The Internet Writing Workshop


The Internet Writing Workshop is a set of mailing lists (groups) that communicate in English by email. The IWW is:
  • A community where writers can submit and critique written works.
  • A forum to discuss and get help on all aspects of writing.
  • A public service educational organization, staffed by volunteers and free of charge.

The Workshop is open to all styles and genres of writing: literary fiction, genre fiction, poetry, children's writing, essays, newspaper articles, scripts, you name it. Members do not need to be published writers, only to be serious about writing and about wanting to improve.

Because some of the posted material may be controversial or adult in nature, all members must be 18 years or older. The IWW has quite a few critiquing and discussion lists.
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Writer's Infusion

This group takes critiquing to a whole new level. You can actually watch the group do their critique live, including a reading of the pages being critiqued. You also have the option of reading the original pages, as well as the edited pages.

I found this approach to critiquing to be utterly fascinating. Listening to the reading and to the discussion, and then reading the edits was an immersive experience. Interestingly, I completely disagreed with several aspects of the critique. (The critique was Of Men and Mice, a children's book by James Kabler. James, if you are reading this, don't change your first line!)

This is how it works: If you have written a short story, novel, novella, memoir, screenplay or essay, send up to five consecutive pages (no more than 1,500 words) using the submission form on the site. They randomly choose submissions to review before each episode. Poetry and explicit scenes are not allowed. You must be older than 17 to submit!

If your submission is chosen, you'll be given the opportunity to appear on the show. But if you are camera shy, they will critique your writing without your physical presence. They will only use your name with your permission.

(I thought this was such a neat idea, I went ahead and submitted five pages of my novel!)

5 comments:

  1. I haven't had many positive experiences in the past with critique groups. Mainly because I walked away more confused than before. Writers have to keep in mind that what one person will hate, another person will love. For example, one person said it's great I started in the middle of action. Another person said there needs to be more setup and introduction. So, I didn't know what to do! Even at a in-person critique, the participants' advice was so conflicting. When I looked at their notes, about half of the group said one thing and half the group said the opposite. So it wasn't much help. Online, I've also had problems with mean people. But maybe I'll give them another try. I like the idea of karma points you talked about. I've bookmarked this post.

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    1. One thing we have to keep in mind when we receive critique is to know what we want. Readers will always have the most veried reaction to our writing. That's how it is and will always be.
      When we receive critiques, we don't have to expect critiquers to tell us what is good and what is bad. They will tell us the only thing they can: what worked for them and what didn't. We must have in mind what we want to achieve, and that's our guide.

      For example, if you want to start your story in media res, and see that half the critiquers think it doesn't really work, it means that the opening probably have a few problems. But at the same time, if half the group thinks it works, it means you've done part of the opening right. So your job is to work out what works for the majority and try to expand on that, while trying to guide the elements that don't seem to work, toward the postivie elements in the critique.

      I'm telling the truth, it takes some learning. But it's so worth it ;-)

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  2. I never, and I mean NEVER, submit any of my work to critique groups. I do engage the services of individuals whose work and insights I trust. But most often critique groups will do precisely what happened to you, Jen. I have found that the ones I encountered were filled with writer wannabes and those who have read a little about writing and think they know a lot. And in the end, it is literally your "words" against theirs. So find two or three people who understand what YOU are trying to do and solicit them. Run hard from groups.

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    1. That's my experience too. But I find that's a valuable experience nonetheless. That's how most of our readers will react. Critiques from people you trust are invaluable (and you can find those on critiqueing groups too), but the reaction of people who don't really know writinging techniques too deeply are also very enlightening, because there's where you really see whether you're writing in a way that is undertandable to the avarage reader.
      Personally, I think we need both: the critique of someone who knows the writing very well, so that our own writing may become better, and the critique of people who are really only readers, so that we can learn to be as cleare and accessible as we can possibly be.

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  3. I was a member of Critique Circles for seven years and it was such an educational experience. I grew enormously as a writer, even I realise that.
    The process of receiving reviews made me aware of my shortcomings and above all made me aware that many things I took for granted were not at all clear to the reader. This is something we often overview when we don't get our writing critiqued.
    The process of critiquing other people's work made my eye keener on things that didn't really work, a skill that then I applied to my own writing as well.
    I will always suggest to any writer to take part with a critiquing group, even if only for a time. Nothing compares in terms of understanding the writing process.

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