Online Critique Groups

Written By: Paul Toth - Mar• 10•14

 

A critique group (also known as “writer’s circle”) is a sort of writer’s club that exists to improve the work of all involved. The idea is simple: each member of the group passes a page, chapter, or entire novel to one or more other members, who then provide feedback on the material. Imagine a half-dozen authors sitting around a table. Each one passes a page they’ve written to the person on their left, who marks it up and then passes it on to the next guy. After a while, each page is decorated with a mass of (hopefully useful) scribbles the author can incorporate into their next draft. Of course, there are endless variations on this theme, with notes compiled between meetings, varying amounts of discussion and in-person interaction, and different approaches to providing feedback and follow-up. Ideally, the quality of each writer’s work is improved by incorporating and/or reacting to a variety of perspectives.

If all this sounds like it could be the basis for an online community, you’re right. A number of sites have been created to take the critique group experience online, and some have done a passable job of it. The advantages are obvious. Instead of being limiting oneself to interacting with writers who happen to be in the same geographical area, it’s possible to form groups with a global basis, where who critiques whom is a matter of common interests rather than physical and schedule-based limitations. Writers can avail themselves of advice from hundreds, even thousands, of different members, and the basic critique mechanics can be enhancing by forums, messaging, and a variety of social networking mechanics.

If you’re anything like me, this all sounds awesome, and under the right circumstances, it can be.

But What if Someone Steals My Work?

Yes, it happens, and yes, it sucks. Plagiarism is rarer than you might think, though—exceedingly rare, as far as I can tell—and for many, the risk is more than balanced by the rewards. For me, the “tipping point” came when I listened to a successful romance speak at last year’s San Francisco Writer’s Conference. She claimed that everyone, including pros, needed to be involved with these groups. They were that valuable.

Now, when I say she’s successful, I mean she’s seriously, ridiculously, two-books-on-the-New-York Times-bestseller-list-at-the-same-time successful. Net seven figures on one self-published novel successful. A writerly goddess, in financial terms.

I joined an online critique group the next day, and haven’t looked back. If I managed to corral an agent, and my work sees the light of day in the mainstream publishing world, these sites will have played a significant part in making that happen.

There’s a Bunch of These Things. Which One Should I Join?

I could tell you that:

  • They each have their strengths and weaknesses, and it’s a matter of individual preference.
  • There’s no reason you have to choose just one. Many writers are members of multiple groups.
  • You don’t need to commit right off the bat. Try a few and see which one floats your boat.

And all of this would be true to some degree, but it would be a cop-out. Not all critique sites are created equal, and the underlying philosophy and goals vary significantly. I’m going to try to tell you enough about my own perspective and experiences to help you figure out which are worth looking an initial look.

To my knowledge, there are three sites that stand out, based on the quality and size of their membership, the usefulness of their feature set, and their overall effectiveness. Of course, mileage may vary, and you may find that groups I haven’t bothered to include here are more useful to you than any of the ones I’ve selected. C’est la vie, caveat emptor and all that.

Critique Circle

This site seems to have been around for quite a while (since the 90s, if had to guess, which is what I’m going to do, since I’m too lazy to do the research). This has plusses and minuses. On the plus side, the community is huge. Its membership is probably the largest of the groups I’ve encountered, with what appears to be thousands of active members. This means that it’s easy to recruit a large, diverse set of fellow authors to review one’s work, and there’s a seemingly endless variety of stories to explore. Pretty much every genre, category, and subcategory I can think of is represented.

Unfortunately, the site also looks and feels like it was designed in the 90s—albeit with the occasional technological upgrade. It’s perfectly usable, but after using some of the more functional sites out there, working with Critique Circle feels like trying to text while caught in a Chinese finger trap. Sure, you can do it, but you might not want to.

Inline critiquing is best example of this. You can just pick an arbitrary place in the text you’re reviewing and type in a note, you have to insert the note as a separate block of text that sits between the lines (usually between the paragraphs) of the story being critiqued. It might not sound that bad, but if you want to do something very precise like suggest that the author change a few specific words in a specific sentence, it can be a pain. You’re essentially forced to re-type a good-sized portion of the text you want to focus on. For people like me who like to provide extremely fine-grained commentary, this is not a great way to do things.

Mechanics

The mechanics of Critique Circle are simple. It’s essentially a “do unto others” approach based on a point system. You start with enough points to post a piece of work (a chapter, short story, or whatever). After that you earn points for each review you do, and spend points to post more work. The system is straightforward, easy to understand, and works nicely. When you receive a critique, you rate it based on a variety of criteria, and those rating accumulate into point scores that are displayed when members view your profile. This is useful in that helps identify those who are trying to game the system. If someone has exceedingly low scores, you may not want to review their stuff, knowing they aren’t likely to put much effort into a thank-you crit.

One of things I really like about Critique Circle is the fact that its members aren’t squirmy about reviewing longer works. You can post ten or fifteen thousand words at a time and get several cogent critiques within a matter of days. This makes it great place to workshop novelettes and novellas, since you aren’t forced to organize them into bite-sized pieces and reviewers will will work through the story as a whole, rather than looking at a fragment.

The Lowdown

It’s a good site. Thousands of writers find it useful, and will undoubtedly continue to do so. But it’s not my personal favorite.

Full Disclosure

I’ve posted a couple of stories on the site, and contributed a dozen or critiques.

 

www.critiquecircle.com

Authonomy

The most interesting about this site is the fact that it’s owned by a major publisher—Harper Collins. Verbiage on the site claims acquisition editors look at some of work posted there, though, as you might expect, working toward this goal is a difficult and highly political proposition. As near as I can tell, the effort is about thirty percent competitive brownnosing, thirty percent hard work, and thirty percent dumb luck. Somewhere in that other ten percent is the actual quality and marketability of the work being posted. If it seems like I’m being critical of Harper Collins staff who run the site, I suppose I am, but creating a site that does what this one purports to do (finding talent) is an inherently difficult task, and they’ve probably done about as well as can be expected.

Mechanics

Mechanically, Authonomy is an iPod. At first glance, it’s sleek and functional, but bust the thing open and you find yourself trying to make sense of some very messy guts. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that site has multiple goals, obscured by marketing lingo (“We’re more than community of book lovers!”) and nested within one another like brightly colored Matryoshka dolls. This, in a nutshell, seems to be what Authonomy is trying to do:

  • Enable a critiquing community much like that provided by Critique Circle.
  • Provide a collection of free online work—novels, mostly—that Harper Collins can use to promote the larger business.
  • Outsource the slush pile, and do it at a near-zero cost.

The fact that site is designed to do several semi-overlapping, semi-contradictory things leads to some oddities. First, anyone can post as much work as they want to, without any expectation or obligation to write critiques, or indeed to anything that’s of use to other members of the site. This would seem to violate the spirit of a critique group, and in a way it does, but there’s still plenty of incentive to review other members’ work.

Namely, good old fashioned scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours politics. Unlike other sites I’ve seen, Authonomy assigns precise numeric rankings to both books and members. You might, for instance, be the #8 (eighth-highest-ranked) author, with the #5 (fifth-highest-ranked) book. The highest-ranked books are the ones that Harper Collins looks at, so in one sense the site is essentially a big, never-ending competition to have the highest-ranked book.

Of course in the spirit of social media, the judges of the novels—the ones who actually determine the rankings—aren’t a group of external judges, but the site members (contestants) themselves. It’s like a horse race in which the jockeys all vote to determine which horse was the fastest. This means that members are constantly trying convince one another to review one another’s work, and give them high marks. The whole “craft” aspect of things, in which authors attempt to approve one another’s work, is secondary, and this is reflected in the design of the site. Don’t go to Authonomy in the hopes of honing your manuscript or sharpening your skills—that’s not (primarily) what it’s for.

The example method used for ranking novels is somewhat mysterious, but rating assigned by site members appear to play a significant part. Any member can rate any work on the site, by give it one to six “stars.” Note that you don’t necessarily have to read the book, much less form an objective opinion—anyone who wants to can click on the desired stars. If this sounds like a system that’s open to all manner of abuse—well, I’m sure it is—but bemoaning this isn’t particularly productive.

Authonomy doesn’t provide the ability to do full-fledged critiques, but you can leave comments, and the more conscientious members attempt to provide the sort of feedback you’d see in a critique. Remember, though, the ultimate goal is pump up the ranking of your own novel, and everything revolves around that, and this is a system that doesn’t exactly encourage honest criticism. One obvious strategy is to jump from novel to novel, telling every author that their work is “frikkin awesome!” in an attempt to garner their support, and this seems to be more or less what a lot of members do. Some don’t even pretend to read other members’ books, they just blast out a bunch messages asking everyone to plump their work. Sometimes these messages take the form of outright begging (“PLEASE save my book!!!”).

 

The Lowdown

If you’re willing to put some money on a long shot, Authonomy may be worthwhile. Just be ready to deal with the site for what it is—part of the Harper Collins marketing machine. It’s meant to serve the purposes of the publisher, not the author, and the two may or may not intersect. And while site looks sharp, it’s neither terribly functional nor particularly reliable. I’ve seen the thing barf out random programming error messages on at least a dozen occasions.

The site has forums, but they’re nigh-useless. Authonomy is about competition, not community.

Full Disclosure

I currently have part of one my novels on the site, and am participating on a regular basis. At the time this was written, my member ranking was somewhere around #500 (Woo hoo! I’m number five hundred! I’m number five hundred!). Because of Authonomy’s competitive nature, I spent almost a year work shopping my novel on other sites before posting it here.

www.authonomy.com

Scribophile

Superficially, Scribophile is a lot like Critique Circle. That is, it hews pretty close to the classical concept of a critique group: authors reinforcing one another’s efforts by providing notes on each other’s stuff. As you’d expect, the core of the site is critiquing: post your work, and post reviews of other people’s work. A variety of features compliment the core capabilities—forums, groups, and detailed member profiles among them.

The design, functionality, and overall quality of the site are remarkable. I wouldn’t just rank it among the best sites for writer’s, I’d rank it among the best sites period—right up there with Apple.com, Twitter, and other highly touted destinations. Navigating amongst the various areas is quick and intuitive, and the inline critiquing feature is amazingly good. In some ways, it’s superior to Microsoft’s Word’s “Review” feature set. You can suggest edits by adding and deleting text from the original manuscript, with deleted segments highlighted in red, and suggested additions highlighted in green. This means that it’s possible to place a comment regarding a particular word or phrase right next to that word or phrase. To someone like me, who likes to leave detailed feedback, this is a godsend.

The Scribophile forums invite a lot of impassioned discussion, and are moderated by a capable group of volunteers. Writers are an opinionated lot, and just about every perspective imaginable shows up in forum posts. Things can contentious, and for this reason both religion and politics are verboten (though these subjects can be discussed in the groups, each of which essentially has its own forum).

Mechanics

The Scribophile economy is based on karma. You earn points of karma by writing critiques. If this sounds similar to Critique Circle it is, but there are a few additional wrinkles:

  • You don’t start out with much karma, so you can’t post your work on the site until you’ve posted some critiques (usually two or three of them will do the trick). Some new members find this annoying, but I think it’s a reasonable approach.
  • The amount of karma you earn for each critique varies. You get a base amount, plus a bonus based on the length of the critique, plus an additional (small) bonus based on how much the recipient of the review liked it. This is good in that encourages members to be thorough and constructive, and though the system is obviously open to abuse, I’ve found it’s rare in practice.
  • Shorter posts are encouraged (3K words or less), and if you follow this guidance, it can cost a great deal of karma to post longer works. This isn’t unfair, but it is painful when you have a novelette or chapter that doesn’t have scene breaks in places that readily accommodate this sort of parsing.

Members are assigned a numeric “reputation” score based on Facebook-style “likes,” but it’s purely for purposes of amusement and isn’t hooked into any of the site’s other mechanics. Profiles include a writerly “title” such as “Ink-Slinger” that correspond to the score, which helps contribute to the site’s whimsical don’t-take-yourself-too-seriously vibe—something I personally find appealling.

The Lowdown

Scribophile is great if you’re looking to give or receive in-depth feedback on your work. As is the case with other the sites I’ve mentioned, what you get out of it is going to be proportionate to the work you put in. So if you want to be considered a serious writer by others on the site, be prepared to build up some sweat equity. While not every crit you receive will be insightful, or even useful, it’s worth sticking with it for those that really open your eyes. I make revisions (though they’re often minor) in response to about twenty percent of the crits I’ve received, and three or four percent have prompted me to make major changes—sometimes across an entire chapter or scene.

Full Disclosure

I’ve been active, on and off, on Scribophile for about a year. I’ve written a lot of crits (around a quarter million words worth of them), and doing so has been a major learning experience. My involvement on the site is currently minimal, as my attention has turned elsewhere.

www.scribophile.com

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One Comment

  1. Gina Drayer says:

    Long time no talk! I hope progress with The Turquoise Sphere is going well.

    I agree, crit sites can be very helpful for new writers. They are a great way to get feedback on your work from people (other than family and friends), but they also help you network with other writers. I enjoyed working on Scribophile but I too have moved on to a wider network. I developed a writing ‘relationship’ with a few writers from there that actively beta and support my writing effort and that alone was worth any time I spent on the site.