Critique groups can help you improve your writing by offering feedback, perspective, and ideas. They also can provide emotional support, motivation, and accountability, as other writers understand the joys and struggles involved in writing. Many prefer meeting in person, but what if you have a crazy schedule, niche writing focus, or rural address? Online critique groups can be the perfect solution.
Getting plugged in
Online critique groups allow you to connect with people you couldn’t or wouldn’t otherwise. Writer, producer, and comedian Joanna Castle Miller was living in Washington, D.C., and belonged to an in-person writing group for all genres. However, she wanted more screenwriting feedback, and there was no strong local film and television presence. She joined an online screenwriting critique group to give her the focused community she needed, as well as new viewpoints. Miller says, “It’s a good way to get perspectives that differ from your immediate circle or culture.”
Online groups are particularly helpful when living in a country where you don’t speak or write in the native language. Karla Valenti, a writer in Frankfurt, Germany, has no local access to English-speaking writing groups. “I knew that if I intended to take my work to the next level, this was going to be a critical part of the process,” she says.
In addition to expanding your writing network, online groups offer flexibility in how, when, and where you connect. Even if you live in an area with a robust writing scene in your genre and language, your schedule or lifestyle may present challenges. Online groups are important options for people with busy travel schedules, commitments that keep them at home, limited transportation options, or health issues that limit mobility.
For some, the online environment allows freedom when writing. “I think if we were meeting in person, on some level I’d be more reserved in my writing,” says Nicole Saltz, a Toronto, Canada-based writer and House of Stories script consultant. “Maybe that’s my own neurosis, but having the screen between us all feels like a modicum of protection.”
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Can you hear me now?
While some writers may feel more free, others, particularly those working on creative nonfiction, such as memoir or personal essay, can feel vulnerable about what they share. Trust concerns, including plagiarism, are typical when joining a critique group.
Chicago-based writer, speaker, and educator Lea Grover is writing her memoir and has wondered: “Will people like it? And what does that say about me?” In one of her earlier online groups, a male member suggested she add more comedy to a rape scene. She realized some people were reading the scene wrong. Since then, her memoir group has grown and split into two. One is comedic, and one is serious.
Trust issues can be factors for in-person groups, too, but it can be more difficult online if you haven’t developed a personal connection or can’t read visual cues. It’s important to be mindful of these barriers online, such as making sure you set the right tone in your feedback. Miller says, “In person, you can keep things light and friendly with just a smile, but online you have to be careful that constructive criticism really does feel that way.”
Any kind of critique group can suffer from issues concerning quality of feedback, accountability, and commitment levels, whether for specific individuals or the group as a whole. But these issues can be exacerbated with online groups. “When things are online, it’s easier to bail,” says Saltz.
For groups using platforms with open posting options, you can miss meaningful conversations if you’re not constantly checking in. And like anything requiring technology, connectivity and other technical issues can arise.
Finding your tribe
Many find that the pros far outweigh the cons. If you’re considering an online critique group, make sure you’re ready for the writing and time commitments. Grover says, “Don’t show up and be that unprofessional guy who doesn’t have your work done or the critique done. Treat it like a job.”
You can connect with potential group members through writing associations, conferences, classes, and forums, or even friends. Don’t worry if it takes you a few tries to find the right group. It’s most important to find people at your writing level who share your commitment and you can trust. If you’re joining an already-established group, start with a trial period, where you and the members can get a sense if you’re a fit before committing.
If you’re starting a group, make sure there’s a clear leader or delineated group roles, along with well-defined processes, goals, and expectations. Small groups tend to work best. Pick a format and technology that work best for you and your group. For example, conference or video calls offer opportunities to ask follow-up questions and brainstorm. Some critique groups work with just one platform, such as a private Facebook group or Scribophile. Other groups use a combination of file sharing and call or video applications, such as email and Facebook, Google Docs and Hangouts, and Dropbox and WebEx.
Consider ways to form connections with your writing partners outside of the critical exchanges. This can build trust and even develop friendships. Valenti says, “I have Skyped with a number of them, and we do email on non-writing related matters, so I feel as if I’ve developed a broader relationship with my critique partners that extends beyond critiquing.”
If a group doesn’t work for you, consider a one-on-one arrangement. Miller’s group lasted for six months. She now lives in Los Angeles and connects with individuals for online critiques. She likes the flexibility and control it offers. She recommends including guiding questions when submitting writing for online critique. She says, “It takes a good deal of time to type out my thoughts, so if I can know in advance what concerns you, you’ve saved me time and made the most of the experience for yourself, too.”
Online critique groups can improve your writing, expand your network, and keep you connected wherever you are. Writing may be a solitary activity, but you don’t have to do it alone.
Jennifer L. Blanck is a freelance writer who belongs to an international online critique group. Her writing has appeared most recently in Christian Science Monitor, Entropy, Toastmaster, USA Rice Daily, and Wine Business Monthly.