Guest Post: Annette Dashofy on her Online Critique Group
Annette Dashofy is secretary of the Mary Roberts Rinehart (Pittsburgh) Chapter of Sisters in Crime and vice president of Pennwriters. She’s a regular contributor to Pennsylvania Magazine. Her short fiction includes “A Murder Runs Through It” from Fish Tales: The Guppy Anthology (2011) and “A Signature in Blood,” a 2007 Derringer Award nominee. She is currently working with an agent on revisions to her mystery novel set in the world of Thoroughbred racing. She blogs at Writing, Etc. and Working Stiffs. To learn more, check out her website .
And here’s Annette’s excellent post.
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Over the years, I’ve belonged to a number of critique groups, both face-to-face and online. Becky has asked me to share a bit of my experience with my online group.
I started out as just another member. When the owner put out a call for assistance, I became one of three moderators. Now the three of us have taken over as owners. We divide the tasks. I’m known as The Cleaning Lady.
Our group is genre-specific. We’re crime-fiction writers, although we span a wide range from historical to traditional to thriller to paranormal. And anything in between. We keep a maximum of 20 members, and participation is required. Each member must critique three submissions and post one chapter each month. If you want to run more than one chapter a month through the group, you must critique three for each one.
I’d love to say the system runs flawlessly, but I’d be lying. It’s my job to track everyone’s submissions and critiques. If a member stops participating, it’s up to me to nudge them. If they continue to drop the ball, I drop them.
Sometimes I hate my job.
But with only 20 members, we need to keep everyone honest. Besides, I’m not the wicked witch (although I’m sure there’s at least one member who might disagree—you know who you are!). If life has simply gotten in the way, I’m happy to put a member “on hold” for a month or two, reserving their space until they can get back to writing.
There are good and bad points to a critique group of this size. With twenty members, not everyone is going to be on the same level skill-wise, whether you’re talking about writing skill or critiquing skill. We have published authors. We have rank beginners. Not all the stories are to everyone’s tastes, either. But the good part is that members do tend to gravitate toward those they can best work with. No one has to read all the submissions (although there are those over-achievers who try—you know who YOU are, too!) We tend to have “clusters” of members who critique each other’s work.
Each member gets at least three critiques on each of their chapters. Often they’ll get more. So while they may not find one person’s comments particularly helpful, another critique might really ring true to them. Even the very unskilled, beginning critiquer can offer some insight from a reader’s point of view.
Regardless of how helpful a particular critique might be, I think it’s of the utmost importance to be gracious in receiving it. You may disagree with the feedback, but that person took the time to read your stuff and offer suggestions on how they think you might make it stronger. You can take it or leave it, but it’s nice to offer a genuine thank you to the critiquer. After all, that person spent time on your story. Time they could have spent working on their own.
I’ve been a member of other online critique groups as well. Most weren’t as structured as this one. But those didn’t seem as productive either. Having the obligation to post and critique each month keeps our members plodding (and plotting) ahead. I’ve run three and a half manuscripts through this group and my writing has benefited greatly from the feedback I’ve received.
Thanks Becky for hosting and Annette for this excellent post. I have a question for Annette: I’m part of a crit group where one of our members moved to Illinois (very inconsiderate of him) and I’m thinking of moving the group online and expanding it (right now the other members get together and use google+ to ‘see’ him.) What do you think the pros and cons are of in person vs. online groups?
Also, bonus question – how important do you think it is that the group be genre specific? Our group isn’t, currently, and I wonder about that.
Great questions, Alex! Thanks for stopping by.
Hi, Alex. Being in the same room with the other critiquers is definitely more immediate. Brainstorming is easier and quicker when you don’t have to wait for a reply to an email. Same thing with back and forth discussion.
HOWEVER… sometimes it’s challenging to get the whole group together. We all lead busy lives and stuff comes up at the last minute. My face-to-face group would love to meet more often, but just can’t seem to swing it.
Obviously, one of the benefits of online groups is exactly what you mention. You can stay in touch with your crit pals no matter where they live. This opens up the group to a wider range of participants.
One thing that can be either a pro or a con depending on the people involved is that it tends to be easier to give a tough critique when you don’t have to look the person in the eye. If the recipient needs and WANTS tough comments, that’s a good thing. If they’re still a little thin-skinned, not so much.
And of course, when you can’t see the other person’s expressions, misunderstandings are inevitable. Someone, especially someone who’s very sensitive about their work, might easily misinterpret a comment as being harsh when it wasn’t meant that way at all.
As for the bonus question regarding genre specific groups. Good writing is good writing. I used to belong to a non-specific group and they were great. But IMHO, you need feedback from someone who does know your genre. If you can belong to more than one group, fine. One of them can be multi-genre. However, if you don’t have that luxury, it’s probably best to find a group that writes the same genre as you do. That’s only my opinion, though. Others may disagree.
I love this, Annette. Yes, it’s the eye-contact that really makes the difference for me. Taking care to remember that there’s still a person at the other end of things would help, I’d think.
I have never participated in an online group and find the idea of 20 members daunting. Kudos to you, Annette, for being a whip cracker. I know you are so conscientious, they are lucky to have you!
However, daunting as that many participants sounds, watching how 20 different authors grow their stories must be very helpful and fascinating. It sounds like you’re all learning from one another. It takes a village to do a lot of things, doesn’t it?
(Becky, you don’t need to put me in the contest to win a copy of your book. Of course I already own one!)
Thanks for stopping by, Ramona! It definitely takes a village.
Hi Annette: Enjoyed your post. I’ve been with the same critique group or about six years now and it just keeps getting better and better. We do it on a Round Robin basis since one of our members now lives in North Carolina. Also, I facilitate the Fourth Wednesday Writers Group that meets here in the Harrisburg area. Both groups have really helped me.
Hi, Don! I think the more eyes that see your work, the better. Good luck with both your groups! Hope to see you at the Pennwriters Conference in May!
I agree with what Ramona said– 20 participants IS daunting! I’m impressed with how you make it work. I totally agree that we all need to be gracious when receiving and giving feedback.
Becky, no need to include my name in your giveaway since I have a copy of your book and have given one away already!
Thanks for stopping by, Carol.
Hi Becky and Annette, and thanks for this great post! I’ve never been in an online critique group, or a group of this size. But it sounds like you really have a smooth-running and supportive group (thanks in no small part to your role, Annette ;-). And reviewing 3 chapters a month isn’t overwhelming. I’m curious, when members share their chapter, is it typically rough draft or more polished?
Hi, Julie! The answer to your question is: YES!
We get all stages. Sometimes members run the same chapters through multiple times as revisions get made.
Personally, the chapters I submit are usually a little more polished than first draft simply because that’s when I feel a need for the input. But different folks need and want different things from the group.
I love that you guys support all drafts/versions of the story–and that you read a chapter as many times as the author needs. Sounds like you’re all really there for each other.
We do, Becky.
My concern is always that someone gets stuck trying to perfect chapter one and never gets to the end of the book, but we haven’t had that happen lately.
Annette, that does sound like a great critique group (and a lot of work for you and the other two owners). Hmmmm. Do you ever have openings?
We do, Norma. I think we’re a maximum capacity right now, but we do maintain a waiting list.
Thank you, and Annette. I’m the winner!
I know, Norma! Congratulations!
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