When I first submitted a story for online critiques, I had been part of a local critique group for about six months. Our local group, the Scrawling Narwhals, tends to operate as a roundtable. We take turns providing verbal feedback, and then hand the author our written critique, or what I call supporting materials for the verbal onslaught of comments, suggestions and ideas.
In person, I get the chance to process the feedback as it is told, get some explanation for it, and even discuss and brainstorm as a group about some of the ideas that come up. The discussions aren’t necessarily orderly, but it makes it all easier to process all the feedback received, to absorb and digest it all, if you will. It’s also great to be able to have other people’s immediate feedback on ideas stemming from their commentary, basically helping troubleshoot the kinks and rework the story before even leaving the meeting.
Over time, we’ve gotten to know each other’s strengths, and can even predict some of the comments, allowing me to address some of the issues before the story even goes out to them. In an ideal world, a story would be perfect before being read by anyone else. There would be no feedback, other than for kudos and slaps on the back for writing a perfect story. As this will never happen, the plan is to get a story as close to perfect as you can make it before sharing it for critique. The critiques exist to tell you what you missed so issues can be addressed before they are submitted to someone who will not give you a second read: an editor or publisher.
Online, you put up a story and get emails back in exchange. Myself, I send a “thank you” email back, and that’s usually the end of it. Though it does happen on occasion, follow-up exchanges rarely take place. I am left with a stack of comments from strangers, members of an online critiquing group, who could be anyone from an award-winning author, to a beginner who has yet to finish a story. Or they could not even be writers, just reviewers who enjoy reading stories and providing feedback. (It should be noted that good writers don’t necessarily make good critiquers. Critiquing is a skill that needs to be developed.)
Online critiques also provide the opportunity to get feedback from total strangers, objective beta readers who know nothing about you, and owe you nothing but their honest opinion.
A reviewer could happen to be a spelunker, who has chosen to comment on my spelunking story, and have the knowledge and experience to back up their feedback on technical aspects. The point is, I just don’t know unless they tell me their special expertise. If someone tells me I’ve got my facts wrong about something, I can’t just take their word for it. Online critiques allow my story to reach reviewers with a broad diversity in backgrounds, age, and nationality, and specific knowledge that I would never get from a local group.
Case in point: One reviewer, who sent me feedback on a story set in Japan after the Second World War, had a degree in Japanese culture, and lived in Japan for ten years. His email had been very critical of one of the elements in my story (the delivery of his feedback verged on a rant), and the overall tone of his comments had been especially brutal. I licked my wounds and replied to thank him for his feedback, admitted I had never been to Japan, and sent him the link to my source material for the specific reference that had got him so riled up. I hit sent and tried to forget about it, expecting my email would be automatically deleted.
To my great surprise, he replied a few days later, saying he had done some further research on the issue. He admitted he was wrong (!), and that my own source was right. He then proceeded to send me several emails over the following weeks, containing links and various source material, and details like the types of flowers blooming at that time of the year, to infuse the story with very Japanese details that had never even crossed my mind. Pretty insightful and useful feedback, wouldn’t you say?
Because of that, I value both in-person and online critiques because they bring complementary types of feedback that all help make my stories better than they would be without their input.
That’s why I take advantage of both opportunities. When deadlines allow, I try to run the same story through both groups. That way, I can make the manuscripts as good as they can be, before sending them out to an editor, ensuring problems that escaped my vigilance are corrected before going out.
Doing so lengthens the period of time it takes to get a story completed, but since I only get one shot to impress a specific editor with a story, I figure I might as well give them the best version of it that it can be.
That way, I’ve done as much as I can do. After that, it’s out of my hands.
Next week: Critiques – Making sense of all the feedback