from the Hive: Online Critique Groups
Who needs a critique group? Most likely, anyone submitting
in a professional capacity, whether for writing, illustrating,
or both, would benefit.
A crit group finds the weaknesses in your
work, true. But it also helps you to build on your strengths
and learn to market your work with encouragement and sharing
of information. It helps you to lick your rejection wounds
from your efforts to get published and shares the joys of
I use the term "group" loosely—
yours can be as many as twelve to twenty, as some in-person
groups, or as intimate as one or two close, respected friends.
(For the sake of this article only online groups are considered).
A critique doesn't mean someone nitpicks
every little nuance of your work, either. You want someone
to point out the strengths and weaknesses of your illustrations
or writing. An honest critique will focus on the piece of
work and whether the work successfully conveys the feelings
and ideas of what you're trying to communicate. It's
best if someone can pinpoint why something works or doesn't
work for them, though sometimes it's hard to put a name
to why something doesn't quite gel. Just hearing about
it, especially from more than one source, may mean it needs
more work before submitting to a publisher.
Many people think the essence of a crit
group is the ability and experience of its members. Though
important factors, they are not. The essence is trust. It's
not only difficult to open your work up for review, there
is legitimate concern with stealing work-- even if it's
a rare event. (An idea is not copyrightable, and truthfully,
I've never been concerned with others stealing mine.
They are so personal and rather convoluted, by the time someone
else made my idea presentable, I'm sure it wouldn't
even be recognizable as the same project).
you take precautions, the risk is negligible. A closed
group (membership must be applied and approved) is a good
idea. A dedicated group is serious about developing their
own ideas and style to the best of their collective abilities.
The best way to ensure that is to get to know each other.
Once everyone is comfortable with each other, there won't
be those worries.
It's important that people be comfortable
with each other, because of the nature of sharing within
a crit group. You share your work, very personal, but
also possible markets, experiences with agents, publishers
and editors as well as notes from conferences attended.
Before forming a group, the first thing you should define
is what you hope to get from it. Then decide on the best
style that works to attain those goals. Is it to be purely
professional or will you be encouraging social interaction
within the group? Will you set deadlines and quantities
for submissions and crits, or be more flexible in that
aspect? Will there be a standard of work or can anyone
interested participate? It'll be easier for the group
to achieve its goals if everyone knows what they are.
Also there'll be less chance for misunderstandings if
rules are upfront and decided beforehand.
In Yellapalooza, we prefer the "sandwich"
crit: find the strengths before discussing the weakness in
a piece. We don't allow flaming (personal attacks or derogatory,
off the cuff remarks). Crits are hard enough. We don't
have set deadlines or submission requirements to the group.
Some of us were already under a publishing umbrella and
had to deal with deadlines and such. Having stringent rules
would have cut out the more experienced members of our
group. Having a group is also about maintaining human contact.
We share personal as well as professional details-- for
some of us, it's THE adult contact of the day.
Some groups have only published membership. Personally,
I think that's shortsighted. Being published is a fine
and often difficult line to cross; many able people are
not yet published. But professionalism and goals ARE very
important for maintaining the momentum. Some groups are
more comfortable saying that you must post X amount of
projects a month and give Y amount of crits. Some want
members published at least in some kind of venue. Others
ask to see the work produced before allowing people to
join their ranks. Whatever keeps you going.
Then the question becomes how to find the
individuals who share those goals. I belong to a number of
online communities: Write4Kids
message board, Children's
Book at Yahoo. Many of our group frequent the Write4Kids
message board, lovingly dubbed theYellaboard. Between those
places and the online courses I've taken (Anastasia
Suen's Picture Book course), I already had contact with
most of the members of our group. E-mail is a way to further
know people, once you've made initial contact. Anyhow, if
you participate in the groups, you get a good feel for others,
and they for you, and it would help to attract like-minded
So you've found a few people.
I suggest knowing the number limit of your group up front.
Yellapalooza has eleven members right now. That's a good
number for us as our projects can be so labor-intensive.
In case one or more of our members is slammed with deadlines
or life, then the others can carry on the business of the
group. With eleven members, everyone is guaranteed some
kind of response, even when some are caught up in deadlines.
The next step is to find a "place" for yourselves.
Some groups post and crit by e-mail. If you don't mind the
volume, that's a fairly secure way to organize yourselves.
If you're good at keeping track of crits, this might be an
option for you. You'll need good virus protection (you have
to be able to send and receive attachments). I didn't like
email groups, as it was hard to get personal with the group
and hard to keep all the crits and emails straight. Besides,
I like the "archive" feature of having an online
Yellapalooza uses MSN
Communities, for now. MSN has ways of keeping the threads
organized, so if you're a high volume group, it's easier to
find specific thoughts. We are also able to organize into
different visual folders. I think their file space is small,
but it encourages me to weed out my images on a regular basis.
They don't have those nasty pop-up ads. Flip side, they seem
to need a bit more maintenance than Yahoo. Some of our members
with Macs have a hard time accessing all of the features.
has good files and a good file notification system. I like
their archives, but their pop-ups nearly drive me insane.
You'll have to figure out what best
suits your needs, with the realization, nothing is perfect.
Lastly, having an identity will help solidify you as a group.
We were originally the Yellaboard Writers and Illustrators
Community. We really aren't that fuddy-duddy; we just
needed a name to open our account with. But in the course
of time, conversation, commiseration, camaraderie, our fantasies
took hold. The idea of having a book tour involving all of
us and screaming adoring children clamoring for our books
proved to be too much of a giggle, and Yellapalooza was born.
I've seen groups with cute names (Li'l Critters)
and some whose name encompasses so many concepts (the very
successful Stars). I think it brings you together, so I hope
you don't pooh-pooh the idea of a name, despite Shakespeare's
Juliet's lament about a rose. A name can bring you together.
as time goes on, people change as well as their level of
abilities (hopefully) so having good, honest, respectful
dialogue helps prevent hurt feelings, keeps the group alive
and growing. We do things like have monthly challenges
and a Growlery (sometimes this is my only outlet to get
rid of my frustrations, whether with the world, the business
or myself. People can read it, respond; the important thing,
those things come out and we move on.)
If there are problems
with members, I suggest you deal with them head on and
don't avoid them. I know from personal experience this
can be difficult, but I feel strongly it must be done.
There can be ill-fits— whether in style, subject matter,
or personality. Often times, the moderator(s) and the disgruntled
member can resolve their differences. The added benefit, if
you go through this kind of process, it can strengthen your
group— the members feel comfortable enough to be honest and
straightforward and the group comes to a deeper understanding
and better benefits its members.
Sometimes someone decides the group
doesn't fit them at all and leaves voluntarily. I've
done that a few times. It wasn't anyone's fault.
I just found it very difficult to communicate freely or feel
appreciated. I know I need that.
Worst case scenario, there are just
times that someone is not right for the group, or trust is
broken and you must eject them from the group. It's
painful, but I would suggest you do it as soon as possible.
Also realize many of your members may well have mixed feelings,
even if they agreed with the decision to oust the other person.
I would suggest keeping the lines of communication open, with
perhaps some guidelines (like no name-calling or laying of
blame, for instance). It's imperative that the group
heal and trust one another again. This kind of problem is
most easily avoided if you know your members, at least a little
Then have at it! You'll be as successful
as you want to be, depending how honest, open and diligent
you strive to be. I wish you great good luck!