Q&A: Critique Partners and the Dangers of Posting Online

Do you know anyone who could read my story and tell me what should change? Like a website or an app or something?

If you’re just asking for a grammar checker, those are fairly common features on word processors. Off hand, Word and Scrivener have built in grammar checkers. They won’t tell you how to fix an error, but it will tell you when the algorithm thinks something’s messed up. There’s also a couple with aggressive advertising campaigns on YouTube.

Basic grammar errors are something you can farm out to an algorithm fairly safely. It’s one step above running a spellchecker (which you should be doing as well.)

You’ll also, occasionally, see style checkers, which attempt to assess the overall tone of a piece, and tell you if it fits the format you’re writing to. (Creative, Academic, Technical, ect.) I’ve never looked at these closely, so, I have no idea how well they work, or if it’s just secondary functionality for a grammar checker.

The problem with all of these systems is that they’re band-aids. If you’ve mangled the English language, they’ll stick a judgemental green line under it, and wait for you to fix your error. (Strictly speaking, the green line is Word. Most software will run the grammar check in a separate dialog box, when you request it.)

I realize, I may sound a little dismissive here, but these are useful tools. Checking the available menu options in your document, or a quick Google search should tell you if your software has a native grammar checker, or suggest some free options, if that’s all you need.

If you’re looking for advice on the substance of your work, that’s not something you can safely farm out to an algorithm. You’re looking for an editor (or at the very least, peer critique.)

There are a lot of forums and sites where you can get access to other aspiring writers, and get some feedback. Off-hand, DeviantArt comes to mind.

Now, before you scamper off to DA, and sign up, there are a couple things you’ll want to keep in mind.

First, think about what you’re posting. If you’re simply posting a short story or novella that you have no intention of ever professionally publishing, and you’re simply interested in getting better as a writer, then these kinds of communities can be very helpful.

If you want to take what you’ve written, and market it professionally, then you don’t want to post it on DA (or a similar site).

This gets into a concept called, “first publishing rights.” These revolve around being the first venue to publish that specific work. While it’s not a death knell for a piece, it does make it a lot less appealing to a prospective agent or publisher. (And it will be for some agents and editors, the same as if you publish it as an e-book.)

There are some counterexamples, but if you want to sell a story, don’t post it online. You can decide to do that later, if you want.

It’s important to understand, often in publishing, you’re not selling your work, you’re selling the rights to be the first publisher to distribute your work. If you’ve posted it publicly, that right has already been exercised. You may still sell the rights to distribute your work to another publisher down the line (depending on the contracts involved), but that first publishing right is something you want to hold onto.

The second thing to remember is, the people you’re interacting with on DA aren’t, necessarily, any better versed in writing than you are. That said, it can be a good site to start networking on, and it can eventually help you, down the line. (It can also function as a portfolio, so that may also be very useful to you.)

Put these two pieces together, and you should see where this can help you. You can meet other writers, and ask them to critique work you haven’t published. This can be a valuable resource, when you’re trying to improve material you do want to publish, before putting it in front of an editor.

Now, in general, your best option would be to find a local writer’s group. Your library or a local bookstore may host one, or events that will introduce you to other writers in your community. Interacting with other writers. I realize this is less convenient, and may feel more threatening, but being able to directly interact, and evaluate feedback does make this a lot more immediately valuable.

There’s also an element of risk with any online collaboration that doesn’t exist if someone else is reading a physical copy of your story while sitting across from you, or responding to you reading your work aloud.

So, here’s a fun little story: Back when I was a teenager, living at home, and writing on a laptop, my father would occasionally snoop through it. I’d been working on a novel. He found it at some point, and thought so much of it (and so little of me), that he chose to email the original document to a few family friends. One of those friends, CCed the thing to everyone in her contact list, because she was the, “oh, something bright and shiny is in my inbox, I need to inflict it on the entire human race,” kind of vapid.

I found out about this a couple months later, when I found the draft, published in its entirety on a website that will remain nameless by some random little shit, who was passing it off as their own.

Moral of the story: be careful who you show your work to online, if you intend to publish it. If your goal is to simply get it out there as an act of artistic expression, then posting on something like DA is a safe way to do so, and can be a good source for critique. It exercises your first publishing rights, but that only matters if you’re planning to sell it, and if someone steals it, you can point back and say, “hey, here, look at this,” then rake them over the coals.

One very reasonable approach would be to start with a community, post the stuff you’re not trying to get published, solicit feedback, learn from your mistakes, make friends, then when you start getting to the point where you feel like making the jump to professional publishing, you should already have a few people you can bounce ideas and material off of.

The safest approach is probably through a local writing group, though that is dependent on finding a group that meshes with your genre and overall tone. When working with other creatives its important to find those whose opinions you value, whom you trust, and who provide critiques you can use rather than deflating your spirit.

With that in mind, here’s a quote from Neil Gaiman to remember when taking criticism:

When people tell you there’s something wrong with a story, they’re almost always right. When they tell you what’s wrong, and how it can be fixed, they’re almost always wrong.

You will learn through experience how to tell the difference between good critique, helpful critique, and bad critique. Some of which you may not be ready to hear until several years down the line, when your confidence has grown to a level where you can look at it. Remember, critique is not someone saying something’s wrong with you. Even with an editor, you don’t want someone who will tell you how to fix a problem, just someone that will point out that an issue exists. You are still the author of your stories, and ultimately, you’re the only one who can fix them. All you need is someone who can point them out to you.

Remember, there are different levels in regards to critique partners and it is important to find those who are at your level, or at a similar place in their writing journey. This will change as you grow and improve, but jumping into the deep end with a professional writer when you’re just beginning without any warning to them is a terrible idea. They will eviscerate your confidence, completely by accident because what they’re looking for and what you’re looking for are entirely different. The same is true for a high school student sitting in on a Master’s program or even just a Creative Writing seminar at college. The priorities, understanding, and expectations during workshop will be wildly different. They might be valuable, but only if you’re ready to hear them. Critiquing requires people you sync with, whom you trust, and  whose opinions you value. However, they are also those you’ve confidence enough to listen to and disregard when their advice doesn’t help. No one but you can figure out what’s best for your work. Everyone else just aids in the journey.

These are the people who will sit down, evaluate the work on the basis of its merits rather than what they’d do with the story in your place. Someone who points out the feelings they had when reading, what worked for them and what didn’t.

Identify, for yourself, your ego boosting readers from your critique partners and keep them separate. The friend or family member who reads your work with enthusiasm and those other writers who are looking for weaknesses to help you improve are in separate categories. Both are helpful, but they are rarely a single individual. More than that, you want a group of other writers to work with so you can help them the way they help you.

Finally: if you’ve got a beta, especially one who is not a professional, it can help to give them specific guidelines to look for.

-Starke

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