Online critiques

So, at Bookview Cafe, a post by Ursula K LeGuin, asking whether online critique groups can be a good idea and how to make those work for you. Spoiler: she is skeptical.

I gather there’s now a widespread practice, via the Internet, of writers sharing their work in draft form with other people, who read it and respond with criticisms, opinions, and advice. … It worries me that so much of the reader-response cited in these questions doesn’t sound like the reaction of the normal fiction-reader . . . Do you consider it a good idea to offer your work in progress to numerous and/or unselected critics? If so, how do you decide which criticisms are valid and useful?

The responses are interesting, tending to pull in a couple different directions: comments that stick to the point (Do you offer your WIP to a large number of unselected critics? How do you judge the responses?), versus comments that address the use of a critique group in general.

Also, one commenter says “And if it makes you mad, you need to look deep inside and see if the comment was just cruel, or if it held some kernel of truth you didn’t want to face. If we’re really going to write about people who are not ourselves, then we’ll need to see the world (and occasionally our writing) through the eyes of others. Of course, it’s not an easy road, so I don’t recommend taking the step lightly…”

However, the problem LeGuin is addressing is not harsh criticism, but criticism that is off-base, vague, or otherwise useless.

The 11th comment, by Kate, begins like this:

I’ve tried all kinds of editors, beta-readers, first readers, and everything else with mixed results. As the length of my stories expands (and thus also the time to finish them), it’s tempting to look for encouragement from someone, so I consider sharing my draft.This usually doesn’t help me finish a story, and has actually stopped a few stories in their tracks. There seem to be a number of reasons for this. One is plain discouragement, if I get negative feedback. Another is discouragement if they point out a problem that I know will take a huge amount of editing to make the story work.

On the flip side, if I get excited and talk about my story with them, I sometimes feel as if I am done, and have no more desire to actually write the story down, because I’ve now shared it.

This sounds like me. I haven’t tried a lot of different kinds of editors, but I would expect to have exactly these problems with any critique group: discouragement due to negative feedback on the one hand; and on the other hand, smothering the story in the cradle due to too much sharing before writing.

There are a couple of commenters who feel differently, though. As always, different strategies will work for different writers.

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