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Honey from the Hive: Online Critique Groups
By Agy Wilson

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 success.

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).

If 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 Writers, Illustrate-4Kids-Markets and Picture 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 people.

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 community.

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.

Yahoo 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.

Also 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 bit.

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!

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