Writers spend a lot of time drafting poems, stories, and essays/memoirs, but as every serious writer knows, drafts are only the beginning. I know that I spend an enormous amount of time reviewing and rewriting every piece that I hope one day will be published. Even though I’ve taught writing for thirty-five years, and I’m an excellent editor of other people’s work, I still need thoughtful feedback to help me in the revision process.
That’s why I started an online writing group. In September 2003, I sent out the following message to San Francisco State’s Creative Writing Program:
There must be a number of fiction writers like myself, graduates of State’s CW program, who would like to get feedback on their current work (short stories and novels in particular) through an online critique group. Has there been any interest expressed by others? Is it possible to send out an email to the alumni posing the question?
I wasn’t surprised when several people responded, males and female. I asked them to send samples of their work and a brief bio. Then I picked what seemed to be the most promising candidates and we began submitting. The guidelines we set for each other are as follows:
- We rotate alphabetically according to our last name, a new person submitting by email attachment a Word file on the 1st and 15th of each month.
- We limit our submissions to 20 pages.
- We have two weeks in which to respond, but we’re also flexible and there’s no punishment if we can’t give our critiques within that time frame.
- We give our feedback to the submitter but also include everyone else in the reply so we can compare our take on the writing. Occasionally, we might comment on someone’s critique, or build on it, but this doesn’t happen often. Unlike in a face-to-face group, we don’t get bogged down in our egos where we end up fighting for our point of view.
- We do ask the writer to rework the piece thoroughly before submitting so s/he has taken it as far as s/he can.
And that’s it! This group has been extremely important to me as I’ve worked my way through four novels with them, as well as several short stories. No matter how much revising we do to a piece, fresh eyes are invaluable in pointing out gaps in the narrative and other problems. It’s also lovely to hear what works so we can return to our revisions with renewed enthusiasm.
Our current online group has gone through changes, so we only have three of the original members, but it’s been easy to incorporate new people over the years, though we’ve kept the maximum number to six with five being the average.
Recently, I’ve started sharing pieces with two other writers, creating a new group (in addition to the State group I’m still part of). We’ve all been published by the same small press, and I’ve found these two women to be excellent readers. I’ve shared with them stories that have gone through peer review with my SF State critique group and that I thought were complete. But these new readers have pointed out things that have helped me to understand why I’ve never been able to publish them!
Of course, the other bonus is, with an online group, you don’t have to coordinate schedules and find a meeting time and place that works for everyone. And since most of us have busy lives, it’s easy to fit in our readings and responses to the group members’ work when we have a little extra time.
So if you’re a committed writer, consider finding such a group for yourself. You won’t regret it!