How To Get the Most from Online Critiquing

If you have finished a piece of writing and feel it's time to get another set of eyes to give your piece a look, online critique can be a quick way to get that assessment. Many writing consultants operate websites and provide feedback online through email, chats or even web-based workshops. Here are some ways you can get the most from online critiquing.

  1. Pick a good consultant. The best way to get useful feedback on your work is obviously to pick someone to share your work with who can give you that kind of feedback. Many writers supplement their income by offering online critique services. This does not mean that all of these writers have valuable feedback to offer you. To find a good writing consultant, be sure to look into his professional credentials. He should have some professional experience in the genre he's endeavoring to critique though he need not be a Pulitzer Prize winner. It could simply be that he has some contest wins or a MFA in creative writing. Also look for teaching or critiquing experience since you don't want to be a writing analyst's guinea pig...
    Try to get a sense of what the writing analyst's attitude is toward writing clients. There are many consultants to choose from out there; you don't need to get stuck with someone who has an attitude you don't agree with. To me, a good consultant will be driven by a desire to help you make your work the best it can be, and will treat you with respect, writer to writer, no matter your experience level. But there are other attitudes out there. Perhaps you will find a consultant useful even if he is condescending. Perhaps a consultant primarily interested in how you can make money off your work is what you want.  Again, you will have to be the judge of the kind of consultant with which you want to work.
    The other important consideration when picking a consultant is what kind of feedback the consultant offers.  Feedback can range from email or notes-on-page to telephone consults or in-person workshops over several sessions. Ask a consultant about his techniques, as well as the length of feedback you can expect (five pages, ten pages, two hours on the phone, etc.), and whether any follow-up is included.
  2. Ask for specific feedback if you want it. When I work as a consultant, usually the client will send her work along with a request for a certain feedback package (basic coverage, more in-depth analysis, etc.). Sometimes, though, a writing client will send along work with specific things she wants to me to analyze: Does this scene work? Are the characters coming across? How's the dialogue? As a writer, don't hesitate to ask your consultant to zero in on specific areas of your work if you want specific feedback on those areas. This doesn't mean you should ask the consultant to exclusively focus in on what you think you need help with- because, unbeknownst to you, there may be other areas where he can help you improve your work. So let him do his job and take a whack at the whole work. But don't hesitate to ask for him to check out some elements with special focus.
  3. Be open-minded. Any writer with even a little bit of experience knows that getting critiqued is not easy, but it is also, when the consultant is good, a very useful tool for improving your work. So as tough as it may be to hear constructive criticism, be open to it. Sometimes, the objectivity of a critic will lead him to suggest losing pieces of your work you love or making huge revisions. Ultimately, his advice may not be completely on target, but you won't be able to evaluate any criticism well if you don't have an open mind. So, if your first inclination when you get your feedback is to dash off a ten-page defense of all your choices, stop, take a breath, and open your mind. After all, you asked for the consultant to give you this criticism - and paid him to give it- in the first place, so give it a fair hearing.
  4. Ask necessary follow-up questions. Part of being open-minded requires you to have a true understanding of what the consultant is saying. Online critique or any kind of written feedback can sometimes be ambiguous. Accordingly, if you receive notes you don't understand, don't hesitate to ask your consultant to clarify. This is not - I repeat, not - the same as defending your work: "You don't seem to understand what I'm trying to do..." Instead, it means asking questions about terms you may not be familiar with ("Could you clarify what you mean by character arc?") or other points that are unclear ("You mentioned something was wrong with the transitions in chapter 2. Do you mean the first or second section?"). Of course, if you have only paid your consultant for basic feedback, do not follow up that basic feedback with a plea for more thorough analysis unless you intend to pay for it.
    And if the critique is short on praise, don't take that personally. A consultant's job is to help you improve your work. A good consultant will offer encouragement, but page after page of "that's great!" isn't helpful to anyone trying to make improvements to her work.
  5. Follow your instincts. On the other hand, once you process criticism with an open mind, you should remember that your work is your work, and you must make the ultimate choice about what works and what doesn't. If you can see your consultant's point of view, but you still disagree with it, you need to go with your own instincts. Sure, you may be wrong, but you may be right and when it comes to your story (or script or article or poem), you have to give yourself the final cut.

A good consultant can help good writers create great work. To get the best out of the online critique experience, know who you're working with before you start, be open-minded,  communicate your needs and follow your instincts.


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