I believe that a great critique group is the sum of all its parts. It’s the level of dedication that’s given to the group, by the group as a whole. I don’t mean that each person in the group must constantly be posting new manuscripts and critiques (although that would be nice). Dedication means that each member supports the others in every way possible, like providing the group with important information, passing along helpful URL addresses, or alerting the group to a publisher submission deadline, etc. It means understanding when a group member needs time off for personal or business reasons. It means celebrating together when one member achieves the success that we are all seeking.
nLISA J. MICHAELS, writing in the SCBWI Bulletin, March/April 2011
In the next few days, I'll be launching my September Picture Book Critique Group Matchmaking Extravaganza. In preparation, I thought I'd post a few words of wisdom about how to form an onine critique group. Originally written for my picture book writing students, these are a few simple guidelines to get you started. if you have other suggestions, please post them in the comments section.
1. Get everyone’s email addresses and form an email list. If you have more than four or five people, I recommend using Google groups, which also allows you to set up a web page and a calendar. You can also use Yahoo groups. Or create a circle through Google+, which allows you to schedule video meetings through Google Hangouts.
2. Decide what the ground rules are. How many manuscripts or drafts of a manuscript can one person submit per month? How many must they submit? Will you have a schedule for submitting, or just allow people to circulate manuscripts as they finish them?
Rachel Rodriguez, author of two wonderful picture book biographies, says that when she was in an online critique group it was structured like this: “Anyone could send a picture book manuscript or perhaps a chapter from a longer work around the start of the month. Then people had the month to respond. If someone had an additional piece they wanted seen, they could send it out with the caveat that others might not have time to respond.”
Whatever method you choose, I suggest setting up some kind of schedule or routine rather than having people just circulate manuscripts “as needed.” Too many submissions can be overwhelming, but too few often means that the group fades away. Also, deadlines help – if you know it’s your turn to give the group something to read and critique on May 1, you might actually finish that draft! You can use the Google Calendar function to set up regular deadlines with email reminders.
3. Decide how long people have to respond to new manuscripts and what the format will be for discussion. It’s nice to see what other people are saying so you can chime in – agree, disagree, take the thought a step further. If you want that to happen, you need to make sure people reply to the whole list, rather than just to the individual.
One writer, Beth Hull, told me her online critique group had its members upload their submissions to Google Drive, so that members could type notes directly on the manuscript and respond to other peoples' comments all on one document. “When we wrote on the google docs, we each adopted a specific color,” she explained. “I was blue, someone else used purple text, green, etc. That way you don't have to sign every comment you make, and it's easier for people to scroll through and find comments.”
4. Get in the habit of sending out news, thoughts, queries, and other chatter in addition to manuscripts. It’s fun to stay in touch and it keeps the online community alive. A critique group needs nurturing, but if you nurture it, it will most certainly nurture you.