Tips On Presenting Your Story For Online Critique
by George Potter
Hi there! So you've finally made the decision to put your writing online for the purpose of critique. Good for you. Critique has something to offer every writer, of every skill level. The great thing about an online group is the sheer number of viewpoints you have access to: people from all over the world, from different backgrounds, at different levels of writing skill and with different tastes in reading material. The opportunity to have your story read and its workings examined by so many different sets of eyes is fantastic, so don't let it go to waste.
These tips are based on my extensive experience with WritingForums in particular. I make no secret of my opinion that it's the best place on the 'net for intelligent critique. I am also a fan of Critters and most of the tips contained here will serve you in good stead there as well.
What makes WF and Critters special is the number of talented and commited regulars who frequent them. These are unpaid laborers, who do what they do out of love for storytelling and to receive critiques of their own work. This leads me to the first and most important rule of getting lots of crits, and it has nothing to do with presentation:
1) Giving Is Better Than Receiving!
This is no exaggeration because not only will critiquing the stories of others gain you critiques in return, the very act of critiquing those stories will make you a better writer. No matter what our skill as writers, we are almost all expert readers. We know when a story works and when it doesn't. With a little study we can pinpoint those places where, in our opinion, the narrative goes wrong. Or the character changes a bit suddenly. Or...you get the picture. Noting and pinpointing these things in other stories can help you when writing and revising your own.
Think of every critique you give as a double edged sword: you are building up a reserve of critique when you finally post your own story, and you are learning about the mechanics of storytelling at the same time. It's often far easier to take a distanced view of another person's story, since our emotions and ego aren't so wrapped up in it.
Note: Not all critiques are created equal, and there are several fine resources, right on WF, that will teach you the most effective and polite ways to go about it. Learn to give good crits and give them often. You won't regret it and your own stories will thank you.
2. .docs are problematic.
If you work in Microsoft Word, the proprietary .doc format contains embedded formatting that will freak out the forum's html based software when copy/pasted. You will also lose all of your indentations before paragraphs, resulting in a solid block of hard to read text rife with weird symbols.
While it's fine to work in .doc format (and many online markets accept it for submissions), before posting to WF you'll need to save as an .rtf or txt file. The first thing to do is make all paragraphs flush on the left edge of the page, and seperate them from each other by a single space.
You'll then need to translate your formatting (italics, bold, etc.) into html code. Thankfully, html code is simple, and the forum software handily allows you a window to highlight and button press it into existence.
This should really only take you a few minutes, unless your formatting is really extensive. If you plan on posting to WF a lot, you may want to start originating your files in .rtf or txt and adding the html code as you go. As I said, it's really very simple and easy to learn.
3. Titles and byline.
Center your title and at least bold it. Titles are important and need to stand out from the rest of the text. I myself also underline and (using html code) enlarge the font somewhat for further seperation. This is a matter of taste, but it really does need to stand out.
I recommend always adding your byline, right below the title. It adds something authoratative to the story, and marks the story as a product of yourself. It's also the one little piece of ego-candy a writer always gets.
If you don't want to use your real name in a public forum, simply use your screen name or come up with a suitable pen name. Either will work.
4. Font & Size
These are much more important than you'd think. The choice of font is the main factor in the visual appearance of your text. The choice of font size has a huge impact on readability.
I prefer serif fonts, finding them smoother and more flowing than the sans serif variety. I feel you should use a somewhat subdued rather than flashy font. Courier New is more or less the industry standard when it comes to submissions, though Times New Roman is making some headway in replacing it. Georgia, Palatino Linotype, MS Serif, Sylfaen and Trebuchet are also good choices. Some people prefer the sans serif fonts, though I find them harder on the eye. Once again, this is mostly a matter of personal taste, but one that should be considered fully.
The font size should be comfortably readable but not overlarge. Between 12 and 16 is a good rule of thumb, but be aware that the font size varies between font types. Some pre-posting experimentation is recommended.
Note that no matter the font type you use in your original, you have to set the type and size when you post it, or WF will display your story in the default font. This is a simple matter of two html-code tags, or just highlighting all the text and choosing a font and size from the dropdown menus in the main posting window.
5. Author's Notes
If your story contains profanity, violence, sexual situations, drug use or other possibly upsetting subject matter (even if it complies with WF policy on such matters), it's best to warn would be readers beforehand. The forum has its own dedicated html code tag to do this. It's the polite thing to do and saves you from making more sensitive readers angry. Please note that quite a few younger members also frequent the forum.
You may also want to request a specific form of critique or ask the critiquer to concentrate on a certain aspect of the story. This is acceptable, but don't be upset if you get a general critique instead of the focused attention you wanted.
6. Make your own effort and remember theirs.
You should clean your story of spelling and grammar errors before posting. You won't catch them all, but you'll be grateful to the sharp eyes that find them for you.
Always thank the people who critique your work, and do the polite thing and respond to their comments. Even a short crit represents an effort on their behalf, and time taken away from their own writing.
7. Thicken That Skin
Most comments are going to be offered in a constructive spirit, though some are going to sting a bit. Don't let this bother you. Usually, that sting is the feeling of an unconcious suspicion being confirmed by another opinion. Take it as the chance to improve that it is.
Also, keep in mind that your honest, constructive comments on the stories of others probably stung a bit themselves. It's all a part of the process, and the pain simply means you are engaged in that process and your story means something to you.
8. The Hard Part -- Making Use Of a Crit
This is also the important part, where you take all those comments and suggestions and nits and pointed out mistakes, sift through them, and revise your original story with them as a guide. Are you going to take every suggestion offered? Probably not. But it won't hurt to try the suggestion and judge it in context. You may decide not to keep it, but you'll have given it a chance.
Sometimes, I've found, just having a problem pointed out is enough to set the wheels turning and cause me to come up with a solution on my own. Pay extra close attention to those things that multiple people point out. Many things will just be a single persons opinion, but if multiple readers are having a problem there might be something fundamentally wrong there.
Making suggested changes also puts us in a more distanced frame of mind, letting us see the story from a new light. This sometimes allows the writer to see flaws that weren't even pointed out, or see entirely new ways to improve the story.
Revising the story and noting it (with additional thanks to those who offered suggestions you actually used) shows that you are paying attention to the crits and appreciating them. This will make it more likely that those same people will crit your future stories.
I hope some of these tips help you, and I'll see you on the forums.
Happy writing and good critting!