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Using Critters.org for Manuscript Critiques

Anyone can publish their unedited manuscript these days and (unfortunately) too many authors take that path. They promote and spam to their heart’s content…and when the first review comes in, it’s a one-star because of glaring grammatical errors, lots of passive writing, and even a change in the point of view halfway through the tale.

The best thing one can do would be to get a decent editor to give the manuscript a good thrashing before allowing it to see the first paying reader’s eyeballs. Understandably, sometimes a beginning author does not have the funds to hire one. A second option would be to do a co-op exchange of talent where authors read and critique manuscripts. I’ve been in several successful groups in Denver where I’d note that a particular model of steam locomotive wasn’t invented for another thirty years in a friend’s short story and they would in turn point out the gaping plot hole in my fifteenth chapter.

Now that I live in the middle of nowhere, I don’t have any critique groups locally that I can join with any regularity. Sometimes authors have a day job or a family life that prevents traveling.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you had some virtual beta readers who could catch those pesky issues before you sent your work off to the world’s biggest slushpile known as Kindle Desktop Publishing?

Over twenty years ago, former Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) vice-president Dr. Andrew Burt used his savvy tech skills to come up with an online solution to pair beta readers with authors. The website is called Critters.org, and it’s available at no cost. Anyone can join outside of the European Union, and the “coin of the realm” is reviews. (The recent change in EU membership acceptance is the change in privacy laws via the GDPR.)

For authors, one has to review other stories in order to get their work on the review schedule. By agreeing to critique at least one item a week, you earn the opportunity to get your work in front of the membership. Folks who are Active (professional) members of SFWA, the Horror Writers Association (HWA), or one of the other professional writer organizations only have to do one per month to maintain their status and to get their work scheduled, since they’re normally at a higher level of expertise than the average novice or semi-pro author. Professionals also get additional bonuses, such as head-of-line privileges for manuscript reviews.

I’ve used Critters off and on over the years. When I was in a critique group in Denver, I focused on those stories. Now that I’m living by myself in a very rural area of the midwest, I reactivated my professional Critters membership. That’s another nice thing about membership—if you’re going to be busy for a time, just letting them know will keep your account in good order. When you’re ready to re-start, another email gets the flow started.

Authors have the option of sending out short stories and/or novels. One can request dedicated novel reviewers, and you can work directly through them. Otherwise, the maximum one can send in is 20,000 words per critique request.

Normally, this is how it works in a typical week:

  • Critters receive an email, usually on a Wednesday, listing the manuscripts available for critiquing.
  • The reviewer (you) selects one or more manuscripts.
  • The reviewer reads the story carefully and writes up a critique of the manuscript.
  • The critique is uploaded back to the group via email.
  • The critiques are assembled and sent to the manuscript author.

When you’re submitting a manuscript, your work goes into a queue. Critiquers who go above and beyond the minimum and professionals get opportunities to get bumped to the front of the queue. When your manuscript is up, it’s sent out to the reviewers as noted previously. After the reviews are received and collated, you get to read them.

Remember, these are, for the most part, reviews from authors and/or readers letting you know how they felt about your work. Some folks will click, some will not. The site rules require everyone to be polite and professional. Even if someone hated your short story about sentient mushrooms taking over a brick, they will only focus on your story, so no “What, were you stoned or dropped on your head as a kid?” remarks. They will say why it did or didn’t work for them.

Don’t expect an inbox full of glowing reviews, however. I’ve found the reviewers on average to be quite astute, and they root out plot issues that are invisible to your critical eye with remarkable precision. The average review is around 800 words, and I’ve had around six to ten good reviews per story. Some things will be repeated—which is important for you to see, since if a large portion of your audience has an issue with something, you might want to focus on clearing that up. Each reviewer will spot unique issues, which you can either ignore or correct.

The group is self-policing, and the Critter Captain, Dr. Burt, is always available if you have any issues or concerns.

Two questions I see brought up when I talk about Critters.org at workshops and conventions are:

  • Is a story considered published if I run it through Critters.org?
    No, because this is considered a non-public editing/critiquing system. It’s similar to if you hired an editor to go over your work.
  • Won’t someone steal my work?
    Extremely doubtful, and should it ever pop up (I’ve never heard of it happening in the 20+ years of Critters) plagiarizers tend to get ostracized from the writing community immediately. It’s more likely to happen with someone downloading your published ebook and either republishing it verbatim or doing some fast search-and-replace and publishing under a fake name.

Some additional membership benefits include getting some recognition when your work gets published (on the Woohoo! page and on the newsletter), and a listing of folks who are interested in forming a local critique group, broken down by states.

For many folks, Critters.org is an opportunity to get their work looked at by someone who isn’t a relative or a friend. It’s a way to get an honest critique in return for yours.

Guy Anthony De Marco

Guy Anthony De Marco, MFA, is an Italian-American speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker® and Scribe Award finalist; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist; a poet; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer; a disabled US Navy veteran, and a coffee addict. One of these is false. A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, IAMTW, ITW, RWA-PRO, WWA, SFPA, ASCAP, MWG, SWG, HWA, IBPA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia.

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