The Beginning Part
So, off I went to the internet, in search of a critique group. Google provided me with the names and addresses of several, and I ended up joining deviantArt. This turned out to be a reasonably good choice, although not a permanent one. While deviantArt has some qualities that are invaluable for a beginning writer, the site was not originally designed for writers, it's focus has never been and never will be writers, and eventually anyone who is serious about writing professionally will find it outlives its usefulness relatively quickly.
Out of the short list of candidates, I chose deviantArt for two main reasons; it is free, and it seemed friendly. Also, while most of the other groups I found dealt solely with novel length works, deviantArt is more suited for shorter pieces, and I didnt want to get involved with a novel just yet. You don't want to start off your first swim in a years with a cliff dive and a trek across the English Channel, no matter how good a swimmer you think you used to be.
As I mentioned above, there are a number of great things about deviantArt. It is free although you can pay for additional features that, while somewhat useful, are not actually necessary. Also, it really is friendly. Possibly as a result of feeling marginalized by the visual art folks, the writing community on deviantArt is one of the most open groups of writers I've ever met. The level of snark is so low, in fact, that I was tempted to check for a pulse on several occasions.
The Middle Part
The main reason for joining a writing group is, of course, to get feedback on your writing. There are a number of groups on dA that encourage their members to critique each other's work; The Written Revolution, and litPlease come to mind as standout examples. There is also a fully functional "critique" system that allows you to critique someone's work in a separate section from the general comments as well as assigning ratings to various aspects of the work. This used to be a premium function, but I believe it is currently available to everyone. Even when it wasn't, critiques can be left in the comment section without too much difficulty.
The writing community, in addition to being almost snarkless, is also fairly active. There are always contests and prompts and chat events and any number of other activities going on. At least, it seems that way. Once you start to dig a little deeper, though, you notice that most of the activity is being generated by the same 10-15 people week after week, with varying degrees of engagement from the rest of the members. And this is where we come to the negative side of dA as a writing group; outside of the small handful of stalwarts the rest of the members are pretty useless.
At first I was quite excited by the sheer volume of content being posted to the more active groups. As a reader, I was thrilled by the chance to sample so many up and coming writers. After the first few weeks I'd completely changed my tune. The vast, vast majority of the writing posted to deviantArts writing groups is poetry; angsty, poorly written, adjective laden, free verse poetry. The remainder is mostly fan fiction (again, mostly of poor quality) with the occasional gem of an original work of prose buried in the dross.
Given the quality of the writing going on there, I shouldn't have been surprised by the quality of the critiquing. It is awful. I would frequently write critiques 2 or 3 times as long as the piece I was critiquing; analysing line by line and making suggestions for word choice, structure, pacing, character, dialogue, and in some cases very basic things like how punctuation works and the difference between they're, their, and there. The critiques I got were mostly along the lines of "This is really good! :P :D lol" and if the piece was longer than 500 words or so I was lucky to get even that as very few people will actually read anything that long. This brings us to the other downside to deviantArt as it pertains to the serious writer; age.
I think the average age of the users on dA is about 15 with the fat part of the bell curve resting snugly between 13 and 17. I don't know about you, but I'm 37 years old. The things I have in common with most of the dA writing community are mostly of the "we're both bipedal, carbon-based life forms" variety. The vast majority of the time I felt like I was teaching a high-school English class only, instead of it being normal students with one or two hippy-dippy, reality impared cornflakes, the whole class was hippy-dippy, reality impared cornflakes. The kind of students who say things like, "No one can define art." and "I write free verse poetry because I don't believe in rules. Shakespeare didn't follow rules.", and "You can't critique my poem because it's about how I feel.", and "Who cares about spelling? Stop being a grammer natzi." Sigh.
The End Part
In spite of the bad poetry and the lack of meaningful critique, I truly did enjoy my dA experience. I say did because I've more or less withdrawn completely from my involvement there. I just don't have the extra time to spend on something that won't move me closer to being a professional writer, and I've accomplished everything on dA that I'm going to accomplish. I met a handful of wonderful people, some of whom I'll remain in contact with outside of dA. I confirmed that I'm at least a better writer than the vast majority of high-school students, and I developed a few story ideas that might even turn into readable novels some day.
The take away from all this is that if you are a writing hobbyist, or you just aren't quite ready to make your play for publication, deviantArt is awesome. It's a friendly, safe environment to give your writing chops a workout and practice your craft. There are groups that provide writing prompts and contests and a sense of community. If you are serious about writing and have professional aspirations, however, you might want to look elsewhere. Where, I haven't quite figured out yet.
My deviantArt profile is here, but you can only read my "deviations" if you're a member; first rights and so forth.
Do you have any experience with online writing communities, either paid or free? Any suggestions for sites to avoid, or recommendations for places to go? Give the world a heads up and let us know in the comments below.
Ps. In case you were wondering, someone told me I should have headings if I want people to read my blog because no-one likes a "wall of text" (except people who read books, I suppose), so I put in some headings. Do you like them? They also said I should have a bullet list, but I didn't have anything I wanted to shoot at and I wasn't feeling list-y.