Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Internet writers' groups: birthing ground for new writers or deadend refuge of the talentless?

I've heard the theory that internet writers' sites are for people who will never get published anywhere else. And if you've spent any time on these sites you will recognise that there is more than a speck of truth to this. Some (okay, most) of the writing you find on these sites is pretty bad. I can't claim vast experience, but I've spent time on three such sites, and the overall quality is similar, despite attempts by some sites to differentiate between the good and the not-so-good through various mechanisms. I'm thinking of writelink.co.uk, where I spent the most time. Writelink had 'spotlighted' writers whose work had averaged four star or above ratings from other users. (I think the system, and the whole site, has more or less broken down now since a rather ill-conceived attempt to jump on the blogging bandwagon). Unfortunately, many of the users were as poor at recognising quality as they were at producing it, and they heaped entirely unwarranted praise on some pretty ordinary stuff. They were also constrained by the usual desire to be liked by the writers they were reviewing, with the result that the ratings were inflated and fairly meaningless. Some reviewers offered poor advice, 'corrected' things that were actually right in the first place, or just failed to 'get' subtle work. There were some astute and insightful readers there too, who offered good advice, but I imagine it could be hard for a new writer on the site to differentiate the insightful crit from the bumsteer.

The reviewing process on writelink was always fraught and controversial. The site used a star rating system, which had the advantage of giving writers a quantitative means of measuring the reception of their work. It was not entirely unsuccessful. 'Five star' work was generally at least readable, sometimes very good. 'Three star' work was generally awful. However, there were inevitably noses put out of joint. An ill-fated 'quill' system was introduced to allow reviewed writers to review their reviewers (!), but this was howled down by the members - a case of the site owners getting too clever by half. Inevitably, egos and jealousy came into play. As a 'star' in the tiny writelink firmament, I was flamed on more than one occasion for posting honest (and I thought, constructively critical) reviews: comments suggesting that in my glory I shouldn't need to tear down others as well to get my jollies!

I feel for sensitive writers. As my blog title suggests, writing is often an expression of our inmost selves, our souls. No matter how humble the forum, it takes courage to put one's writing out there for others to love, hate, shoot holes in, as they will. You are putting yourself on the line, and until you've gotten used to that experience, it can be quite terrifying. I have personally never been overly senstive about people's comments on my work. Occasionally I'd find myself ruminating angrily over some (to my mind) wrong-headed remark in a review and I'd have to remind myself to lighten up. That is one thing that writers' sites can provide: a lesson in desensitisation. You can only get better if you take on board feedback. Over-sensitivity just gets in the way of becoming a better writer.

Another site I posted to, writersdock.org, didn't have a star rating system, but was more or less a simple forum, with users posting work as a new 'thread', then other users posting reviews or comments in that thread. This is the way most such sites work. Good work was distinguished by being selected 'pick of the week' by an anonymous group of behind-the-scenes reviewers. This system seemed rather hit-and-miss, and I came to question the judgement of these all-powerful beings. A piece that I still consider one of my finest was ignored for the honour, one that I now consider pretty poor received it. The reviewing culture on this site seemed less polite than that at writelink - more critical reviews were posted. A good thing, if the quality of the reviews had been high, but I found it lower than at writelink. Some readers 'got' my best work. Others were puzzled: where was the murder, the dramatic denouement, the character who turned out to be a ghost?

Despite these limitations, writers' sites do offer the beginning writer a lot. They provide a community, instant (or at least pretty quick) feedback on your work, and, ironically, they can teach you a lot about writing by exposing you to heaps of bad work. There is a spectrum of quality on these sites from truly dreadful to really very good, with the vast majority falling somewhere more towards the bottom of that scale. You can learn almost as much from others' mistakes as you can from the good stuff. If your work's any good, you can build yourself a little fan base, which is kind of fun, let's face it; we all want appreciative readers. Nevertheless, you tend not to find many really good writers on these sites, writers who are getting published regularly in the 'real world'. There's a good reason. Work posted to an internet site, even a 'closed', membership-only site, is deemed by some publishers to have been 'published', which means they won't touch it. The risk can be overstated - I'm sure many publishers wouldn't care - but why would a writer who knows the merit of his or her work take the risk? Also, what does such a writer have to gain by posting their work on such a forum? Praise is predictable, criticism likely to be off the mark, and there's certainly no financial incentive!

So what happens with many sites is that a certain stable core of writers develops- the 'usual suspects' on a site. These are usually writers who are good enough to be well received in the fishbowl of the site, but not good enough to make it in the bigger pond of 'real' publishing. This is not necessarily to be looked down on. Many of these people obviously love writing as a hobby, and the internet group provides an audience and a community of other enthusiasts. But the risk is you become stuck swimming in the fishbowl and never take the step to grow your writing beyond that level. It is a big leap, and a potentially demoralising one. Even the best writers get their 'fat letters', and the gratification of publication, though far greater than that of seeing your work on an internet forum, is anything but instant.

I won't be returning to writelink. But I still feel gratitude for what writelink offered me. If you are a beginning writer, I would certainly recommend the experience, but I'd suggest trying a number of sites, since they vary significantly in their 'culture', and always bear in mind that the world of real publishing is much, much more demanding. In the end if you want to succeed as writer, you will have to elevate your work to a much higher standard than what passes muster on an internet site.

3 comments:

Anita said...

I found your analysis quite good and really spot on. Unfortunately, there really are precious few sites that provide a good forum for good writers. Perhaps because most of the good writers are out there still trying to hit up the publishing companies in their various forms, from book publishing to magazines.

I get torn though - I submit to traditional publishing venues but I also author three blogs, one of which is specific to creative writing - though none are writer's sites per se. Maybe the problem with the sights is that they attract too many wannabe's and crowd out the good writers who might be there in their stead if there were room?

Sorry for blathering on but your post opened up many thoughts for me. Not all of which are written down here.

Writer Chick

Pierz Newton-John said...

Hi Writer Chick. I distinguish between blogs and writers' sites, which are usually threaded forums in which people post work and reviews. These sites existed before the advent of the blog, and perhaps they have been rendered less relevant by the blogging 'phenomenon'. The difference is that on a writers' site, you are specifically requesting reviews of your work, and you are guaranteed an audience. Blogs, as we know, often don't get read. I don't see any shame in being part of an internet writing group, but people should be aware of the limitations. My little fantasy is to start an invitation-only writers' site, or at least one with the criteria that members must be published in something reputable before being admitted. Not elitism, I hope, but just a way of ensuring that the feedback you get is of high quality. And if it was a tightly controlled group, it might be able to get around the problem of first publication rights. Hard to see how sharing your work with a select circle of published writers could be regarded as publication.

Simonne said...

Great post Pierz. I like your idea of an invitation only site. I recenly had a young writer who reads my blog email me and ask me if it was dangerous to post things on the internet in case they could no longer use that work for traditional publishing. Clearly it's something writers are thinking about.