Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Writers' Peer Review Sites – worth the toss?

Most wannabe writers will have dipped their quills into a writer’s peer review site at some stage. It is a baptism of fire, a test of mettle we know we have to endure on the path to publishing glory. But why do we do it? What is it we believe such sites will do for us, or help us achieve? And when it all comes down to it are these sites worth the many midnight candles spent pouring your hopes and longings into them? The answer, of course, is yes and no.

I have direct experience of participating in four peer review sites, YouWriteOn, Authonomy, ReviewFuse and the Bookshed. There are many others but the operating principles remain uniform. It is only the quality and philosophy of sites and its people that change. The secret is to find a good one. It is only good sites that bring value to a writer.

So what I learned about peer review sites? I share some observations.

Few diamonds

For every 100 members on a public site there will be 15 who can actually write. And probably no more than 20 who will provide feedback that has anything insightful, helpful or interesting to say. Discovering these diamonds is often a monotonous, long-game lottery during which much that is unedifying and depressing about these sites has to be endured. The writers who think they can write but can’t. The ones only interested in fawning validation. The self-promoters. The arbiters of true taste and the self-appointed site morality guardians. The trolls. The score and league table obsessives. The knitting circles. The seemingly endless trawl of hobgoblin and sub-genre magic Potterlands that have to be travelled. The nerdish colon kings and the prudish kitten queens. Most sites will have them all. But the discovery of the few diamonds are worth the effort. Because the diamonds become trusted and much valued sounding boards, mentors and advisers. They write stuff that is enjoyable to read. They can even become cyber writer friends. A diamond is worth an army of trolls.

It’s you, dummy

No site can make you a writer but they may help you be a better writer if you allow. On most sites the contributors will divide into those just seeking validation and praise and those who know they are not the finished article and are looking genuinely to improve. Avoid the former for there is nothing you can usefully contribute and embrace the latter because they are worthy of the effort. I have found that the real value of these sites lies in the reviewing of others rather than being reviewed. Sure, there is great value in having a good reviewer make useful suggestions and insightful criticisms of your own work and these will be readily absorbed, but there is even greater value in doing thoughtful, honest and reasoned reviews of others’ work because by doing so you begin to understand and appreciate the flaws in your own work much more acutely, and this improves your own writing. And it is only you who can do this because writing is not a committee process. It’s just you.

Thank you

When the next infantile review of your work arrives or your considered and reasoned review is met with spitting umbrage the only response is to say “Thank you” to the first and nothing to the second. Get into a thicker skin, not a spitting match.

Message Boards

Avoid them at all times except for the first exploratory site visit. Message boards are where all the site’s gremlins, gangsters and gripers infest and brood. Most make a Corleone blood feud seem like a kiddies’ party. Stay away. Say your thank yous if you dare but step no further and never, ever, venture to suggest that they may wish to get a life, because in doing so you will lose yours. Or at least the will to live it.

Be truthful, be honest

It is the only way. How does your writing improve or how do you help others if you do not give your views and opinions honestly? Telling someone that their writing is good when you don’t think it is gives no benefit to anyone. Such telling will always require a detailed reasoning for the opinion and any writer worth their salt and ready for the open market shark attacks will value and welcome such telling. It isn’t personal. It holds equally true when you praise a writer’s work. It is always pleasant to get such a response but the reasoning for its appreciation and why it works is even more valuable.

Passing through

Peer review sites are for passing through, not for nesting in. Like schools you can travel from primary (eg ReviewFuse) to secondary (YouWriteOn) to uni (Bookshed) and if you’re very unlucky you might get to visit a borstal or two along the way (Authonomy). If you’re not graduating through then you are not developing and growing as a writer. The poorer writers hibernate in a site, the better ones will all fly away off and up.

Had their day?
A few years ago peer review sites were very much viewed by aspiring authors as a viable route to possible publishing contracts and were enthusiastically embraced by many. The reality is that very few authors were ever taken up and the growth of e-publishing and decline of sector economies means that many of the sites became more cyber slush pile and bicker fests than diamond fields. The numbers attending have fallen dramatically. But this does not mean that the sites’ value for the honing and development of writing has gone. It is still there, but in weaker numbers. The fewer diamonds harder to find. I suspect the public peer site in its present form is in inevitable decline. But the market will grow alternative ways to aid the aspiring writer.

So are peer sites worth the toss?

I very much doubt I would be where I am in my writing life without the influence of the peer sites I participated in, particularly YouWriteOn and the Bookshed. As with all things you get out what you put in but you need to manage your expectations on the tightest of reins. For me it was never about league tables and points scored or involving myself in a cyber love-ins or troll-fights, it was just about improving my writing skills and voice and learning the craft. When I look back at my early submissions to sites and compare them to later ones and to now, I can see and feel the remarkable change and improvement in my writing. I no longer actively participate in peer sites but my desire to become a better writer continues. One of the many lessons learned on the sites is that no writing is perfect. Perhaps that lesson is worth the participation costs alone.


  1. As a fellow alumnus of YWO (reading 'The Peter Chair' was an early hint that it was a site to take seriously, by the way), I agree with every word of this.

    I don't use peer review sites any more either but the contacts I made in them are invaluable and I know that any success I have as a writer is due in large part to the feedback I received and the time I spent considering, reviewing and discussing other peoples' work.

  2. I'm also ex YWO and remember both you, and Lee (panurge) above! Without that site I wouldn't be doing what I do now and selling lots of books. After several years of sitting around a table at the local writing circle with head nodders and members worried about upsetting each other, I'd had enough and needed decent and honest feedback. So I joined YWO. Being a member there gave me just that and confidence and skills beyond my wildest dreams. I also found John Hudspith, my esteemed editor, there and Jane of course for my fabulous book covers.All in all it's probably the best thing I ever did. I'm no longer a member but have great affection for the place and remain in contact, via a FB group, with many people I met there. .

  3. Agree with Lee and Pam, and Jasper. The diamonds you find in the ash are priceless. Triskele wouldn't exist without such sites.

  4. I am here to comment because many years ago I was found wandering around, clueless, on Youwriteon and dragged over to The Bookshed, where I met Jill and Sheila and Jasper. If it weren't for Sheila and Jill and Gill Hamer and Johnny Hudspith and a half dozen others, I'd never have even thought I could start a novel, much less finish two.

    I agree with all of this advice - although I do think some fun can be had in the forums, if you keep your wits, and not get sucked into the vortex.

  5. The fewer diamonds harder to find. I suspect the public peer site in its present form is in inevitable decline. But the market will grow alternative ways to aid the aspiring writer.
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