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Friday, 30 July 2010

The Joys and Perils of Peer Review Sites.

Do you belong to, or have you thought about joining, a peer review site? I’ve dabbled with Authonomy, YouWriteOn (publishers of my novel, Breaking Faith), The Word Cloud, Critters and a few others. There are a number of negative aspects to these sites and some positives, which are dependent on the attitude and efforts of the user. The following is in no way a judgement on any of these sites, simply an explanation for those who have no experience of them. I have deliberately included information only on sites that offer free membership and of which I have personal experience.
Some of these sites offer to bring your work to the attention of Agents and/or Publishers. I capitalize these simply to echo the importance the sites place on this contact. However, in order to reach this lofty perch, authors are sometimes required to climb very slippery poles and to spend hours cultivating the positive reviews of their peers. Others, however, have a more sophisticated approach to the idea and merely require that the author reviews as many of his peer’s works as he can. Both have the disadvantage that numbers are the mainstay of success. This basically means that a writer has to be prepared to devote a great deal of valuable time to activity that is only tangentially connected to their writing.
The actual process of criticising the work of fellow writers, however, has a benefit that many writers seem not to appreciate. By properly analysing the works of others, a writer can identify common errors, banalities, excesses and clich├ęs. Lessons he can then apply to his own writing, improving it and making it more marketable. So, this can be not only an altruistic activity but one which benefits the critic.
Sites like Authonomy, where the outcome of the race toward the top of the league table is down to an open public voting system, have the disadvantage that they demand a huge amount of time and effort from individual authors in acquiring votes. Because they rely on the number of positive votes cast by other users of the site, the danger is that those who have most friends willing to support them and/or those who are willing to give reciprocal votes to other writers regardless of quality, the outcome is not dependent on quality of writing but on popularity. This does nothing to improve quality, wastes a great deal of time, and provides sometimes unworthy writers with a prize they don’t deserve. After personal experience of this negative system, I avoid such sites. Sound like sour grapes? It might. But my experience was a short one and I was saved the waste of too much time when I realised what was actually happening. It was a game I was not prepared to play.
The advantage of sites like YouWriteOn is that critics work both anonymously (as far as the author of the critiqued work is concerned) and that critics don’t choose which works they analyse. The selection is done by the site and on a one-to-one reciprocal basis. The critic gets one review of their own submission for every critique they do of someone else’s work. Of course, this means that the more critiques you do, the more reviews you receive. Again, success in the league tables involves a lot of non-writing time. But, at least the selection process has nothing to do with popularity of the author, or deals done between site members.
The rewards of success on such sites are very real for the winners. Whether or not you want to involve yourself in such competition, however, is down to personal judgement.
Word Cloud has no such rewards on offer and simply offers new writers the opportunity to have their work examined and reviewed by other writers. That some of the writers will be inexperienced must be accepted. But, it is worth remembering that inexperienced writers may also approach your writing in much the same way as potential readers would. This site also runs a social networking forum, which many will find helpful and supportive.
Critters is devoted to stories in the genres of horror, science fiction and fantasy only. It has a huge membership and is run on strict lines to avoid the worst excesses of the jealous and the crass. Because a number of members are youngsters, there is a policy of rating work so that overtly sexual and/or violent pieces don’t get into the hands of those not mature enough to deal with them. The site operator also offers other services to members, including a recent offer of free advertising for members books. There is no contest here, other than for who produces the most crits each week, but there are rules. In order to have your own work reviewed, you must do a minimum number of crits in a given period. In practice, if you do one a week you’ll be able to have your own work ‘critted’ about every five weeks or so. The quality of writing varies enormously as there are children offering pieces alongside professional writers. But it is the very variety that attracts me, plus the opportunity to help and guide youngsters early in their writing careers. It’s great to think you might prevent some young writer spending years making the same mistakes you’ve learned to avoid.
This post has necessarily only scraped the surface of what is a huge topic, but I hope it has helped give a flavour of this activity to those who have never tried it.
So, whether you participate or not, at least you’ll have some understanding of what’s involved. I can give only a personal and limited idea of the benefits and disadvantages, but I hope I’ve given some food for thought and helped some writers to avoid the pitfalls of what can be a very time-consuming but ultimately rewarding activity.

Word of the Day is divorced from the post that precedes it and produced in response to a request from a follower to provide just such a service.
Word of the Day; xenial – concerning friendly and/or positive relationships to foreign people or lands. ‘After years living abroad, Valerie developed an open and xenial attitude to foreign visitors to her home, welcoming contact with other lands.’

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