Thursday, August 14, 2014

Writers in Community - Reading, Reviewing, and the Self-Publishing Community

No one, not even a curmudgeonly old hermit of a writer, exists in total isolation.

The beauty of writing is that, although it can certainly be an exercise in self-exploration, it is just as often an activity partaken in community.  (Why else would blogs be so popular?)  Many of the best authors of at least the last three hundred years were guided by mentors and colleagues, sometimes through formal education, but oftentimes through simple companionship.  Mary Shelley spent a summer with Lord Byron and her lover-turned-husband Percy Bysshe Shelley.  The Brontë sisters shared a love of writing that helped push all three to publication.  Closer to modern times, Margaret Atwood, with several colleagues, founded the Writers' Trust of Canada.  Clearly, these women understood the value of writers helping writers.

For most of my life, I chose to write in isolation.  I sometimes shared a poem or short story with a trusted friend or family member, but I had neither the courage nor the determination to share anything with the outside world.

My life changed when I joined in June 2013.  At first, I was totally lost, flailing wildly amongst a sea of amateurs and professionals of all writing levels, and I had no idea what to do.  One of the groups on the site took me under their wing, and introduced me to the wonderful world of reviewing.  I have been hooked ever since.

Let me clarify, for the sake of this post, what I mean by a review.  I am not referring to those lovely pieces that fans (or critics) of works list on, personal blogs, or in the New York Times.  These pieces are written as critiques of works that have been published/completed and presented to the public for review.  No, when I think of a review, I'm not thinking of those authors who send around mass requests for 5-star reviews on their published babies (which may or may not deserve the 5 stars in the first place).  Instead, I think of a particular form of helpful, encouraging critique given to fellow authors/poets on their works-in-progress.  I love giving them, I love getting them, and I want you to learn to love them, too.

Why Should I Review?

Reviewing, particularly for works-in-progress, can be a winning situation for everyone involved in the process.  Writers receive honest opinions of their work, which can help them improve it.  Readers (if the review is public) get an honest appraisal of whether they might enjoy the work before reading it.  Reviewers get the opportunity to read unpublished/incomplete works, which can be both informative and encouraging--it's always nice to know we aren't the only ones who make mistakes!  Personally, as both a reviewer and a recipient of well-constructed reviews, I honestly believe the reviewer receives just as much--if not more--out of the review as does the recipient.  Here's why:

 1. Name Recognition

Do a great job on a review and you'll lure new readers into your own works.  Sometimes a well-thought out review will gain you special recognition on someone else's blog, twitter, etc.  Before you know it, people are coming to you with review requests, which means even more traffic to your own work.  Everybody wins!

2. Receive More Reviews 

Giving a great review makes it more likely that others will provide great reviews to you.  If you're in self-publishing, getting unbiased, encouraging, and honest reviews from your readers can help you identify flaws in the writing and also help gauge the response of potential readers. 

3. Learn What To Do

The most important benefit of reviewing other people's work is that it teaches you what makes a successful piece of writing.  When you intentionally read something with a critical eye, and not strictly for pleasure, you start to notice more and more the kinds of elements that really draw you into the work.  These insights can assist you when you're revising your own work.

4. Learn What Not To Do

The corollary of learning what to do is learning what NOT to do.  As you're helping other writers identify potential flaws or problematic aspects of their work, you're also learning how to identify them in your own, which makes self-revision a much more fruitful (if not less painful) process.

Until the past year, I don't believe I've ever offered anyone an extensive critical review of a work-in-progress (informal discussions of classwork not included).   I also have written one or two, maybe even three poems or vignettes in a given year.  Yet in the past year, I've seen my own productivity explode, which directly correlates to how much time I've spent reviewing.  Reading the works of other people can be one of the most exciting and inspiring parts of my writing day.

Why is Reviewing Important in Self-Publishing?

More and more, authors are turning to self-publishing as a way of distributing and marketing their works.  The reasons for choosing self-publishing over traditional are as complex as reasons for choosing a book itself.  However, self-published authors concede some valuable assistance when foregoing traditional publication.  The most important of these is use of the all-important professional editor.

Please let me preface what follows with a disclaimer:  There is almost never an adequate substitute for the services of a professional editor/proofreader. Professionals have the experience.  They know exactly what to look for when taking apart a piece of work and stitching it back together again, and your work will almost always be better for their assistance.

But let's also not ignore the fact that, when you're self-publishing, you may or may not have the budget that professional editing requires.  Realistically, a very good writer may spend forever in obscurity because they needed a bit of help in editing that they never received.

And here is where reviewing comes in.  Reviewers are no substitute for the line-by-line editing of a professional, but they can help give an author the best possible shot at fixing errors before they become overly problematic.  A good reviewer will encourage you, but also alert you to things that can really effect the opinions of your readership.  "If I read the word 'chagrin' one more time..."  

That being said, a certain amount of emotional distance from reader to reviewer is crucial.  If I want glowing praise from a piece, I send it to my mother.  If I want glowing encouragement with grammar edits, I send it to my partner.  But if I want a down and dirty, nitty gritty, outright destruction of anything subpar in my work, I go to my writing groups or to critiquing partners.

In the end, whether going the traditional route or self-publishing, having extra eyes on your work is almost never a bad thing.  Listen to the opinions of others, offer your own opinions in return, and then decide what to heed and what to throw out.  In the end it's your work; you must take responsibility for the final product.  You might as well make it the best you can.

How Can I Get Started?

So maybe you're thinking you'd like to get into this whole "reviewing" thing. How do you start? Remember, trading reviews is a social activity, which means somehow you're going to have to put yourself out there and just dive in!

1. Find and join a local writing group.

There is something irreplaceable about meeting with other writers face-to-face to examine one another's work. You gain invaluable experience along with friends and allies on your writing journey.  Check out local libraries, bookstores, or even the internet to find possible writing groups that exist in your area.  You might be able to find a group through sites such as Meetup or craiglist, but do proceed with caution.

2. Find a writing group online.

Websites for events like NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo are excellent for finding like-minded individuals either in your area or across the world.  You might also check out sharing and reviewing sites such as,, or Writers-Network.  Each site will have its own pros and cons, so explore as many as you can before settling down with one (or all) of them. I personally recommend, as I myself frequently review there, and there are all sorts of free (or very very inexpensive--think $1 in "gift points" or so for most) courses run by volunteers to help you hone those reviewing skills.

3. Explore social media.

You'd be surprised how many people are actively seeking reviewers online through other forms of social media (Facebook or Twitter, anyone?).  Read a good book?  Write a review and post it on a blog.  Maybe you'll get a re-tweet or a follow out of the deal, and either way you've had the opportunity to really delve into a fellow writer's work.

At the end of the day, few writing exercises, in my opinion, give you as much bang for the buck as time spent in reading and reviewing others' work, particularly with works-in-progress.  You get all the benefits of writing with all the benefits of reading, and you get to do your part to serve the larger community of writers out there.  Give it a try.  The worst that can happen is that you get to explore the work of another writer.  Even the most curmudgeonly of old hermits need a connection once in a while.

Check out examples of my reviews at Writing.ComIn an event earlier this year, I was honored to be awarded the 2013 "Quill Award," for "Best Reviewer." If you're ever interested in a review swap, drop me a line!  I love getting to read the work of new writers and gaining my own readers in return.

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