October 26, 2011

Online Writers Communities Have Room for Editors, Too

One of the few benefits of short winter days is being able to peek into other people’s well-lit homes in the late afternoon. My inner voyeur thrills in seeing people interact, unconscious of any spectators, surrounded by their art and the detritus of on-going home improvements.

It’s no surprise then that this editor also likes to lurk, albeit less covertly, on a number of writer’s sites, and for the same reasons. I’m curious how writers in their native habitats talk about, share, and revise their work. Joining a few writers’ sites has allowed me to peek at this, and to hone my editing skills, too.

There are many online communities where writers can ask questions and learn about the writing and publishing processes. They have similarities but, as with all communities, each has its own culture. The four I’ve gravitated toward are Absolute Write, Backspace, Writers.net, and Zoetrope.

All have forums where writers interact on various topics. As a freelance editor coming from outside the publishing industry, I’ve found that forums about working with agents, navigating the submission process, and publishing are helpful for uncovering my blind spots. The forums I’ve participated in most frequently, though, have been those dedicated to critique.

There’s flash fiction, right? I think of online critiques as flash editing. Reading a few 1,000- to 5,000-word submissions a week is a good way to understand where writers run into trouble and want help. I also find that the low-commitment model allows me to dabble in genres I otherwise might not. The casual but persistent nature of the forum also demands that I hone my editorial voice when I do respond. It’s easy to criticize someone’s writing, but it’s also easy for writers to click on my posting history to see if I have ever delivered a constructive word or, worse, have an axe to grind.

At least two sites offer ways to build one-on-one relationships between writers and critics. Absolute Write has a forum for writers seeking for beta readers, which is a function that comes close to an editorial role. For some editors this may skirt too close to working for free. Nonetheless, I think it offers an editor a way to shine in a large community of writers, and possibly to generate some word-of-mouth for future work.

Zoetrope works on yet another model altogether. Originally created by Francis Ford Coppola as a place to submit stories to his magazine Zoetrope: All-Story, it quickly turned into an active online community for workshopping in various genres. Its entire site metaphor is unique, and it differs from the other sites in that submissions are posted only for limited times and there are deadlines for reviews. All communication between writer and critic is private, and writers have the ability to rate the critiques they receive. Each month the five top-rated reviewers are acknowledged on each genre’s home page. I think many of the guidelines for participating at Zoetrope contribute to building relationships, and have helped me stretch and refine my editorial skills.

My sense is that writers looking for serious feedback aren’t put off by freelance editors in their midst, even if our long-term goal is paying work. (However shilling in any form won’t be appreciated.) I’d love to hear any lessons learned from editors who’ve managed to transition gracefully from casual feedback (online or in real life) to a professional relationship. Perhaps in the comments?


Meanwhile, to find an online community that fits you, look for a site’s forum main page, where you can see a count of threads and posts per topic area. This gives a good idea of where the focus is for this particular community and whether it meets a threshold of participation in the area you’re interested in. For instance, Absolute Write has 559,373 posts on YA novels, but only 6,191 in comics and graphic novels. If those are your specialty, you may be able to find a more active community (perhaps even by browsing the older posts there for recommendations).

Below I’ve provided more information on each of the sites mentioned here. Happy flashing!

—Beth Stokes

Absolute Write (www.absolutewrite.com)
Created 1999
36,853 members
6,358,130 posts
Absolute Write is unique in that it has forums dedicated to a wide variety of genres: novels, flash fiction, blogs, poetry, cookbooks, comics, query letters, even songwriting. There are also large sections on craft, the publishing process, conferences, and more.

Backspace (www.bksp.org)
Created 2004
1639 members
275,569 posts
Backspace is anchored by its real-life conference, but also attracts writers by inviting best-selling authors, agents, and acquisitions editors to host online Q&A sessions (many lasting up to a week) with its online members.

Writers.net (www.writers.net)
Created 1994
135 members
682,625 posts
Originally conceived of as (and still primarily aimed at being) a database-driven matchmaking service between writers, agents, and editors.

Zoetrope (www.zoetrope.com)
Created 2000
108,439 members
615,355 reviews
Modeled after the Hollywood studio system, Zoetrope has “buildings” you join in order to submit, read, or review work in each genre. The Writing Building includes short stories, novellas, screenplays, short scripts, poetry, and flash fiction.
For each submission of your own, you must first review a certain number of pieces by other members. Feedback is private between creator and critic, shared over internal “zmail.”

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