Getting involved in the writing community

Essays by Shalon Sims on education, creative writing and literacy

Getting involved in the writing community

Cold Outside by the Italian Voice, Flickr

This article was written in 2010 and was updated in January, 2016. It covers the following:

  • My experience with the local Vancouver writing community
  • How online critiquing works
  • Pros of online critiquing
  • Cons of online critiquing
  • Tips for using an online critique group successfully

In October of 2010, I volunteered at two writing and reading festivals, the ViWF and the SiWC and they were very valuable and enjoyable experiences for me.   I met a lot of writers, local and international, and I even had the chance to have conversations and learn from several successful authors.

One of the more memorable moments was at the SiWC with Robert Dugoni, an amazing speaker and teacher, and author of six books.  I have never read anything by Dugoni and I may never  because I’m not much into crime fiction, but his ‘query letter workshop’ was packed FULL of useful information, and his speech at the closing gala had the entire audience on their feet, cheering and inspired.

One thing that stood out to me was his firm advice to share your work with others, and he suggested many ways to do this, including joining an online critique group.  The part about sharing your work was not new to me, but online critique group?  Really?  A few days later, when I’d had a chance to digest the two events (which took place during the same week in October), I sat down and did some research.

I have since joined Critters, which was only one of many groups out there on the web.  So far, it appears to be very well organized and secure, but most importantly, I am learning a lot through reading and editing other people’s work.  This week is my turn for people to read and critique my work, so I will let you know how it goes.

The way critters works is that you put your piece of writing in a queue. Each week, while you’re waiting for your piece to float to the top, you must critique at least one person’s work. When your piece reaches the top, you get about five critiques in return.

I have to tell you that there are pros and cons to to this, so if you’ve never participated in a writing workshop or critique group, then please do some research about what to look out for and how to prepare mentally. I firmly believe that receiving critical feedback is an essential part of the writing process, but if it comes at the wrong time it can be disastrous for your project.

Pros of online critiquing

This system works exceptionally well, thanks mostly to the operator of the site, Burt. The following is my own list of positive features and benefits of the site in particular, though I guess this would apply to many online critique groups:

  • It’s cheap. In fact, it’s free! I have honestly spent thousands and thousands of dollars in classes and editing fees in the past 15 years of my writing career, and as an editor and writer, I constantly have people asking me to read their work for a reduced fee. Unfortunately, this just isn’t possible because I do need to pay my bills, so I confidently encourage them to find an online critique group, with the knowledge that it will truly help them.
  • You will become a better writer. I think that this is absolutely the biggest benefit. Through editing other people’s writing on a continual basis, you will become a better writer yourself. You will figure out, time and again, what works for you and what doesn’t. Through reading what you like in other people’s writing, you will find out what you like about your own. You might just discover that the gaping plot hole you found in that lady’s story is very similar to what you did in your own story, and you’ll be so shocked to discover it!
  • The advice and criticisms can be incredibly informative. I have received reviews that were worth a lot of money. Some people on this site truly give their best; some of the people who have reviewed my writing have been published writers themselves, English teachers, very caring, and all around brilliant editors.
  • You build up relationships with other writers. It was really great to find out weeks later that the author I had critiqued appreciated my critique so much that they returned the favour and critiqued my own writing. Over time, I felt like part of a community and I was exchanging emails.
  • You get to choose what you critique. I liked the fact that I could choose to read what I felt interested in (rather than just having to read what was thrown at me, like I did hundreds of times in classes that I paid thousands of dollars for), and I really got to read very enjoyable stories!

Cons of online critiquing

With so many benefits listed above, what could possible be wrong? Well, there are some things to look out for, that’s for sure, especially for young writers or people with delicate sensibilities (anyone who cries easily).

  • The critiques can be tough. I know because I received and wrote a few tough ones myself. Some people just don’t like your writing, and maybe that’s because your writing needs improvement and maybe it’s because it’s not their taste. Either way, if you are a budding writer, who, like most beginning writers, takes everything that everyone says to heart, then you could extinguish the small fire of your writing passion before it ever has the chance to grow into something.
  • It’s a bit of a clique. There are obviously members of the community who have the feeling that they rule the roost.

Continue reading for more about the pros and cons, or read this forum discussion on Librarything that covers the flaws of online critique groups. 


Tips for using an online critique group successfully

Some of the following things I learned from being part of other online communities, and some of these things I learned through my experience with I hope you find them useful.

  • Don’t take anything anyone says to heart!!! Please! There are some mean/super insensitive people who get really irritated by poor grammar, or weak plots, or whatever have you. But, if you believe in your concept, don’t let these people get you down! Take the criticisms that you understand, that resonate with you, the ones that you say, ‘yes, I knew that was weak, he’s right’ and work on that one point.  Forget the rest, let them go… fly away.  Just like you are not obligated to like every type of writing, no one is obligated to like yours.
  • Go one step at a time.  You might feel inundated with different types of criticisms on all facets of your book/story: grammar, voice, plot, syntax, structure, characters, etc. There is only so much you can improve, only so much you can do, or understand.  Even though you want to write a best seller right out of the starting gate, you can only take that path one step at a time.  And even if you do write a best seller out of the starting gate, then it is highly likely you would look at that book years later and say to yourself, ‘My god, did I write that?!’  Your writing style and ability will grow slowly over time.
  • Do great critiques if you want to get the most out of it.  Your critiques will be returned in favour, and if you want to become part of the community, then, at least in the beginning, you will need to prove your worth by doing great critiques before people will take you seriously.
  • Follow the rules!  Seriously. It’s a small community.  If you are rude it will come back to you.  People will tear you a new one. Generally people are very sensitive about their writing, so unless you want that guy to come back and tell you all about why your writing sucks, then find a way to tell that guy nicely why his writing didn’t work for you, and how it might have worked better for you.  Be diplomatic.
That’s about it.  I would completely recommend using an online critique group–it has been a transformative and very  helpful experience for me.
Here are some links to various online critique groups.

Update February 2012

For the last few years, I’ve been using to get help developing the second, third and fourth drafts of my work. I’ve also gained insight into how the general public will perceive my book, and to that extent, it has been an invaluable tool. The level of attention that critters give to their critiques is truly astounding, especially since they aren’t getting paid (although they do get critiques in return). I’ve received feedback that is on the level of or higher than what I received in workshops in college.

The only downside is that critics don’t discuss your work with each other. So you get around five completely different perspectives that haven’t heard or seen what others are saying. I prefer a face-to-face workshop because I think that dialogue between critics helps people nail down what might be the main issue. However, workshops are expensive, and is free, so in the end I prefer

Update January 2016

After using for quite a few years, I started hearing about this website called Wattpad. My first exposure was from a friend who mentioned that a friend of hers had started using this strange online community writing site. My friend didn’t know much about it, but then a few weeks later, I was listening to a CBC Radio interview with author Anna Todd, and she had recently got a six figure book deal through publishing her story on Wattpad.

The interview was very sweet, and Anna Todd spent most of it gushing about her fans on Wattpad and what an amazing community it was and how she never would have written anything without all the support she received there.

Well, that was enough to perk my ears. I definitely checked the site out. Here’s what I learned: it’s an online community for writers AND readers. You can read everything that gets posted on the site for free. You can post anything you want on the site, following content guidelines, for free. That scared me! What I liked about Critters was the protection they offer. Only members can access the writing, so you don’t need to worry about losing your First Publishing Rights.

But anyways, I still checked it out. Like Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest, you make a profile and you make friends and share what you’re doing with your friends.

So, I made a profile, and installed the app on my phone, and added a few books into my library from the ‘hot list’ which is a list of popular books that are trending on the site. I added a few friends–Margaret Attwood, Corey Doctorow, Anna Todd and some science fiction writers who seemed interesting.

I started reading and was initially turned off, to be completely frank. It wasn’t very good writing. I tried searching and adding some more obscure titles by authors who looked to be over the age of twenty, or who even had a profile picture of their face. That actually helped, but for every good piece of writing I tried there were three very average or poor pieces of writing. It’s mainly raw writing, and unedited, even stories that have hundreds of thousands of reads.

I learned pretty quickly that the site is largely used by people under the age of twenty, and as young as thirteen. I would say the largest concentration is thirteen to seventeen year olds.

Next I decided to post a story, a science fiction I was calling Fat Farm at the time. I made a cover, edited it to death and posted. Since I didn’t have many friends, I didn’t get many readers, which was quite disappointing. I think maybe I thought the readers would come out of the woodwork and marvel at my genius, but they didn’t.

It was around this time that I learned about the community section of the website, where all the clubs are. I won’t get into it because there are literally a million clubs in there. Forums and clubs to talk about anything, and even advertise services and opportunities (not for cash).

My primary goal was to submit Fat Farm for traditional publishing, so I decided to find some critics in the ‘Critique Classifieds.’ That proved extremely fruitful–I received many, many critiques ranging from good to excellent quality.  The ‘payment’ was following my critic and/or reading some of their writing and leaving a comment. After a few weeks, I created an entirely new draft of Fat Farm and changed the name to The Critical Zone. I changed the cover and submitted it to Asimov.

I didn’t take it down off Wattpad–I wasn’t sure how to handle that one, actually. I liked having something posted on the site because it helped me meet other writers. I decided to submit the story to Wattpad’s ‘Featured List,’ which is on the top of the front page of the site when you log in. I’d looked at many of the stories up there and felt mine was as good or better.

Within a few weeks, I received a letter from Gavin, and I was in. My story was featured a few months later and the rest is really history. The first week it was featured was literally a bonanza. I didn’t know what to do with all the feedback. Since then I’ve received over 11,000 reads on that story, and hundreds of followers, and more than that, I discovered a whole new community.

Most importantly, I had found a place to share the rough first draft of my work in progress, The Dreaming, a young adult sci-fi series. Through my experiment with Fat Farm aka The Critical Zone, I knew that Wattpad was the place for me to get feedback on The Dreaming. I got busy with preparations. It was around January of 2014 and I chose April to start posting The Dreaming, which would give me enough time to prepare. I already had 80,000 words written of the story, so I had plenty to post, but there are other things you need to think about and prepare for before you post a major work on Wattpad.

One of the first things I learned on Wattpad is that the readers don’t just come. You do need to work for them. You need to make friends and find avenues to get your writing seen. So, my first plan of attack was to make as many friends as possible. Having a featured story really helped because that gave me a trickle of new followers every day. Next, I created a chat group in the clubs, a chat group for women writers over 35. That was amazing, and continues to be an amazing and rewarding experience in so many ways.

Next I started reading the works of people who seemed like they would return the favour one day. I found these people in the comments of stories I was reading, people who gave long, thoughtful, insightful comments. I’d go to their profile, follow them, and add a book of theirs to my library. Then I read their stories and gave long, thoughtful, insightful comments, sort of what matched their style of comments.

In this way, I collected fifteen to twenty really solid readers who I became friends with. They were more than just readers, and I was more than just a reader to them. We do become friends by becoming so intimately involved in each others writing.

When March rolled around, I was a busy girl. In one month I would start posting my major life’s work, my work-in-progress, The Dreaming, to Wattpad. It was going to be a very big moment for me and an important moment, of finally letting the world in on what I was doing for all these years. I created a cover, and found and created media for the project. In Wattpad you can add media to your chapters–videos and pictures. Then I held a title contest because I wasn’t sure what to call the story, and I had a cover contest, and had young female designers create a cover. All of this was to build up exposure.

The contest went well, and I was happy with what the girl created. I supplied the original art (a painting I’d made), and she applied the fonts. Here’s a picture

April came soon enough, and I started posting! It was amazing, and is still amazing. It’s revolutionary to have people read my writing immediately, and to share the story as it unfolds for all of us. It’s very inspiring and has helped me finish the first drafts of Books One, Two, Three and Four of The Dreaming, and I’m currently working on the last book of the series!

My posting schedule has varied, but mostly I post approximately 1500 words every three days. I find this is very doable, and a nice schedule that balances my writing and home and work life. On the 150,000 words I’ve posted to Wattpad since April 4th, 2015, I’ve had over 11,000 reads, over 3000 comments with excellent critical feedback, and I’ve ranked as high as #40 in the sci-fi category. Out of millions.

I’ve had readers from Canada, Bolivia, Ireland, UAE, Kenya, Germany, the Phillipines, Montenegro, India, England, Zimbabwe, America, Puerto Rica, Peru, Nigeria, Korea, Myanmar, Italy, China, Japan, Australia and Indonesia. And more.

Some of you might be wondering if writing on Wattpad means that it’s ‘published’ — I want to assure you that is not the case. I own the rights to my stories and no one has bought my story. No one can download it, only read it on the site. I see it as a giant critique group with members from all over the world. I still plan to publish traditionally when I’ve finished the second draft.

So, that’s my update for you about my journeys in the Wattpad writing community. Please check out my works on Wattpad, my handle is @shalonsims, and be sure to say hi!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *