The pleasure and the pain of Peer Review
I’ll begin by saying I doubt I would still be writing if I hadn’t been introduced to peer review by my good friend Simon Kewin back in 2008. The fact that he simultaneously gave up on it, finding it a block to his creativity, simply indicates the difference between our levels of writing experience at that time. He had already had over fifty stories published and I had just written my first, of which I was extremely (and mistakenly) proud. My introduction to You Write On was a baptism of fire but one for which I will be forever grateful. Today I am a member of four peer review sites, two public and two private, each of which has different benefits and drawbacks.
There are dozens of peer review sites available but for those who have never put their work up for public scrutiny, I would recommend YWO as a first step. This is how it works: you join, upload a short story or the first 7,000 words of a novel and your submission goes into a pot and takes its turn to be assigned to a reviewer. While you are waiting, you request an assignment and pick something from your daily choice of six stories to review. You rate the piece over eight categories and write a review that (hopefully) justifies those scores. It takes a while to get the hang of it but you soon learn how to give useful feedback and this in turn helps your own writing. It sounds ideal – you get free reviews and, if you apply the best advice, you can improve your writing at a much faster rate than if you sat alone filing rejections from agents and publishers. And, because there is a ratings chart that can win your piece a free appraisal by a publishing professional, there is an outside chance you will be ‘discovered’. However, to get to this stage, unless you have a rare and universally-recognised talent, there will be some unpalatable medicine to swallow along the way.
The pitfalls arise from the nature of the site. The competitive aspect adds excitement but brings out the worst in some people. They may praise your work to the skies but score you low because they believe this will scupper your chances of beating them to their coveted top ten place. Unfortunately for them, although the scores aren’t revealed, you can work them out by keeping a chart if you are so inclined. This leads to bitter complaints and arguments on the message boards but since there is a 1-in-5 removal option the writer can use to delete a useless or low-scoring review, the effects of ‘sabotage’ reviews are largely mitigated.
Another problem arises from the proportion of inept feedback that is bound to occur on a free, public site. You have to be realistic about the depth and range of feedback you will receive from amateurs, who may actually be incapable of writing a coherent review or story themselves. Not surprisingly, the varying quality of reviews loosely reflects the varying quality of submissions. If you are baffled by the feedback you receive, take a quick peek at the reviewer’s own work…
As a direct result of both of the above, occasionally inner, or ‘knitting’, circles form, ostensibly to ensure that these members get more useful feedback (and better scores) than the outsiders. They get pally via the message boards or email and then try and ‘catch’ one another’s work to ‘save’ it from sabotage or useless reviews. If the circle gets big enough, it can begin to skew the charts and certainly affects the chances of receiving poor feedback if you are not one of the chosen few. Luckily this isn’t a regular occurrence.
All this nonsense aside, if you do go onto a site like YWO, you can strike gold; not necessarily by beating your way to the top of the charts, but by honing your craft, steadily improving with each upload. And the more work you put into reviews you give, the more experience you gain to apply to your own work. It’s win-win if you use the opportunities to full advantage. You will also grow a skin as thick as that on school custard so eventually you learn not only to thank every reviewer (good, bad or ugly) for their comments, but relish the insight into your writing that can help elevate it to a higher league.
Chances are that even if you make the top ten and win a ‘pro-crit’, you will not come away with a publishing deal. Only a handful of members have achieved one over the last six years. What you will get is a privileged view into what the professionals are looking for. Having had a good number of these I know that the more critical they are, the more useful they will be. Since my work only comprises complete stories, I have often received a very handy overview of what works and what doesn’t.
The other public site I belong to is Readwave. This is completely different to You Write On and has no competitive element. It is essentially a showcase for very short stories and true-life articles, which anyone can read and comment on. As such, there is little opportunity or appetite for in-depth criticism and most comments tend to be of the ‘I really loved this’ kind, possibly in the hope they will be reciprocated. As one of the team of Staff Reviewers, I tend to venture a couple of suggestions that I think will improve the writing/story but avoid rigorous analysis, tempted though I may be. Most of the time the writer leaves the piece exactly as it is and, frustrating as that may be, I have learned over the years to shrug and say, “Well, it’s their story.” It won’t win any prizes, but that’s not really why they are there. They simply want to be read and ‘discovered’. And some stories/writers are. One piece recently ‘went viral’, achieving 20,000 hits in one day! You can read it here.
Private sites are a different species altogether. Membership is by introduction or invitation and all the members have reached a certain level of competence in their writing and criticism. This brings problems of its own, strange as that sounds. When receiving criticism it is vital that you learn which to follow and which to ignore. If you are writing for the pleasure of the activity rather than to complete a novel, it may push you into producing something that isn’t really yours and with which you have no affinity. It is a trickier judgment when your reviewers are experienced, published and respected authors. But they are not YOU and they are not writing YOUR book. You still have to trust your instincts! What you do get on private sites is a small group of people who get to know your work and who can home in on your weaknesses – the ones you knew were there but were hoping to get away with – with accuracy and regularity. There is also the benefit of having several people read a whole novel and give an overview. I recommend it as the next step when your mixed bag of reviews on your open site starts to send you round in circles.
Eventually many writers suffer from review-fatigue and consequent boredom with writing in general. Several experienced writers I know have found that, over time, the act of picking writing apart can suck the fun out of the creative process and even from reading for pleasure. This is one of the greatest dangers of peer review. Strategic breaks and writing in different formats can help but a degree of honesty and self-knowledge is needed at this point. Do you continue to belong to crit sites because you still want/need help with your work or because you are addicted to the message boards and enjoy the support of virtual (and actual) friends? Is your writing and output improving or suffering as a result of your involvement?
Simon decided six years ago that peer review was having a detrimental effect on his writing and has gone from strength to strength since making the decision to go it alone, while I still need to be told that what I have written is a coherent story and not just a piece of semi-realised waffle. But these days I only need opinions from a couple of trusted people whose work I admire before sending it out into the world. Although my activity on YWO has dwindled to nothing, I will always be thankful for what I have received there, including my rhinoceros hide.
So that’s my advice to new writers who opt for the bumpy road of peer review: give as much as you can and accept what is offered with grace and joy. If you do, you won’t regret it.
If anyone would like to provide a link to their recommended peer review site, please add it below with a few words of description. On the other hand, if there is one to avoid feel free to say why. Thanks!