Getting unbiased reviews of your writing is vital to improve as a writer. Local writers' groups are a good option. If you are holding down a day-job like mine, evenings are for recovering for the next round of bread-winning not for nipping out to the local school or library. I looked for something where I could use the time (and energy) I had, when I had it.
I like to think of myself as a SF writer and there are dedicated review sites like critters.org available. I’m also a member of the +British Science Fiction Association and they have the brilliant Orbiter group; however, I am utterly off-genre at the moment and I didn’t want to trouble the SF community.
I found YouWriteOn.com and decided to investigate.
Reviewing the Review Site
YouWriteOn.com is a community criticism website, where members review each other's work. It is non-genre specific, and whereas the main aim is the same for all these groups; that is: to improve members' writing, it runs this process as a rolling competition with Top Ten Charts and the carrot of high achievers having their work presented to professional editors.
Its home page mentions top performing authors and pushes the possibility of six figure book deals. This created a sense of unease for me. Another concern is that the site owners offer publishing services. This smelt a bit like vanity publishing.
Despite the concerns, I decided to give it a go. I joined in late 2012 to judge the site before submitting my own work in January 2013.
The site works on Reading Credits earned by reviewing other members' submissions through Reading Assignments. Asking for an assignment leads to a randomly allocated piece of work (short story or novel extract) to review. An assignment must be completed within four days to earn a credit. Up to six assignments a day can be requested.
Once earned, Reading Credits are then attached to the writing to be reviewed. A member can have several pieces of work under review if they wish. If a Reading Assignment is completed within two days it increases the rate at which your writing is reviewed, thus rewarding more active members.
Users can only see their reviews after four have been completed and after eight the work enters the charts. If you end up in the top ten for that month you get the professional critique.
If you are in the top ten, then you have to keep earning a credit every week to stay there. There are limits to prevent the same work hogging all the professional reviews, which are explained in detail on the site.
If a submission gets into the top ten and stays there for more than 25 days it is then listed in the best-seller chart where it gets more attention.
Apart from the overall Top Ten, there are ones broken down by genre whether this increases professional access or simply helps genre-fans pick out their own niche more easily is unclear.
Initially, I reviewed other people’s samples without submitting my own. This is probably as close as any non-professional gets to dealing with the slush pile. The standard of work is variable. Out of the twenty or so pieces reviewed two thirds were readable, the remaining third felt like first drafts with only two being truly unreadable. There have been chick ‘lit’ entries, a few psychological thrillers, some YA work, a couple of supernatural fantasies and one hard science fiction tale. Assignments can be turned down without penalty. You can turn down an assignment. The only one I have was a Fifty Shades of Grey clone.
Reviewing has been the most difficult part. It is hard to be constructive rather than critical and avoiding the pat advice, although ‘show don’t tell’ and ‘read it aloud’ is sometimes all that can be said.
What others have said on the same submission is hidden from view while you are reviewing it. You can look at them afterwards. Usually reviewers spot the same weaknesses and strengths. Only once have I given a poor review to discover everyone else loved it.
Reviews must be 100 words or more. To prevent users maximising reading credits by accepting everything and not reviewing the work, there is a reading test before a review can be submitted.
Once I was comfortable with the process I uploaded the first 5,000 words of my novel. The limits are 5,000 to 7,000 words for novels and 2,000 to 5,000 words for short stories.
Reviews appeared roughly every two to three days. All were honest and helpful leading me to rewrite my submission and achieve more positive reviews. I have also worked through my novel and dumped 10,000 unnecessary words.
I did watch my chart position – fairly steady in the low twenties – and I did get twinges as it rose and fell, but the reviews mattered to me more. I am still concerned about the competitive element because human nature tends to make people play the competition instead of the objective. Every five reviews a one can be deleted. The system automatically highlights the lowest rating review and the temptation is to zap it and rise a little higher in the charts.
Chart position appears to be very sensitive. After a two week break caused by life in general, my position plummeted to 60th position from 25. It returned to the teens once a new review had been earned. I could imagine people watching their chart position and getting emotional about slipping down the order, loathing anyone who dared score them low. I wonder what the top-ten-achiever thought of my negative comments of their popular prose.
Am I aiming to achieve a top ten spot? No. I feel whatever the pros will tell me, I have already heard from dozens of ordinary readers, though I never turned down advice (listening to it is another matter).
Would I recommend it?
Yes, with the proviso that you ignore the competition element. Accept the reviews, don’t take them personally and do not look at your chart position.
The reviews were helpful and I was free to review and submit when I had time and didn’t feel like I letting anyone down if I couldn't.
Use it as a review site, be open, be honest and it will help you improve your writing.
www.youwriteon.com – the review site I’ve been talking about.
www.critters.org – the science fiction/fantasy and Horror Workshop/critique group. If you're thoroughly genre, it’s worth taking a look.
www.bsfa.co.uk – British Science Fiction Association. If you're a SF fan join this and you won't regret it. If you do regret it, I'm sorry, I must have been talking to someone else.
Update December 2014You Write is changing their approach slightly. I received an email explaining this, which I have reproduced the relevant parts below.
YouWriteOn changes 2015: Apart from January 1st 2015, in which the top ten revealed that day will receive professional critiques as normal, the site will change as outlined below to have Development Periods and Competition Periods. Development Periods, as outlined below, are where members are not competing for professional critiques, with an aim of members exchanging peer reviews to develop their writing in a non-competitive environment. Competition Periods, as outlined below, are where the highest rated stories receive feedback from leading publishers such as Random House and Orion. The aim is to alternate development periods where members concentrate solely on developing their writing with competition periods.
How YouWriteOn works 2015 - Development Periods and Competition Periods
Development Months: During January to March each year and July to September all members provide feedback to each other so that collective feedback helps story development. The results for each month are displayed on the 1st of the month that follows, e.g. January’s results are displayed on 1st February. The development months above are solely feedback by members to members without feedback from Random House or Orion or other publishers on the 1st of the month that follows them.
Editorial Critique Competition Months April to June inclusive, and October to December inclusive, are competition months with the Top Ten from May 1st, June 1st, July 1st read by Random House, Orion or other editors who will provide Editor critiques to the ten authors from the thirty they consider have the most promise. Similarly, the Top Ten from November 1st, December 1st, January 1st are read by Random House or Orion who will provide Editor critiques to the ten authors from the thirty they consider have the most promise. For each ten that receive critiques, the top three from each ten will receive a longer critique, and the remaining seven mini-reviews, from editors from publishers such as Random House and Orion.
The aim is to alternate development periods where members concentrate solely on developing their writing with competition periods as outlined above.