The world has changed for writers. Twenty years ago, as computers began their relentless invasion of homes, most authors still lived in a solitary world, but off from others of their kind. Some knew about the books and magazines available to help hone their craft and a few even had access to face-to-face writing groups. However, such groups (and the knowledge of those publications) weren’t always available to people who lived in out of the way places or who worked odd hours.
Writers usually worked alone, stumbling along the path to publication and chancing upon important information that went far beyond just putting words on paper and sending them off.
Today, however, there are writers at all levels of publication, and working in every genre, who are willing to share their knowledge with newcomers. With Internet penetration topping 66% in the United States (and higher in Sweden and Hong Kong, according to InternetWorldStats.com), struggling authors literally have an entire world of fellow writers to connect with. Hooking up with them may be easier than many realize. Internet writing communities that span borders, genres, ages and level of publication can be found with a simple Google search.
Choosing the site that suits your needs, and in which you will feel comfortable, is a little more work. Here are a few tips on what to look for when checking out the communities:
Tip # 1 — Understanding Forums, Critique Groups and Chat Rooms
Forums are usually the mainframe of a writing site. These consist of several topics, each made up of an initial post and the subsequent answers. Sites with a number of forums and topics can seem overwhelming at first but can pay off in the plethora of information already available.
Most writing communities also offer critique sections where fellow members read and comment on manuscript drafts, offering help on anything from punctuation problems to plot holes. Like face-to-face critique groups, finding one that suits you may take time and patience. Look for sites that have ‘members only’ critique posting areas. This limits who can read and comment on the material. Places that post stories in a way that is open to anyone who happens by, members or not, may jeopardize your first publication rights.
Critique groups should have reciprocal critiquing rules, guaranteeing that everyone who offers help gets critiques in for their own work in return. Guidelines on how to critique can also be helpful.
Many writers look at chat rooms as probable time-sinks with nothing helpful to offer. However, that’s not always the case. Some sites hold classes, critique group meetings and interviews with published writers, editors and agents in their chat rooms. Sometimes just talking to other writers who happen to be in chat can help with a nudge over a rough spot. Being able to ‘talk’ to others who understand the fun and frustration of writing is especially helpful on those days when on one else understands.
Tip # 2: What is the site’s purpose?
If you are working toward professional publication, be certain that the site you choose offers help appropriate to your goal. Sites that cater to the hobby writer (such as those featuring fanfiction) will not be constructive for someone developing a writing career.
Does the site have a place to answer basic writing questions, from grammar and punctuation to worldbuilding? What genres and types of work are represented? Is there a mix of lengths from novels to flash fiction and poetry? How about nonfiction?
If the site offers classes, what type of material is presented and do the people know their subjects? Ask for testimonials from previous students if you are worried about committing either time or money to such a project.
Tip # 3: Writing Exercises and Contests
Regular writing exercises can either get the creative juices boiling — or they can sap the time a writer should be using to work his own material. If a site is formed around the idea of using specific prompts, and offers little else, it may deplete your writing time rather than help you finish your manuscript.
Also be careful of sites that hold contests and publish the winners. Unless the site is run by a publishing house or magazine, this generally means the writer has thrown away one of his best works for a few accolades by fellow site members. Always remember that open publication on the Internet is the same as publication in a print venue. Both use first publication rights, whether you have been paid for them or not.