For several years I was a member of one of the best writing forums I’ve ever seen on the Internet. It was large enough to create synergy, but small enough to be personal and friendly. I became a moderator of the forum, and then an administrator.
The experience just about ruined my writing.
When I first joined, the forum was relatively new. The excitement was still there and the membership actively reviewed critiqued work as well as posted their work for review. The forum had a 1 to 5 rating for work, so people would know what kind of critique the writer was looking for. Someone who wanted a “1” review was looking for nothing more than encouragement to keep working on their story, and maybe one or two hints on something to review. Someone who asked for a ‘5’ review wanted a heavy-duty, give-and-take critique, no holds barred! These were people serious about getting their short story, novel, poem or essay published.
It worked well—for a time.
During my first year with the forum, I received a lot of good help and encouragement for one or two stories I was writing. Some of the members had real talent in critiquing, which is harder than you think. I revised some of the chapters with their suggestions in mind. When I disagreed with the suggestions, it led to good discussion.
Heavy lifting, that was the problem. After the bloom had worn off, more and more of the reviewing fell to fewer and fewer people. Those people were (mostly) called Moderators and Administrators. The membership continued to grow, but more people posted simply to be seen and get a quick pat on the back. They would “review” a piece that someone had requested a ‘4’ or ‘5’ level review with “hey, looks good to me!” That was what they called paying back to the forum.
When I was asked to moderate two sub-forums, I felt more responsibility to review and encourage others. Combined with the responsibilities of moderating, my own writing time suffered. I vowed that I would take the time to write from some other activity in my life. Still—heavy lifting. There were a few of us doing the lifting, and a lot of people getting free rides.
The Life and Death of Forums
The forum was no longer fresh and new. Both content and reviews weren’t up to scratch. Membership began to lose interest, moving on to other things. The forum lost that synergy that made it spark. In an effort to bring some life back to the forum, the lead administrator began writing more content for the General forum—quick bites of information on entertaining subjects. The moderators, those who were still around on an occasional basis, were encouraged to join in. Some did, but any time they spent writing for the board was time they took away from their own work.
After a few months, I was asked to join the administrative team. It would be a chance to help oversee changes in the forum and direct its future. Since I wanted to see the board return to some of the spark it had when it was new, I accepted. Quickly, I found that my role wasn’t so much as a member of a three-administrator team, but to serve as a buffer and sounding board between the board owner and her co-administrator, who locked horns and stomped off in huffs about every other week.
Naturally, in reading the board owner’s two page email complaints about the other administrator, and answering same, I got no substantial writing done.
You knew it was coming, didn’t you? In an effort to revive the forum, the administrators revamped it. We gave it a new look. We culled the membership and invited the best writers, the most active participants, the best reviewers, to join the new club. It required weeks of work to develop the new board. This was going to be a real critique forum!
So, what if you gave a party and no one came? Well, they came, but nothing much happened except what had happened at the first board. The synergy never returned to the revamped writing board. The board owner, who had insisted that with the new board the administration would not spoon-feed the membership with new topics, games and original content, went mad to provide the membership with—you guessed it: original content, games and new topics. For a time, we considered moving the board to another hosting facility. I spent hours testing Invision Power Board, Vbulletin and Pro-boards. The board owner never looked at the test boards I set up.
The board closed a few months later. We couldn’t find a way to reengage the membership, the board owner encountered serious family problems, the second co-administrator did another vanishing act, and the third co-administrator (me) realized that far from helping with her writing, the forum was a weight that wasn’t getting any lighter.
…are writing forums a good idea anyway? If you’re writing a long story or a novel, you post chapters at a time for critique. Essentially, you’re asking reviewers to critique a work that isn’t in its final form. You could receive great critiques on chapter three, and write something in chapter eight that means you have to substantially rewrite chapter three. Published authors also warn writers not to talk about their work too much; there’s too much of a chance you’ll lose that excitement you have about a story if you talk about it. Forum reviews might work for short stories, when you post the entire work for review, poems, non-fiction articles, but I’ve become wary about revealing too much of a long piece of work. Sometimes you need encouragement and a pat on the back, but you have to be careful not to lose the spice that makes you want to write that long story or novel in the first place.
I was a member and then an administrator of a very good writing board. I joined when it was on its upswing and I was there when it died. The forum was as good as its membership, and the membership was very good in the first, early, days. In some ways, it was a victim of its own success. The quality of work and reviews drew more people to the forum, but too many of those were only interested in collecting raves on their own work, not participating in the review process. Heavy lifting—that’s what a few of us were left to do. The weight of that heavy lifting exposed other problems in the forum and, eventually, it closed. The experience has left me with this belief:
When you write, you have to be your own best reviewer. There will come a time when you need to get other people to give you an independent critique, but in the beginning—you do your heavy lifting for yourself.
Note: This entry was inspired by a post on Digital Dame’s Filling Spaces blog, about the helium.com writing forum, and her comment about writing forums that a few people do all the heavy lifting.