After graduating from the Novel Incubator program in June, I needed to find a writing group to give me the kind of feedback and motivation I got from the Incubator. Unable to find a group near my home, I started investigating online writing workshops. I used to develop and present online training, so I’m more comfortable with it than most, but I approached online workshopping with some skepticism, concerned about the impersonal nature of internet interactions and doubtful I would find the kind of expert feedback I was seeking on a website. But I simply wasn’t writing as much or as well without the kick in the pants I got from the Incubator program, so I thought why not at least see what was out there?
When I Googled ‘online writing groups,’ I got the most hits for Scribophile. The site was well-reviewed in writing forums, so I continued to the Scribophile home page where my curiosity was piqued by the amount of activity — more than 330,000 critiques served for 55,000 works over six years. I also liked its narrow focus on workshopping — “Critique > Write > Learn > Make Friends.” It isn’t a self-publishing company masquerading as a writing workshop (Penguin’s Book Country) or part of a larger educational site that uses the lure of workshopping to get people to take costly craft courses. Its only focus is on workshopping and discussions about writing.
The site works on a “free-to-play” model with limited ability to submit works and send messages to other members, or you can subscribe ($65 per year or $9 per month) for unlimited submissions and messaging, about the same cost as a one-day writing course at most institutions. Either way, the site is refreshingly ad-free, and you retain complete control of all your copyrights.
How it Works
Digging deeper, I was most intrigued by how the process worked. Scribophile will not let you submit until you critique. Critiquing earns you “Karma Points” (the site’s system of currency) which you use to pay for submitting. Typically, it takes three critiques to get enough Karma to submit, although you get more Karma the more detailed your critique is.
Works are submitted in 3,000 word chunks (suggested) and placed in a queue, headed toward the ‘spotlight,’ as it’s called. Once a work receives a certain number of critiques, usually between 3 and 6, it moves out of the spotlight, allowing other works to move up. Although members can critique any submission, getting works out of the spotlight moves your own work up, assuring it of getting critiqued if it hasn’t already been. You can always revise and resubmit a work, although every submission costs Karma.
Quality of Submissions and Critiques
I knew going in that because the site is open to anyone, the writing was bound to be uneven. Glancing at a few pieces, I was glad to find that as bad as some of the writing was, some of the writing and critiques were quite good. The trick seemed to be, then, how to make sure you critiqued writing you enjoyed and received useful critiques of your own work. Fortunately, there are ways to do that.
You can evaluate writers in the queue by clicking their names and reading their profiles, which often lists their education and experience, and how often they’ve been ‘favorited’ or ‘gifted’ by other writers. In any case, if you don’t like what you’re reading, you don’t have to critique it. Also, members are judged by their critiquing and develop a ‘reputation.’ It becomes clear that reciprocation is the best strategy — critiquing good writers and critiquers may get them to critique you.
The site offers 21 genres to choose from, including memoir and biography, but most are fiction-related, including science fiction, romance, fantasy, erotic, young adult, thriller, mystery and literary fiction. It’s great that you can restrict your reading to particular genres, but in the public forum, you can’t restrict who critiques your writing, so you may have people using up your allotted critiques who work in genres wildly different from your own. I wasn’t sure I wanted my sprawling contemporary novel critiqued by a flash-fiction writer whose idea of a great protagonist is a slobbering, thirteen-year-old zombie wizard on an interstellar mission to save the universe. And then I discovered Scribophile’s inner sanctum — its groups.
In Scribophile, you can create and/or join any number of groups to whom you can confine your writing submissions. Most groups are defined by genre, but many focus on the writer’s nationality, politics, gender, religion, age or writing experience. Some of these groups are open to any one, but others are private and by invitation-only — the true inner sanctum.
After getting some positive reviews for my critiques and a short story I submitted, I was invited by a writer to join a private group of several hundred writers. This particular group joins together its members into subgroups of four to six people based on their writing interests. I am now workshopping my novel with four other writers, three of whom write literary fiction, several of whom are English teachers and good writers, and all of whom are, at the very least, good at writing critiques.
My favorite part of Scribophile, I’ve discovered, is something real-world writing groups typically don’t do: the ‘inline critique.’
In Scribophile, you can critique a work in five different ways: you can leave a short or a longer, free-form comment; you can comment by topic (plot, POV, setting, characterization, etc.); you can rate the work by sliding scales (e.g., what’s the readability of the work on a scale of 1 to 10); and, finally, you can write an inline critique.
Okay, so we’ve all had people do line edits for us, marking up our manuscripts, or we’ve received inline critiques using Word comments or something similar. What’s so special about Scribophile’s?
For one thing, the site’s inline critique allows you to highlight text, suggest deletions and directly insert comments which highlight to green to differentiate them from the author’s text. The resulting screen is much easier to read than a commented Word doc with all its arrows and bubbles.
The other thing seems to be a cultural phenomenon. Scribophiles tend to use inline critiques not so much to analyze as to react. It’s kind of like those people who yell at movie screens: “Stop talking and shoot him!” or “Don’t open that door!” In addition to questions and concerns, members tend to record off-hand comments, LOLs and OMGs, ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ as they happen, which I happen to find very valuable.
For instance, one reader reacting to the first pages of my book wrote of a 19-year-old character, “she sounds like my mom.” I clearly needed to make her appear younger in those early paragraphs. And when I described a Cadillac convertible as a tank, a reader said, “Aren’t convertibles small?” I knew the reader still hadn’t grasped this was the 1970s and not the present. When you see how readers are thinking and reacting as they are reading, you can see more clearly where and when your writing is staying on target or going astray. Even if a critiquer isn’t the best analyst of big writing problems, these tiny reactions can provide a wealth of useful information for making revisions.
It’s worth pointing out that Scribophile can also be a great tool for conventional, real-world writing groups or classes, allowing them not only to create private groups with access only to their members, but also to read and react to member writing offline before getting together in person. (Maybe we’ll all be bringing our iPads and laptops, open to sites like Scribophile, to our writing groups and classes someday instead of wasting reams of paper on hard-copy printouts.)
There are other, similar online writers groups* and it remains to be seen how useful an online writing group will be over the long haul of a novel. Can they help with the arc of a character, the trajectory of a plot over hundreds of pages? For now, Scribophile offers me enough of the critical insights I need to spot and revise problems in my writing, and more importantly, to keep me motivated. Writers need readers and Scribophile provides them.
* Editor’s note: This post originally linked to ReviewFuse, which appears to have gone offline since the publication of this post.