Before we get started I thought I’d briefly mention two things: First, writing websites will probably help get you more active in your writing. They really help in the old motivation department. So if you have trouble getting started or finishing a project, maybe a writing website is a good jumping off point. Secondly, any writing posted online tends to lose credibility if it is to be published elsewhere. In fact, most magazines won’t publish a short story if it’s appeared on the web–even if it’s your blog or a workshopping site. So make sure to acquaint yourself with all the legalese before joining a site and posting your work.
1. Untrustworthy or Unusable Feedback
I have three go-to people for feedback on my writing. Two of them have English degrees and are now English teachers. The third is my wife who is herself a talented writer and prolific reader. When they give me feedback, I know I can trust it. Sure, they’re my friends, but they’ve got great credentials and I know they’re not going to sugarcoat the truth. In fact, they’re so good at giving it to me straight, I’ve spent the last 16 months working on a single novel without anymore than the first couple chapters gracing anyone’s eyes. When they finally do receive it, it’s going to be so polished that they’ll be able to pluck their eyebrows in its reflection.
On writing websites, you don’t know a thing about who is critiquing your work. Of course, this isn’t entirely necessary, but I would personally more heavily weigh a critique from someone with credentials than someone with few or none. Further, most people I’ve encountered do not know how to give a useful critique. Nothing bothers me more than getting a piece back and seeing a horde of grammar and punctuation suggestions. This is not what a critique is about. Sure, if you see a mistake, fix it, but don’t let that be the only thing you comment on.
When I see a critique with nothing more than grammar and punctuation corrections, it indicates to me that the critic doesn’t know how to give a critique. Further, creative writing is not required to conform to the formalities of grammar. For example, in most of my fiction I use minimal punctuation, and I don’t use quotation marks for dialogue. It doesn’t help to be told I need to add a comma or that a semicolon would be better. And I especially don’t need to be told that I need to use quotes or that I should (gasp!) italicize my dialogue. (To me, italicizing dialogue is analogous to bringing a can of Hormel chili to chili cook off.) What would be useful are comments on the flow, characters, storyline, and description. What about the story works? What about it doesn’t?
2. Networking Over Writing
To get noticed you have to get your name out there. To get your name out there, you need to be actively posting, critiquing, and often (though not necessarily required) posting on the forums. A few years back, HarperCollins released a website called Authonomy, but it soon became obvious that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Many writers found that to rise to the top, you have to be constantly active. Further, because of the need to be active, many of the comments were hardly usable since many would simply say something positive in the hope that it would be reciprocated.
I’ve not been on Authonomy, but I’ve been active on two other sites. The same was true for those. It was users who were most active who got the most recognition. It was clear that there were about ten to fifteen people who spent copious amounts of time making sure their names were known. There was friending, joining groups, posting on the forums. On top of that, you had to make sure to always be critiquing others’ work so that they would critique yours. I soon realized that it wasn’t really about the writing. It was about how recognizable your name had become.
3. Quantity Over Quality
While I was active on these sites, I produced a decent amount of content. The problem was, very little of it was good. In fact, I encounter people who post entire novels, chapter by chapter, for review. And they’d do this on a daily basis. This meant that, to get noticed, one had to post fairly frequently, which meant that very little time was actually spent revising a story or poem.
The flip side of this was that such a large quantity of time was spent networking that I had very little time to produce quality work. Some weeks I’d shoot out a poem and a short story, but then I’d spend a week networking. That’s a full week I could have spent writing or revising, but instead I was trying to gain friends who would give me feedback that would ultimately prove to be frivolous. And getting good feedback was what this whole thing was about.
As far as getting very quick impressions of your work, writing websites are rather successful. But when it comes to useful feedback that aids in improving your writing, that becomes a bit more complicated. Of course, my experience isn’t universal. Perhaps it works well for you and you’ve seen some real improvements in your craft. But for me, it was just another distraction.