In preparing this essay, I never intended to expand the discussion. But a recent review from anonymous reader "Guest" raised some points I need to address. This response is partway directed towards Guest, as well as to others who may raise similar points.
The first critique revolved around the issue of quality reviews and criticism found at FictionPress. Guest writes, "…[T]he art of being a good reviewer requires a distinct yet equally difficult skillset to master as the art [of] storytelling…" This is true. When writers submit manuscripts to publishers, magazines, and other mediums, these companies have editors on staff trained to pick apart and professionally critique a written piece. However, FictionPress will never offer that quality level of a review.
There may be professional editors who recreationally use FictionPress; there certainly exists a force of Beta Readers who offer their higher skills in the editing phase prior to posting. But in general, the kind of professional review Guest describes is not only impossible, it is also impractical to the function of FictionPress. When I first began posting on this website as a sophomore in high school, I never wrote under the illusion that someone formally trained in editing and literary criticism would review my fiction. What I did anticipate was encountering alpha readers.
Alpha readers are the professional writer's frontline for new fiction. They usually consist of family members, close friends, and pre-existing writing circles and networks. Brandon Sanderson's alpha writers include a large number of writing buddies from his college days. FictionPress offers writers of specific genres and topics the opportunity to become alpha readers. These readers do not require the fine tooth comb and training of an editor, because they are reading purely as the everyman.
Guest adds, "…[A]ll that most of us (myself included) know how to do when it comes to reviewing is variations of 'great story, please update'." I disagree; even as the everyman, we know how to say some very basic things. Are these characters enjoyable? Is the plot coherent? Does the writer's voice in the narrative speak clearly? Do the genre elements work for me as a reader/writer in that genre? When I began reading the Harry Potter series in elementary school, I couldn't have told you more than a few basic grammar rules and spelling. But I could tell you why the book series held my attention; why I enjoyed the characters and the problems they had to solve. And to be frank, even the ridiculously short reviews that Guest describes are useful in their own way. They provide psychological incentive (we love to get any form of feedback) and they show on a fundamental level that our writing attracted a reader.
Guest's second critique revolves around exclusive reading groups and disgruntled writers. He writes, "…[T]here are authors [whose] reaction to anything other than '11/10, you're a marvel' can put people off the very concept of reviewing altogether. …[R]eviewers form into unofficial cliques, only reviewing each other's work since they don't have the energy to deal with the fallout that might come with reviewing anyone else's [story]." What Guest calls "unofficial cliques" is precisely the goal of networking. These are where we build our alpha reader circles.
FictionPress is the alpha reader's oasis. It gives us the chance to meet aspiring authors and writers we would never have otherwise encountered due to geographic separation. My senior year of high school, I had a small writing group of about six people on FictionPress that I was in regular communication with. They were my alpha readers and my writing circle: the network. We read and reviewed each other's stories with each update. This open communication built over time as I ventured out, discovered their stories, and left Story Reviews with notes on what I liked (what worked in their writing) and things I maybe was a bit confused by or needed work (what didn't work).
Finding consistent alpha readers in our genre is a task. It requires testing the waters of other stories on FictionPress. It also requires a bit of common courtesy. As I've written before, we are not policing FictionPress as critics. There is always something positive we can leave in a review. If you stick to the basic formula of addressing what worked and what didn't in a written piece, then you will rarely go afoul. However, it is important to remember that we are working through the medium of the Internet. There are more than a fair amount of individuals that will react rudely behind anonymity. That's a basic price for networking on the Internet—we run into the immature and the trolls.
Likewise, it is important that we perpetuate good natured communication when our writing falls under criticism. I've had nitpicky reviews that seemed aimed only at criticizing. That didn't make the reviewer's analysis incorrect. I understand that my writing needs improvement, and alpha readers are going to point out those flaws. That's the risk I took when I posted something online—someone can criticize me.
I'm grateful for Guest's review. It offered me the prospect of better defining my stance on networking through FictionPress. Working through this website requires consistent effort. It means struggling to find authors with points of parity in our genres and niches. It can even mean receiving fallout for a well intended review. But our role as alpha readers cannot be overstated. Even the simplest of reviews goes a long way towards the day when a professional editor may read our stories.