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Friday, August 10, 2012

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Writers Forum

A few months ago I was commissioned by The Author (journal of the UK Society of Authors) to write an article about the history of my forum at myWritersCircle (which I run in association with my sponsors and publishers, The WCCL Network).

The article was duly published last month, and I now have their permission to reproduce it here for the benefit of non-SoA members.

Incidentally, in the magazine the title was changed to "Hosting a Writers' Forum". I still prefer my original title, though!

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Writers Forum

by Nick Daws

I'm not a household name, but due to the fact that I've written several books and courses for writers, I have a small reputation as a writing guru. This has some advantages for me, of course, but it also has its downside.

Back in the mid-noughties I was receiving a stream of email queries from aspiring writers, which was threatening to turn into a flood.  Often these folk were seeking feedback on their work or asking questions about manuscript presentation and so on. It occurred to me that if I started an online forum, I might be able to refer some correspondents there. They could then get feedback and answers from fellow writers, rather than me having to provide all this myself.

At the same time, my (electronic) publishers The WCCL Network were planning new online initiatives to help promote their range of courses and products, including a writers forum. So when they asked if I would be interested in managing myWritersCircle.com, I accepted with barely a moment's hesitation.

Flash forward to 2012: myWritersCircle now has over 39,000 members world-wide, who between them have racked up nearly three-quarters of a million posts. So was it really that easy to become - arguably - the world's most popular writers forum? Well, not exactly...

When I started myWritersCircle, I had never run an online forum before, and had no real idea what I was getting into. In the early days the place could get lonely. It was depressing to log in and see the message 'Current Users: 1' and realise this was me. Forums are all about connecting people, and they don't work unless you can achieve a critical mass. The web is full of forums that failed for just this reason, and for a while it was touch-and-go whether myWritersCircle would join them. Gradually the numbers increased, though. I was lucky to have a devoted core of early adopters who spread word about the forum enthusiastically, almost evangelistically. In time a snowball effect developed, which was aided considerably when the American Writer's Digest magazine named myWritersCircle as one of their 100 best websites for writers.

But popularity brings its own problems. In particular, the forum started attracting undesirables, spammers being among the earliest. Suddenly the boards became festooned with messages promoting everything from non-prescription painkillers to Ugg boots. The job of managing the forum, which at one time had involved little more than engaging in civilised conversations with fellow writers, became more akin to fire-fighting. More than once I sat at my computer zapping these 'invaders' one by one as they appeared, only for even more to rain down. Even assisted by my wonderful team of volunteer moderators (to whom I'm deeply indebted, by the way), it became apparent that this was a battle we couldn't win on our own.

Some forums have perished at this point (cause of death: choking on spam). What saved myWritersCircle was that we were sponsored by an electronic publishing house, whose technical expertise we could call on. They upgraded the forum software and installed the latest anti-spam plug-ins, which made it much easier to block spam posts and ban known spammers. Even this wasn't a complete solution. The moderators and I have to remain vigilant, but it has made the problem manageable. And members help by reporting spam posts as they appear, so we can quickly delete them and block the perpetrators.

Spammers are annoying en masse, but individually they are easy to deal with. What has caused far more heartache over the years is a much smaller group of people who, intentionally or otherwise, cause conflict, chaos and ill-feeling.

At one extreme are the trolls, whose main pleasure in life comes from baiting other people. They are at least relatively easy to spot and ban.

What is harder is dealing with people who think a forum gives them a platform to say anything they like, however hurtful it may be to others. Sometimes these are moderately successful writers, who take it upon themselves to 'help' newbies by advising them that their work is valueless, they will never make it as writers, and they would do better to take up knitting instead. In some cases they may be right, but such comments are unkind and reflect badly on myWritersCircle as a whole.

This is really where running a forum gets ticklish. On the one hand, you want to allow freedom of speech. On the other, though, there have to be limits. Constructive criticism is to be encouraged, destructive is not, but sometimes there can be a thin line between them. Deciding whether (and how) to intervene in such cases can consume vast amounts of time and cause considerable angst. In addition, there are always a few members who will take the side of the writer concerned and accuse the forum management of being dictatorial. There are no easy answers - at least, I don't know any - but we occasionally have to remind our more forthright members that myWritersCircle is a privately-owned website and not some sort of democratic republic. 'Membership of the forum is a privilege, not a right' is a mantra I have had cause to repeat on more than one occasion.

Another annoyance is people who join in pursuit of odd challenges. For example, at one time we had a rash of new members whose task was apparently to include the word 'goblin' in every post they made until they got banned. We also get people who join in the guise of fictional characters (Norris Cole from Coronation Street was one recent visitor) and see how long it takes for anyone to notice. At times all you can really do is sigh and reflect on the odd things some people will do for entertainment.

Finally, we have to deal with people who appear to have mental health issues. In a way, this is the most difficult scenario of all. What do you do, for example, when someone joins and posts a series of long, rambling and unpleasant confessions, and then declines to engage in any discussion about them? There have been times when we wondered if social services should be informed, but this is difficult when (a) you have no way of knowing whether their stories are true or fantasy, and (b) you can't even be sure which continent they are on. Mostly we try to 'manage' these people and hope that in time they get bored and move on. Tempting though it may be to go further, we don't have the time or resources to start acting as the world's social workers.

If all this sounds negative, I should balance it by saying that the vast majority of members are perfectly pleasant, normal people (at least, as 'normal' as any writer gets). Despite being from a wide variety of countries and cultures - many where English is not a first language - we rub along quite happily most of the time. Some of our more experienced members are generous to a fault in the amount of time they devote to helping new writers, answering their questions and providing feedback on their work. The forum has also given birth to numerous collaborations (including full-length books and screenplays), friendships which led to trans-Atlantic flights to meet up, and even the occasional romance!

My own experience with myWritersCircle, too, has been overwhelmingly positive. Through the forum I've met several authors I now consider among my close friends. I've learnt a surprising amount about writing and publishing from members, and also heard about markets, opportunities and resources I would never otherwise have been aware of. If occasionally running the forum has caused me a few more grey hairs, overall it has still been a good trade-off. And if I could go back to 2005 and start the forum all over again, would I? Of course, in an instant!

First published in The Author, Summer 2012 issue. 

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I do hope you enjoyed reading my article. And if you haven't yet joined myWritersCircle, I hope you will consider giving us a try. We offer the warmest of welcomes to new members!

If you have any comments or questions about the forum, of course, please feel free to post them below.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Chihuahua Zero said...

This reminds me of the writing sub-forum I'm a member of. I think it has about the same amount of activeness, and it has developed quite the community.

12:39 PM  
Anonymous Cathy said...

Great article. Great to see your history.

I was curious if you have had any long stretches that you felt you were in a funk and didn't want to write. Not writers block but more just "not in the mood" for an extended period? I would think if a person writes a lot, it can be mentally exhausting.

Just curious:)

3:30 AM  
Blogger E. Arroyo said...

Yay!! Overall MWC has been a great experience.

5:14 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks for all the comments, guys.

Cathy, I guess the answer to your question is that there are some days I feel like that, and on *really* bad days I might end up going off and doing something else instead. I take this as nature's way of telling me that I need to recharge my batteries a bit.

As a full-time freelance with no other source of income, however, I can't afford to do this too often! Mostly, therefore, I just grit my teeth and get on with it. Once I'm into a writing session, I usually find it's a lot better.

9:38 AM  

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