Fanfiction: Is This Online Community the New Writer’s Workshop?

Every aspiring writer has been told to join a writer’s workshop at least once. The writer’s workshop is the much-touted space to share your work as well as give and receive constructive feedback from fellow writers. But the writer’s workshop can have its drawbacks. A workshopped piece can only get feedback from a small group of people. Plus, a writer’s workshop can have a heavy dose of…well. Snobbery. The writers that community attracts can have a deep disdain for anything they deem not to be “original” or “serious” enough for them. Writing may be an art form, but it’s also fun and entertaining; both to consume and create.

Is there a place for writers to get feedback on their work from hundreds of potential readers; a community for writers of all skill and commitment levels to share their work and experiment? There just might be, and it’s probably not where you expect.

What about fanfiction.net?

There’s long been a stigma about the readers and writers of fanfic that they don’t produce or appreciate “serious” work. That it’s a bunch of bubble-headed fangirls writing poor quality work with no social or cultural value. Well, I hate to break it to everyone, but this industry is full of poor quality works with no social or cultural value, and plenty of those works enjoy moderate to superb market success.

Fanfiction exists only for the purpose of entertainment and there are almost no barriers to enter or access. Writers of fanfic cannot be paid for their works—they write for the sake of writing and for fun. But they get something else out of it: the success of a piece of fan writing is measured by the engagement of its readers. Fanfic etiquette dictates that, as a reader, the way you compensate the writer for their labor is to give them feedback on their writing. Not just “I liked it!” or “I hated it,” though there’s room for that too. Writers ask their readers to comment on specific elements of their pieces and how they are working or not working. Writers receive live feedback from hundreds, if not thousands, of run-of-the-mill readers.

“But they don’t write anything original!” What is original? Plenty of fan works are continuations or alternate circumstances set in the universe of the work that inspired it, but that’s not the case with every piece. The categorization systems on sites like Archive of Our Own and fanfiction.net have created genres unique to the fanfiction community, including the wildly popular AU or Alternate Universe. It’s exactly what it sounds like—characters from the original work existing in an entirely different setting than that of the original story. Chances are you’ve heard of one of these works already. 50 Shades of Grey by E. L. James infamously began as a work of Twilight AU fanfiction. Someone thought that was original enough to publish. The “just change the names” approach, gaining popularity after the success of 50 Shades, allows writers to test the market for their work before it’s published—something incredibly valuable in an industry always looking for the next bestseller.

Why does everything someone writes have to be entirely original anyway? Writing is fun and it’s a craft one must practice to master. In her essay “Just Change The Names” for Anne Jamison’s anthology Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World, Tiffany Reisz wrote that “writing a Harry Potter novel of my own felt like learning to ride a bike with training wheels on. I didn’t have to bother with the messy task of world building…I could focus on learning the art of suspense, of creating mystery and mood, of developing sexual tension, of using humor to humanize a character. I learned to write fast and leave damn good cliffhangers to keep the reader begging for more.” Tiffany Reisz started as a fanfiction writer. Now she is a USA Today bestselling romance author.

Online fanfiction communities might not make the traditional writer’s workshop obsolete any time soon, but it’s undeniable that they offer benefits to an aspiring writer that a workshop group can’t provide—wider opportunities to receive feedback from writers and readers alike in a culture that treats feedback as currency; opportunities to test the audience and market for your work before attempting publication; a low pressure environment to hone specific skills; as well as just a fun new way to engage with the world literary community. With so many incentives, maybe everyone should be writing fanfiction.

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