I picked up on the website at http://www.youwriteon.com/ and, not without trepidation, registered with them. They weren't asking for money and, from what I could tell, not only offered the aforementioned peer assessment but the opportunity to be seen by those in the know.
It works a bit like this. You read and review someone's work and for that earn a token. With your tokens you can upload work of your own and receive reviews in return. You get to see overall scores relating to tension, character, setting and so on and you know the reader actually looked at you work because they had to pass a test at the end of it (yes, that part feels a bit like being back at school, though as a teacher I guess I never really left).
Overall scoring gives you points and what to points make?
Points get you into the chart if the work is highly thought of. The top ten place fillers at the end of each month are seen by people in the business of publishing and acting as agents, or at least their filters.
In relation to the work you intend to review, there's a system that allows you to get rid of things that aren't to your taste, which helps a lot (I wish I'd been aware of that from the beginning).
So what did I learn from my experience?
I learned a little about how the system works. It makes a lot of sense and seems fairly neutral.
I learned how to develop a more critical eye by thinking about the work of others. With this critical eye I was better able, I hope, to evaluate my own work.
I learned that I was impatient to be number one in the charts and so I hungrily read pieces to gather enough reviews.
I quickly learned that I was never going to be number one.I learned that others shared my impatience - this was evidenced by bland and general comments.
Importantly, I learned about things I needed to improve if I was going to head in an upward direction in terms of the quality of my work. Sometimes a small comment can improve a piece hugely when you revise; it might relate to something that is glaringly obvious once you're aware of it when without the pointers you may not have seen it in twenty edits.
Lastly, I learned to thicken my skin. There's no point asking for advice if you're not ready to take it. People are all different, they have different ideas, different likes, different approaches. Not everyone is going to like a piece that's up for review, but everyone can offer guides into the way you've gone about it. For one of my stories I was told it had 'the best dialogue seen on the site' while on the other hand someone else felt it was 'dull as dishwater'. I hope that I managed to distinguish between those that didn't have as much to offer as I needed and those who had taken the time and made the effort to give constructive advice. I found that if I let anger and frustration settle for a while, waited for the depression to lift and re-read criticism, I was then in a place to consider it. Not all criticism is good, but by thinking about it, putting up arguments for and against, you can come out with a stronger conviction and a real sense of what you're up to. Remember doing all that soaking in vinegar and baking prep for your chestnuts? Might be worth bathing in vinegar yourself and lying on a sunbed for a couple of hours before registering, just to be on the safe side.
I think I'm better as a writer because of the time I spent there. I'm even thinking of putting up another short work (short stories and sample chapters are equally acceptable) to see if I can get a sense of any improvement. I still need pointers and this is a way of getting them for free.
At the end of it all, there's an avenue out there for self-publishing run through the site. It's always tantalising, but I'm not jumping in yet. My feeling is that if work hasn't been taken up by agents, magazines or publishers then there's a reason for it. If I never get to be good enough to get the breaks, then maybe I'll think about it more seriously- who knows?
Print on demand does offer great opportunities for people who want to edit magazines and collections (see my Rue Bella post from a week ago). If that's something you're interested in, You Write On might be the place for you.
I'd advise all interested in self-publishing to think about it carefully first. Make sure it's what you really want. In the meantime, send off work to one of the many reputable small press magazines out there and see what they think.
I'd recommend youwriteon for anyone who doesn't have a trusted reader of their own and for anyone who enjoys writing. Unless you're already in the big leagues, why not give it a shot?