One of the key areas of interest in the Tolkien Fanfic Survey has naturally been what it tells us about feedback: how and why people leave it and, maybe more importantly, why they don’t. And I have to admit a personal interest in this subject as well. After all, I am an author myself, as well as an archive owner. Posting a piece of writing is not an act without cost to the author in terms of time and energy. When I go whole-hog in cross-posting a story and promoting it on social media, I expect to spend at least two hours doing so, on top of the many hours I’ve already expended in writing the piece. Furthermore, as a website owner with an explicit interest in building an archive with a strong sense of community, I know that authors and readers must talk to each other for that to happen. I also know that, if authors don’t hear from readers on my site, they will often make the assumption that their work is not a good fit there … and I can’t blame them because I’ve made that same call on archives, when I was spending time regularly to share my work but hearing little or nothing in response.
Over the past few years, I feel like I’ve gotten annoying with my preaching about comments. I’ve seen people leave sites over a lack of comments but, even more importantly, I’ve seen people leave the Tolkien fandom over a lack of comments. So this has become my manifesto: Barring significant language or psychological barriers*, if you read a story and love it, you should tell the author. If you are regularly reading an author’s work, you need to tell the author. Not a kudo. Not a like. A comment. Something that takes you a minute or two, at least, to write. That seems the least a reader can do for an author whose unpaid labor has given them joy and, oftentimes, hours of free entertainment.
*Don’t even give me that horseshit about reading on a phone as a reason for not commenting. If you can text on your phone, you can comment on your phone.
But as annoying as I’ve become, I haven’t seen significant shifts in commenting behavior. I don’t see droves of new people leaving comments or other significant (i.e., requires more than a tap or click to effect) feedback. When I go on a rant, maybe one person messages me privately, guilted into admitting that they’ve been reading my work, sometimes for years, and never told me, but I wonder if they are doing that for the other authors they are reading and not telling too. Because my comment count is above average, and the purpose of my rants is not to enrich myself but to improve commenting as a whole in the fandom. 2.8% of clicks on my five most recent non-Silm40 stories resulted in a comment. I recognize that comment-to-click data is complex but that’s still a sad number to call “good.”
Since it’s become clear that my wheedling, whining, and ranting about comments is not doing much good, I was interested on the survey data about commenting too. I’ve been crunching it for the better part of a year to produce the infographic above. Some key takeaways:
- Most participants (76%) claimed to leave feedback. However, most people leave feedback relatively rarely.
- People who are fanfic authors leave feedback more often than those who are readers only: 87% compared to 59%.
- (That’s still 13% of authors who are willing to admit that they don’t leave feedback ever. This group will be the subject of a future post.)
- The reasons people leave comments are largely altruistic: They hope to encourage writers (83%) and feel that commenting is a way to give back to authors (92%).
- This data wasn’t in the infographic (I need to go back and add it …), but 72.9% agreed or strongly agreed that “it is appropriate to leave constructive criticism in public comments on stories.” 65% identified helping writers improve as a motive for commenting. (At the same time, 51.6% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that “[w]hen I comment publicly on fanfiction, I only say nice things about the story.” Hmm.)
- Reasons that meet the needs of the reader (versus the author) were the least likely to motivate commenting: feeling part of a community (60%), making friends (48%), and developing a deeper understanding of the texts (36%).
- And if you’re wondering, also not on the infographic (also should be added, right?), only 2.8% of participants admit that they’ve “flamed or harshly and publicly criticized a story I didn’t like.”
- The Tolkien fanfic community values commenting: 78% think it’s important to comment and leave feedback. Perhaps coincidentally, 78% also wish they commented more often. (I haven’t analyzed the extent of the overlap between these two survey items … yet.)
These two groups of 78% are of interest to me. These seems to be group that is most likely to lead to improvement in the number of comments authors are receiving on their work. Or: these are the people who have been the audience for my whining and ranting and cajoling all these years.
But if they think commenting is the right thing to do and/or want to comment more, why aren’t they?
Interestingly, 78% (again!) say that “I sometimes want to leave a comment but am not sure what to say.” A smaller but still-too-large-for-my-liking 55% say that “I sometimes want to leave a comment but think that my comment might not mean much to the writer.” (To this last group: There is no fanfic writer who has ever said, “I wish this reader never told me they liked my work.” I had one author one time tell me they didn’t like comments … and then I later caught them celebrating on their journal how many comments a particular piece received, so I’m back to my original assertion that all fanfic writers like comments, even the short ones.)
All of this data is interesting, but it leads me full circle to again ponder what I see as a problem in the fandom: Readers need to speak up more often in appreciation of the authors who are producing their free entertainment. If ranting and whining doesn’t work, what will?
The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the 78%–the third one, the one that admits they don’t always know what to say in a comment–are the key here. As most of you probably know by now, I am a teacher “in real life,” so I am used to taking actual achievement and figuring out ways to make it better. Unfortunately, in my career as in fandom, I have found that ranting and whining very rarely works aside from the temporary relief of venting steam. So what is the solution?
In my career in recent years, one thing I have increasingly worked to be more aware of is the bias created by the privilege of expertise. In my classroom, I am the expert in the room and am rarely, if ever, required to intellectually challenge myself the way I require my students to take that risk. So I frequently make myself go out and try something I expect I will be bad at, like rock-climbing or long-distance cycling over hilly dirt roads. Likewise, in fandom, I have become increasingly aware that, as an experienced writer, editor, and a teacher of the English language–someone who has steeped herself in thinking about literature and writing for most of her life now–I have skills that perhaps don’t come as effortlessly to others.
It’s easy for me to read a story and identify what the author does that is successful. I do this as a writer, editor, and beta; on a near-daily basis, I teach my students to pick apart a mentor text and apply what they’ve learned to their own writing. But I’ve come to realize that this is not a natural skill for most people. People are not born knowing how to discern much less communicate what makes a work of fiction tick for them. This is not only a learned skill but a unique and difficult form of writing, and readers are expected to produce it publicly. It’s hard to articulate what makes a piece of art succeed unless you’re used to breaking down that abstraction and possess the language needed to communicate those ideas. I feel it myself when asked to comment on visual art, which I often enjoy but for reasons I find difficult to articulate. I think the 55% that worry that their comment will be worthless to the author might capture some of the “stage fright” that surrounds producing this kind of writing and the worry that they are doing it badly.
And when it comes to the unique type of writing required by a comment, I’ve had a lot of practice. I once counted up the number of stories I’ve read in workshops, as an editor, and as a beta reader and estimated that I’d provided detailed feedback on more than 2,000 stories or chapters. That’s before I even consider how much student work I’ve read and commented on in the course of my teaching career. (Because, honestly, that number is scary!) So is it fair for me to hold everyone else to my standards? I’ve scoffed in the past that more than a small percentage of readers had a reason to feel actually anxious about commenting, but I’m increasingly realizing now that this was a bit like a professional dancer scoffing at people who don’t want to bust a move in front of a room full of professional dancers. I’m seeing that it’s quite reasonable to feel anxious about that.
That 78% slaps me in the face: people who want to comment, who would comment, but don’t know what to say. It casts the problem in a different light: not of pushing people to comment but providing them with what they need so that, when they want to comment, they can comment.
I’ve been thinking about what that would look like. This summer, I started a project called “101 Comment Starters”: single fill-in-the-blank sentences that state the myriad reasons that people like a piece of writing. I got about halfway done before becoming immersed in the Mereth Aderthad and never picking up the “101” project again. This concept builds on the idea of sentence and question starters, used to scaffold writers learning a new format. I’ve also considered what structural changes could be built into an archive (especially since I’m also thinking a lot these days about how best to rebuild the SWG’s aging infrastructure) that provides the satisfaction to authors of specific feedback on their work while alleviating some of the pressure on readers to perform publicly an unfamiliar and fairly complex form of writing. Would it help, for example, to be able to leave a comment visible only to the author? Or if authors could choose what they liked about a story from a checklist–a step above the one-click feedback that I refuse to have on the SWG but not quite as paralyzing as that blank comment form with nothing to go on?
I don’t have it all figured out, but this data really shifted my thinking. Now, a bit ironically–I’d love to hear from you in the comments!