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Could Online Writing Communities Replace Creative Writing Programs?

• Quillant.com, an online writing community based in the UK launched two months ago

• Chris Vannozzi, a co-founder of Quilliant.com discusses the role online communities can play in developing talent for the traditional publishing industry

By Chris Vannozzi

LONDON: Two months ago we launched Quilliant.com , a new online writing community that aims to recreate the classic writing group over the web. It is a different type of site for writers; it is about developing your work-in-progress with like-minded others and working together towards your aims.

You create a profile in which you state the type of writer you are -– novelist, poet, playwright, etc. -– and the genres that you work in. Quilliant.com matches you with similar writers and you form a writing group together. You work collaboratively, exchanging feedback on your work line by line. New writers become good writers. Good writers become great writers. Great writing builds up a following on the site.

Our aim is simply to help writers be read, something that in this digital age is still harder than it should be. It is still early days for Quilliant.com but we are well on the way to achieving our first year aim of signing up 50,000 users and our community are helping us to shape the site.

We want Quilliant.com to be loved by writers for helping them to find an audience, to be loved by literary agents by helping them to find promising new work and loved by publishers for helping to take the risk out of backing new writing. The next step is to get the industry more involved -– for instance, we would love an editor or two to start working on the site with our writers.

We are not the first and won’t be the last community of this type. But what’s interesting is that ever since we launched the site, writers and those in the publishing industry keep asking us the same question: Will online writing communities such as ours help to make traditional writing groups and university creative programs redundant for the young digerati? The short answer is, that as a writing veteran of both the traditional and the digital, I know that we won’t.

My own love of writing began very traditionally. When I was six years old I wrote a sci-fi epic called “Battle Above the Stars.” It had a hero called Ovack and a villain called Darwin. It was written in miniature-lined notebooks that measured 6 inches by 3 inches. In the evenings I would read every new chapter aloud to my parents.

Chris Vannozzi

My love affair with writing continued until my early teens when English lessons changed at my school. Suddenly I was asked to analyze other people’s stories rather than write my own. And slowly but surely I fell out of love with writing and became distracted by the things that tend to distract teenage boys.

School turned into university and university turned into working for a living. The only writing I did now was business proposals. The written word had become a blunt tool used only to improve my employer’s margin.

It took a spectacular break up to reconnect me with writing for pleasure. My swirling emotions were so powerful that I felt compelled to write them down. Thankfully I didn’t. But it started a spark inside me, a reconnection with the six year old who read aloud to his parents.

I was nervous the first time I walked into a creative writing class. I picked a fairly grand setting for my first ever class –- The Groucho Club in London, the notorious private members’ club famous for celebrity misbehavior. Somewhat quaintly, they ran creative writing classes on Saturday afternoons, which were advertised in Time Out. I’m not sure what their normal crowd of rock stars, newspaper executives and Soho legends would have made of it.

These classes attracted quite an intimidating crowd — fiercely intelligent people, full of rich experience and with stories to burn. In comparison I felt as empty as the pad I had just bought from the stationers next door.

But I shouldn’t have worried. We were an unlikely group but we bonded quickly. It didn’t matter that we were different ages, came from different backgrounds and had wildly different interests. It didn’t matter that we wanted to write radically different work and had vastly different ambitions for it. It didn’t matter that one guy had written five novels and I hadn’t written anything since the beginning of my adolescence.

Now I had others to share my love of writing with. We became a support network for each other, offering encouragement, sharing ideas, pushing each other to improve.

We work-shopped our writing. You would read aloud for ten minutes and then the others would tell you what they thought, what they liked, where it could be improved. This was a huge eye opener for me; what started off as just fledgling words on a page soon developed a life of their own and I could see the effect that they could have on others.

I became addicted to work-shopping in this way. Above all, the fact that others were prepared to hear what I had written offered a glimpse that maybe one day I could be more widely read, even -– whisper it –- published. I would head home filled with hope, even if my writing had stunk up the room.

I started working towards the completion of a novel, work-shopping each chapter as it was finished. But one day I found myself in a situation where I wouldn’t have access to a writing group for some time. So I went online, eager to get my fix there.

I found a number of great writing sites, Authonomy and WEbook to name just a couple. But they were not exactly what I wanted – they offered a shop window to display finished work. I wanted a writing group online where I could collaborate with other writers to improve my writing piece by piece, chapter by chapter, even line by line.

By this point I was working in web design and decided, somewhat rashly, that I should make my ideal writing site myself. So I formed a web development company called Faction Media with my friend Ben Oakshott, a fellow writer and talented programmer, and set to work.

Eight months later, we gave birth to Quilliant.com.

So back to the original question – what will sites like ours do for traditional taught creative writing programs and writing groups that meet in schools, colleges and church halls? Will the next generation of writers, who never knew life before the Internet, want to share their writing face to face, as I and thousands of others do? Or will they only share online, anonymously.

I fell out of love with writing as a young man because I lost sight of the effect that our words can have on others. Writing for an audience seemed to me something that other people did. But writing for an audience is completely natural for these kids thanks to social media. They write for an audience everyday through networks like Twitter and Facebook.

But if you have a thousand Facebook friends and Twitter followers hanging on your every word, why would you put in the time and effort to learn the craft of writing? The answer is simple. Online is a place where you can try new things for free. If you have a talent for it, the digital community will respond. If you have a talent for it, you will want to take it further.

If I were growing up today with all the communication advantages that the Internet gives us, I would never have fallen out of love with writing. It’s about connections. Connections which could have nurtured my passion for writing in ways that traditional British schooling in the early ‘90s simply could not. And when it came to making choices about what to study and what to pursue as a career, I would have chosen my passion.

Online writing communities like Quilliant.com offer a new way for writers to connect with each other. But we believe they work best as one of a number of connections. It’s similar to Facebook, which allows us to maintain contact with a wider circle of friends than we would otherwise be able to, but not at the expense of time spent with our nearest and dearest.

We believe that what begins as a digital connection between writers will inevitably cause them to find each other offline. Some things are hardwired into us –- as amazing as the Internet is, it will never replace our fundamental need for human contact.

We’ve already had whole writing groups and classes join Quilliant.com together and use the site to further develop work that they first discussed face to face. We love this –- we want to bring writers together, not keep them apart. And we will know we have succeeded with Quilliant.com when we start to physically get our online community together face to face, whenever and wherever we can.

DISCUSS: Who do MFA programs really benefit?

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2 Comments

  1. Posted October 25, 2010 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    I’m eager to try this. I have in the past attempted to form writer’s groups online, only to have them fizzle. I think this may be because I was networking with writers still more inclined toward an analog model. Since I struggle with the read-aloud method (it conflicts with the medium of consumption in my mind, and I have a notoriously short attention span) an online service where I can read the work in its own medium has serious appeal.

  2. Worrell
    Posted May 27, 2011 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

    I always knew you were the sort to have written a sci fi novel aged 6

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