Generally, fan-fiction writers’ strengths are effusively celebrated, and any feedback on their weaknesses is very gently conveyed. Reviews of fan fiction are overwhelmingly positive—Aragon and Davis found that out of a sample of 4,500 reviews on fanfiction.net, only 1 percent were what they called “non-constructive negative” reviews, or “flames” (such as: “I never thought that human spawn could create such a horrible piece of crap”).
Tamsyn Muir, a science-fiction writer from New Zealand and the author of the new novel Gideon the Ninth, remembers the reviews on her early fan-fiction stories (parodies of Animorphs and long, gritty tales based on the Final Fantasy video games) as almost entirely positive. “You didn’t have to do that well to get a lot of positive feedback,” she told me. In fact, in her early days of writing and posting fan fiction online, she said, she got only one actual critique. “Somebody had said, ‘I think this story is okay, but it feels a bit template. It just feels like a very generic story.’ I was so angry, because it was the first piece of really constructive criticism.” The anonymous review turned out to be from her brother—after he watched her fume all day, he fessed up. “He was like, ‘I don’t want you getting complacent,’” Muir said.
While it probably takes more than unalloyed positivity to strengthen one’s writing, hearing what readers respond well to is useful for writers, and an outpouring of encouragement may well motivate writers to keep writing, which can only improve their skills. “People often discount the positive feedback, but for a lot of struggling writers and English learners, those copious amounts of positive feedback were really important,” says Black, who has studied how fan fiction helps English learners grow as writers in their new language.
Still, constructive criticism (or “concrit”) is a welcome and integral part of fan-fiction websites (although some writers or communities may specify that they’re not looking for concrit). When fan-fiction reviewers offer a specific critique, they often present it in the middle of a “compliment sandwich,” according to Muir and Black, slipping negative feedback between the bread of effusive praise, and often adding a self-deprecating comment such as “But what do I know?” to soften the blow.
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Aragon and Davis’s research also found that the communal tutoring happening on fan-fiction websites leads to a quantifiable improvement in people’s writing, at least by one metric. They analyzed 61.5 billion words of fan-fiction stories and 6 billion words of reviews from fanfiction.net, tracking the “lexical diversity,” or complexity of vocabulary, of users over time. They discovered that for every 650 reviews writers received, their vocabulary improved as much as if they had aged one year. (The average age of authors in this sample was just under 17, so this may not hold true for older writers—even if they are honing other, more advanced, less measurable skills, such as story structure, pacing, or character development.)