When I was a kid developing my obsession with The Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins, I spent a lot of time coming up with my own ideas for the series. I would sketch out the covers, create the titles, and even write the back cover copy. I had no idea what I was doing back then had a name: fan fiction. And I definitely didn’t realize it was helping me grow as a writer.
For the uninitiated, fan fiction is any writing someone does that uses another writer’s characters and setting. And while fanfic as a concept isn’t new, the early-aughts saw the rise of online spaces like LiveJournal and Fanfiction.net, which, combined with juggernaut titles like Harry Potter and Twilight that were suddenly on everybody’s radar, ushered in a groundswell of new opportunities for passionate fans. Tens of thousands of readers — including many kids and teens — began posting their work online, commenting on others’ pieces, and ultimately creating thriving communities built on shared interests and encouragement.
These fanfic communities were more than just virtual writing workshops, though. Over time, they became havens for emerging writers — safe spaces in which people who had never before shared their writing publicly could express themselves, and know they were receiving thoughtful critiques in response. The level of respect in fanfic communities helped encourage people to keep writing, which means they ultimately improved their writing skills.
Here’s the thing: improving writing skills is great. But what if fanfic does even more than just help writers develop their writing?
In the latest issue of the MIT Technology Review, Cecilia Aragon (director of the Human Centered Data Science Lab at the University of Washington and the author, with Katie Davis, of Writers in the Secret Garden) discusses how her own immersion into fanfic communities, beginning back in 2013, showed that fanfic goes way beyond just storytelling. Instead, out of those early fanfic communities arose a set of rules and processes for collaboration that she wagers could prove beneficial in the classroom.
Through her work, Cecilia noticed that fanfic writers have created spaces with enough freedom to explore new and experimental ways of writing, but also with ground rules that keep them respectful of other writers. Through these communities, they’ve learned how to accept constructive criticism, how to respectfully provide feedback for others, how to gain tolerance for other worlds and stories, and even how to be more resilient.
Writers are nothing if not resilient. We have to be, considering just how much rejection there is in this industry, even for the most successful of authors. How exciting it is, then, that encouraging young writers to tell their own stories about the characters they love can help them develop skills that will serve them well in all aspects of life!
The online world wasn’t around when I was busy writing my own fanfic as a kid, but I imagine that, if it had been, I’d have been a lot closer — a lot faster — to understanding how to accept criticism, how to relay my own, and how, ultimately, collaboration can improve a piece of writing.
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