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What I learned from studying billions of words of online fan fiction


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What I learned from studying billions of words of online fan fiction

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When I was 10, I was a lonely, geeky girl, a first–generation Latina growing up in a small town in Indiana. I happened across J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, and immediately became enraptured by the richly woven world of elves, orcs, and small but heroic hobbits fighting against impossible odds to combat a powerful enemy.

But one thing disturbed me: the lack of female characters. The main party of adventurers accompanying the hobbit protagonist, Frodo, didn’t contain a single female. Not only did I feel shut out—the way I sometimes did in school when my teachers told me that girls weren’t supposed to be good at math—but it offended my sense of fairness. Surely girls and women could have adventures and take on risky challenges too?

So I sat down with a spiral notebook and rewrote the story, re-gendering a couple of the main characters and adding new scenes, such as one where a female hobbit devised a clever plan to foil the Balrog, a gruesome monster who threw one of my favorite characters, the wizard Gandalf, into a bottomless pit.

By reimagining Tolkien’s fantasy world, I was creating a place where someone like me could feel at home. Writing my story gave me comfort. It also taught me about the effort involved in creating a narrative. I never shared that spiral notebook with anyone, but if I’d been able to get constructive feedback on it, I might have learned even more about writing.

What I didn’t realize then is I was writing fan fiction—a story based on characters or settings from another’s work—and that I was not alone. Fan fiction has many literary precedents. John Milton wrote Paradise Lost using characters from the Bible. Shakespeare retold ancient folk stories. Today, millions of young people are writing and sharing fan fiction on a variety of websites. They are giving and receiving feedback and teaching each other how to write. They’re not only learning about writing; they’re finding community, establishing identity, and exploring new trends that have not yet found mainstream acceptance.

On the basis of our research, my colleague Katie Davis and I at the University of Washington believe fan fiction could be more than just a source of support and self-expression for lonely kids; it could also be an important tool in formal education.

Jessica Madorran

Defying the stereotype

In the past 20 years, over 60 billion words of fan fiction have been written and posted on Fanfiction.net, the world’s largest repository. The site’s 10 million members have collectively authored a corpus about three-quarters the size of the entirety of published English-language fiction. This outpouring of creativity has been generated primarily by young people, with a median age of 15 ½.

Katie and I have been studying these sites since 2013, when we first met and chatted about a recent news story claiming that young people today can’t write—all they can do is produce broken, misspelled short texts. Both of us had teenage relatives who defied this stereotype. The young people we knew were skilled writers and thoughtful readers. They were also heavily involved in online communities and fan fiction. This apparent contradiction, backed up by my childhood experience, struck us as fertile grounds for research.

We recruited four students to join us in the project. Our group started out by selecting three fandoms, representing a range of genres and media types: one book, one cartoon, and one TV show. For the book, we selected Harry Potter, the popular young adult fantasy series, in part because it’s probably the single most prolific generator of fan fiction today, with over 800,000 stories archived in one repository alone. We also decided to study My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, a children’s animated fantasy TV series, and Doctor Who, a science fiction TV show that’s been running since 1963. For each fandom, it was important that at least two of us were deeply familiar with it, and that it was popular enough to have plenty of material for us to study.

We started out by reading stories and interacting with authors, and we each wrote and posted our own fanfic stories as participant observers. On our profiles we explained that we were researchers as well as fans of the communities we studied. As a group, we spent about 10 to 20 hours per week immersed in these communities. We ended up with over 1,000 hours of participant observation and several hundred pages of field notes and memos. We also interviewed authors both formally and informally.

The overriding reason that authors wrote fan fiction, we found, was for the love of it. They unanimously believed that it had helped them to become better writers, an evolution we could see for ourselves. They were very clear that support from other members of the community was critical. As one anonymous author told us:

When I was 13, I had a major crush on a certain fictional character. My fics were full of phrases such as “gorgeous cerulean orbs,” “manly hunks of muscle,” and the like. Reviewers were kind enough to be positive about my amateurish fangirl postings—mostly because they also liked this character—but also pointed out my uses of clichés and overwriting. As a result, I learned to be sensitive to these types of bad writing. Today, I’ve published original fiction, and no one has ever called me out on a florid writing style. I think if a teacher had simply red-penciled my childish scribbles, I might have been so discouraged as to never write again.

Although privacy concerns prevent us from directly quoting from the stories written by the authors we interviewed, a well-known example illustrates how bad fan fiction can be. My Immortal, called by some “the worst fan fiction ever written” (it may or may not be a parody), is a Harry Potter fanfic posted in 2006 on Fanfiction.net:

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Hi my name is Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way and I have long ebony black hair (that’s how I got my name) with purple streaks and red tips that reaches my mid-back and icy blue eyes like limpid tears … I’m a vampire but my teeth are straight and white. I have pale white skin. I’m also a witch.

Many of the authors we interviewed admitted they started off as poor writers but said they’d improved enough to consider writing professionally.

Fan fiction was what got me into writing in the first place … now I’m a freshman in a college that approved an application that had been sent in with clippings of my online work. I’m planning on majoring in creative writing—fiction specifically—and more than anything else, fan fiction and the fan fiction community has informed my writing style and ability, and my reviewing/editing abilities. Workshopping with a larger community, which might be an alien experience for many entering my department, is almost a daily routine for me by now.

We found that not only were fan fiction authors writing original fiction; they also learned life lessons, becoming more tolerant and willing to help others. Some said they’d become more open-minded, and had received emotional support that helped them navigate adolescent traumas and find identity. Here’s what three of them said:

When I started writing fan fiction at age 13, I was a queer, autistic middle schooler who had not yet realized that she was either of these things. I had difficulty with many of the social situations that came naturally to others my age, and I became isolated from my peers at school. Fan fiction communities were a vital social outlet for me.

I spent over a year heavily invested in writing and reading fan fiction, and I accomplished some things I’m still quite proud of. That definitely had an impact on who I am. I’m more willing and able to help other writers with their work, I’m less judgmental about fan fiction and a number of other things, and I’ve certainly learnt a lot about grammar!

It’s been a massive confidence boost that helped me get through university without quitting and still helps me today if I’m feeling down.

Our research goal was to learn more about fanfic authors’ mentoring relationships. We expected to find traditional mentorship pairs, with an older or more experienced author serving as a beta reader for a younger or less experienced one.

What we found was different. Millions of authors and readers communicate via multiple channels—including Skype, official beta reader groups, fan fiction user groups, and other messaging and social-media platforms, as well as story reviews. Individual pieces of feedback are often too small to constitute mentoring on their own, but in the aggregate, particularly when reviewers build on and reference each other’s comments, the result is a new form of network-enabled mentoring that we call “distributed mentoring.” It enables authors to piece together an overall view of their writing that is supportive as well as constructive. Many authors feel encouraged as well as educated by their reviewers. As one young person told us:

I’ll just add to the mentoring point—it’s sort of come full cycle for me. When the girl PM’d [private messaged] me asking for advice, I did realise that I used to be her. Back in the day I wrote so badly that people flaming and trolling me would’ve been perfectly viable. Luckily I had people to push me up and advise me to turn me into the author I am today, so I found it really important to do exactly the same for her.

One key attribute of distributed mentoring is its abundance. Authors who have written both traditionally published work and fan fiction have noted that they may get more feedback in a week on their fanfics than they receive in years on their original fiction. It is a difference not only of degree, but also of kind. By itself, a single comment on a story, such as “Loved it,” is relatively meaningless. However, if a writer receives dozens or hundreds of similar comments, it’s valuable guidance.

A cure for isolation

We believe distributed mentoring could be used to help improve formal writing education in schools. The most recent report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicated that 73% of US students in grades 8 and 12 lack proficiency in writing. Research has shown that writing skills can improve significantly during adolescence, and the popularity of writing fan fiction in that age group shows what an opportunity there is to use it as a learning tool.

Students with similar interests from school districts across the country could be connected with one another to get and give anonymous or pseudonymous feedback on their writing. Teachers could moderate the channels to ensure that feedback was constructive, as well as helping students learn from it.

If this work grew burdensome for teachers, hierarchical moderation could help.  In other words, members could report negative or abusive comments, and volunteer moderators from among the students could decide which ones to delete, with teachers weighing in only when necessary. This technique is used in many large online communities, and many adolescents are familiar with it.

This vast and vibrant resource for kids who have something to say is especially meaningful to me when I contrast it with the isolation I encountered growing up. Fan fiction is a private universe that has become a welcoming community, particularly for those from marginalized groups. In it, young people are mentoring each other to become skillful writers and thoughtful readers—and they are doing it entirely on their own time and their own terms. Adults would do well to listen to and learn from them.

Cecilia Aragon is 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, published by MIT Press in August 2019.

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