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Should I Post My Writing Online?

In the last week or so, a few people have emailed to ask me whether or not it’s okay to post samples of your work online (like a few pages or a few chapters) on your blog, in forums, or whatever. This can be tricky. In the Internet age, if you post something online on a blog, social networking site, online literary journal, or public forum, it is considered “published.”

Obviously, the length of the sample you post is important. Read on:

If you are posting an entire poem or short story online, and then you try to sell it to a literary magazine, for example, the fact that is has previously been “published” is not good, as the entire work has appeared elsewhere. The editor of that literary magazine wants new, never-before-seen content. This applies both to print and online venues, as there are a lot of respectable online journals and literary magazines.

If you are posting a short portion of a novel online, and then the novel gets interest from an agent or editor, I’d say you could be okay, since the sample is short. Even though most editors and agents don’t like to work with previously published material, whether posted online or self-published, a short sample on your blog may not be enough to put them off your project. (Careful, though, as individual policies here do vary greatly.)

So when you think about posting online, consider how much of your work you’ll be exposing. Are you posting all of it? That will count as “published” and that website will be your venue for the piece, so you better make your peace with it. A sample that’s less than 5% of the total work? You could post, if you really want to, but know that you may run into some obstacles down the road.

The one exception to the “published” rule is if you post your writing in a private forum, such as the Verla Kay Blueboards. One reason to do this is if you want to get critique of your work from other writers. What you post in a members-only area of the Internet isn’t available to the general public and is therefore not considered “published” once it goes up. If getting feedback is really the reason you want to post your writing online in the first place, I’d do it behind the closed doors of a private forum.

Now, I know there are people thinking: But what if I post something and then take it down? Ah, Grasshopper, the reason is simple: online content never dies. Search engines log all new web content as it is created. If you put something online, ever, even for a short while, it will stay in a search engine’s cache and will still appear in search results.

I’m probably not going to be popular for this opinion, but I don’t think you should post your writing online as a means of attracting editor or agent interest. While some agents and editors do troll blogs looking for talent, I get most of my clients from submissions and conferences. I’m not crazy about most unpublished writer blogs, as some of you know, so I don’t go prospecting there. Don’t even get me started on sites like Authonomy and InkPop.

Plus, your writing should change and grow as you keep at it. And first chapters are usually the most wildly revised in any book. I know a lot of writers who keep hammering at their oh-so-important openings, draft after draft. Your beginning might change, so do you really want an old draft online for all to see? Maybe that doesn’t matter to you, but it certainly bugs me. When I turned in my MFA thesis, I declined to make a copy available in the university library (what usually happens with thesis manuscripts). Why? After one revision, that manuscript becomes just another rough draft, and I don’t want a rough draft floating around. I don’t know about you, but I often look back at old writing and cringe. Unless you plan to keep updating your writing sample online, it will become stale work at some point.

If you do want to post something tantalizing about your book, post a query-like summary of the story and a tag line. That’s the same kind of advertising that a published book has: the back and flap copy that is meant to describe the story and entice the reader. Write some flap copy for your manuscript — this will be good practice to help you hone in on  your hook, too — and put it on your blog. Some writers make a short and cheap video trailer. Others pick a playlist or images that evoke their work. That should be enough marketing to get people excited.

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  1. Elizabeth May’s avatar

    I do think this is an important topic, Mary, and I’m glad you’ve written about it. I know that there are a lot of people out there who really don’t think about how posting large portions of their manuscripts online may effect their possibly getting published.

    Personally, I do post writing samples on my blog – but all of them were scenes I wrote as backstory for my current WIP. None of them are actually in the manuscript, and I always state they’re roughish and just exercises. Since they’re so short and not a part of the manuscript, I don’t particularly mind having them float around on the internet.

    But I do agree that posting samples of the actual manuscript should be considered by writers beforehand. Drafts can change very drastically during revisions, so it might not be best to have those early edits so out there.

  2. V.C. Ford’s avatar

    Thank you for this post as this is something I have often wondered; should I or not post teasers (excerpts) of my writing on my site? When I once got close to doing it, I felt awkward, uneasy about that approach and so decided against it. I felt like it was going a step further away from my end goal. And honestly, I’m not interested in reading a published book of what someone has on their blog. Especially when I can get the gist of it from their website, a free source.

    Really appreciated reading your thoughts on the subject.

  3. Leigh DeLozier’s avatar

    Thanks for sharing your perspective on this — I’m always interested in how agents or editors weigh in on the “post a sample” debate. What’s your take on posting the first chapter (or a portion of it) on the author’s website once the book is contracted or published? I’m thinking it could become a potential selling tool at that point.

  4. Dan Holloway’s avatar

    How do you feel about sites like Authonomy and Inkpop, run by Harper Collins, where publishers ask people to put their work up for evaluation? Manuscripts are snapped up from these sites. I think a lot of writers feel that if it’s a big, reputable publisher asking you to do it, it must be OK.

  5. Tessa Gratton’s avatar

    This is interesting, and even as someone who has posted a LOT of writing online, I totally agree with it. Everything I’ve ever posted has been *different* from what I was trying to get published. I’ve done serial novels and many, many short stories (before and after I got an agent and a book deal) – I’ve gleaned so many benefits and so much learning from my experiences publishing fiction online that I can’t imagine telling anybody not to do it – BUT I think it needs to be done with the RIGHT purpose in mind.

    For me, I knew it was a kind of self-publishing, and that’s what I wanted. I was exploring the internet, exploring my blog, my audience, and the kinds of things I could do with online fiction. It wasn’t a step on the road to traditional publishing – it was a step on the road to understanding my online resources.

  6. Emy’s avatar

    Thank you for this post! I have considered posting my writing online before, but not anything I would ever try to publish later. And the thoughts of having my drafts floating around the Internet years later definitely make the cringe.

  7. Franziska Green’s avatar

    If I had some of my early attempts at children’s writing online, I’d have to quit kidlit. That bad.

    I’ve always liked the idea of offering ‘free’ stories to parents/teachers/kids who want to do their own illustrations for them – putting them on a website somewhere. Haven’t actually got round to writing any stories that I’d be willing to part with though! (Except the really bad ones, and who wants to share those?!)

  8. Greg Pincus’s avatar

    Just a few things to add to this, particularly on the poetry side of things. While it’s true that posting online makes things “previously published,” there are a lot of markets where that doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s only literary journals where I’ve heard of that as an issue. To wit, I’ve sold poetry to textbooks, websites, and magazines – all as a result of people Googling and finding my poems online. Traditional publishers also don’t have a prohibition on previously published work. In fact, as Diary of a Wimpy Kid would attest (and other examples, too), online popularity can get a book published.

    I think the key for people posting work, particularly samples of longer works, is to have a plan about WHY they’re doing it. While I know many stories of agents signing authors at least in part because of their blogs, I think I only know one where that signing was based on reading a sample of a work to be represented (and that might even be rumor). Instead, representation has come from voice, style, and maybe even a tiny, tiny bit about platform. I don’t know of any editors reading a chapter online and buying the book, though it might have happened. And there are stories of folks who have built up audiences for their work in general by posting or podcasting a serialized novel.

    If you know why you’re posting, there are lots of good reasons to post your work online. If you have no strategy, more than likely you’re not gonna gain anything by posting (and I think that’s true about posting flap-type copy, too). Just my 2 cents!

  9. Beth Hull’s avatar

    Thanks for answering this question, Mary, as I’ve thought about asking it! But I’ve never been gutsy enough to post a first chapter because, as you say, the beginning keeps evolving (or sometimes, devolving!).

  10. Erica Olson’s avatar

    There is merit to posting for contests, though (in my opinion – and that of many, many others who hold and enter the contests). For example, I have my first page posted on Nathan Bransford’s blog because I won his first-page critique contest. I have linked to that post a couple times on my own blog to help other writers with the feedback I got.

    Was I trying to get agent interest by entering that contest/critique? Well, sure, everyone who enters that is. But what I really wanted was the feedback – I got it and my work evolved. Sure, that old first page is out there, but I don’t regret it one bit and have never heard from anyone before that this would be a bad idea (nor, of course, is the first page 5% of my novel).

    I can think of several blogs that hold public first-page contests and some do give agent/editor feedback as a result (in fact, sometimes that’s the point, or at least the prize). Sure, I’ll keep working and keep querying – but I’ll also keep entering the ones that look worthwhile and/or interesting.

  11. Phoebe’s avatar

    Interesting post, Mary. But my own personal experiences have me inclined to disagree somewhat. I’ve been blogging in various forms since 1997, but started participating in Teaser Tuesdays on AbsoluteWrite and Twitter only last year. I started it because I really enjoyed sharing my snippets with other writers–and because it forced me to revise my work earlier. Generally, these teasers are under 1000 words and are always rough drafts.

    A couple months ago, I was querying my last novel while also posting teasers on a regular basis from a work-in-progress. And I got an incredibly kind email from an agent who rejected my previous project inviting me to submit my full of my WIP when it’s finished. Apparently, she peeked at my blog and my teaser really appealed to her.

    I can’t say for certain that this is a success story–the project’s not done yet, and I’m not signed or anything like that!–but this is one door which would otherwise been closed that’s been opened thanks to posting work online.

  12. Heidi Norrod’s avatar

    Thank you for answering this age-old controversial topic. I used to post short stories online, though it isn’t anything I would attempt to ever publish. I do sometimes post chapters for critique in the SCBWI boards (really hoping that’s consider private enough), but I have seen this questions floating through alot of other publishing sites/boards. I’ll start referring folks back here for an answer now. Thanks again!

  13. Tracy Edward Wymer’s avatar

    I’m taking the easy way out here. I agree with Greg.

  14. Lynn Rush’s avatar

    I’ve seen some authors (pre-pubbed) post chapter after chapter on his/her blogs until the entire novel had, at one time or another, been up there on the blog.

    Sure, it’s just a rough draft, but still, might that turn off a potential publisher to know all thirty chapters have a been posted on a blog?

    I was thinking, YES, and if I’m reading your post right, it kinda means it’s published, right? Yikes.

    I like the idea of putting up the back cover blurbs…I love seeing all the different types of stories out there….just waiting to be pubbed.

    Anyway. Thanks for this discussion. I enjoyed reading the comments, too.

  15. Barbara Eveleth’s avatar

    I will never do it. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because my structured pb text will not work without my art and dummy.

  16. Martha Ramirez’s avatar

    Awesome post, Mary! Thanks so much for posting.

  17. Thomas W Sharkey’s avatar

    Harper Collins has been running Authonomy and Inkspot for a while now and contrary to popular belief, the only work snapped up there is by print-on-demand and self-publishing firms.

    Harper Collins has never published a book from these sites.

    They are the worst writing critique sites ever, as the wannabee authors compete for points to climb a ladder that takes years in most cases.

    The majority of them can’t write, nor can they comment constructively, they say things like: I can see your novel on the silver screen already – You are a talented writer – Your story blew me away. – Always followed by – Read my book and back it, please.

    One author submitted a Young Adult story where the main charcter was a 35-year-old woman.

    When faced with constructive criticism they are deeply insulted.

    It is nothing less than tragic.

  18. Mary’s avatar

    Thomas — I’m glad I let you say it. Above and beyond this, I have no comment.

  19. Livia Blackburne’s avatar

    Extended snippits seem imprudent, although I do think writers should post at least one *well updated* snippit of their writing on their websites. Because you never know who might drop by. I did get an invitation to query from a nice agent who just randomly stumbled by my blog, and I see this has happened to others in the comment thread as well. The key is well updated though, so you don’t end up hurting yourself as you grow and revise.

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