Electronic Eye December 2014
Supporting Young Writer’s Using Online Communities: Storybird.com and Figment.com
Kathleen Meulen Ellison
Writers gravitate towards libraries; that much is certain. Some young writers can feel inspired, nurtured, and valued just by walking through a library’s door for there, they can find books and tools for them to use to independently hone their craft.
Other young writers need a little more encouragement. Perhaps they haven’t achieved the level of ability needed to consider themselves to be good at writing. Perhaps they haven’t found someone to tell them that what they are writing has potential. Perhaps they haven’t found a mentor to make suggestions that will help them improve their work. Perhaps they crave the chance to meet with other young adults who love to write just as much as they do.
These are the individuals that need library programming. They need for us to create ways for them to locate other readers to enjoy their work and give positive and constructive feedback as well as help them to find the sparks to start new stories. This can often be a time consuming project for a librarian. Each individual relationship with a writer takes time. If the writer happens to be somewhat prolific, then it takes time to read, edit, and comment on their work.
It can also be logistically difficult to find ways to help them share their work with others.
I have been working with two websites that can make the challenge of building and supporting a writing group a little less time consuming, and more fun and engaging as well. The following are my reviews of Storybird.com and Figment.com.
Storybird has a very interesting concept. What if a collection of amazing artwork were made available to writers to use as inspiration? Young writers could then find images that they believe tell a story. They could organize the illustrations and use them to write. That is the idea behind Storybird: Let the illustrations begin the story instead of the other way around.
Storybird has gone out and invited artists to submit their work to the site. Artists who are selected receive significant royalties every time their work is published by a writer, while still retaining the copyright for their work.
They have chosen the artists that they are working with very well. There is a significant level of quality to the work and there is wonderful diversity to the available images in terms of medium and style. Some images are very spare and are computer generated; others are imaginative water colors. Dark and light! Humorous and serious! It all seems to be in here.
I also appreciate the fact that many different cultures appear to be represented in the collection of art: I feel that any young person would be able to easily find images that could tell a story matching their heritage; although I wish that there were a few images that showed someone in a wheelchair. One of my students could have really used that when they were crafting a story matching their own experience.
Each image is tagged with a few subjects so that artwork can be easily found by a writer. There is a healthy amount of images tagged as dragons, for instance.
The Storybird Studio is where writers create their work. They can use the Studio to write short form picture books, poems and, more recently, long form chapter books. Writers choose their form and then choose their art. They can search the database of artwork by tags or by artist. Once they’ve chosen their art, it gets imported into their Studio. The online Studio scatters the images on the right and on the left of the screen. In the center of the screen is a blank page. Users drag the art into the page. Depending on how a writer drops the art onto the page, a layout is automatically created and space is given for the writer to compose their text. The tool bar is at the bottom of the screen and allows users to move from page to page, add new pages and save their work.
The long form chapter book allows writers to create new sections and place artwork within a chapter. The poem form allows writers to use one image only.
When a writer is done, they can purchase their story. They can do so in a variety of ways including downloading the story as a pdf for a $1.99 to creating a download bundle for $2.99 and also receiving a softcover or hardcover book in the mail. The download bundle option is quite clever. There are three different size versions including “pocket” and “mini.” The mini books are adorable.
Users can also choose to publish their stories on the Storybird interface for others to enjoy and comment on online. Every user of Storybird has both a “Write” tab as well as a “Read” tab.
For a librarian or teacher who wants to use Storybird with a class or a writing club, there are some healthy classroom tools to help users share and communicate together and with the group leader. Leaders can create assignments that limit users to a specific artwork tag or artist. They can share different writing prompts with groups and can assign dates when the work is due. Leaders can create groups of under 35 students who can work together privately for free. If a leader wants to add more students or greater enhancements, they can go “Pro.” For sixty-five cents a student, leaders have unlimited downloads for picture books and the ability to grade the work as well as offer students badges and trophies.
The students that I have been working with on Storybird have enjoyed the opportunity to create professionally illustrated stories. I’ve enjoyed watching how different the stories have been even when they use the same illustrations or writing prompt. It has also been a useful tool for my students who have difficulty with finding inspiration
Figment’s tag line is “Write Yourself In” and that is exactly what writers are encouraged to do in this online writing community that targets the teen market. Everything about this website is appealing and has been designed to make writers want to visit and stay for quite some time. And come back again tomorrow!
Like Storybird, users of the website can be both readers and writers, but unlike Storybird, users must be at least thirteen years old to enjoy signing into the website and creating an account. I assume that this restriction is necessary because of the Children’s Internet Privacy Act (CIPA), but it is also a reasonable restriction because there is a high level of online community interaction that requires a more mature user.
Visitors to Figment are definitely encouraged to read each other’s work and respond to the writer. Readers can do this on several levels: they can “heart” it, they can “share” it out via a few different social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr), they can sign in to leave a comment and they can even give the author a longer review of the work.
Readers can “follow” authors that they like, which is always great fun because then a reader knows when a writer has updated a story that they are writing in serial form. They can also search for new authors by genre and tags as well.
Writers receive feedback and support from their readers through the hearts, comments, and reviews that are left with their stories. As one can imagine, feedback can become quite addicting for the writer. This can be both a good thing and a challenging one. Positive feedback can encourage a writer to keep going with their writing and push through moments of writer’s block and low inspiration. It can encourage a writer to write frequently, which improves skill. Lack of feedback can cause a writer to question themselves and their talent. I appreciate the fact that Figment seems to practice a high degree of user support. Their guidelines for sharing and commenting are clearly written but have a degree of honesty and humor to them. I also appreciate the fact that they have a link to a crisis hotline page in their footer. Site admins also seem to be very present and comment more frequently than other sites I’ve visited.
Also, getting established and noticed on Figment can take time. That is where a face-to-face group using Figment but also meeting in a library or school can be invaluable. Face-to-face meetings as a part of a smaller writing community can make this wonderful, but a larger writing community less personal.
I also appreciate the fact that Figment hosts several contests with writing prompts that feature literature of interest to teens. During the review of this Website, a writing prompt connected to Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart and upcoming sequel Firelight was featured.
Both of these sites are doing great things to support young writers and can really help a librarian to create a writing community. Storybird is the right choice for a librarian who has a slightly younger YA group and who wants to keep the online interaction private to the group. Figment is the right choice for a librarian willing to help older teens branch out and begin to cultivate a group of followers.
Kathleen Meulen Ellison has been a teacher librarian for over two decades in both New York City and the Pacific Northwest. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.