4TheWords is a new site that gamifies writing. It rewards you with badges, coins and crystals and encourages you to make writing a daily habit through community and word count challenges. Sounds right up my alley, doesn’t it? I was incredibly excited about this site when I heard about it and signed right up. That’s why I’m really sad to tell you it’s actually a disaster of a paid site that can’t compete with many of the free writing communities out there and is NOT ready to start charging people, as it’s doing. (There’s a free trial but it’s not truly free as we’ll cover below.)
I’m going to get to a more involved review in a moment but what I really think you need to understand first is that this site is still in beta and it shows. It doesn’t really work and everything has the feel of a room of empty chairs that could maybe showcase a really cool presentation later in the day, but there’s nothing there right now. Normally I’d be willing to cut them all the slack knowing they were still in beta if it wasn’t for one big thing: they’re charging people to use the site right now. They’re making people pay, and in a shady way we’ll get to in a minute, for the privilege of beta testing their unfinished site. (And when I say unfinished I mean, literally, the basics of the site don’t work as you’ll see.) They might make a ton of changes and be an amazing site later but, right now, that’s a pretty big negative. If this was a free site that was going to work out the kinks and eventually turn paid, this would be a very different review. I’m going to try to be brief but my first attempt was a 1.5k rant so we’ll see how I do. 😉
How the site works:
Users are meant to write in a field embedded on their site. The site tracks this writing and you become eligible for badges based on things like word count, how fast you type, consistency. There’s also a lot of importance placed on unlocking secret badges and spending coins and crystals for hints to the badges, which you can win with writing but that they also offer an for additional cost beyond the monthly fee, with the overall goal of increasing the frequency and amount you write. (I could write a whole separate post about how fundamentally flawed this system is but we have bigger problems.)
If you’re anything more than the most beginning of writers, you probably automatically see the biggest program with the site just from that brief description. To use any of the site features, you’re forced to write in their on-site field. There is no way to track external writing or editing. For the majority of writers who use programs like Scrivener and Microsoft Word or even something like WordPress for blogging, this means using 4theWords would result in double the work as you’d have to write in their webform and then export every day’s writing and reformat it for your usual program. Not to mention that, by discounting any writing done externally, they are effectively forcing writers to change their existing writing process to fit their site.
The site claims to have been built for writers by writers but I can’t see how that’s possible unless they ‘re using the term writers very liberally and only intended the site for people keeping a very basic daily journal they had no intention of doing anything else with. I let dozen writers at my NaNoWriMo write-in poke around the site using my account and they all immediately gave it the thumbs down for forcing writers to use the form instead of inputting an external word count from an external program (which is, incidentally, how the NaNoWriMo site, which the creator has said they were trying to emulate, works). Moreover, limiting a writer to a single specific tool, particularly something mostly useless like a web form, is one of the worst things you could do to build up bad habits and limit creativity and productivity.
Overlooking the overall inconvenience of being forced to use the web form, as an online writing platform itself, it doesn’t compare to other fantastic and free options out there like Yarny or Google Docs. It has some very basic features like full screen, word counter, timer, font changes and no distraction mode, but doesn’t even have essential basics like auto-save or export.
But here’s the real kicker. I can’t even give you a full review of this service because the little writing window they force you to use? It doesn’t work. I wrote the entire first draft of this review in their web form to test it out but the save feature wasn’t working in Firefox, Chrome or Internet Explorer. (Thaaaaat’s pretty much everything, guys. Not good.) Of course, Momma didn’t raise no fool and I was copying and pasting my work into another program the whole time as soon as I realized there was no auto-save. But because it wouldn’t let me save, I couldn’t “log” those writing hours so I have no way to see how badges, coins, crystals or any of what anyone would argue is the actual functionality of the site would work.
If you’re a writing site where people can earn badges and the writing part doesn’t work so writers can’t earn badges… you’re a website that’s charging people for literally nothing. That’s not me being a jerk, that’s just a statement of fact.
Without being able to get the system to acknowledge any of my writing, the only other thing I could look at was the community. Or, rather, the text only, void of any conventional forum features, message board reminiscent of the early 90s. It’s a mess and the only discussion going on is people basically saying, “Really? This is the community?” There are dozens of free communities’ for writers that put this to shame so why would you pay for an inferior version? (Couldn’t think of how to do a screenshot here without violating the privacy of other users, sorry!)
There’s a lot of verbiage on the site about how dedicated they are to charity, donating 1/4 of profits, letting you vote on where the money goes, but it’s hard to feel too good about any of that because of how questionable their payment practices are. Not only are they charging for beta, they’re advertising a free trial that isn’t really free. To even see what the site looks like you have to not only sign up but also authorize a recurring PayPal payment. (PayPal is all the accept.) The “free trial” is just the period in which you can cancel without penalty for a refund. It’s a well known tactic, hope people forget to cancel, make some money on people’s forgetfulness, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s sleazy and underhanded. Especially when we’re talking about an unfinished site that doesn’t do anything yet, something you’d need to sign up for AND authorize a recurring payment to just to find out.
The base package is $5 a month which is steep for what the site is supposed to be and quite exorbitant for nothing, which is what that gets you right now. I can’t in good faith recommend this to anyone as it is now. Even were it free I’d recommend passing as there are others sites that do what they are trying to do better.
The one positive to 4THEWORDS? They are a sponsor of NaNoWriMo so at least they’re doing one thing right!
(This post came in at 1,283 so I managed to trim a little off at least. Damn, if only someone could give me a badge for that! ;-))