post to AO3 for ficathons such as Yuletide, and they probably are even less sure what to do. There aren't many rules, and even the guidelines are kind of fuzzy. But yet there are many dedicated volunteers who spend many hours trying to make some sense out of the mess! It's chaotic and organized at the same time.
Fear not. I'm not a tag mod or anybody from AO3, but I am a power user of the site, and have been since it started, so I have a pretty good feel for the different ways people use the site and how people tag. So here are some suggestions, if you feel you need them.
First, remember that the primary purpose of tags is to help people find stuff they'd like to read. No matter what your philosophy of tagging is, your goal should be to make it easy for people to find your fic and decide if they want to read it.
There are two basic ways people use tags when they're looking for fic.
1. Clicking on tags they want to read. Do you want to look for a particular fandom, character, or pairing? You can click on a tag and get all of them to come up. But you can use tags to find so much more than just the basics! Do you want to read wing!fic? Search for it on the archive and click the wingfic tag and you'll get a list of all fics tagged with "wings" or "wingfic" or something similar. The tag mods have done a lot of background work to make sure that similar tags (i.e. every permutation of wingfic ever used) are put together so when you're looking for wingfic you don't have to think of every possible permutation of what someone might have tagged it. They'll all come up. Now, if you click on the "wingfic" tag, it will bring up every
wingfic in every fandom. Which is great if you're polyfannish like I am and don't necessarily care what fandom something is if it hits whatever king you have right then. If you are more monofannish, then the sort and filter bar on the left side of the "Works" list is your friend, but either way, the tag is the first place to start. People look for a lot of things. Here are some categories that people may search tags for, either within a particular fandom or across the archive:
- fandoms, characters, relationships, obviously.
- AU types: is it a canon divergence, is it a highschool au, or a coffee shop, or whatever?
- SFnal or fantasy elements: time travel, wings, magic, werewolves, telepethy, etc
- Genres: angst, fluff, mystery, comedy.
- Trigger warnings to avoid: mentions of rape or abuse (things not warned for in the warning tags).
- Tropes: Aliens made them do it, kidfic, etc.
- Sex stuff: kinks, positions, sex toys, polyamory, etc.
- Social justice stuff: bechdel pass, character of color POV, etc.
- Fandom specific stuff: is it related to a particular episode, or season, is there any other fandom-specific thing that people might look for?
2. When they are deciding whether or not to read a particular fic. That is, a potential reader is looking at a fic in a list on AO3 (maybe they're going through the fandom's page, maybe they're looking at an author's works list, etc.) or perhaps have clicked on a link in a rec list and have opened the story up to see more about it, but the fic is in front of them and they haven't yet decided whether or not to read it. In this case, tags are one of a couple of things people will be looking at. The summary is the biggie; at this point it's usually the first thing people look at. They will also look at word count--they may be looking for an epic, they may be looking for a vignette, either way, word count matters. They'll look at the rating--do they want something hot and heavy, or not? They'll look at the comment/kudo/bookmark/hit counts--how popular is this fic? And they'll look at the tags. What is this fic tagged for? Characters, pairings, fandom, etc., all can be useful, but so can many other things. This is why people add chatty tumblr-style tags, such as "Tony Stark has Daddy Issues." That tag tells you a lot about the story that may not be evident from the summary. You can add any tag like that you want, that will help people get a feel for your story. If it's unique, clicking on it won't help them find other stories like it and it won't help people find your fic, either, but it may well help people who have already found your fic decide if they want to read it. And, if enough people tag things with a chatty tag like "Tony Stark Has Daddy Issues," eventually the tag mods will take it and make it into a tag you can search on just like more general tags such as "wingfic." (There are currently 51 fics on the archive tagged "Tony Stark Has Daddy Issues.")
So how does this affect how you tag your fic? I'm so glad you asked. It means you need to take both uses of tags--finding fic, and deciding if you want to read a fic you've found--into account. As you tag, ask yourself: what in my fic might people want to read? What kind of craving would my fic satisfy? Tag for those things (fandoms, characters, relationships, tropes, kinks, whatever). Then ask yourself: once people have found my fic, what might help them decide they want to read my fic? Then tag for that. Autocomplete is your friend. As you start typing in the tag field, it will bring up tags people have already used, which are searchable, and which may therefore help people find your fic.ETA:
section edited because of youraugustine's feedback
But beware! Before you hit "post," look at your tags and ask yourself: is there any deceptive advertising here? By which I mean, if someone is looking specifically for a fic with something you tagged for, are they going to be disappointed in your fic? Different people use tags differently, so you can't please everybody. But sometimes a selective approach can be better than a "kitchen sink" approach where you select every tag that might be half-way applicable.
As an example, take Sam Wilson. He is tagged in over 2800 stories on AO3 ... but in the vast majority of them, he's a sidekick, if that. Yes, he appears in each of these fics, but he's a very small part of the story in most of them. When I go looking for Sam Wilson fic, I sigh, because I may get three pages in to the list of works tagged "Sam Wilson" before I find one where he's important enough in the story to get mentioned in the summary. Having to slog through all those fics about other Avengers to get to the fics about the character I want to read about does not make me likely to read those stories. It makes me annoyed, because they're taking up my time and preventing me from finding the stories I actually want to read right now! I love reading about Steve's angst over Bucky, and Bucky's recovery, but if what I'm craving at the moment is Sam Wilson pwning everything, 50k words of Buck-and-Steve angst in which Sam appears in three scenes is just not going to scratch my itch. On the other hand, some people may find a mention that Sam plays a role in the story to be the difference that makes them read this
Steve/Bucky fic over some other one. Even so, if he appears briefly but isn't significant to the plot, even they may be annoyed.
Just use some common sense, folks. Tag for everything important, and don't bother with the minor stuff.
Background information on tagging (you don't need to know this but it's interesting):
When a new tag is created (i.e. when someone tags their fic with something that has never before been tagged) it is not yet canonical--that is, when you click on it, you won't bring up any other fic tagged with it, and even if someone else
uses that tag, at this point it won't come up when you click on the tag. That only changes when a tag wrangler--a volunteer with AO3, in charge of wrangling tags for that particular fandom--looks at it and decides what to do with it. Most chatty tags get ignored (unless the wrangler has seen others very similar). New fandom tags and character tags get made 'canonical' and attached to particular fandoms, so that a) they will now be clickable so you can find other fic tagged with that tag once other people use it and b) it will come up in the autocomplete. Other tags that the wrangler thinks will be generally useful (i.e. anything that other writers might use) get made canonical as well, either attached to the fandom (Tony Stark's Daddy Issues) or not attached to the fandom (mpreg, wingfic, etc). Tags that are close to/mean the same thing as other tags already in use get 'synned' to those tags, so "Bechdel Pass" and "Bechdel Test Pass" become functionally the same tag--you click on one, you get all the fics tagged with one or the other, so you don't need to know the exact tag you're looking for if you can get close.
A note: the tag wranglers are awesome, and do a lot
of work behind the scenes to make the Archive work right. To learn more, check out this post on AO3
. And if you want to make life easier on the tag wranglers, here's something one of them posted on tumblr
What actually makes life harder for tag wranglers? People tagging obscure characters or OCs who are not in the work. Private bookmark tags that use terms we’ve never seen before. Smushnames. Comma fail. Drafts that stay for months because people keep editing them. All of those are allowed, and hardly anyone ever says anything about them outside of wrangler spaces.
There are a lot of people confused about what to tag their stuff on AO3. I mean, like, people who use AO3 regularly sometimes talk about not knowing how to tag their fic. And this is Yuletide; there are people who