Constructive criticism

Werecat's unofficial guide to reviewing. Dedicated to some wonderful people who helped me become better.

This essay had been in my head for a couple of months now. I was tired of receiving these two kinds of feedback over and over again:

-Kewl! Plz r&r my stuff!

-This was great! Please update soon!

Both were frustrating, for different reasons each. And what both left behind was the suspicion that neither reviewer had actually read the story.

Why is it so hard for some people to leave a useful review? It doesn't have to be three pages long. A couple of lines can work just fine.

As long as they are the right lines.

So, here are some thoughts on how really helpful reviews should be written.

1. Reason for reviewing.

The reasons all of us lust after reviews are plain and simple: to develop our writing skills and to know that our stories are being read by other people and thus feel better for ourselves.

When it comes to FFnet and FPcom, the reasons behind a review can be multiple, with most common among them the hope that the author will review back. Then again there are the nasty comments known as flames and both issues will be discussed later.

2. Always start with saying something nice.

The author takes great risks in posting his/her story. Personal thoughts, dreams and fears are exposed to the public and commenting on this courage and the effort one puts in a story is a good place to start. This shows that the reviewer respects the author's feelings and personality and, moreover, this shows the reviewer's quality.

Always remember that respect goes both ways.

3. A review should be as objective as possible.

This is not the place to express your personal preferences. For instance, if you prefer stories from a first person perspective, the fact that an author used third person perspective does not make this story bad. When reading essays, though, and it comes solely to opinions, one should rather focus on whether arguments are well documented and structured and not whether one agrees with the beliefs expressed.

Remember that people are different, from various backgrounds and life experiences.

4. The review has little value if the reviewer becomes unacceptable.

This includes unsigned reviewers who lack the spirit to express their opinions under a traceable penname or an email address, as the author has done. I realize that there are risks taken when someone leaves a name or an email address (hatemails), but if one cannot defend one's views, then one might as well *cough*shut-up*cough* remain silent.

Additionally, I rarely take into consideration reviews with terrible grammar and spelling. Anyone makes mistakes, but comments like "i luv ur fic" tell me that this person has little or no respect for language and so this review goes to kitty litter. If you want anyone to take your comments seriously, be careful of how you phrase them; especially if you want the author to return the favor.

Why would one bother reading anything by someone who can't form a simple sentence?

5. A review is pointless if its aim is other than helping the author become better.

Reviews are not message boards. If you have something to say to another author or reviewer, use an email.

Flaming someone without valid arguments or based on personal beliefs because he/she criticized your story is immature and rude and shows that perhaps this person was right in the first place.

Asking others to comment on your stories can be irritating and it all depends on how you present this. If you write a well structured review and add at the end something like "I'd be grateful if you could comment on my story", it is far better than writing "Kewl! Plz r&r my stuff!"

In my case, the latter almost always goes to the above mentioned kitty litter.

6. Rudeness and constructive criticism are completely different things.

Sarcasm, irony, attempts to appear knowledgeable or simply bad manners are poor ways to criticize someone's work. This will only result in insulting the author and once more show that the reviewer is immature and plainly rude. If there was a particular part of the work in question that was not to you liking, there are better ways to comment on this than "this sucked!" If you write something like "your story was nice, but the second chapter bothered me for reasons a and b," you show that you are capable of deductive thinking and you might actually help the author.

And remember that nasty comments have a bad habit of returning back to the sender.

Of course, not all authors are mature and sometimes, if your comments are anything but pure praise, flames with follow anyway. And there are certain people who have lots of fun surfing around FFnet and FPcom and flame people because this is their idea of fun. Not to be taken seriously, I think. Their own lack of self-respect drives them to belittle others and I refuse to boost their esteem by taking their comments into consideration.

More kitty litter.

7. Praises are not helpful either.

Needless to say that we all love praises. And we all like ice-cream and trash food. But are they good for us? Sure, they make us feel happy, but in the long run they prove out to be useless if not harmful.

Follow me through a small journey here. Let us say that a writer has a fanfiction story over at FFnet which is rather popular. Many people have commented on how much they loved it; they have this person on their favorites lists and on author alert. The author feels good about his/her writing skills and at some point he decides to submit this story to a tougher audience, like SugarQuill for Harry Potter or Heneth Annun for LotR, to name just a couple. And then the real criticism begins and he/she finds out that the heroine is a Mary Sue, the story lacks character development and there are multiple spelling/grammar mistakes. And this author's self-esteem goes to kitty litter.

Welcome to the real world.

And don't get me started on original stories which one day one hopes to publish.

The moral of the story? Balance. A pinch of praise and a touch of well presented criticism can make a world of a difference.

8. Reviews vary depending on the target.

Commenting on a teenager with the standards of an adult is pointless. And different genres have different approaches.

Let's face it, not all of us are born to be poets or writers. But one should commend on effort and decent use of language. I've seen the comment "Not everything written should be posted" and I cannot begin to imagine how the author it was addressed to must have felt. One could write something like "not your best work but it shows potential" and mean the same thing.

What good is there to hurt someone with such a comment? If you want this author to become better, assist him/her. Otherwise you bear part of the responsibility.

And if you have no help to offer, then you might as well *cough*shut-up*cough* remain silent.

9. A review should have some structure.

Fine, so you either liked or disliked a certain story/poem. Why? Your reasons for either should be presented in a simple order for the author to follow. Present your arguments and/or praise in a few well structured sentences that will be helpful. Some of the best reviews I have received could well qualify as a "to do" list. (And some of those could well be considered flames. I did feel bad at the time, but in the long run they helped me improve).

There is not one single way to do this. Follow what pattern you feel is best but always keep in mind that the positive comments always go before the negatives.

 10. A review should be wide-ranging.

As mentioned before, include both positives and negatives, without focusing on one side and ignoring the other. If you spot some bad points and comment on them, offer some alternatives. For instance, if the author has accidentally used the word "zipper" in a fantasy tale, then suggest a couple of other words like "cords" or "laces" than can be used successfully. Without suggestions the author might feel lost. Although the final decision relies with the author, some threads to explore are always helpful.

11. Some things cannot be fixed.

Know when it's hopeless and let it go. It saves your peace of mind.

There will always be Mary Sues and endless poems of meaningless teen angst. Some of them can be saved, but not all.

Accept it.

12. Stand your ground.

A review that is well constructed, respectful, objective, based on arguments and offers effective suggestions needs no defense.

Of course, this will not always save you from flames. Do not let them trouble you; this is why the "block address" option exists on email providers.

I recall reading a certain review on an essay regarding terrorism. Not perfectly presented, but made some good points and it had a certain effect on the author and her friends. And one of those "so called" friends went as far as to post the same flame on every piece of the reviewer's work, urging people to not read his stories. The result was to make her seem immature and vindictive.


13. Flames.

Is there a legitimate reason for flaming?

No, there isn't. No exceptions.

Then why do people flame others' work, I wonder?

It can be boredom. Or it can be low self-esteem that drives them to belittle others so they can appear greater. Then there is jealousy, because some one else has more reviews / more talent / has won awards and the list goes on. And this shows in the flame, trust me. When in a story of over 50,000 words one chooses to comment on a couple of spelling/grammar mistakes and nothing else, then this is suspicious. In such a long story it is natural to have a couple of mistakes. But there should also be other elements, good and bad. Why leave them aside?

Always remember that there is a feedback effect. The more nasty comments you leave out there, the more that come back to you.

14. Soliciting reviews.

…or the dreaded "Kewl! Plz r&r my stuff!" type of comments.

If I had a penny for every time I have read this…

There is nothing condemnable in such a request, as long as it is presented respectfully as explained in paragraph 5. After all, who does not want reviews?

But there are other ways of doing that. First, start reviewing other people. Most authors return the favor, sooner or later. And reviewing back is the least you can do for someone who took some moments from one's precious time to read and comment on your work. And always include "a thank you for your review" comment. Not only it shows good manners, but it also tells others that you review back.

Allow me to present to you a pattern I have developed in the six years I have been a member of FFnet and later of FPcom (yes, it has been that long). I try to return reviews as often as I can, not always following the 1:1 ration, depending on the quality I find. Then I click on the reviews left on a particular story/poem and I go through the reviews other people have posted. From them I choose one who has good grammar and structure, I check out this author's work the journey goes on.

In this way I have read some amazing stories and poems out there and I have made many good friends. And yes, I have received several wonderful reviews.

What more could anyone want?