Author's Note: (Half of you are going to kill me because this isn't HL. But this is just as important, I swear!)
Since I started writing online about 10 years ago, I've received numerous comments, emails, PMs, reviews asking about I want to see in a review. So I thought I would finally sit my butt down—one decade later—and write a short guide on what I think makes a good chaptered-story review. Much of it is based on my own experiences and what I have found to be helpful over the years. There's no need to read all of it, of course, just anything that may catch your interest. I know it's pretty lengthy.
Hope this can be of some help to any lost reviewers out there! And to all the readers and writers out there, feel free to add your two cents! :) The more minds the merrier.
A 101 Guide to Reviewing Chaptered Stories
Reviewing is a much more intuitive art than most people think. It is a form of communication that we engage in every day.
For example, "Mom, the chocolate cake is so moist and delicious, but the cocoa topping is a little bitter." Or, "Janice, the color of that dress is fabulous, but the neckline does nothing for your cleavage." Or, "Oh, man, Kristen Stewart's acting was so bad it gave me an aneurysm."
You get the idea. We give our opinions about things all the time. Yet, when it comes to reviewing stories, for some reason, people forget their basic communicative skills, go into anaphylactic shock, and suddenly have no idea what to say. The purpose of this guide is to—hopefully—demystify the process, and provide some helpful tips on how to review the chapter of a longer story.
II. CHAPTERED STORIES vs. ONE-SHOTS
Why the distinction? Wouldn't you review chaptered stories the same way you review one-shots? Absolutely. If the chaptered story is complete, and you're evaluating a finished product.
The great thing about FictionPress is that readers can actually take part in the author's journey to complete a novel. Thus, there is potential to add a lot of value. Which is why I think what makes a helpful or good review will differ slightly for incomplete stories.
I'm only going to tailor this essay to incomplete, chaptered stories, because there are millions and millions of manuals, articles, and books out there on reviewing completed stories. There will, of course, be lots of overlap, but this site provides a unique platform where readers can actually critique works in progress, and I think it's important to explore the best ways to do that.
Okay, ready? Let's go!
III. THE GOLDEN RULE: SHOW THAT YOU READ THE CHAPTER
Seems like a no-brainer, right? And yet, you would be surprised how many reviews fail this very simple test. I'm sure we've all at some point or another had this happen to us:
You: Hey, what do you think of this shirt?
Friend: It's great.
You: Did you even look?!
The same with reviews. If the author can't tell whether you've read the chapter, then Houston, we have a problem. These are two common faux pas to illustrate the issue:
(Note: these are only not constructive when they make up the entire review.)
1. "Update soon!" – This might come as a shock to some people, but the author already knows this. They want to update soon, too. Or, even better, "You updated!" Oh, my God, I did? Going back to our analogy, this is the equivalent of you trying on a top, and your friend telling you, "Hey! You're wearing a shirt!" Ya don't say?
2. "Great!" – A kills B, and later B's son comes back for revenge but falls in love with A's daughter, and this is the chapter in which A's daughter finds out why B's son is really here. And you say, "Great"? What's great? The emotional turmoil of the characters? The fact that the author updated on your birthday? The peanut butter sandwich you had for breakfast? Hell if the author knows.
Do you see the problem? A good way to gauge whether you have violated this golden rule is if you can take your review and plug it into another chapter or story seamlessly. "Update soon" can literally apply to ANY chapter of an incomplete story that exists in this universe.
Show that you've read the chapter by commenting on the chapter. The scenes, the characters, the actions, the dialogue, the descriptions, the narration, the syntax, the grammar, anything. Be specific.
Specific: "OMG. I can't believe Jake was trying on Jillian's thongs!"
General: "I really like it."
Specific: "I really like when Mario rips Chloe's clothes off with his teeth."
General: "I'm confused."
Specific: "I don't really understand why Mimi is making out with Chris. I thought she was in love with Blake."
General: "Ahahaha. LOL. ROFL LMAO."
Specific: "AHAHA. I literally fell out of my chair wheezing when Ronnie queefed in her pilates class."
General: "Nooooooo. :("
Specific: "Noooo! Why does Marley have to be eaten by a bear?!"
See the difference?
Look, here's what it boils down to. The author has spent hours, days, perhaps even months slaving over this chapter. Virtual blood, sweat, and tears are splattered all over the word doc. The author has taken great pains to craft each scene, each paragraph, each word. They want to know that none of that was done in vain. So don't reward their hard work with something like "Woo!"
The easiest way to show praise and encouragement is to simply acknowledge the content.
IV. A CONSTRUCTIVE REVIEW IS A GOOD REVIEW
Constructive conshmuctive, what does that even mean? Well, when in doubt, consult a dictionary:
Serving to improve or advance; helpful.
People have this hoity-toity misconception that constructive criticism is the nirvana of reviewism. It is not. There are an infinite number of ways to be helpful. Constructive criticism is only one of those ways.
To make it simpler, I've split this section into 2 types of helpful reviews, and will talk about each in turn: (1) constructive criticism, and (2) constructive review. [Sorry for the overlapping terminology.] I think both types are equally as helpful in the case of reviewing a chapter of an unfinished novel.
A. CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM (henceforth "CC")
"Constructive criticism is the process of offering valid and well-reasoned opinions about the work of others, usually involving both positive and negative comments, in a friendly manner rather than an oppositional one." - Wikipedia
Oh, the dreaded CC. A painful, but necessary part of growing as a writer.
[Remember: There is absolutely no need to give CC if you're not comfortable with it! Or if you feel like you wouldn't give very good CC, or if you can't think of anything to criticize. That's okay. You can be a very good and helpful reviewer without giving any CC. See Section B below.]
First, let's talk about what isn't CC. Many people forget the "constructive" part when they criticize. They see one small flaw and tear into it like ravenous beast. Believe it or not, that isn't very helpful. You can't fix a paper cut with a welder.
So put away the flamethrower. If your comment is going to demean or belittle the author, or if you're condescending, or if you're just trying to show off how much better you are, get out. This community has no place for you.
So what can you provide CC for? Let's take a look at some examples, and how to give each kind appropriately. (The following list is not exhaustive.)
1. The Technical Stuff
This is grammar, punctuation, spelling, syntax, diction, flow, style—all of the technical aspects of the chapter. Pretty self-explanatory. You can point out mistakes in grammar, punctuation, and spelling if you see them. You can comment on whether certain sentences are awkward, or if you don't feel the author's word choices are appropriate. Maybe the flow is really choppy, or the style needs work. These are all things you can mention to the author to help them improve.
Destructive: "There are spelling and grammatical mistakes everywhere. I can't even get through the chapter."
Constructive: "I spotted several spelling and grammatical errors while reading this chapter. But I think they can all be easily fixed with a simple spell check. It would really improve readability so people can focus more on the plot!"
Destructive: "Your style is way too amateur."
Constructive: "I think that if you try to eliminate some of your adverbs, and replace them with stronger verbs, it could really go a long way in improving the style. Plus, it would make your diction stronger. Killing two birds with one stone! :)"
This technically falls under #1, but I think it merits its own category. Because descriptions are hard. Forget about amateurs, many published authors struggle with this, too! So there's always going to be room for improvement.
Destructive: "The descriptions for the dream were really bad. I couldn't visualize any of it."
Constructive: "I had some trouble with visualizing the dream sequence. I think if the descriptions were stronger, it would be a really chilling scene!"
Destructive: "There was way too much description of the house. I got bored."
Constructive: "I felt like there was too much description of the house. It kind of bogged down the narration and broke up the flow. I really like the gothic metaphor, but I think you can do without the parts about the trees."
Dialogue should be impactful, descriptive, and effective. Words should not be wasted. If you think something can be stronger, say so.
Destructive: "Your dialogue sucks."
Constructive: "I think you can make your dialogue stronger in some places. There's a lot of redundancy, and I think it would have more impact if you used some more one-liners, as opposed to multiple paragraphs."
Destructive: "The confrontation scene was bland. Tyson and George's argument was so lame."
Constructive: "I would have really liked to see Tyson and George engage in a more intense argument. I felt like Tyson saying, "But you betrayed me," was a little weak, given the gravity of his situation, like it almost cheapens the betrayal. I really think the scene would have benefited a lot if there was some extra oomph in the dialogue!"
This is a big one. Oftentimes, this will make or break the story. So it's important to help the author out if he or she is missing the mark.
Destructive: "Kayla's characterization is so bad. I don't sympathize with her at all."
Constructive: "I think Kayla's characterization can be improved upon. Right now, we don't see any of the motivations behind why she's behaving this way, so it seems like she's just being mean for the sake of being mean. Since she's the protagonist, I want to sympathize with her, but am finding it difficult without seeing inside her head. I'd really like to see you flesh out her character by showing her intentions!"
Destructive: "Mark is falling flat for me. He's so two-dimensional in this scene."
Constructive: "I'm having some issues with Mark in this chapter. I feel like we're not really getting to know him as a character, which really downplays the conflict he's experiencing right now. I'd love to see more of Mark's bad track record with his previous girlfriends, so we can understand just why exactly this break-up was so painful for him. I think some history would really add a lot of dimension to his character."
Many novels are plot-driven, and it is crucial that each twist and turn is carefully crafted, because they are what's holding up the story.
Destructive: "I'm so confused."
Constructive: "I'm having some trouble parsing out the situation. Did Kyle burn down the monastery in order to protect Ashley? I'm not sure that makes sense because there are copies of the evidence elsewhere, right?"
Destructive: "Abbey is just going to leave by herself? That's so dumb."
Constructive: "I don't know how I feel about Abbey just running off to kill the head witch by herself. Since she and Xena have been through so much together, I really wanted to see her kick some witch ass with Xena by her side!"
Destructive: "Whoa, that twist came out of nowhere. It doesn't make sense and is way too ridiculous."
Constructive: "Wow, I was really surprised by the twist! I feel like there wasn't a lot leading up to it. I wish there was more foreshadowing so it wouldn't seem so out of the blue. It'd be really neat if you left small clues in the earlier chapters!"
I cannot stress how important voice is. And I feel like this is something many authors struggle with.
Destructive: "I'm not convinced by Ross's narration during the battle at all."
Constructive: "I feel like Ross's voice could be stronger and more present in this chapter. Right now, it seems like he's narrating the scene in an uninvolved sort of way. But the battle is so gruesome, it must be affecting him, too. I think the chapter could be a lot more powerful if we saw more of Ross's emotions as he witnesses all the bloodshed."
Destructive: "Michaela sounds sooo immature. I can't stand her."
Constructive: "I'm having trouble picturing Michaela as a young adult. I feel like in this scene especially, the way she's talking about her encounter with her aunt makes her seem a lot younger than she actually is."
There are, of course, many other points of discussion for CC, but I'll stop here. Otherwise, this guide will become much too unwieldy and you guys will start foaming at the mouth.
Just keep in mind that CC is meant to help the writer, and the only way that is going to happen is if what you've written can inspire change. It's as much about how you say something as it is what you say. No one is telling you to lie or to vomit rainbows and sunshine in order to make the criticism more palatable. The key is simply to be tactful and constructive.
B. CONSTRUCTIVE REVIEW (henceforth "CR")
This is the kind of constructiveness that is often overlooked. This category basically covers all reviews that abide by the Golden Rule (recall: show that you've read the chapter) but don't fall under the umbrella of "criticism." For an incomplete novel, these are absolutely crucial.
I know when I post a chapter, I'm always nervous because these kinds of questions will plague me:
Will they like it?
Will they get it?
Will they realize that _?
Will they laugh at _?
Will they totally freak out when _?
Will they fall in love with him/her after _?
I have no idea if I'm doing anything right if I don't receive feedback about the chapter. In fact, I love when readers scream/cry/flail/laugh/keysmash and express very strong emotions. Because then I know I've done a good job. And I am positive every author feels the same way.
That doesn't mean the author will do everything the reviewer says. It's still their story, and their vision. Your CR will simply make sure that the story is the best that it can be, that the author's vision is carried out to its full potential.
Never forget that the author is telling a story. They want to know every single one of your reactions. Because that will tell them how effective their storytelling is.
For example, if I wrote a cliffhanger and no one seems to be freaking out or virtually screaming, then I know that it wasn't very effective. If the scene is supposed to be really sad and no one is reacting, then I know that I need to improve my descriptions, narration, and dialogue so that I can evoke a stronger emotion from the reader. If everyone hates one of my characters even though the scene is supposed to show his or her good side, then I know I need to work on my characterization. You see how this works? These are actually the kind of reviews I personally like best, because the information I can derive from them is invaluable to making the story better.
Yes, yes, you exclaim, but what do I say?
It's simple. Hated the chapter? Felt very meh about it? Loved it to death? Great, tell the author why.
Think about your favorite TV show/series. Now imagine if you were able to tell the writers after each episode what you thought. What would you say? You guys do this already, actually. You rant and rave and fangirl with friends on the couch, on Facebook, over Twitter. "Oh, my God, they killed off McSteamy! NOOOO!" or "WRITERS—WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! You are ruining Stefan's character!"
FP is really no different—except you're speaking directly to the author.
So let's compile a (non-exhaustive) list, shall we?
1. What your favorite parts of the chapter were
2. What your least favorite parts of the chapter were
3. Reactions to events that happened in the chapter/the progression of the plot
4. The flow of the chapter
5. Whether you could picture the scenes
6. What you would like to see happen
7. Predictions about future chapters
8. Thoughts (both good and bad) about characters, given what you learned in the chapter
9. Specific lines or paragraphs or pieces of dialogue you particularly liked
10. Specific lines or paragraphs or pieces of dialogue that you didn't particularly like
11. Generally, just how the events/characters/writing made you feel
12. Literally anything that follows the Golden Rule
And you don't have to talk about all of these—God, no! Ain't nobody got time for that. Feel free just to pick one or two. Most importantly, talk about what struck you the most.
You may not think rambling about your feelings is helpful, but I cannot stress enough how important that information is to the author. So remember, you don't need to have criticism in your reviews to make a difference.
V. FINAL THOUGHTS: GIVING PRAISE WHERE PRAISE IS DUE
However you go about reviewing, don't forget that writing is a very personal endeavor. Writers are essentially breaking off a piece of themselves, giving it to you, and saying, "I trust you." It's a very special gift, so do handle it with care.
We are a community of aspiring amateur writers and voracious book lovers. We are here to encourage each other, to foster and nurture both literary and personal growth in a positive environment. We are the future J.K. Rowlings, Margaret Atwoods, and Stephen Kings. So as important as it is to give constructive criticism and reviews, it is equally important that we encourage and support one another.