Now that I've cranked my way through two essays on what critical reviews really are and how to handle them, it's occurred to me that I haven't said anything about how to write a critical review! Writing critical reviews can be tricky business. It's a balance between buttering them up like a 5 year old and dashing their dreams among the rocks, and if my experience is any teacher, a lot of readers on FictionPress are either too afraid to say what they think about a story, or don't know how. Here's a short guide on how to overcome both of these problems.
Before you sit down and write a critical review, it's important to remember that the writer on the other side of the internet is human too. It's so easy to forget. I tend to forget this frequently, and then I'm prying my foot out of my mouth a few days later. But, it's also important to remember that this is a site designed for critique.
If a writer posts "no flames, please!" in their author's note, they probably really mean, "Just tell me good things about my writing!" But, let's be honest, they have opened themselves up to the talons of the internet, and it's not your job to keep them ignorant. In essence, they have signed away their right to sappy compliments, and now it's your turn to exercise your job as a reader: respectfully, gently, and carefully tell them how you think they can make their story better.
This is another important thing to remember. Your review, no matter how harsh, should always be pointing towards how to improve their story. This is one difference between a critical review and a bad review (note: not "flame"). A bad review will simply list the things that are wrong. A critical review will point out things that can be made better. Call it semantics, but if you have this direction in your mind, your review will come out sounding well-rounded and respectful. Something to be taken seriously.
No fear, people. It is (almost) never bad to expose someone to the painful truth that not everything they do is perfect. In the long run, you are helping them.
But how do you actually write a critical review? This is how I generally structure my reviews.
1. Start with a broad, positive statement. "I really enjoyed reading this" is the most obvious one, but you're a writer! You can be creative!
2. List some specific positives that came to mind while you were reading. i.e. Your grammar is flawless. Your dialogue is really realistic and fun to read. Your characters make me laugh. Your description is beautiful. Etc.
3. Transition into some things that could stand to be improved. Make sure to say WHY you think they were bad - "As a first chapter, this didn't seem to have much plot. Generally, first chapters end with a catalyst, which is something that forces the character into action. There doesn't seem to be much of a catalyst in this chapter, so while it was well-written, I'd suggest picking up the pace a little bit." Try to teach. After all, you have knowledge, they may not, and sharing knowledge is what makes the world go 'round! Asking "Why?" is the key question in writing - so, too, in reviewing.
4. finish off with another general statement, summarizing your review. "All in all, this was a very fun first chapter. I enjoyed your dialogue and description, and if you stick in a little bit of action at the end there, I think this will be a really great start to your novel!"
There are, of course, wrong ways to write a critical review, and this is what turns a critical review into a bad review, or even a flame (though I hesitate to call 99 percent of bad reviews "flames," because they're not).
Never insult the writer. You're critiquing the story here, not the human behind it. Attacking your opponent during a debate is poor form (ad homonym is the name of the fallacy, I think), and the same thing is true when reviewing. Attacking the writer is technically the definition of a flame. Never do it. It's disrespectful, immature, and completely unhelpful.
Try to keep personal preferences out. Every writer has a different style, so while I may like long, flowing sentences, this writer may prefer short, sparse sentences. That's just a matter of taste; neither person is wrong. What would be appropriate is to suggest using different lengths of sentences, because that's not quite as much of a style thing, but a generally accepted aspect of writing: it's more interesting if sentence length varies. If you must include a personal preference thing, maybe because you think it's a rule but you're not sure, just disclaimer it: "It may just be me, but I think..."
Obviously, don't be disrespectful, even if it's of the work, not the author. This just goes back to remembering that the person on the other side of your computer screen is just as human as you are. It's okay to be critical, but not to be harsh.
Yes, "nice plz update soon" is a bad review. If you ask me, it's the worst kind of review to give or get. You may as well have not even read the story if that's all you can think to say.
Try not to reference your own works, especially not by name. You may have only the best intentions, simply using your own experience as an example, but it looks like a personal advertisement. I use examples from my own writing all the time (mostly things I've learned through the years), but I never use the title of the work. Try to keep it general. "Once I was working on a story, and I encountered the same problem, so I decided to change this." No plot summaries, no names, just enough to show that you've experienced the same problem and found a work-around. No self promotion!
The end! Now that you've learned how to write a well-rounded and constructive review, go and practice it on something in the Just In section! You'll make somebody's day.