SO YOU WANT TO GIVE CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM?
So, as --
EDEN, I DON’T WANT TO READ ALL THIS. PLACES TO BE, THINGS TO DO.
While reviewing, keep an eye on CONTINUITY for absolutely everything you can think of. The rest of you -- would you like a shot of alcohol to get you started?
SO YOU WANT TO GIVE CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM?
As a fanfiction writer, it is a fact that you love reviews. Think about it: you publish a story that may or may not contain various amounts of your blood, sweat and tears, and in return some incredibly groovy people write you nice letters saying you’re fabulous or that you spelt “exceptionally” wrong. Who wouldn’t love this?
At UR.org, one of our founding philosophies is that everyone, from the biggest of big name fans to the hopelessly unknown and overlooked, has something they can improve upon. Maybe they write fantastically, but their plot is terribly executed or confusing. Perhaps another person has wonderful ideas, but you just can’t look past their convoluted sentences and poor spelling. You, as a reader and writer, see these strengths and weaknesses and think to yourself: I can see the problems here, but can the author?
How would anyone ever know there is room for improvement if someone didn’t tap them on the shoulder and let them know about it? This is the hidden beauty of reviews: you can help someone out and simultaneously vent your frustration for stilted dialogue. Brilliant! you’re probably thinking. But where do you start? Maybe you want to give constructive criticism, but you don’t really know how. How can you let an author know their characterization is awful without hurting their feelings?
Never fear, Roomies. Giving constructive criticism is honestly not as daunting as it first appears. And -- get this -- being able to recognize common areas of fault in others’ work will in turn make you more self aware, thus improving your own writing. Nice perk, eh?
GRAMMAR AND SPELLING
Grammar and spelling mistakes are the easiest to spot, since you don’t have to be actively looking for them. Authors should be spell-checking and proof-reading their stories, but not everyone is perfect and some things slip through. Just let them know that perhaps they should proof-read more carefully or enlist the help of a beta-reader. There is a frightening amount of articles and resources for authors available on the internet; if someone is not aware of the correct usage of who vs whom or what exactly constitutes a clause, they are only a quick Google search away from finding out the answer. You don’t have to lecture them on hanging participles unless you really want to; letting them know that there’s a problem with their sentence structure should be enough of a nudge to fix the problem the next time around.
No, I don’t just mean continuity to established canon -- although that is important unless it’s explicitly stated that the story is AU -- but also within the story itself. Continuity is huge in terms of importance -- feel free at any time to start up a drinking game based on the number of times I say this -- and if the author is forever forgetting or changing events it can get very frustrating. Ask yourself, as you’re reading, whether the author is sufficient in creating circumstances and sticking with them. Are they changing details halfway through? Are they taking time to develop the story’s events and reactions in a realistic manner? Does the story progress naturally, or are some sections drawn out as filler while other sections are too rushed? Keep in mind that the story has to make sense; if you’re suddenly feeling like you’re reading season three of Heroes, the author has some things to work out. You can apply the continuity test to every development in the story: romance, angst, drama, mystery and suspense, to name just a few. (Take a shot.)
Let’s face it: do you want to read Fic #8393754397 about Lily and James fighting and then suddenly she realizes she’s in love with him and it’s happiness and rainbows forever (until they die)? Of course not; you want something fresh and intriguing. Keep tabs on the plotlines: does the author follow them through to a resolution? Are there enough compelling twists in the story to make you keep reading? Does the author present an interesting spin to the story? Or is everything so predictable you feel as though you could finish up in three sentences or less? Is there a good sense of continuity? (Second shot.) A good plot can salvage a story from otherwise poor style, and just the same you can have the prettiest prose on the block and be unable to drive a plot to save your life.
No matter if you like a character or not, there are two things any decent one absolutely must have: consistency in their actions and reactions (third shot) and personal growth. Watch out for inconsistencies; does a character’s personality match up with what we know of them? Are their actions and reactions consistent throughout the story? Are they fleshed out enough to include sufficient strengths and weaknesses? Do they make mistakes and subsequently learn from the experience? Think about what the author has done to make you love a certain character and despise another. Are these the emotions intended by the author? Don’t just slap the Mary Sue/Gary Stu label on a character you don’t like; really think about what makes them badly characterized, and let the author know your specific concerns.
Everyone has a style, whether it’s the same all over the board or if they’ve adopted a specific one for a piece of writing. Ultimately it’s up to the reader whether or not they enjoy an author’s personal style, as there’s no right or wrong way of writing. If you’re going to criticize a writer’s style, you’re going to have to come prepared with some ammunition. Are their descriptive devices completely bare or looking a little purple around the edges? Is the dialogue unnecessarily choppy or unrealistically flowery? Is the style consistent from chapter to chapter? (Fourth shot.) If there is a change in style, if there a good reason for it -- say, a change in the point of view? No matter your opinion, in the end style is down to the author, so be sure to support your issues with some solid arguments. “Your style is bad, you should change it” is not only completely useless in terms of constructive criticism, but also rather insulting.
SO HOW DO I GIVE CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM?
No reviewer is going to write down a novel of notes when they review; most likely you’ll stash some points of improvement in the back of your mind to put in the review. But you click the button and -- uh oh, how do I do this without sounding like a jerk? Don’t panic -- instead, try first writing down all the things you liked about the story. Personally, I like to begin and end my review with something I enjoyed about their work to soften the blow a little, and throw the gritty criticism in the middle -- you might find this method works for you. Positive assurance goes a long way to make the writer receptive to your suggestions, and not including any makes you a jerk or a flamer, and neither one of those is very helpful to people.
As for the criticism itself -- well, there’s a reason we like to call it constructive. If you point out an area of work that needs improvement, suggest a few ways they can go about doing that. Try to avoid the imperative -- “talk about your characters’ emotions more” -- and swap the “you” statements for “I” statements -- “you characterized Snape badly” can easily become “I felt Snape was characterized badly”. If this sounds disturbingly like an intervention to you now too (I mean, it’s not just me, right?), just think of it like that -- you’re staging an intervention against bad writing.
Continuity, continuity, continuity. I hope you're all tipsy at least by now.
So try it out! Challenge yourself on the next story you read to find one or two places that you think need improvement. Review some pieces of writing and flex your analytical skills!
Comments? Questions? Discussion? Think I missed something important? Dare I say -- criticism? Post it here in the comments or head on over to this thread in the forums to have it out.