If you have ever been brave enough to put your work out there, be it something written, painted or sketched, etc., you’ve likely received a review of some kind. Even if that review is nothing more than a friend saying, “I love it,” it’s still a review. On this site, I have explored how to receive difficult reviews; now I’d like to discuss how to write helpful reviews. Of course, I’m referring specifically to reviews of creative fiction, though I suppose some of these guidelines might apply to other types of creative works.
First, I should be clear, I’m not talking about a consumer review meant to either recommend a novel or steer folks away from it. For the purposes of this blog, let’s assume the review is meant to give an author constructive feedback.
With that said, it’s important to recognize that there are different types of reviews.
- There are the rainbows and gumdrop reviews that tell you nothing more than how wonderful you are. These can be great for the author’s ego and perhaps helpful if they’re trying to market their book, but it isn’t going to help them get better.
- There are the flame reviews, which often don’t say a whole lot and can get fairly personal in their attacks.
- There are the opinionated reviews that don’t provide constructive criticism.
- And there are the opinionated reviews that do provide constructive criticism.
If you’re writing reviews that fit with numbers one and two, you aren’t bringing a thing to the table. That said, neither are reviews fitting with number three. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is when a reviewer goes off about how the novel doesn’t work or isn’t most effective or something’s wrong, yet all explanations and/or elaborations are so ambiguous there’s absolutely nothing to be taken from them. I have received a few reviews (from an author I respect, no less) where she finished her ramblings (which said zilch) with, “I guess I don’t even really know what’s wrong.”
And this brings me to my first point…
Review the piece for what it is, not for what you want it to be.
The author has a message and a unique story (in theory), and your job as a constructive reviewer is to help them determine whether or not he or she delivers those things effectively (note that that’s different from them delivering it in the way you most prefer). Taste factors into it. If you don’t have a taste for something but can see the methods used as appealing for its intended audience, say so and then offer critique based on what the author seems to intend to do not on what you would want to do.
Constructive vs. Unsupportive Criticism
Sometimes the difference between these two things is obvious, but more often than not that isn’t the case. So what makes criticism constructive and useful? It’s in the specifics and suggested alternatives/tweaks. For instance, generic verbiage, such as “this doesn’t work,” requires elaboration with specific examples and suggestions on what to tweak.
To explain further, let’s say there’s a love scene between two young characters, but the reviewer feels like the relationship is forced. Saying, “this doesn’t work,” isn’t going to help the author see how it doesn’t work, and so you’re leaving them with a nebulous claim that carries no credibility. A good reviewer challenges him or herself to think: “This relationship feels forced, because their strong feelings are rushed early to the point where the reader just can’t buy it and is left thinking about when the other shoe’s going to fall. You might consider…”
See the difference? Of course, this doesn’t mean to write the story for them, but it does mean if you’re going to take a shot at their work, you owe them clarification.
Don’t Confuse ‘Rules’ and Guidelines with Your Personal Preferences.
I find it comical when a reviewer says something like, “Don’t use prologues, because nobody likes them.” First, this isn’t true. Plenty of top-selling authors include a prologue, so it can’t be that nobody likes them. However, it may be that the author isn’t using a prologue appropriately or most effectively. In which case, pointing that out might be the way to go. Just make sure to explain why it’s not the best idea. In other words, there’s a major difference between, “Don’t use prologues, because nobody likes them,” and “Prologues are most often used to accomplish such and such, yet yours doesn’t seem to have a purpose. You might consider rethinking it.”
Prologues are just an example. It’s also not uncommon for a reviewer to prescribe to one format of novel writing and chastising anyone who doesn’t write to that format. Again, the question shouldn’t be whether or not you like the author’s style, but whether or not it works.
All that said, if you don’t personally like something, it’s OK to say so—it might even be helpful. However, make it clear that it’s your personal preference and don’t mask the criticism as a universal opinion.
Not everyone agrees with this, but to those who tend to disregard etiquette, ask yourself something: Is your goal to help the writer or to unload on them? If it’s to help the writer, consider that politeness goes a long way to lowering the guard of the author. Some authors are more sensitive than others, but even if the author has thick skin, getting ‘attacked’ can make identifying the actual, specific suggestions all the more difficult.
When writing a review for another author, remember these guidelines:
- Review the piece for what it is, not what you want it to be
- Focus on constructive criticism, with explanations and tangible suggestions
- Don’t mistaken your personal preference as universal ‘rules’ that must be followed
- THINK—if you’re going to make your opinion known, give the author the courtesy of putting some thought behind it
- Be polite
And really, that’s it. Some will tell you to format your review to cover multiple aspects of a novel, such as storyline, polish, character development, etc. While this works well for some people, I don’t think it’s always necessary. For one, some components may not require any comments. Every novel is different. I say focus on what strikes you or what you think you can be most helpful with.
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments: additional insights, disagreements, experiences…please share.