Reviewing and You: How To Review
So, you've made it past the lengthy introduction that tells you why a person reviews, right? Great! Now, we're on to the good stuff, the stuff about how to review. Now, there's several different ways to go about explaining this part of things to you, but the easiest is by starting off with examples of what not to do. A lot of these are borrowed from quotes I've actually seen on various writing communities, so not all of them are mine. If you recognize a post of yours, I apologize in advance. Feel free to send me a message if you'd like me to take it down.
In other words, all of the quotes are real reviews. The names have been removed to protect the innocent.
Bad Example #1: The Shortie
Thats a Awesome Story I hope it continues cause it has a Very Well Written Story and very good characters. Keep up the good writing
Remember what I told you in the first part of this guide about how writers are usually looking for ways to improve their skills? This... is not a good way to help them.
Seriously, look at it for awhile. What does it tell you about your chapter? Although on the surface, it seems like a compliment, what it also says is that the reviewer couldn't sit through the chapter long enough to notice anything in particular. Note that the review only mentions that it's a well-written story and that the characters are very good. This could mean a lot of different things. It could mean that the story is strong grammatically, or it could mean that the plot was interesting. Likewise, it could mean that the way Susie kept her cool in the chapter's battle was admirable, or it could mean the way Roger burst out into a fit of over-the-top violence for no apparent reason was good. It could even mean that the way the author portrayed canon characters was excellent. There are hundreds of different possibilities in just these three lines, but the author can't tell what they're supposed to mean because they're intensely vague.
Also, it in general says that the reviewer couldn't pay attention. Again, while a review doesn't have to be pages long, it's usually common courtesy to show that you've been reading enough to at least say, "Hey, I really liked the way you had Susie react here." That flatters the author, even if you're offering constructive criticism, because it means either that you liked the chapter so much specific details are sticking in your mind or that you care enough about seeing the author improve that you're showing him different places where he can use his own writing as learning tools. In other words, specifics are powerful and say a lot more to the author than just vague comments. And I mean that more than literally.
Bad Example #2: The Grammatical Review
A lot of people on a lot of forums I frequent have this weird trend of leaving lengthy, quote-heavy grammatical reviews. You know. The ones that just quote sentences and point out the fact that a word is spelled wrong or a mark of punctuation is misplaced or missing without actually going into anything more than pointing out the error in question. While it's cool that you're learning the very basics of the English language, also keep in mind that:
1. Your review is meant to help the author. Don't just say that it's an error. Say why it's an error. As in, explain the rule of grammar or spelling that's being broken, the logic behind it (if you can), and how to fix it. Otherwise, the writer doesn't know what he or she did wrong or how to avoid it in the future, and your grammatical review ends up being lost on deaf ears.
2. Do not comment on English grammar unless you're certain you're doing it correctly in the first place.
There's two parts to the second point. First, never point out a violation to a grammatical rule that isn't actually a violation. You might be thinking, "lolwat" here, but it's also a very simple concept. Make sure you look up grammatical rules before you point them out. Nothing's worse than misleading an author by giving them misinformation about grammatical rules. It causes them to insert more errors into their fic, which will turn off other potential reviewers. Be sure to Google before you comment. There's a lot of awesome grammatical guides out there just a quick search away, and no matter how experienced you might be, it never hurts to brush up.
Second, if you're going to make a grammatical review, chances are, you don't want to sound like this:
For grammar wise, I scanned through it, and only found on part.
Fix your plurals! remember before you post.
Yes, they're filled with grammatical errors, as you can tell by the underlined bits. Seriously, if you tell someone to be careful about their grammar, chances are, you don't want to have too many in your own review for the simple reason that if you do, bluntly put, you look like a hypocrite. Possibly even just as bad as the author. As in, what sort of lesson are you teaching the writer if you tell him to write in proper English, only to not follow the same advice?
So, the rule of thumb, aside from explaining your corrections, is proofread your review before you submit it. This can easily be done the way one would proofread a story: write it in a word processing document (e.g. Microsoft Word, Open Office, et cetera), save if you don't have time to finish, and post it later when you have time. There's no reason why you should post the review right away. After all, no one's forcing you to review every story in an archive.
Bad Example #3: The 10/10 (or Five-Star or Whatever) Review
In my time lurking and posting on various fic forums, I often come across people who attempt to sound as if they're giving a professional review. Oftentimes, those reviews end up looking like this:
10/10 those are awesome!!
Now, you wouldn't think those aren't so bad until you realize something fairly important. First off, like the shortie, this barely even tells the writer why it's good, what parts worked, or that the reader even bothered to actually read it. Second, on top of that, it's also incredibly misleading. Numbered reviews have the unfortunate downside that is no one knows what the numbers mean. I mean, 10/10 or 0/10 are no-brainers, yes, but what about a review that's 9/10? 6/10? 2/10? What standards are the reviewers using to come up with those numbers? You really don't know, so the reviewer is practically pulling these things straight from his rear. Even a 10/10 review doesn't actually mention what standards the reviewer used to judge the fic. You would assume it's perfect in every aspect, but how did the reviewer determine that?
To see what I mean, let's look at another review that's got what has to be a completely and utterly arbitrary number:
good i guess........................... the chapter just ended
So, what does the author take away from a review like this?
1. The reviewer thinks his story is good but doesn't say why. In fact, he's largely apathetic about the story.
2. The chapter just "ended." What does that mean? The reviewer doesn't like cliffhangers?
3. The reviewer is capable of pulling out a completely random number to express his lukewarm feelings for the story.
That is, the author, after reading the review, walks away with absolutely no information that can tell him anything about his story. He doesn't know what he did right or what he did wrong. He doesn't know whether this number is good or bad or why he missed all those other points. He doesn't know anything. In other words, the review failed at what it was meant to do.
Same thing with giving stars or certain seals in place of numbered ratings. If you're going to do that and keep the review short, then the author has no idea why his story earned that seal or that many stars or why it couldn't get something higher. He takes nothing away from a random confidence booster that really means absolutely nothing other than the reviewer's too lazy to put his opinion into actual words.
But let's say you tack a number, a seal, or a set of stars at the end of a lengthy review. Would it work then? Actually, not really. I admit to doing this in the past, and all I learned from it is that putting that kind of thing at the end of a review is incredibly obnoxious. It has the potential of boosting the egos of certain writers who decide to tl;dr your review despite the fact that you say it's good, and if you give them a low number, set of stars, or seal, then that means you're basically grinding your heel into their fanfiction, rather than attempting to help them. As in, a high number or whatever boosts the ego. The low end of the spectrum insults the author. Granted, negative reviews may hurt, but straight constructive criticism and frank honesty usually make up for this (unless the author is new to the entire fanfiction world), whereas adding a number or a star set or whatever beats them over the head with the fact that you thought they sucked. Remember that your first goal in leaving a review is to tell the reader what you thought did and didn't work for their fanfiction and why. You do not need to emphasize the fact that you thought their writing was on either end of the spectrum.
Bad Example #4: The Flame
If you ever feel the need to swear at the author, directly insult them (e.g., explicitly call them a moron), or tell them that they suck without offering any specifics, get out of the fandom.
I really have nothing much to say other than that. Just that, again, the whole point of a review is to help the author out through feedback. There's no point to a flame. The author will very rarely respect you and take your advice, regardless of how good it is, if you act like a self-important jerk. This fandom and any other really doesn't need any more drama than it already has, so if you find yourself flaming an author, stop right where you are, turn around, and please leave.
How a Review Should Really Be Done
So, I've been sitting here for a long time, telling you what not to do when you review. How about the things you should do? How do you write a review, anyway?
Start off with the theory section. When you come across someone else's work, take a long look at it. Ask yourself the basic questions, and then keep going with it down the line until you have enough material to work with. Go into the chapter or story with a clear and open mind. You're reviewing for the sake of not only giving your honest opinion but also to help the author.
Every good reviewer has a different style. Some like to read through the entire thing and give a long, uninterrupted (as in, lax using the quote tags, although it may contain a few quotes here and there to serve as examples for clarification) review at the end. Some like to quote the entire post and make notes as they go along. Some just like a brief paragraph that states the basics. Some like a combination of all of the above. Whatever you do, keep in mind that it's really up to you which style you want to use or if you want to try some sort of variant, but the end result is that you need to be a careful reader and reviewer at all times. (I'd recommend a read through first before going back and skimming it again as you review. That way, you know the context of each piece of the story beforehand as well as an idea of what you want to say.)
After that, when you start to review, stop when you need to. Like actually writing a fanfiction, you have the option of using a word processing document to save your work. In fact, it's incredibly recommended to use a word processing document, as it's easier to spot errors in your own writing as you do your review than it is just writing in a post reply box. Also, you can save without submitting the review to the public, so if you need to get up for long periods of time in the middle of your review, you can without having to tell the author, "This review isn't finished yet, so I'll get back to it later" or "I don't have time to review, but this is a placeholder for one." Please note that good writers tend to be patient, so there's no real rush in getting a review up (unless the writer is pumping out a chapter a day, at which point, as I've said before, it's probably not worth your time).
Also, remember that not every review has to be a book. Even just pointing out a handful of specifics is still helpful to the author. Therefore, be as brief or comprehensive as you'd like, so long as you don't fall into one of the traps I've mentioned in the above part of this guide. It's perfectly okay to write only a review that's only a paragraph long.
During the review, please note that not everyone includes the same information. Just because some reviewers point out grammatical errors doesn't mean every review needs to have one. A review simply states what you thought did and didn't work in the story. If you prefer to just review the story's literary elements (plot, description, characters, et cetera), then it's okay if you just do that without touching grammar and spelling as long as it's intelligent and longer than a few lines. However, I personally don't believe that it's a particularly filling review if you do the reverse and just submit a grammatical review, as that tends to be pretentious while completely ignoring the actual story and therefore point to a review (unless the thing is absolutely unreadable).
Likewise, as I've said before, if you're going to review, please do your homework before pointing out a potential error. That means looking up the rules of grammar before pointing out a grammatical error, knowing the canon before pointing out errors in the portrayal of canon, knowing the rules of the writing community in general (as in, no pointing out that something's breaking the rules when it's not), and generally knowing a bit about what you're talking about. This tends to be a "no duh" statement, but I've seen reviewers elsewhere that have attempted to review other people's stories while giving them completely false information, which then misleads the author and causes them to, yes, add more errors to their fanfiction. So, in order to help a writer, you generally need to have an idea of what you're talking about first. Remember that Google is your friend, should you be only somewhat certain about things.
Furthermore, a reviewer does not write the story for the writer. If you think a piece of the storyline doesn't work because of logic/violation to canon/failure to evoke a mood, tell them why and suggest a possible solution. If you don't like the plot because you think events could be better with (insert character here) and (insert plot point here), then chances are, you're trying to write the story for the author. Also note that describing an entire ending to a story and asking the author to write about that is generally not a good practice. The author will write a story about whatever he wants to write, and it's not the reviewer's job to dictate to him what you want to see. Instead, it's the reviewer's job to tell the author what doesn't work with the story so far and why, if that makes sense.
At the end of a longer review, it's always good to summarize what you're trying to say. It's the conclusion, so you generally want to gather your thoughts and give your last advice or verdict before wrapping up. Remember, you're here to encourage the writer to get better if at all possible, so the conclusion is really where you need to stop and say, "Yes, I know you've made a lot of mistakes, but you can get better with effort" or "It was okay, but it could be better" or "I really didn't think it was particularly good, but it's possible for you to improve if you (insert something here)."
No, you shouldn't sugarcoat your reviews. No, it's not sugarcoating if you try to say "this wasn't that great" with tact. The reason why is because there's a difference between a straightforward reviewer and a jerk. A straightforward reviewer is capable of being honest but can explain his opinion while suggesting ways to improve. They're the helping hands, even though they can be harsh critics with fiction that isn't particularly stellar, simply because they tend to be blunt about their opinions. A jerk, meanwhile, is the sort of reviewer who thinks it's their right to say that an author sucks without offering any hope of improvement. In some cases, sure, some writers will be difficult and refuse to see their work as anything other than awesome, but it doesn't mean that you have to assume that no writer wants to improve. So, rather than saying, "You suck. Stop writing." You should be saying, "I didn't particularly like this piece because (insert reason here), but I think you can improve/it would be better if you (insert suggestion here)."
On the other hand, what it comes down to is this handy quote by one of the most notorious critics in show business, Simon Cowell:
"Kids turn up unrehearsed, wearing the wrong clothes, singing out of tune and you can either say, 'good job,' and patronize them or tell them the truth, and sometimes the truth is perceived as mean."
Basically speaking, a review's the same concept. While you shouldn't just stop at "you're terrible," you should at least speak your mind about someone's writing. If it's not good, don't be afraid to tell the author where its weakpoints are in as objective a voice as possible. (As in, don't put your emotions into it. Don't bite the writer's head off, but be firm.) Just because you want to be polite doesn't mean you can't tell them, "It's all right, but be careful about this, this, and this because of this reason." You, as the reviewer, have the right to point out their weakpoints because they, as writers on a public forum, should come to expect that that sort of thing would happen. Be honest. It really helps.
So, with that all in mind, why don't we get into a few other helpful hints that might help you review?