Reviewing and You: Reviewing 101
Introduction: The Theory of Reviewing
To put things simply right off the bat, reviewing is an open line of communication between the author and his audience. That is, it's a way of speaking to the author so the author can understand how he's doing with his work. Additionally, to review, the reviewer needs to say one thing and one thing only: what he thought about the work.
Now, okay, don't look at me and say, "Well, duh, Jax. We all know that." I know you know that. It's one of those things that's just a given when it comes to reviewing. The problem is that not a lot of you know that there's a whole plethora of other questions that go into it that you, as the reviewer, need to answer in order to write an intelligent review.
Basically, the concept of what you think is actually a pretty broad category because it's possible to break it down into different other questions that all answer the same general topic. For example, the most basic questions that fall under this category are:
1. Did you like it?
2. Did you not like it?
From there, both questions have yet another set of questions underneath them: Why? What is it about the work that you didn't like? What is it about the work that you did? Why did you like or hate those particular parts? What about those parts didn't you like? Why? And it keeps on going back and forth between "what" and "why" until there's nothing left to talk about.
In other words, reviewing is quite possibly 50% analysis. (The other 50% is something we'll get into in a moment.) In order to effectively review, you need to ask yourself what works and what doesn't, why they don't work, and keep on going from there. In a review, you need to be honest and be specific. You need to say what's on your mind about a work without holding back (as in, don't tell someone they're good just because you want to be nice, especially if you don't think they're good), and you need to point out specific parts of the story.
Granted, this doesn't mean you need to write a book, and it doesn't mean that you need to be a jerk. An effective review can be as short as a paragraph, after all, and it's perfectly possible to be honest without being rude. What this means is that, first off, you need to show the author you've read their work, and to do that, you need to tell them about specific parts of their story. Did you like that part where Johnny battled a Weedle? That's awesome. Tell the author that you liked the battle against the Weedle. That way, the author knows that you've been paying attention because you were able to point out something that happened smack in the middle of the chapter, so your review ends up telling them a lot more than just a general one-liner.
Second, it means you can't patronize the author by telling them they're good if you don't think they are. The truth is a compliment when you're a critic. As soon as you decide to review something that has a lot of weak points that you can point out, you have two choices. You can either let the author continue to write something that will only ever be mediocre to you, or you can tell the author what would make you actually become a fan of their work by pointing out where you thought they could improve. There's techniques in how to deliver this without ticking off the author, but that's for the rest of the guide.
The point is that while you're writing a review to let others know what you think of the story (assuming that that's why you're bothering and not for some sadistic enjoyment out of it), the other 50% of it is meant to help the author. You're not the only one who's reading the review, after all. There's also the author, who most likely genuinely wants to figure out how to get as many people to like his or her work as possible. That author can do that if you provide honest feedback to give him or her a good idea of where their writing stands, and if they're not at the top of a reader's list, an effective review will provide tips on how they can get there. Keep in mind that the writer has a natural bias towards his work (as in, a writer will always think that their work is either better or worse than it actually is), whereas the reviewer tends to see the work in a completely objective standpoint. In other words, you can see the weak points that they can't. So, it's up to you to point out those errors, explain why they're errors, and tell the author how to avoid them in the future so that the author can get out of fanfiction what he or she is trying to do.
Now, you may be asking yourself why I say you need to help the author. After all, you don't really know if they actually want to improve. The short answer to this question is that it really doesn't make sense for them to post on the internet if they didn't want feedback from random strangers. After all, why post your work in public for hundreds of people with drastically varying opinions to see if you didn't want to hear from most of them, right? Hence, by default, you usually assume that not only does the author actually want to hear your honest opinion but is also open to constructive criticism. Remember, writers who post on a forum usually want to share their work with an audience and gather a following of readers, so of course, they'll typically be open to advice on how to effectively do both. As a visitor to an author's thread, you'll assume this unless the writer tells you otherwise.
So, with all of that in mind, let's move on to how reviewing does and doesn't work.