Reviewing and You: A Note To the Writers

The last few guides covered how to sit down and judge a fic. While I'd like to eventually get into how to write without sounding like a complete jerk, I'd like to first say a word to the writers because without you, we have nothing to work with.

So, let's start off at the basics.

Introduction: How to Write On the Internet

Welcome to the internet. It's a vast, fascinating world where people can freely trade ideas. You, meanwhile, are the writer. You've worked hard for days, weeks, months, whatever, and you finally have that amazing piece of work you want to share with everyone. Assuming you've already gone through and proofread, you should be ready to just hit the New Thread button or upload it or what have you, and it'll be over and done with, right?

Stop right there. Before you do anything, stop and think about it. The internet is a vast place, full of people with all kinds of opinions. If you were just saving your story in a notebook or in some other offline format to just show your friends and relatives, that's one thing. However, as soon as you post your story, you're showing it to millions of complete strangers. Anyone with a computer can now come and read your story, which means all of those people with different opinions and standards will be viewing your thread.

That means that from this point onward, you're no longer writing for yourself. You're writing for an audience.

The logic goes like this: If you were writing for yourself -- completely for yourself -- you would be the only one who needs to see it. Therefore, you'd only need to keep it in a private place for your eyes only. If you were writing for your friends or family, you'd send it directly to them.

However, you're doing neither. Instead, you're posting it online. Why? Why would you put something so private on the internet, where anyone can come and read it? The logical answer is that you, by default, want opinions from those strangers. You're not posting so you can read your story later. You're not even posting to show your friends. You're posting for everyone because you want to share it with them and hear what they have to say.

So, with that in mind, hit that New Thread button. Post your fic. Let your reviewers come in and say something. But never, ever assume that you can do whatever you want and get a positive response 100% of the time.

The rest of this guide is set up similarly to the first one. I take common complaints and arguments and turn them into a "how-not-to" guide, explaining why those arguments really don't apply. Hopefully, by doing this, I'll hit on the most major comments so you can realize that, yes, we've heard that before, and yes, this kind of thing tends to end badly for you.

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Argument #1: It's Fanfiction!

This is probably one of the most common arguments in any fanfiction community. Seriously. Take one. Pick just any one on a quick Google search. Chances are, if there's at least one negative review offered in it, this argument has popped up at least once. Usually, it's done when a reviewer mentions the fact that they've done something that isn't canon, like making a character OOC or having a Charizard use Explosion. Sometimes, it's also an attempt to justify defying logic. Unfortunately, fanfiction doesn't really work that way.

See, the problem is that the word "fiction" in this phrase doesn't mean it's fake. It means it's literature. As in, you're writing, as opposed to drawing. Compare that word with the word "fanart." When a fanartist draws something completely absurd and is called out on it, do they ever say, "Well, it's art, so I can do whatever I want"? No, not that frequently. That's because fanartists usually know that the word "art" doesn't actually mean they can do things like have Ash's hair be pink for no explainable reason.

Moreover, remember that there's more than one syllable in this word. Take another look:

Fanfiction.

Ever wonder why it's called fanfiction? It's not just because you're writing in the universe of a fandom. It's because you're doing this because you're a fan. Yes, that's right. Fanfiction is done out of love. It's done because you choose to acknowledge yourself as a fan, and it's done because you want to show that you're a fan by expressing your love for the canon. If you write fanfiction, you must respect the original canon as much as you possibly can, not because we're anal but because you're defeating the purpose of fanfiction if you don't. After all, if you don't like anything about the original material, why are you in the fandom, you know?

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Argument #2: Don't Like; Don't Read

This argument is usually in response to a generally negative review. However, writers who tell a reviewer this tend to be a bit confused about the meaning. You see, it was actually used by more mature writers in popular fanfiction communities for a legitimate reason: because sometimes, these writers would add things into their fanfics that might not be agreeable morally with everyone. In other words, the phrase was coined by mature writers in addition to a clear warning in order to ward off people who want to flame them for whatever their warnings contain. For example, a yaoi writer might put at the beginning of her fic, "This story contains homosexual relationships. If you don't like that, don't read this." That way, she avoids being flamed by people who are against the idea of homosexuals in fiction.

It was protection from flame wars based on moral values, basically, not from flame wars based on the quality of the fic itself. Unfortunately, a lot of fic writers tend to use it as a response to just any negative review. Right now, I'm saying that you really can't do that. First off, don't reply to a reviewer with this after they submit their review because how are they going to know whether or not they'd like your fic if they haven't even read it yet?

Second, as I've said at the beginning of this section, the moment you submit your fic is the moment you open yourself up to the slings and arrows of criticism on the internet. It's a reviewer's job to tell you the complete and honest truth of what they thought about your story. We can't really just simply stay out of your thread because silence is probably just as bad as any negative criticism you could possibly get. Put it this way: if we see you have the potential to improve if we gave you the tips to do so, it'd be meaner of us to withhold that kind of flattery (that message that says you can get better if you looked yourself over and tried something a little different) than it would be if we dug our claws into your story. It'd be like letting you walk around with the zipper of your jeans pulled down without actually telling you discreetly that it's down.

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Argument #3: I Don't Like Grammar/I Suck At Grammar!

Obviously, this is in response to anyone who says their grammar can use work. The truth is that while it's okay to have weaknesses, there's always the option to learn.

First and foremost, this is the internet. It's full of fantastic sources and guides to teach yourself grammar if you feel like Googling long and hard enough.

Second, you're on a computer. You should be typing your story in a word processor (like Microsoft Word or Open Office) anyway. Now, hit F7 or click on Tools or do whatever you have to do to familiarize yourself with the thing called "spell check." If you're not using a word processor equipped with spell check (which is odd, considering the fact that Open Office is free), there's plenty of online spell checkers. Are you afraid that you'll be sitting there forever, trying to skip past all the correctly spelled names of stuff in the Pokémon fandom? That's okay. Find your AutoCorrect options and turn on the feature that produces red squiggles under each misspelled word. (This is usually called "spell-check as you type.") Turning this on causes you to notice misspelled words and typos a lot easier. It's annoying, yes, but it really would make your life easier.

While no method of spell checking is perfect (because that's technology for you), using them removes some of the most basic spelling errors. Anything else can be picked apart with things such as online dictionaries to be absolutely sure that the word you're using is the word you want to use.

Third, you have unlimited access to communities full of fellow writers. Some of them are willing to read over your work and help you iron out the small problems in order to get your story as good as it'll get. These are called "beta readers." Get one, love one, and respect one. They'll be your lifeline when it comes to editing your story before it's published. Trust me. Beta readers are awesome.

Yes, you really want to edit your story. Without a doubt, every story is better after the first or second revision. Alternatively, you'll want at the very minimum to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. Why is this all so important? Because, as I've said before and will pound into your brain by the end of this guide, you're writing for an audience. This audience is a group of complete strangers who are reading fanfiction as a hobby. Some of these strangers are okay with errors all over the place, but a lot more might not be able to appreciate a fic to its fullest simply because errors make people stumble while reading, even on a subconscious level. People don't want to come to a fanfiction and try to decipher it like an archaeologist tries to read ancient hieroglyphs, and people don't want to feel as if they're in a racing car that suddenly jerks and stops because it keeps hitting a speed bump made of spelling errors. They come to your story to have fun. Hence, to make your story easiest and most pleasurable to read for your audience, you'll want to try making it as clean as possible.

Point is, if you know you suck at grammar, then that's great. Admitting that's the first step. The next step is to make an effort to figure out how to fix up your story.

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Argument #4: I'm Doing This Just For Fun! I'm Not a Professional!

Yes, you are doing it for fun, and no, you're most likely not a professional. Fanfiction is a hobby. It's something you do with your free time.

However, like all hobbies, if you want to be good at it, the only choice you have is, pardon my tone, to suck it up and improve.

Let's put it this way: Football is a hobby. Baseball is a hobby. Dancing is a hobby. Rock climbing is a hobby. Even drawing is a hobby. In all those activities, people receive feedback (from coaches, art critics, what have you). Sometimes, this feedback is negative, and sometimes, your coach will be harsh with you to get you to improve. If you get that negative feedback, are you just going to snap at your coach and say that your quality of work is fine as it is and that you're not trying to get into the NFL?

Writing is really no different. It's something that, fundamentally, you do just for fun. You start off as someone who really sucks (and we all start off like that, so don't be too discouraged here), but through coaching and criticism, you can learn to get better. Of course, like all those other hobbies, you have three options:

A. Be open to your critics' advice and get better.
B. Be the one who constantly warms the metaphorical bench.
C. Quit the team.

As harsh as it sounds, yes, if you don't open yourself up to criticism, you'll never get better. And while you may get the sugarcoated review now and then, if you want to really be popular and well-liked, you're going to have to opt for listening to your critics or at least thanking them politely. The only thing being rude to your reviewers gets is an audience of ticked off reviewers, and ticked off reviewers leads to people telling each other to avoid your fics or to rip them apart. In other words, it's seriously not that pretty. Trust me on this one. Reviewers can be pretty vicious.

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Argument #5: Everyone Else Likes My Stories!

Before anything else, realize that your reviewer isn't everyone else. Yes, you may have gotten positive reviews from another website. However, every last fiction community is different from the last one. It's because every community is populated by a different sort of reviewer and writer. Some have harsher standards than others, and this is especially apparent if you cross over from a small-time community (a board with less than a thousand members) to a larger community (like Serebii or Pokecommunity). Even then, it all depends on who the big players of a community are. Reviewers and writers will try to emulate the bigger names, even on a vague level. If the bigger names leave one-liner reviews stating "lol plz rite more," then so will the other members of the community. If the bigger names dice up fanfiction, then the other members will feel free to do so as well.

Back to the point, not every community is the same. Getting fame on one community for your fanfiction doesn't mean you'll automatically be recognized and praised on another community. Beyond that, reviewers who aren't on one community usually won't care what you did on another community because they have no intention on going over and seeing the responses you've gotten elsewhere. You might find a community or two full of people who might be impressed, but in general, it's not really something you should risk trying. Sometimes, these things might even tick reviewers off because it ends up implying something about your egotism.

So, you're essentially in a foreign land every time you post a new thread for reviewers to check out. In order to get along well with the locals, your best bet is to learn how to adapt, and that's by acknowledging that reputation on one board doesn't necessarily transfer to another. (And if it does, it's usually actually a bad thing, but we won't get into that.)

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Argument #6: Don't Hate Me! I Have RL Problems!

Some authors attempt to get pity by telling their critics that they have real-life problems.

So do the rest of us.

As harsh as that sounds, think of it like this. Yes, you're sick, you're stressed, your parents are getting a divorce, your pet hamster died, you're being bullied at school... whatever. How do you know your reviewers aren't going or haven't gone through the same thing? How do you know that you're not telling off a reviewer whose father died when they were a child? How do you know that you're not telling off someone who's failing out of college or struggling with a whole host of mental issues? It's a very tricky situation to use real-life issues as a way to discourage negative criticism, especially if your reviewers end up having the same issues as you do but know the way language and literature work well enough to show you where you can improve.

On top of that, real-life problems don't necessarily mean you won't be able to produce quality work. Ernest Hemmingway, for example, suffered from severe mental issues but is considered one of the great American authors. Stephen King, for another example, can't remember writing some of his most famous novels thanks to a drug-induced haze he was in while writing them. Then, you've got people back in the nineteenth century who were all suffering from financial, social, mental, or drug-related problems of one sort or another. All of them are well-known authors who, despite real-life worries, managed to produce some pretty well-known titles.

Point is, don't try to use real life as a way to avoid criticism. If you're collected enough tell a reviewer your life is hard, you can still probably avoid the errors your reviewers are trying to help you smooth over.

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Argument #7: It's My Story! I Can Do What I Want!

In the same vein as argument #1, authors who try to argue this point usually do so with the intent of convincing his or her readers that, because it's their story, he or she doesn't have to acknowledge certain elements. The definition of "certain elements" include:

1. Plausibility of plot.
2. The basic laws of physics.
3. The basic laws of the English language.

The truth of the matter is you have freedom of creativity within reason. Remember, this is fanfiction, so first off, you're bound by canon. You can't have canon characters do just anything they want to, nor can you have events that directly contradict canon for no real reason (like an Exploding Charizard).

Likewise, you're bound by the laws that make sense for the fandom. For example, while, yes, there's magic abound in Harry Potter, the basic laws of gravity still apply. (If anyone doubts this, go read the part about Harry falling off his broomstick because of the dementors in the third book.) Same for the Pokémon fandom.

Above all, you're also bound by your audience. If you're going to write about magic and the sort, you need to have a believable plot. That is, you can't just have a Pokémon suddenly wielding swords in the modern-day Pokémon world, for example, without explaining why first. Nor can you have a Pokémon that isn't a Psychic-type or capable of learning Psychic moves randomly get psychic powers without a reasonable explanation, a character who gets a legendary as a starter with no consequences, or any other such ideas that might be difficult for a reader to swallow because of how implausible it actually is in canon. Now, you may be thinking this all is a bit too restrictive for your tastes, but think of it like this: your story simply has to make sense. If it doesn't make sense because you throw things in "because you feel like it," then your readers are going to be turned off by it. There's a very good reason for this that can be summed up as such:

Your audience is not you.

That is, some things make perfect sense to you because you're the one who thought of it. Your audience, meanwhile, starts off with a blank slate when they go to read your story. If something doesn't make sense in the story, they'll want an explanation so it does. They're probably going to find it difficult to appreciate your characters or your really awesome plot if they can't understand what's happening. Why won't they be able to understand? Because they can't see into your mind. The little things that work out in your eyes do so because you know all angles of what you're writing about. You're essentially God. However, with your readers, we're going into your story knowing nothing because we don't know every aspect of your story.

In short, you know a lot more than we do about your work. You've got to make an effort to present your world and all the little bits so we can understand what's going on. If you defy the laws of gravity, you'll need to address how you did it because the reader won't know. (Even Harry Potter does this by reminding the reader constantly that magic exists in its world.) Otherwise, you end up with what feels like a deus ex machina, which really dampens your story in the eyes of the reader.

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Argument #8: Stop Flaming Me!

There's a difference between a flame and constructive criticism. A flame is simply defined as an attack on another user. Constructive criticism is defined as an often blunt opinion aimed at pointing out the weaknesses of an individual in order to help them see what they did wrong and learn from there.

Okay, so what's the difference?

In order to make this simple, let me give you two scenarios:

Scenario A: Judy posts her fanfiction. Paul reads her fanfiction and leaves a one-liner review stating that she's an idiot with no future.
Scenario B: Judy posts her fanfiction. Jane reads her fanfiction and leaves a scathing review that states explicitly several times that she can't write and that she should quit writing.
Scenario C: Judy posts her fanfiction. Adam reads her fanfiction and posts a lengthy review, pointing out all the errors and telling her why they're wrong and the correct way to do things. At no point does he say she's personally a bad writer. Instead, he says she can improve, but right now, she needs a lot of work.

Which ones are flames?

A and B.

Notice how Paul and Jane set out to insult Judy and make her feel as crappy as possible? Sure, Adam might as well, depending on how blunt he is, but the core of his review is not just to point out Judy's mistakes. It's to tell her why they're mistakes and how to correct them. It's helping her, not insulting her writing. However, Paul and Jane do nothing but insult her.

Therein lies the difference. Constructive criticism is not flaming. It may be hurtful to you because it's blunt, open, honest, and exposes all the things you did wrong, but the reviewer usually isn't in it to insult you. They're in it to tell you their honest opinion and suggest ways to improve. Most likely, they may read your later work and congratulate you for improving (if you take their advice). Flaming, on the other hand, only sets out to be malicious. The reviewer is completely open about the fact that they don't like you (or your writing), but they either don't say why or tell you to stop writing.

In other words, you can draw conclusions about concrit all you like, but unless the reviewer explicitly tells you that you're no good and have no hope to improve, it's not a flame. Learn the difference because most decent reviewers don't appreciate being called something they're not.

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Argument #9: It'll Be Explained Later!

This is one of my favorites. It happens when a reviewer points out a potential plot hole, but the author responds by saying the reader is too impatient and that everything will be explained later. However, the writer should realize something pretty important here: there's a reason why the reader thought this was a plot hole.

See, a lot of authors like to try adding in foreshadowing, but foreshadowing is a lot like trailblazing through a forest. Proper trailblazing sets up markers that a hiker can clearly spot at just the right distance from each other. From there, the hiker can guess or figure out where the next marker might be and, therefore, where the trail should be going. Foreshadowing's the same way. It sets up markers in the story that the reader can clearly identify as markers and begin to ask questions about. If there's too many markers and/or markers that are too obvious, then the plot beats the reader over the head. If, however, there's too few markers or markers that aren't exactly clear, then the reader will take it to be a plot hole.

In other words, proper foreshadowing makes the readers ask questions about the future. "Oh, I see that Bobby did this. Does this mean this?" However, improper foreshadowing causes a reader to ask questions about the logic of the scene. "Oh, I see Bobby did this. Why? This seems random. Why didn't he do this, considering this?"

Or, in shorter terms, take a look at what your readers are asking you. Then, look at your story. Take a good look at your story and try to see it from a mindset that doesn't know where your plot is going. Does what you did in that chapter make sense? Can you figure out where the plot is going or whether or not this is a marker instead of something that seems out of place, random, or otherwise contradictory to the surrounding events if you knew nothing about what happens later in the story? Use your readers as a way of figuring out whether or not you pulled foreshadowing off. Don't close yourself off to their comments. They're valuable tools, after all, because it's not always easy to tell whether or not everything makes sense.

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In Conclusion

I can't quote Simon Cowell enough in times like this:

The object of this competition is not to be mean to the losers but to find a winner. The process makes you mean because you get frustrated. 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.

The point is that no matter how you look at it, the moment you post your work on the internet, someone you don't know is going to read it. In addition to that, if someone you don't know comes along to read it, that someone has every right to say how they feel about your work because of the concept of freedom of speech (within reason). Some of what they say may be compliments, but some of what they say may be blunt.

As Cowell points out in the above quote, reviewers aren't on your story to feed their own senses of egotism. Instead, the reason why they might sound harsh is because it's the observer's primary job to be blunt and honest. If they don't, then what they're doing is essentially patronizing you. They're patting you on the head, but secretly, they may not think what you're doing is all that great. In order to be a good reviewer, however, one needs to tell the truth, and the truth can hurt like a mother if it's coming from someone more experienced than you.

However, you can't fight fire with fire on the internet. Hostile responses and a blatant refusal to take advice won't get you the pats on the head you're looking for because that tends to upset readers more than get people to feel sympathetic for you. People who deserve good reviews will get them, and the only way to get a good review is to be a good writer. But what defines a good writer other than the opinions of others? You can think you're a fantastic writer. Your friends can think you're the next Shakespeare. However, to someone who doesn't know you and therefore doesn't look at you with the same bias as the people you know well, you might write the most cliché, incoherent piece that's ever graced the community. You, of course, wouldn't know unless they told you, and because you stuck it on the series of tubes, they're going to feel completely and perfectly entitled to tell you just what makes your writing not-so-great in their eyes.

The thing to remember is the difference between a reviewer who's trying to help you and one that isn't. Rather than immediately take a defensive stance when you get a bad review, step back. Take a few deep breaths. Even leave the computer for an extended period of time. Then, come back and reread the review carefully. Unless they're telling you right to your face that you suck warm sick through a short straw and that you have no hope in improving, they're probably trying to help you because of what I said at the beginning of the guide. Even if it's the harshest review you've ever seen, if it's not telling you that you as a person suck, take a long, hard look at what they're saying because it's most likely advice.

In that case, the proper response is, "Thanks for the review. I'll think about what you said and keep it in mind." It might even be, "Thanks for pointing all that out. I'll go back and edit." If you respond politely, then what you get in response is a happy reviewer. They'll take pleasure in how friendly you seem, so they'll want to come back. They might even tell their friends that you're awesome or recommend your story if you show a lot of improvement or can hold them long enough to convince them that your story is worth reading. After all, a friendly response to a blunt review implies you're listening to them, and anyway, it's a lot easier to interact with someone who likes having you around than it is someone who attacks you and refuses to listen to a word you say.

So, to make a long story short, most of us -- your reviewers -- aren't here to badmouth you or make you feel like crap. That's a waste of time and energy on our part (Because why spend hours of our time going over your work if we didn't actually enjoy any part of it, right?), and talking crap to someone's face always circles back to hurt us in the end. Sure, there's still going to be someone out there who's a jerk and only wants to hurt you, but those people usually make themselves obvious by outright flaming you -- calling you a moron and whatnot. The rest of us, for the most part, are here to help. In response, you've got to be as patient with us as we are with you if you want to make your experience on a writing community as enjoyable as you want it to be.

That said, let's go back to basic reviewing etiquette.

Back to the guide's index.