1. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    How to Review Something Awful

    Discussion in 'The Art of Critique' started by Cogito, Sep 8, 2007.

    There will be times that you will review something that makes you want to push back your chair and walk away shaking your head.

    You might decide to just review something else instead. But what if you really have to review it? If it was written bya friend who wants you to take a look at it, or if you are PMed to review it. It happens, even if your name isn't in green.

    It's never a good idea to just say "Sorry, but it sucks." People have feelinngs, of course. But you also haven;t done anything to help them fix the problem, or even identify it.

    It's ok to say you don't care much for it, but give specific reasons. If you can find something you do like about it, put that at the beginning of your review, and maybe finish with it as well.

    And I would recommend you don't write a double screenful listing every misspelled word or punctuation error. It's too much to absorb, and you're making more work for yourself. If there are a couple glaring spelling mistakes, particulary repeated ones, point them out as examples. The same with a recurring punctuation error. Give an example or two, and explain the rule that would help make it right. Gocus on the two or three worst problems with the piece.

    And if part of it is that it's a genre you just can't stand, say so. "I have a bias against lumberjack stories, so tke that into consideration when reading my review." That takes some of the pain off the author.

    I'd really like to hear what other approaches people take in this situation, other than simple avoidance. A negative review can still be helpful rather than hurtful, and no review at all is also no help at all.
     
  2. Banzai
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    Banzai One-time Mod, but on the road to recovery Contributor

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    To be honest, I think the thing is not to focus on what you didn't like about it, and more how they can improve it. Every story/poem/whatever that is posted will have some aspect which can be improved, and some will have more than others. If you can just highlight a few ways that the piece can be improved, then you've helped the writer, and won't have hurt their feelings. You don't need to give detailed instructions on how to turn it into a literary masterpiece, but if a number of people tactfully suggest a few improvements, then the job can be done without anyone being hurt.
     
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  3. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, I agree with that as the way to communicate suggestions. To analyze the piece, you should start by thinking, what is the aspect of this piece that most makes my brain ache? You need to dientify the problems before you can approach solutions.

    You are very right, though. Constructive criticism needs to offer alternate strategies, if you can find them. Yet sometimes I have had to say, "I'm not sure what would be needed to fix this, but here is the problem I have with it..."
     
  4. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    While what is considered "good" writing and what isn't is somewhat subjective, there are elements of what good writing contains: characterization, conflict, action, emotion, etc.. Thus, even if a story isn't one of the reviewer's favorite genres, focus on the story, trying to avoid the genre backdrop aspects (I realize that can be difficult at times).

    Be honest. If the piece is weak, let the writer know where and why. Glossing over a piece, being overly positive where it isn't warranted will not help the writer improve one bit. That is what the writer put it up for review for...to have the piece evaluated, to consider the suggestions and work toward improving the piece--and overall writing skill. Not being honest will leave the writer making the same mistakes or employing the same flawed techniques.

    If the reviewer has suggestions to correct or improve or clarify, give them. For example, if the writer is using excessive sentences using passive structures, mention it and give an example how to rewrite at least one sentence in an active form. If a word is repeated too often, give suggestions to replace it.

    Where possible, point out what works, but tell the writer why it works for you, the reviewer. That makes it easier for the writer to identify the technique or content that works and to replicate it where appropriate.

    Others have already posted very good suggestions that I'll not repeat. One final thought, however:

    If a reviewer is honest and professional, and truly working toward helping a writer improve his work in their critique of a piece of writing, they should not worry about if it will hurt the writer's feelings, or discourage them.

    Writing is a difficult skill to learn, even if one has aptitude or talent. Learning to handle well thoughtout criticism is part of that process.

    Attempting to get work published is highly competative. If the writer can't handle a tough but fair evaluation of their work, how will he manage rejection by editors and/or agents?

    If/When a piece is accepted and the writer has to work with an editor, who is doing their job by editing and recommending changes to improve a piece or have it fit publisher guidelines, how will that writer respond?

    I guess it depends on the writer's goals and the purpose for which they submitted the piece. But in the end, the writer has to have a thick skin and understand that his writing is not perfect, deserving a heaping portion of accolades.

    On the other hand, the reviewer, even if honest and professional, may not be right either. The crit is the reviewer's opinion, and other well thought out opinons (including that of the writer himself) may vary, if not totally disagree. In as such, the reviewer should have a thick skin as well if the writer or others disagree with a reviewer's views on a piece.

    Hope I didn't ramble too much...and don't hesitate to edit, ask for clarification or disagree ;)

    Terry
     
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  5. Scavenger
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    Scavenger Senior Member

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    I have trouble with pieces I find horrible, because I really, really want to fix them. Usually, when giving a review for something that's awful, I offer a general crique of themes and patterns that need to be fixed. This includes plot inconsistency, sentence fluency, grammar, and other large conventions and techniques.

    I try to give positive feedback throughout the review, not only at the beginning and end. For example, if someone wrote a sentence that has horrible imagery but really nice construction, then I comment on the construction and the imagery.

    I don't usually want to leave a review that nitpicks through every sentence, but if I feel that it really needs it, I'll offer to look over the piece in private and do a thorough edit of it, instead of just offering my comments.
     
  6. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Ideally, that is the case. Too often writers, particularly those who are new to the site, see the Review Rooms more as a display site rather than the down-to-the-guts workshop that it is.

    Those are good points you raise, that writers who are thin-skinned won't do well with the rejections and editing in the publishing market. However, it appears to me at least that the majority of members on the site write for their own pleasure more than for the savege world of carniverous publishers. Many show a lot of promise and a sincere desire to improve, and may someday even turn their attentions to commercial writing, if their spirit isn't squashed prematurely by an overly eager critic.

    Perhaps we should take into account whether the writer's goal is publication or not, if we have foreknowledge of the fact. It can make a difference in termf of how much honesty he or she is prepared for.

    Thanks again, Terry!
     
  7. Nadala
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    Nadala Banned

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    I would have to say I am one of the greatest offenders of a knit picking critic. While not all enjoy sitting down to critic a large amount of work which is not there own I actually would say I advise it. I don't mean to be repetitive I agree with Cogito very much so there's no need to give mention to the same error over and over. Sometimes a writer will even just follow a critic like that and adjust all errors to what's been suggested in a critic. Instead of doing those hard yards to make it work a little better. I'm not a very good writer, I won't say that I am. But I must say this when I started out I started on a forum formally known as the my writer buddy site and started out in a critic group that was much to advanced for me called planet ink. I'm sure TWErvin2 would know of me *winks* What I learnt from that group was the importance of a good harsh critic sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind and I don't mean saying I don't get into crime thrillers to whatever. I mean by giving the writer the pros and cons of their work as a reader with a open mind. Not the mind of a person who is racing out to buy a book. Being supportive and letting the writer know there are things there that are great and could be a whole lot better with a little work, gives the writer a goal to work towards. Not a reason to put them off writing for several months. The thing I also find works well is reminding the writer that your opinion is not the only one out there. Well those are just my thoughts anyway.
     
  8. Weaselword
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    Weaselword Banned

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    The most important thing with a negative review, is to use plenty of "I" language and avoid saying "you"--talk about the piece, not the writer. For example:

    Wrong: Your writing is boring because...
    Right: I think this piece failed to hold my interest because...
     
  9. Nadala
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    Nadala Banned

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    Ah hah phycology comes into play. it's true though you is an acusing word like pointing the finger.
     
  10. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Planet Ink...I was just thinking about that group the other week. Glad I ran across you here at writingforums.org. *waves*

    Cogito,
    I don't know if honesty can be doled out in varying quantities and still be effective in a crit, but knowing the goals of the writer is important. It allows the writer to focus (see more on this below) The suggestions of Weaselword, discussing how something is said is important--possibly more important than what is said.

    One thing to consider is that there are layers to writing and thus, critting. Correcting one layer at a time, instead of every concern mentioned at once, can be effective. Sometimes if one area is corrected/cleared up first, the writer is able to see other things that need to be addressed in their writing or their piece.

    Holes (or inconsistency) in plot development often lead to issues in characterization...or visa versa. Fix one and the others become more apparent to the writer and are more easily addressed.

    It helps a critter when the writer who posts asks for specifics. Help me with the POV, or Where is does piece seem too slow or bog down?...or Does the dialogue flow or does it seem stilted?, etc.

    Terry
     
  11. Torana
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    Torana Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is where it gets hard as we all go through and make changes to our pieces and they are not always gone back over by others that have suggested the changes to the piece once it is done.

    I think that this is why critique groups are good as you can get the feedback again once the edits have been made.
     
  12. Weaselword
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    Weaselword Banned

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    I'm using this site to supplement my activities on critique groups, rather than replace them--and I think it's extremely valuable in that.

    I've been fortunate enough to receive some very useful reviews of my material here, which let me get a fresh set of eyes on it and fix the first set of holes. Then I can post the revised version to the critique group, who then can focus on the second set of holes, etc.
     
  13. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    This has drifted off the topic of reviewing material that makes you cringe. But I've started another discussion thread about Re-Reviewing based on Weaselword's post.

    Terry raised a point:
    Is this true? Why or why not?

    I have certainly seen "honesty" used as a justification for harsh cruelty. But falling short of that, is complete honesty always the best policy?

    I feel that a new writer who is trying hard but is just missing the mark by a wide margin needs a certain amount of encouragement rather than a full disclosure of every flawed component. But if a seasoned writer offers something that could generously be described as crap, then a comprehensive appraisal is probably more effective, and would probably be appreciated.
     
  14. Weaselword
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    Weaselword Banned

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    Oh, yes. If something's unpublishable, I think it's essential to say so--otherwise the reviewer's potentially encouraging someone to waste hours, days, weeks or years of their lives writing unpublishable drivel. And that's certainly crueller than telling them the truth at the start.

    But I think the challenge is to tell the complete truth in a way that doesn't give offence and isn't unnecessarily hurtful.

    The people on this site self-identify as writers. As writers, using language effectively is central to our craft--so it shouldn't be hard for us to tell the complete truth without giving offence. Should it?

    All it takes is the basic diplomacy and interpersonal skills to write about the piece rather than the author, use lots of first person language, and explain what you think is the best way to fix it. Not rocket science.
     
  15. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Cogito,

    I agree that claiming honesty can be used as justification for something other than with the best interest of the recipient in mind.

    I pointed out:
    Pointing out that what you've discussed in the crit are the main issues that you see as a concern is a start. It is honest and working toward helping a writer improve a piece (at least from the critter's perspective--who is giving his/her opinion, which in the end is all that the crit is.

    What happens when a writer, for example, addresses the concerns of the critters who were only "1/2" or "1/4" honest, and then the critters are forced to say, "Yes, but there are these problems and issues too with the piece" (or the writer's writing in general). What effect will that have on the writer?

    I think it's been well discussed in this string that being honest does not mean being brutal and that proper wording and also pointing out what works in a piece too, effective.

    Granted, it is a difficult balance...and each writer--whether seasoned or beginning--takes crits differently. One of the first rules of receiving a crit is for the writer who submitted the piece to read the whole thing (crit) through, consider it and avoid jumping up to defend the one's piece of fiction. It doesn't matter who the writer is, it is never fun to have an individual find some sort of flaw(s) in a piece one has worked hard to produce.

    As an example: An editor at Tor took a look at the first three chapters of one of my novels, and marked it up with a whole lot of red ink and mailed it back to me. He said in his letter to review his suggestions and apply them throughout the novel, then (I read it as saying and only then) submit it to xxxx editor, stating in the cover letter that he (the first editor) had recommended/directed it sent. Was I happy to see the red? Cross outs, arrows, notes in the margins, etc. Not one bit initially, but picking it up again and beginning to study the suggestions an hour later, things fell together. I think I became a better writer because of it.

    I guess, while thinking of it, one more bit to emphasize is that not all critters are equal. Some a writer is going to trust (or come to trust) more than others. Each reader/critter will come at a piece a little differently. In the end, a writer has to decide what stays or stays the same, and what gets modified or goes/gets cut. One rule of thumb that I follow is that if more than one critter comments about the same issue, then it is something to very heavily consider.

    That is also why I feel personally that as a critter, I will read a piece fresh and not read any previous comments by other readers/critters, as it could taint or cause me to see a piece in a different way than I otherwise would.

    Okay, off topic a bit again, but applying this to a very poorly written piece, and how to crit, I think it has relevance.

    Terry
     

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