Critiques, comments, concrit, reviews, feedback – no matter what you call it, it can be a difficult job for both the critiquer and the author.
This essay is an attempt to make this difficult job easier for reviewers and authors.
In four short chapters I will try to make the process of reviewing transparent as a process of communication between critiquer and author and offer some ideas that may help to make this a positive learning experience for both the author and the reviewer.
First I will have a look at the critiquer's point of view. In the second chapter I will examine how to phrase a review so that it is most effective for both the reviewer and the author. The third and main part of the essay will of course deal with how to write and structure a good review. I will provide an outline for aspects that can be important in a thorough and detailed review, but I will also include an idea for a well-balanced short critique of only a few lines. In the last part of the essay I will turn to the author's point of view and suggest what the author can contribute to the process of critiquing and reviewing.
The essay applies to any kind of critique, no matter if it is beta-reading, critiquing within the normal archive environment á la "Leave a Comment", a review of story submissions for an archive or an award program: whenever a critique is sent directly to the author, this essay will hopefully be useful.
Even if the critique is written in the style of a "movie review", to recommend the story, if the critique is targeted at an audience beyond the author, many points of the essay may be helpful to compose a well-balanced critique. Of course in this case the points referring to the process of communication between critiquer and author don't always apply fully.
1. 2 The Reviewer
If, as I said, this job is so difficult for the reviewer, you may ask now, of course, "If it's really that difficult, why review at all?"
Thankfully, the answer to that question is simple: because critiquing and analysing another author's work will improve our own editing skills. We will be able to revise our own stories more easily. By helping another author, we help ourselves. Critiquing skills are also valuable in other areas of life, at school, college or university, in a job. No matter if it is homework for an English literature class, or the review of a project for the job, we have to learn to assess the quality of written material and to be able to voice our criticism in a constructive and comprehensible way. Therefore it makes a lot of sense in my opinion to try and learn something about the ins and outs of critiquing in an environment that is not quite as serious as most offline situations where those skills are called for.
Now let's start with examining what the difficult job I mentioned looks like for the critiquer:
We want to write a good critique. We don't want to hurt the author's feelings, and we may be in doubt just how to give good critique – a critique that covers the most important aspects of the story, a critique that is helpful for the author. We may even be worried if we are qualified to critique something at all.
In the realm of fan fiction at least, we don't have worry about our expertise. Just as no one needs to have a Ph.D. in English literature to become a writer, we also don't need one for critiquing stories. Even if the author of the story we are critiquing is a veritable Tolkien scholar, it's more than enough that we are average "Informed Readers". If we have read some books by J.R.R. Tolkien, if we have watched the movies Peter Jackson made about "The Lord of the Rings" and if we have read a number of fan fiction stories set in Tolkien's Ardaverse, we are fully qualified as reviewers.
The first thing we have to realize about reviewing is that a good critique needs to have negative critical content, but that what makes a critique a good critique, a critique that is really helpful for the author, is often the way in which we offer that critique, how we phrase our reviews.
Generally we should keep in mind that reviewing is not a game we play against the author. Instead, it is better to think of critiquing as a game we play together with the author as a team against the story.