When I got together with the other moderators to plan how to approach the website, we kept coming back to one thing: SWG is a group for people who want to improve their writing, and so constructive criticism—and encouraging it on our site—is of the essence. We wanted to foster an environment where constructive criticism is a welcomed and expected part of reviews—not that we don't all love hearing that we're the next Neil Gaiman, but receiving solely praise on our stories is rarely helpful.
Of course, this brings up a whole new issue: What exactly is "constructive criticism?" And how does one go about making a review constructive?
There are nearly as many theories on how to write good critiques of fiction as there are theories on how to write good fiction. This document is our policy at SWG on writing constructive criticism. Yes, we expect our members to follow it when offering constructive criticism to authors on this site. Yes, we intend to adhere strictly to these standards. It is not difficult; it is a simple matter of writing to your audience—the author—and addressing him or her in a manner that does not suggest that you were raised by wolves. It is a way for authors to get honest, fair appraisals of their work without becoming discouraged or quitting the craft entirely.
The key is diplomacy.
Diplomacy allows a reviewer to tell an author what did not work in his or her story without making the author cry, quit writing, or throw the computer through the window. It is not an attempt to "go soft" or hide the truth. It is an attempt to be civilized and present criticisms in such a way that the author will hear what you have to say.
Chances are, if you have joined SWG, then you are a writer. Writing a review—like writing a story or a newspaper article or a grocery list—is a simple matter of writing to your audience. In this case, your audience is the author, and you should tailor your review and your language accordingly.
If you write what you hope is a sweet romance story and your audience comes out with a deep-seated hatred for your star-crossed lovers, then you will probably conclude that you have failed in writing that story. Likewise, if you write a review designed to help an author—your audience—and the author comes out of it with the urge to quit writing, then you have also failed.
Being diplomatic is not always easy. Chances are, we have all read stories where our first thought upon finishing is "What was that?" followed by the urge to catalogue each of the author's flaws, one by one. That is okay! You will not like every story that you read, and if you are like me, you can scarcely read anything—whether on a fanfic archive or by a professional writer in an award-winning book—without finding something that you feel could be done better. In this case, it is not what you have to say but how you say it. In other words, how good are you at diplomacy?
To begin, always remember that you can only offer your opinion to an author. None of us can offer universal truths or speak for the author's audience as a whole. If you hated an author's characterization of Maedhros, I can guarantee that someone out there will think that it is the best Maedhros ever written. Neither opinion is wrong but neither opinion is absolute truth either, and pretending otherwise is false.
The first step towards diplomacy in reviews is realizing this and tailoring your language accordingly. Get comfortable with these phrases because you will be using them a lot.
In my opinion…
You might want to try…
Have you considered…?
I believe that…
These phrases remind the author that you are offering an opinion. (Which is all that you can offer!) While you may think it's obvious that your review would be your opinion, trust me, to an author having a beloved story shredded, it is not. You will come off as pompous at best and hostile or aggressive at worse.
But perhaps most importantly, the author will not hear what you have to say. After all, if you're delusional enough to believe that you represent the entire world's opinion on a story, then why should the author trust you on canon, characterization, plot, or anything else either? Reviewers who write their opinions like they are universal truths often find themselves being accused of attacking the author, of harboring something against the author and his or her story. I've seen some pretty convoluted conspiracy theories arise from poorly worded criticism of a story. Neither author nor reviewer benefits from that.
Just as you should be aware of constructive, diplomatic phrases, so should you avoid "red flag" phrases that will serve only to anger your audience, the author. And angry authors simply don't hear what you have to say.
You need to…
Avoid telling the author what to do. You can make suggestions but, remember, the suggestions are again based in your opinion and should be worded as such. Likewise, avoid absolutes, imperatives, and stating things as facts. For example, this reviewer is treading on dangerous ground:
This phrase doesn't work. It is a cliché, and you should never use clichés in your writing. It makes your writing weak. You need to change this to a better metaphor or take it out altogether.
This version says exactly the same thing, only it is worded diplomatically and as the reviewer's opinion:
This phrase doesn't work for me. I felt it was a cliché and, in my opinion, using clichés makes writing weak. You might want to consider changing this to a different metaphor or take it out altogether.
Was that so hard? Not really. A few simple wording changes and the reviewer makes her point and the author gets it without being hurt, angered, or insulted.
Now is the point when many people ask: but what about the rules of writing and canon? Surely we can be a little more forthright when the author is in clear violation of the rules, right?
Actually, no. If you are going into a review with any notion of "rules"—that is, laws that absolutely must be followed by writers—then you'd do well to forget about them. There are no "rules" in writing; there are conventions that are generally followed, but likewise, there are authors who defy the conventions and make their stories better for it. A good assumption to make when reviewing stories is that the author has done everything deliberately, and it is your failing as a reader if you cannot understand or appreciate why. Now I know that, in many cases, this is far from the truth. If a non-experimental piece is written in all lowercase as a single three-page run-on sentence without a comma or period in sight, chances are, this was not done deliberately. Still, the author will respond better to your criticism if you draw attention to this flaw by assuming that it was your failing rather than the author's. For example:
I noticed that your piece didn't include any punctuation. I'm afraid that I failed to understand the effect that you were trying to achieve with this. I found myself hopelessly confused and had trouble following the story.
So what about canon? Even though canon "rules" might seem more absolute than writing "rules," it is still a great idea to be diplomatic, to inquire why a writer chose to write something a particular way rather than insisting that the author is wrong and needs to change it. Discussion of what is meant by "canon" and how it is defined is a lengthy topic unto itself and is really beyond the scope of this particular document. I will simply say that Tolkien's canon is rarely absolute and definition of canon and interpretation can vary wildly between authors.
Still, it is possible to disagree with a canon detail without coming across as pompous or harsh. For example:
On multiple occasions, you describe Fëanor as a blond. This detail didn't work for me, mainly because I will always see the Noldor as being black-haired, particularly Fëanor, who is described as being "raven dark" at one point in The Silmarillion. I am curious as to why you chose to write Fëanor in this way.
Again, it doesn't hurt to assume that it is your failure to understand the story rather than the author's failure to understand what is (to you) plain canon. Pretend like the author has access to some obscure document that you don't. I think it's pretty unequivocal that Fëanor is black-haired, but getting into the author's face about it won't help. It will lend you the impression of being an aggressor rather than helpful, and being helpful is the purpose of giving constructive criticism, right?
So, in summary, our policy on constructive criticism is simple: be diplomatic. You are welcome to offer your opinion but you can't—and so should not—pretend that your reviews are more than that. Remember that you're trying to help the author, not make him or her quit writing. Be polite, suggest rather than demand, and avoid citing "rules" as though they are unequivocal facts.
For those who want more hints and suggestions on how to effectively review stories, I will offer some more ideas as well as address some common concerns about diplomatic criticism in Part Two.
But again, please keep in mind that this document is our policy on criticism for SWG. It is not a suggestion; it is how you will be expected to write any critical reviews that you submit on our site. As we protect a reviewer offering legitimate concrit here, so do we owe it to our authors to protect them from negative, destructive reviews designed to offend and hurt. I am always happy to offer assistance and answer questions about any aspect of our group, including our policy on reviews. Simply email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Related on SWG: Veteran author and Tolkien fan Juno Magic tackles the art of reviewing in her comprehensive essay "How to Review", available in our Reference section.
Related on the Web: Andrew Burt, former vice-president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, keeps thousands of speculative fiction authors happy and not killing each other in his highly acclaimed workshop Critters. His secret? Check out his Critiquing the Wild Writer: It's Not What You Say, But How You Say It and The Diplomatic Critiquer for hints on critiquing fiction.