TheSilmarillionWriters'Guild

Most writers will agree that good criticism can really help them to improve their writing. Yet rarely are we taught how to write good constructive criticism. In many years of writing education and workshops, I was never taught how to write critiques. I was simply handed a stack of stories, told to critique them for workshop, and left to it.

Not surprisingly, then, the online writing community is full of reviewers with good intentions but misguided ideas on how to offer constructive criticism. The flame wars that result are sometimes spectacular to behold…and wholly unnecessary. Constructive criticism doesn't need to be difficult and painful for the author or the reviewer.

The suggestions in Part One will help you begin to shape your reviews into something that may help an author. This section offers some further ideas and more specific advice on how to write effective reviews.

For one, "constructive" need not mean "all negative." While gushing reviews that offer only praise are often criticized for being unhelpful, that does not mean that praise in itself isn't any good to a writer. After all, it helps an author to know what s/he should continue to do, not only what s/he needs to change. Especially when a writer is trying something new, it is often helpful to know that it worked. There have been instances in my own writing where I've been doubtful about a particular aspect of a story and considered changing it, but my reviewers' strong feelings that it should stay have swayed me to do otherwise.

If you love something about a story to where you think that story would suffer if it was changed, let the author know! You might just save one of the strongest parts of the story from being cut or changed.

Also, just as "show don't tell" is a common adage among writers, so should it be among reviewers. It sometimes helps to give suggestions or examples to back up what you're saying. For example:

This line doesn't work too well for me here. There is a lot going on, and I wonder if it might work better divided into two sentences. You might consider trying this…

Now the author can compare what is written with what you have suggested and decide which s/he likes best.

Likewise, try to avoid technical language or jargon. I've had authors admit that they didn't implement a reviewer's suggestion because the reviewer used grammatical jargon that they did not understand, and they were embarrassed to ask. If it is inevitable that you must use a particular term, try to back up your suggestion with an example to illustrate what you mean. For example:

The line, "The mariners were being cut down by Fëanor's sword," reads like passive voice to me. I think that changing this line to active voice would have a better effect in this part of your story. For example, you might say, "Fëanor used his sword to cut down the mariners."

To an author not necessarily familiar with the concept of passive voice, this shows what you mean without leaving the author overwhelmed or confused by the terminology used and also without patronizing the author (and wasting your time!) with drawn-out explanations of grammatical terms.

Generally, citing "experts" is frowned upon by those who study the art of writing good critiques. However, in the instance of discussing canon, citing or quoting canon sources is usually helpful. But again, it is really important to do so diplomatically, without sounding as though you are talking down to the author or trying to "convert" the author to your particular interpretation. For example:

I didn't really agree with your characterization of Nerdanel as quiet and meek. I've always put a lot of stock in the part of The Silmarillion where it says that she was the only person with the ability to quell Fëanor's fire and also the scene in HoMe 12, "The Shibboleth of Fëanor" where she confronts him on the beach.

In discussing good and bad reviews with other authors, I constantly hear people complain of reviewers who protest their use of canon without explaining why they feel that way and backing up their claims with quotes from the primary source. Few authors will have read everything that Tolkien wrote, so sharing new information—I have found—is usually welcomed.

With reviews, a good policy is always to ask the author if s/he wants the sort of concrit you're willing to provide. While diplomatic criticism is always welcome on our site and you'll never be reprimanded for providing it, there is no point in taking your time on a detailed critique if the author doesn't have the time or intentions to revise the story or isn't writing anymore. Additionally, many authors prefer very detailed or predominantly negative remarks to be kept private. And if your intentions are truly to help the author—rather than embarrassing or provoking him or her—then this should never be a problem for you.

It is always good to consider that written communications are not as expressive as face-to-face communications. In other words, the tone of voice and body language that makes your meaning clear when meeting in, say, a face-to-face writer's workshop cannot be conveyed in a written critique. And many reviewers are misunderstood as a result.

Always be wary of using sarcasm, dry humor, and teasing in your reviews. Authors often expect the worst when reading concrit, and so when you tease, "Please, not another piece of Maedhros/Fingon slash tripe," they quite likely might take you literally. And complain to me that you are breaking the rules of this site by seeking out genres that you hate only to delight in shooting them down. All when you could have settled for saying, "Maedhros/Fingon is one of my favorite Silmarillion pairings," and been easily understood.

Finally, criticize the story and not the author. I always assume that this is a no-brainer, but reading the reviews attached to just a handful of stories on fanfiction.net has quickly proven otherwise.

A story's effect on you as a reader is completely independent of whether the author is a thirteen-year-old girl writing her first fan fiction or a fifty-year-old man with five published novels and a Nebula Award collecting dust on his bookshelf. Either the story works for you or it doesn't. Bringing the author into the discussion is not only irrelevant but completely inappropriate.

A big mental danger sign should pop up at these words: "Because you're young/a new writer/American/Chinese/gay/not a native English speaker/a girl/a man/still in high school/whatever…" Why does it matter? It doesn't. In fact, if you're mentioning anything about the author personally—whether fact or assumption—then you're probably treading on dangerous ground. These sorts of reviews are easily and often correctly taken as personal attacks.

Review the story. Leave the author alone.

Now, inevitably, in any discussion of how to write diplomatic reviews, someone takes issue with the very notion of requiring diplomacy in reviews. It seems silly, pointless, dishonest…there are a whole host of complaints.

"I am only being honest!" Good! We like honesty. In fact, a cornerstone of writing a good review is honesty. Only you can tell an author how a story affected you, and authors depend on their reviewers' honest appraisals to help them with revisions and writing future stories.

We like honesty here but we require diplomacy. There is nothing dishonest about saying something politely and diplomatically. In fact, as I explained in Part One, many reviews lacking in diplomacy also lack in honesty. For example:

Your readers won't like what you have done to Fëanor's character. You've made him much too weak.

What is wrong with this? Well, for one, no single reviewer can speak for all of a story's readers, and to claim otherwise is dishonest. Now consider this revision:

I was not fond of what you did with Fëanor's character. I felt that he was much too weak.

Does this in any way dishonest? No. The reviewer didn't like Fëanor's character, felt that he was weak, and said so. Only she did so with diplomacy and keeping mind that she is one reader capable of offering one reader's opinion.

Often, when reviewers complain that diplomatic reviews equal dishonest reviews, I suspect that their true gripe lies with the fact that they are unable to express to the author how much a particular story upset or offended them. However, the purpose of writing reviews—on this site anyway—is not to air grievances about an author's writing. The purpose of writing reviews is to help the author improve his or her writing. Taking out one's anger or annoyance on a writer's story is not helpful. If you read a story that leaves you so angry that you see any attempt at civility to be in itself dishonest, then it is probably best to skip reviewing that story or come back later, when you have a more rational outlook on the likelihood of a fan fiction story knocking the Earth out of orbit.

"I'm just a blunt, to-the-point person." Good! You can be blunt and to-the-point…diplomatically. There is no need to cloak your opinion in fancy language, only to approach the author in a polite and helpful manner, which is the purpose of writing reviews

Consider these two examples:

The setting needs to be described more here.

I believe more setting description would help here.

What's the difference? They make the same point—the reader would like a better description of the setting—and in the same number of words (eight). The difference? The second example is phrased as opinion rather than fact and so will be better received by the author. (Not to mention that ninety-nine other reviewers might find that the setting here is described perfectly! Or even that there is too much description. Speaking in "absolutes" lends the impression that the reviewer speaks for all readers…and no reviewer can do that.)

"I'm just doing the author a service by thickening her skin. Editors, critics, and even readers won't be nearly as kind as I'm being." But then, what is the point of writing reviews? Is it to make the author immune to the worst abuses? Or is it to help the author to write better stories?

In order to benefit from a reviewer's suggestions, the author needs to hear them in the first place. An author who can't see the computer monitor because of the tears pouring down her face or the red haze of rage clouding her vision won't benefit from what you are saying to her. Most likely, she will dismiss you—and anything helpful that your review might have to offer—as the product of a bad union between a wolf and a Neanderthal. Your efforts will have been for naught; she will be angry and more likely to do just the opposite of what you have suggested, just to prove how wrong you are.

That doesn't help anyone.

The job of reviewers is not to "thicken the skin" of authors. Before an author can get to the point of worrying about editors, critics, and a public readership, then s/he needs to get his/her writing in a shape suitable to present to them. Let's take things in the proper sequence here. (And furthermore, this site is for fan fiction only: None of it will be published because it can't be published. So behaving with a writer's future as a published author in mind is ludicrous.)

Furthermore, editors, critics, and a public readership are more justified in forgoing diplomacy. After all, editors offer something to an author who meets his or her standards of publication. Unless you're willing to pay authors to write fan fiction to your standards, then disabuse yourself of the notion that your role as a reviewer is the same as that of an editor. Readers of original fiction, on the other hand, often spend their money on an author's work and so have a right to demand something in return. Again, unless you've paid the author to read her story, then forget the idea of having the same rights as a reader who has just shelled out thirty bucks for a hardback novel. Lastly, critics advise readers on whether or not to spend their money on a particular author. While some may argue that a fan fiction review functions similarly—to entice or dissuade readers into reading the story—that is not the case on this site. Reviews are written to the author, not the public, and are intended to help him/her improve the story. Furthermore, readers of fan fiction don't spend money on the stories. If they don't find a particular story to their liking, they are welcome to stop reading it at any time with no greater loss than a few minutes of their time.

Again, I strongly doubt that reviewers who leave unduly harsh comments about stories have any of the author's interests in mind. These people are usually seeking attention or a reaction from the author. Whatever the reason, on SWG, this behavior is simply unacceptable. For the minimal effort it takes to make a review diplomatic and helpful, there is no reason for an author to dread sharing a story on our archive. And the only reaction and attention such reviewers can expect here is a strong warning from me, the inappropriate review deleted, and possible suspension or removal from the site.



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.