Reviewing can be a tough enough job but, when you toss someone else’s feelings into it as well, many people just don’t know what to do. It’s a situation that leaves many a would-be reviewer not reviewing which, in turn, leaves many a writer without much needed feedback. Since I have been reviewing for several years (and more so than just ‘hey, I thought that was a great piece’) I thought I would offer up a bit of advice to those who might be struggling with this issue. The very first thing you need to remember is that the person being reviewed (I’ll call her Betty) came to you for your advice. She is looking for you to tell her what she needs to work on; so, no matter how much work you think she might have to do, that is what she wanted to know. Sure, we as writers always think what we write is great and perfect, and we can get really attached to our stuff too, but that doesn’t mean it really is. It’s confirmation bias: we see what we want to see. It’s also the overconfidence effect: we believe our abilities are better than they really are. These, and other errors in judgement, are why your reviews are so important; no matter how much you praise or constructively criticize. If Betty really loves her setting but does a really bad job on making it believable then you have to tell her that even if it will make her frown… not in those exact words obviously, but we’ll get into that later.
The second think you need to remember, which goes along with the first, is that you’re trying to help them improve. Betty wouldn’t have asked for a review if she didn’t want advice, if she didn’t think that something needed some fixing up. Your job, as the reviewer, is to offer up ideas on how you think something could be changed in order to make it better. Something I always find helpful is to remind them that what you saying is just your opinion and that they have a right to change or not change their story as they choose. People in Betty’s position often forget that reviews are suggestions, not things that are set in stone. Yes, it might be completely true that Betty didn’t make her setting believable, however you need to remember that that is still your opinion and that it takes more than one opinion to really make something seem problematic. In this regard, offer every single suggestion you can think of, even if they’re contradictory. I find people like to have lots of options when deciding what work needs to be done. If you think a certain plot point needs to be changed, but that it can go in several directions, say so! And offer up each and every direction you can think of. The more input Betty gets from you the better she will understand what the issue is and how best to change it to suit her work.
The third thing you need to remember is that you’re getting reviewed too. You might be reviewing Betty’s story, but Betty is also reviewing how you review at the same time. Now what a sec? How does that play into anything? Simple; Betty is deciding whether she can trust your judgement or not, whether you’re truly trying to help her or just ‘doing the job as required.’ When people in Betty position know they can trust your advice, they’re more likely to actually take it into consideration with serious thought. Reviewing someone’s work should be thought of as an intimate act within the writing community. You’re playing with their muse essentially. Some reviewers I have seen over the years use the phrase ‘brutally honest’ because they think people need to be told ‘the harsh truth’ in order to really improve… or something like that, they of course try to put a positive spin on it. Really, just be honest. Saying brutally honest implies that you’ll be honest, but mean about it… not the image you want to portray when you’re trying to get someone to open up to you. I know many authors who are unwilling to submit their full character bios/stories because they want to be sure that the person doing the reviewing will actually be helpful first. So do the review, but just remember to put yourself in Betty’s shoes as well.
Now that we have all that in mind, I am going to offer up a little of my own review stylings to help show you how I would handle someone who I think could potential get angry or upset over what I say. For this I am going to use the character bio review I did for a friend of mine -lets call her Abbey- who wrote a fanfiction for the show Firefly (I’m not going to include the whole thing, since it was 16 pages long -when I review I review haha-, just the parts that apply here). Now, she hasn’t always been a friend of mine; in fact, when I did this review was the first time I had really spoken to her or read her work. While reading, I noticed that her character was overly beautiful and suffered a few pitfalls -in my opinion- that needed to be addressed. I worried that she would get upset over the fact that what she saw as ‘plain Jane’ was coming off as a supermodel and that the very mention of ‘Mary Sue’ (even though it was only used in a cautionary way) would send her story and character straight to the trash bin. But all that worry was for naught as I am happy to report that her review of my review was as follows (posted here):
I just read your review of my profile and I am off to absorb it properly. There’s so much I want to say here about how awesome and helpful you are but my brain is overloaded with information at the moment, so I may come back later and post a more detailed review of your help.
For now, I just wanted point out my favorite things about your reviewing style.
Firstly – You don’t just tolerate getting into long and detailed discussions about my character, and about characterizations and Mary Sues in general. You actually seem to enjoy it just as much as I have. 🙂
Secondly – You say what must be said, you don’t mince words, you get right in there and call me out on my ridiculously attractive character, no matter how much I try to hide behind my denial by claiming that I don’t find her particularily attractive – therefore she is not. You’re right that it doesn’t matter what I think – It’s my reader’s opinions I should worry about to an extent. But even while I continued to bleat excuses and dug a deeper deeper hole you were still patient and stuck with me and tried to make my character the best she can be.
And lastly, but best of all, you are willing to stick in there and help me work through my character’s issues, rather than just dumping the problems on me and leaving me confused and with no idea of what to do next. You’re great in that you will help me and explain what’s wrong, and then participate in a discussion about how I can fix the issues so that I truly understand not just what I’m doing wrong but also how to do better, and by doing that you are making me into a better writer for which I am eternally grateful.
So thankyou so much for all your help so far and in advance for all of your help in the future. 🙂
Now, before I even get to the details on any review piece, I always start off with a bit about my overall opinion of the work. It helps to summarize and point out right away what is and is not good so that people are not looking over the whole thing and going ‘wow that’s a lot of notes, there must be a lot wrong…’ I began Abbey’s review like so:
Alright hun, first and foremost, I ask you read the whole thing through before commenting because some comments/opinions/etc change as things go on and you mention this or that. Now, overall, I think you did very well on most of this and especially on the very key area of personality. Her personality, her history, and all of that seems to mesh well and flow together to make a plausible, well rounded person. However, I think you have to seriously consider changing some things and one of the big key areas where I think you need to do a lot of work is in appearance. I am sorry but I saw nothing more than a supermodel, plain and simple. I saw no real problems, maybe some potential for Mary Sue-ness (but only potential which just means be weary), in any of the other areas of the profile but the appearance section was littered with red flags for me. That is pretty good though as its just one area that you really need to focus on rather than say 2/3 of the profile. The problems are manageable but it is going to take some work and compromise on your part (specifically in that your vision of regular and boring is everyone else’s idea of a supermodel). Personality is good and that is honestly the most important so while you can’t celebrate on everything, that is a very big deal so be happy about that. Anyway, now onto the details! And remember that I am here to explain something if you don’t understand and to help out (even if it might take me a bit to reply back).
Note that I immediately pointed out what she did well on and then used that to move into what needed work. But don’t just start with the good and then list the bad, switch between them; it helps remind them that there is work to do but they also did well in places too. Note that I used key phrases to try and elevate tension when talking about problem areas: “littered with red flags for me” reminds Abbey that these are still just my opinions on her work and “the problems are manageable” shows Abbey that it will take work but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Note that I tell her she has something to celebrate in doing well on the ‘most important’ aspect even if she didn’t do great on everything. Basically I reminded her again, after just bringing up what she needs to work on again, that she did well. And finally, note that I finish by reminding her I am here if she has any questions. This is a very important thing to do since other people might not always understand what you mean.
There are some other examples I could throw in here, but this is getting rather long (feel free to chat me up about it though!) and I want to specifically show the key area that I had issue with: appearance (6 of those 16 pages). Now, appearance is a visual field, so I always make sure to provide pictures as examples if I think they’re necessary, but you don’t have to if it’s not your style. My review of the hair color for Abbey’s character contained 5 images, each trying to explain why what she had as ‘strawberry blonde’ was not and what a good alternative would be. When it came to her eye color, I offered up this site to show why her having blue eyes was somewhat implausible given that everyone else in her family had brown. Remember, it always helps to provide visuals/links/articles/insight/whatever that will help further show what is going on in your head. We’re not all mind readers after all.
Getting into the details of things, I am always a bit more… lets say pointed, about my opinion of things. The reason for this is that in the details is the nitty-gritty of things that need to be changed and one should not ‘sugarcoat’ them. Yes, you’re still trying to be conscious of Abbey’s feelings, but this is where the problem solving beings. This is where both sides need to understand it’s time to get to work. Remind them that you are there with them every step of the way, but also make sure they know they’re not just going to be told what they want to hear. So, the main issue I had in reviewing the appearance of Abbey’s character was that she went into way too much detail (a common problem) and, while I commented on all the other stuff too, I pointed out to her that her overabundance of detail was actually detracting from how she wanted the character to appear:
From my point of view, you’re putting way, way too much thought into how she looks. The exact shape of her face, the direction the ends of her lips point, color of her eyebrows/eyelashes, details about exactly how her hair is, tan versus pale in different parts, ideal weight, clear skin, fine features, how curvy she is in which parts, “genetically” good skin… I’ve only gotten this far and already I think her looks are pretty over the top. You don’t need to describe your character’s every single detail. I understand that to you she is “regular and boring” and your trying to portray that, but it would seem your idea of regular and boring is everyone else’s idea of Angelina Jolie. I really hope I am not making you feel bad, but I really have to get this point across. I want so much for you to be happy with the character but still understand that this look just does not work. (I then proceeded to offer my own character appearance bio in order to show Abbey another way to approach things – I removed it here to save space.) Hopefully that will help you understand where I am coming from as well as give you another example on how you might handle appearances. I think the idea you have of the character is good, but it’s the details where everything goes wrong. Overall, her appearance needs a lot of work but nothing that should be too hard, just tweaks on how things are perceived and such.
Given that this came after 6 pages of pulling her character’s looks apart (the ‘ok, it’s time to work’ section), I made sure that she knew I was only trying to help. I was sincere in my desire of wanting her to be happy with her creation and that goes a long way when you’re telling someone they still have a long way to go. I also reminded her that she was doing well, even if there were issues, and told her again that said issues could be fixed. It is always a good thing, when you’re writing about problem areas, to stop and remind both yourself and the person you’re reviewing for that there is always potential; always a different way to look at and approach things. A little hard work, constructive criticism, and creative discussion are the backbone of a good review and, while they have to be willing to listen, you have to be willing to put in the desire to help (and both must follow through). Telling someone that their character just doesn’t work the way they want is always hard for me because I know everyone is different and I have no idea how they will take the advice I give so I try to approach every new person I review for with the notion that I am getting reviewed myself. I certainly would love the encouragement after a long bit of ‘this needs some work’ 😛
At the end of the day, you have to remember that they wouldn’t come to you if they didn’t want advice. Also, that you can’t be afraid of hurting their feelings. If you hold back because you think it might make someone upset then you’re only hurting your review and impeding their improvement. None of us like to tell someone else “you can’t do it that way” but that’s the whole point, we’re supposed to find the flaws and point them out. Yet, it’s called constructive criticism for a reason. You’re there to point out the flaws and to try and help fix them. It’s never an easy process when you have someone saying “this sucks, I should just trash everything!” back to you, but when that happens just remember that that is their issue not yours. Generally, the people who respond like that are dealing with insecurities beyond writing or are overly attached to their work. There is only so much reassuring you can do for people like that. Just remind them that nothing is beyond saving and that it will always be their story… even if you might have a few suggestions. Most of the time though, we worry way too much and it all works out for the best. So what are you waiting for? Get reviewing!
Part 2: What do I say? – Addressing specific situations
Part 3: How do I critique that? – How to approach different types of work
Part 4: Response and Communication – Responding to critiques and why there must be open dialogue