Reviewing is complicated and therefore difficult to master. Keep in mind that you're reviewing not just the work of your peers, but your own work. While I don't claim to be an expert, I aim to be as knowledgeable and up-to-date as possible. If something I write is wrong or inaccurate, by all means tell me and I'll do the research to correct it. I will try to use as simple terms as possible to explain otherwise complicated concepts. Although I will continue to give reviews on an individual basis, I feel it would be beneficial to all (myself included) to give advice in greater detail.
Anything written in navy is directly quoted, so those definitions were 100% accurate when I wrote them. Because there's only so much ground I can cover, this article does not focus on every issue. I will do my best to address the rules that need to be addressed most. Feel free to give suggestions, but know that I can't cover everything without expanding to the point where there's an overwhelming amount of information.
There are many style guides, each focusing on a specific style. To make things more complicated, sometimes the rules differ. Because of it's brevity, I recommend Strunk and White's Elements of Style
, which is far less daunting than other larger guides. It's a good starting point for those new to writing or just shaky with their grammar. I don't agree with all its rules, and I acknowledge that some are of the opinion that it can be a bit archaic, but it's still a great tool for those who don't want to get too bogged down with the larger guides. That being said, much of my research comes from online sources. If a rule introduced appears incomplete, inaccurate or misleading, look it up; I can only do so much research at a given time.
What to look for as a reviewer
A good starting point is missing or added words/letters, incorrect punctuation, spelling mistakes, repeated words/phrases, incorrect tenses, and typos (missing or added letters in a word, or a different word typed in altogether).
When proofreading (I say proofreading because editing implies the written material is being prepared for publication) be concise as possible without diminishing the value of the story. Avoid unnecessary modifiers. To quote another writer on this site, “Modifiers, namely adjectives and adverbs (particularly those with the -ly suffix), are a quick and easy descriptive fix, but they also have the distinction of being the fastest way to the ruination of a manuscript.” I have to agree with the statement. If you would like to see the full entry, check out page 3 in the July 2012 CSFS newsletter found here: http://www.writing.com/main/books/entry_id/757447
So what's a modifier? The 2nd definition in Merriam-Webster is “a word or phrase that makes specific the meaning of another word or phrase.” I prefer to think of a well used modifier as a word that enhances or alters other words or phrases. Be careful using modifiers as a poorly used modifier will weaken or dilute the word or phrase it's being used with. The most obvious example being something like “I thought thoughtfully”. If you can't figure out what's wrong with that sentence, it's time to give up writing. Let's go with a less obvious example. “The slight breeze...” Now on the surface, you're probably thinking what's wrong with that one, all it's saying is that the breeze is slight? That's exactly what's wrong with it. It's also a perfect example of how we think we know a word's meaning when we really don't. A breeze, by definition, is a slight wind. So, in essence, anytime someone writes a "slight breeze", they're writing a "slight slight breeze", which is the equivalent of a virtually nonexistent wind. If the wind is virtually nonexistent, why bring it to the attention of the reader?
Don't be awkward
Awkward sentences are a problem that's difficult to correct. How does a reviewer or proofreader suggest corrections when it's necessary to first interpret what was written? Reviewers, however skilled, aren't mind readers. In these situations, it's best to email the writer and ask them to clarify, otherwise you may offer useless advice.
Variation is the key to a good story. Use repetition sparingly, avoid using the same words or phrases over and over again. While repeated words add to or convey meaning on a sentence by sentence basis, they typically detract from the story as a whole. Try to use synonyms when you find a word or phrase being used too frequently; use repetition only when it adds to the piece. If just about everything in the story is being referred to as shadowy, try other words like hazy or shady or dim. If paragraph after paragraph starts with words ending in -ing, if most of the sentences begin with “He said”, there's probably not much you can do in the way of synonyms. Instead, you'll want to restructure a few sentences here or there to avoid a repetitive pattern.
Many writers write run-on sentences. If the subject matter can be divided into two separate sentences, but is written as one to show a closer relationship, use a semicolon, not a comma. If both parts of a sentence are incomplete sentences (independent clauses) on their own, rephrase it to allow for the use of a semicolon. The converse of this is that some writers are so intent on avoiding run-ons, they create fragmented sentences. Sometimes a longer sentence is necessary. There are instances when a fragmented sentence can be used, but if you're a new writer, or weak in knowledge of grammar, hold off on using fragments until you get a better feel for writing. Try to get a sense of when to use a comma, period, or semicolon by reading aloud. If it sounds unnatural to say the subject matter as one sentence, use a period or semicolon.
Avoid afterthoughts whenever possible. Example of an afterthought: "I walked down the stairs, thinking it was dark." This should be written as, "I walked down the stairs into the darkness." or "It was dark as I walked down the stairs." or "I walked into a dark stairwell." Unless the subject matter at the end of a sentence is meant to be an afterthought, write it as part of the original thought. An example of an acceptable afterthought is: "I asked myself why, and then I understood." The understanding comes after the questioning and that's what makes it a legitimate afterthought. (Note, do not confuse a non sequitur
with an afterthought. A non sequitur
is a conclusion or statement that does not logically follow from the previous argument or statement. Since an afterthought, as a conclusion, can follow a statement either logically or illogically, an afterthought isn't always a non sequitur
When I posted my first story, I read it over at least a dozen times to edit out all the mistakes. Yet even after all that review work, another writer still caught mistakes I missed. This is why proofreading your own work is so important. Every mistake you catch is one less for your reviewers to find. If, as a set of fresh eyes, your reviewers are not distracted by obvious mistakes, they'll be able to focus on important corrections and advice. (The practice will minimize mistakes in the future.) When proofing your own work, don't do it every 3 seconds. Read x amount before checking your own work. Write first then edit. You may not catch every single mistake—and I assure you, if you write enough you won't—but that doesn't negate the value of proofreading. Read enough published books and you'll find mistakes. Mistakes are unavoidable, but keep at them. The more you let them slip the more likely they are to occur.
Grammatical rules that tend to trip writers up
This section originally included often confused words. While knowing the difference between often confused words is important, they are not so practical for a fundamental approach to editing and reviewing. Instead, I am including a link to a collection of these words. Feel free to follow the link provided to know the differences between what I refer to as tricky words. "Invalid Item
A or An
: Use A before words that start with a consonant sound and An before words that start with a vowel sound. Notice how the rule specifies sound. If a word begins with a consonant, but sounds like it begins with a vowel, it's treated like a vowel and is proceeded with an. Examples: honest, honor, heir. If a word begins with a vowel, but sounds like it begins with a consonant, it's treated like a consonant and is proceeded with a. Words like unique, unicorn and ukulele, fall under this category because the (yoo) sound is considered a consonant sound.
I before E
: This is perhaps my favorite rule, because it's just so ridiculously random--I before E except after C, or when sounded as A, as in neighbor and weigh. Or when it appears in comparatives and superlatives like fancier. Or in the C sounds as in shh like glacier. Or when the vowel sounds like E as in seize, or I as in height. Or it shows up in compound words as albeit. Or when it shows up in -ing inflections of verbs that end in E like cueing. Or occasionally in technical words that have a strong etymological link to their parent languages such as cuneiform and caffeine. And in number and other random exceptions such as science, forfeit, and weird.
Definition courtesy of http://www.merriam-webster.com/video/0003-ibeforee.htm
Note: I am in the process of writing an article which will focus solely on punctuation. When it's complete, this section will be moved to the other article. I will provide a link at the end of this article when it's complete.
When and where to use commas
: Even with all the rules listed below, sometimes it's better to approach commas the simple way: sound out the sentences. Commas are generally used to display a natural pause in speech, dialogue, or text. You'll be able to recognize most instances of when a comma is needed by speaking the sentences aloud.
According to Eats, Shoots & Leaves
by Lynne Truss, there are 6 uses for commas:
1. Commas for lists - They divide items in lists, but are (usually) not required before the and on the end.
2. Commas for joining - Used when two complete sentences are joined together, using such conjunctions as and, or, but, while and yet.
3. Commas filling gaps - Involving missing words cunningly implied by a comma.
4. Commas before (and after) direct speech - A pause-for-breath.
5. Commas setting off interjections - A comma is used between an abrupt remark, utterance, exclamation, or interruption from the rest of the sentence.
6. Commas that come in pairs - The first rule of bracketing commas is that you use them to mark both ends of a "weak interruption" to a sentence - or a piece of "additional information." The commas mark the places where the reader can cleanly lift out a section of the sentence without obvious damage to the rest of the sentence. In other words, the essential meaning remains the same when the "weak interruption" or "additional info" is removed.
The online source http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/commas.htm
lists eleven rules for comma usage... Eleven! Seems a tad excessive. I think I'll stick with the six rules Lynne Truss cited. Below are the 1st two comma rules from the website above, with my explanations. For those who are curious, check for yourself, but realistically, you don't need eleven rules for comma usage.
: Separating three or more elements in a series or items in a list. Examples: Ed, Edd, and Eddy. The birds, the bees, the flowers, and the trees. One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. Notice that it states three or more things. If I write Ed and Edd, or the birds and the bees, I don't need commas. See how the previous sentence is comprised of elements in a series? Each part is separated by commas, but the parts within those commas that are comprised of two items, do not use commas. This is relevant because of the Oxford Comma (or Serial Comma). Here's the example given by The Chicago Manual of Style: "This book is dedicated to my parents, the Pope, and Mother Theresa" vs "This book is dedicated to my parents, the Pope and Mother Theresa." Based on the layout of the punctuation, he 1st quote, which uses the Oxford Comma, dedicates the book to the writer's parents and two religious figures. The 2nd quote, dedicates the book to the writer's parents, who appear to be the Pope and Mother Theresa. Pretty wild right?
: Used to connect two independent clauses linked by a conjunction (and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so). I laughed and cried
are not two independent clauses.I laughed, and I cried
, are two independent clauses. The easiest way to figure out when a sentence is or isn't two independent clauses is simple. Cut out the conjunction, and write each clause as its own sentence. I laughed. Cried.
- Not two valid sentences. I laughed. I cried.
and Cut out the conjunction. Write each clause as its own sentence.
-Two sets of valid sentences. Now here's where it gets tricky: The easiest way to figure out when a sentence is or isn't two independent clauses is simple.
The word or
makes the previous sentence appear as if I've ignored the independent clauses rule. If they can't be two valid sentences, shouldn't I be using a comma before or
? No, and here's why: Is or isn't
fall under the category of elements in a series or a list comprised of two items, and are not being used to connect two clauses that are dependent or independent. Just to make this a little trickier, when you have a sentence like I laughed, and I cried
, a comma wouldn't be used, so write I laughed and I cried
or better yet, I laughed and cried
. In other words, when to use a comma is often a question of judgment. Try to get a feel for it. If a sentence sounds better without a comma, don't use it. If a comma clears up confusion, or adds a needed pause or break in the sentence, use it.
If you don't ask, you won't learn
If you really want your writing to improve, ask reviewers questions they haven't addressed in their reviews. When reviewing the writing of yourself or others, ask these questions: Are any sentences awkward? Is the meaning of the story/poem/article clear? Is it well paced? What revisions are necessary to ensure the story/poem/article is engaging and tailored to the correct audience?
Be aware that brief descriptions like telling someone their work is awesome is not helpful. While it's probably appreciated by the writer, it's a useless review. If that's all you have to say, rate the story and email the writer that you think their story is awesome. When reviewing, take the time to point out why you thought a story was awesome (or awful). Keep ratings and reviews consistent. While a positive comment stating how you enjoyed reading a story, doesn't always mean a story deserves a 5 star rating, a comment like "Wow very cool, I love it" followed by a ton of smiley faces and exclamation marks with a rating of 3 or 3 1/2 stars is not acceptable. Don't give the impression a story is perfect if you're not going to rate it as such.
Avoid overly complicated reviews that use an excessive amount of big words and fancy terms. Most writers won't appreciate it. There's nothing wrong with having a large vocabulary, but don't get carried away or it will look like you're writing with a dictionary in hand. It comes across as if you're stroking your own ego by showing off your mastery of vocabulary, or attempting to appear more intelligent than you actually are. Keep it simple. A good review should come across as one side of a conversation. Give your reviews in a straight forward manner.
You may encounter work that's so sloppy or riddled with mistakes, that you'll give up and move on to something else. When encountering an article, story or poem of this nature, email the writer. Give them a few pointers, suggest corrections without doing an in-depth review. Not only does this allow the writer to be more conscientious of their mistakes, their writing will become easier to review. This does not mean you shouldn't give in-depth reviews; it means that reviewing mistake riddled work is time consuming. If you train other writers to correct most of their mistakes, then you, as a reviewer, won't have to struggle with figuring out if they're actually writing English, or just striking at the keyboard.
Furthermore, no matter how good the overall content of a story is, reviewing poorly written work on the public review board can embarrass another writer or cause resentment. Review when it counts. Let them fix some of their own mistakes, and suggest they email you when they are ready to be reviewed. Be aware that no matter how gentle your corrections/suggestions, there will always be people who get offended, who only see criticism. It happens. You can only be so nice before you cease to be helpful.
If a reviewer says your story/poem/essay needs work, don't ignore their advice without consideration, it probably needs work. Some writers will get offended when they are told their work isn't up to par. It's unavoidable. If you're a reviewer, try to get your point across as clearly as possible without being insulting. If you're a writer, shut up and listen. The reviewer isn't always right but, more often than not, if they're finding something wrong there's probably a reason for it.
If you're writing articles or essays, do the research. Don't claim something is true if there's no proper source material or real world experience to back it with. Provide links when possible. Let the people know where the information is coming from. If you're a poet, be consistent with your use of punctuation and layout. If your first instinct is to tell your reviewer that the poem reflects emotions and is therefore untouchable, ignore that instinct. Story writers, when you tell your stories make sure the tale is plausible. Fictional worlds don't necessarily have the same rules as the real world, but each has to be believable within the realm they occupy. Make sure that you don't scene jump unless there's a page break or new chapter.
It's rare for written work to be perfect in the first draft. Don't assume your work is flawless, no matter what the genre. Never say one and done. Each style of writing has its strengths and weaknesses. The written word should always be treated with respect. Always listen to reviewers no matter how off the review seems. Put aside that offending review. Ignore it for a day, week, however long it takes, then try to figure out if they's any merit to what's being said. Sometimes there isn't, but even in the worst of reviews there's usually something useful buried in there.
If you want to be a good reviewer (and/or writer) you'll need to work at it. Read. Read a lot. Read stuff you enjoy. Read quality writing. Occasionally you'll have to read things you don't like and/or poorly written material. Even poorly written material can teach you a lot. The best way to improve your writing is by writing, and at a close 2nd is reading. You won't get a feel for writing if you don't write, and you won't know what works or doesn't work if you don't read.
You'll also want to follow up on your reviews, make new suggestions when necessary, but only up to a point. Sometimes reviewers and writers don't agree. It happens. If a writer is adamant about writing a certain way, that's that. In the end, the writer has the final say. Help only so much as your help is wanted. If you're a reviewer, focus on the writers that want your help. If you're a writer, seek out the reviewers that will help you most. It's a two way street. A properly paired set of writer and reviewer can learn a lot from each other.
Feel free to respond with any advice or important rules of grammar I've neglected to address. Hope this helps. Keep writing and always remember to proofread and revise your work.