A math guy's random thoughts.
|Some Thoughts on In-Depth Peer Reviewing
We've all gotten drive-by reviews. They tend to be short and full of adjectives. Sometimes the adjectives gush with praise. These reviews are at least an ego-boost to receive. Other times, the adjectives pierce with condemnation. These hyper-critical reviews can send even experienced authors off the deep end of depression. The emotional reactions make it easy to think of these as "good" and "bad" reviews. There's some truth to that: certainly, a "good" review encourages the author and a "bad" review does the opposite. From that single perspective, the "good" and "bad" labels are probably accurate.
However, the point of this essay is that neither type of drive-by review is useful: they do nothing to help the author craft better fiction.
Reviews on Writing.Com, even those on reviewing in-and-outs like "The Review Spot" , are peer reviews.. They are one author, interacting with another author, about a piece of writing. One goal of a peer review is to start a conversation between these two authors. That conversation helps both the author and the reviewer craft better stories. That's the whole point of peer reviewing.
This essay gives some more-or-less random thoughts on what goes into a helpful peer review.
How to write a helpful peer review
A helpful review needs to make specific comments about craft--about the words on the page, the characters, and the story. In particular, a helpful review:
Makes judgements, both positive and negative;
Provides specific reasons for the judgements it makes;
Gives specific examples from the author's text to support the judgements it makes;
Makes specific suggestions for revision where appropriate;
Gives specific praise for what the author has done well;
Provides encouragement for the author's creativity and artistic impulse.
A helpful review that follows the above suggestions is balanced: it has both positive and negative elements. A helpful review is reasoned: it explains why some feature works or why the reviewer thinks it needs revision. A helpful review is specific: it gives particular examples from the author's text and makes specific suggestions for revision. Finally, a helpful review is respectful: it acknowledges the author's creativity and encourages the artistic impulse.
What to include in a helpful peer review
This is a little harder, since every author brings a different artistic perspective to writing, and hence also to reviewing. Still, there are some basic things like grammar or point-of-view that might be common to all reviews. If you've gotten a review from me, you probably know I have a I use leads to provide structure and to remind me to do certain things such as praise what the Each reviewer, then, will have their own "what to include" list. I'll share my own admittedly idiosyncratic list, along with why something is on the list and what I look for.
What I liked best. I start here, partly to launch the review by reinforcing something I liked about the piece I just read. It's my reminder to tell the author what they've done well. And, yes, every piece I review has something I can praise. On the rare occasions where there's not, I don't provide a review.
Opening paragraph. This is critical to any fiction. Did it the reader? Does it establish point-of-view? Does it draw the reader into the fictional world? Does it start with action?
Style and Voice. Is the voice first person or third person? If the latter, is it omniscient or third person limited? Why is omniscient deprecated in modern fiction? "Style" is the author's voice, which is different from the point-of-view. Many authors have a distinctive voice that shines through their prose.
Vonnegut's admonition that every sentence should advance character or plot, and preferably both has a place here. So does advice against info-dumps. Elmore Leonard said he left out the parts readers skip--that might be relevant, too.
Characters. Characters need to have goals. The goals need to matter--those are the stakes. Something has to stand in the way of achieving the goal--often but not always an oppositional person. Goals, stakes, and opposition are at the heart of both plot and tension, so these are important in almost any work of fiction.
Characters need to be authentic. Readers need to believe in their actions, goals, and emotions.
Readers need to care about your characters. They don't have to like them, but they have to care enough about their goals to keep the pages turning.
Plot. There's no single idea that animates my comments on plot, although the three-act-play structure is close--see "Finding Plot" . Chekov's gun-over-the-mantle comment is sometimes also relevant.
Setting. This is certainly part of orienting the reader. It's also staging--keeping track of where the characters are at in the fictional world and in relation to each other. Finally, the setting can often reveal character and plot--see Vonnegut above.
Hook. If I'm reading a chapter, it needs to end with a hook--something to keep the pages turning. I like this blog on hooks.
Referencing. This is properly part of scene setting, but much of what I read is SciFi or Fantasy where referencing the specific features of the fictional world is important. For fantasy in particular, the dreaded info-dump comment often appears here. This is also important for stories set in another historical period or for stories set in a culture unfamiliar to the reader.
Grammar. My adverb fetish rears its head here.
The Purdue Owl , the writing site at Purdue University, has the best set of free resources I know for grammar rules. For serious authors, The Chicago Manual of Style is the definitive resource, but it's only available to paid subscribers.
Just my opinion.
I'll often include a comment here about the "fictional dream," since that can inform the final section which has line-by-line comments. I'll often summarize what I see as strengths and possible tweaks noted earlier in the review. I try to always thank the author for sharing their story or chapter and to tell them--truthfully!--that I enjoyed it.
Line-by-Line remarks. This is where I pick out specific things that I flagged while reading, either because I liked them or because I thought they were candidates for revision. Often these are the specific examples that support more general comments made in response to the earlier leads. Note I do NOT copy the entire story or chapter here--just specific places as examples to support earlier comments or to make new ones about craft. Often the most detailed and, I think, useful parts of the review are here.
I always close by reminding the author that I'm just another author, like them, and they are the only ones who know what's best for their work.
That's it, my $0.02 worth on in-depth, peer reviewing. I hope you find this helpful!
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