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What's a well balanced review? What to evaluate in stories, poems? What's the Review Tool?
How Write an Encouraging Review

Why should you be interested in learning the foundations upon which a positive, critical review is built? The answer is simple: When a review is offered, both the one writing the review and the author whose work is being reviewed benefit from the exchange. As reviewers, we cement our own understanding of the components of storytelling through reading and commenting on other authors’ works. An author who receives a thoughtful, in-depth review which points out where the writing is strong and where there is room for improvement will be compelled to hone his/her craft through this encouraging and supportive medium. When a review is well-balanced and informed, everybody wins!

This article will explain some of the elements of short story and poetry writing which you, the skilled reviewer, should evaluate when reading a story or poem for review. It will also demystify the Review Tool and take you through the steps for creating your own Review Tool Template. But first, let’s talk about what defines a well-balanced review.

The Well-Balanced Review

A story or poem on Writing.com that receives a five-star rating is, in the eyes of that reviewer, technically sound, error-free, and ready to submit for publication. The majority of items posted on WDC are not five-star quality. A well-balanced review is one that presents to the author of a story or poem you rate with 4.5 stars or less, an insightful discussion that communicates where the item’s strengths lay, and where there were problems or room for improvement. Positive comments that praise an author’s creative success are easy to write, but what about the negative comments?

It is vital to deliver negative comments in a way that is honest, and that the author receiving the review will find insightful and encouraging instead of insulting and disrespectful. Remember that the writer feels a sense of pride in his/her work, and that it is often difficult to recognize the faults in one’s own writing. Never use judgmental language in a review. Avoid making remarks such as, “I didn’t like this story very much,” or, “I found this section boring.”

What if you really didn’t like the story or actually did find it boring? Rather than categorize the entire thing as bad or good, a skilled reviewer will focus on specific elements of the story and point out where the writing was weak. Perhaps you didn’t like a story because the character seemed unbelievable. Commenting that the character’s thoughts and actions seemed unrealistic in a precise moment of the story will help the writer take a harder look at the scene and get a sense of how to improve the character. If you find a story boring, you can discuss pace in the review and express to the author how the pace seemed slow in specific scenes. The key to reviewing success is wording your negative comments with a professional and supportive tone, and always remembering that the goal is to encourage the writer, not hurt his/her feelings.

Evaluating the Elements of the Short Story

The technical aspects of the short story can be broken down into many categories. I won’t attempt to name them all, but here is a breakdown of some of the most important things to evaluate when you are reading and reviewing a short story:

Characters - There are many elements of characters and characterization to evaluate when reading a short story for a review. For example:

         Protagonist, Antagonist, Side-line Characters: Identify the roles each character plays in the story. What makes each character tick? What are their conflicts? Are the characters believable?

*Right* To learn more about character types, click here: http://fictionfactor.com/guests/common.html

         Characterization: How well are the characters described? Did the author rely heavily on physical descriptions and tell the reader what emotions the characters were experiencing? Or instead, did the author use a variety of characterization techniques to bring the characters to life, including ‘Show, Don’t Tell” descriptions, dialogue, actions, gestures and body language, and internal thoughts (of the point-of-view narrator only. See below.)?

*Right* To learn more about ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ characterization, click here: http://www.barbaradawsonsmith.com/showdon'ttell.htm

         Point-of-View (POV) Narration: From whose eyes does the reader “see” the story playing out? The character through whose perceptions the story filters is the story’s POV. Whether in first person (POV refers to himself/herself as ‘I’) or in third person (the author refers to the POV as he/she), the reader should only receive details about the story that the POV would have knowledge or access to. Look for erroneous shifts in POV narrative when, for example, the reader hears a secondary character's thoughts. Unless the POV can hear that person’s thoughts (psychically?) then the reader shouldn’t be able to hear them.

*Right* To learn more about POV narratives, click here: http://www.karenmiller.net/index.cfm?page=3

Plot, Beginnings, Endings, and Pace – When you are reading a story for a review, pay attention to the events in the storyline and the rise and fall of the action.

         Plot: Plot is WHAT HAPPENS in the story. It is a causal chain of events; each event is a result of an incident(s) before it, or the cause of events to follow. The plot cannot begin to unfold without an initial situation or conflict. The situation is the problem; the plot is the problem AND its solution. The plot in a short story has a beginning, middle and end, and contains the elements of character, setting and situation, (and sometimes theme). Essentially, the plot answers the story’s questions: What? Why? And how?1

*Right* To learn more about Plot, click here: http://www.helium.com/items/1075008-plot-creating-a-strong-plot-elements-of-fict...

         Beginnings and Endings: The most successful short story beginnings literally reach out and grab the reader’s attention. They must hook the reader through action, descriptive language, or an intriguing statement that impels the reader to delve deeper into the story. The ending is critical too, for it must conclude the plot by offering resolution to the problem or situation, and by answering the questions put forth during the story. How successful you, the reviewer, found the story’s beginning and ending provides vital feedback to the author.

         Pace: Pace is the engine of the story, because it picks up speed to heighten the tension and eases up when the climatic moments come to an end. Pace should be commented on when a story drags due to lengthy physical descriptions of setting or characters, or if the author tried to build suspense by holding back information that the reader needs to understand what is happening. Feedback related to the pace of the story is very helpful to a writer, who often misses the mark due simply to the fact that s/he knows what is going to happen in the story.

Punctuation/Spelling/Grammar: There are few of us who have mastered the grammatical rules governing the English language, and fewer still who consistently write without making mistakes in these errors. Although a review should not take on the burden of an editor’s responsibility, it is important to be familiar with our language rules and point of places where a writer consistently makes the same errors. As reviewers, the most helpful areas in which to be knowledgeable are: comma and semi-colon usage, punctuation and capitalization in and around dialogue, and verb tense.

         Highlight errors and corrections: Here is a great technique when pointing out errors in a story. Copy the sentence, or part of the sentence, containing the error. Paste it into the review, and put WritingML color tags around it so that the direct quote stands out in another color. When you offer a correction, try re-pasting the quote, corrected, in another color or boldface.

*Right* To refresh your understanding of grammatical rules, visit this fantastic website: http://owl.english.purdue.edu – In the search engine use keywords such as comma, quotation marks, etc.

Evaluating the Elements of Poetry

The technical aspects of poetry can also be broken down into many categories. I will touch on some of the most important things to evaluate when you are reading and reviewing a poem:

Is the poem free form or structured?

         Free Form Poetry: A free form poem does not follow specific guidelines with regard to syllable count, meter, or rhyme scheme. A free form poem can rhyme, but it doesn’t have to. As you are reading a free form poem, pay attention to the imagery and the use of metaphor and simile. Notice how the piece makes you feel. What emotions rise in you as you absorb the words? Can you identify with the poem’s main message; does it evoke any memories of past experiences in your own life? Also, listen to the “sound” of the poem. Does it flow easily off the tongue? Try reading it aloud, does it sound just as good?

         Structured Poetry: A structured poem is one that was written following the constraints of specific guidelines with regard to syllabic count, rhyme scheme, meter, or number of lines or stanzas. Here are some words to help you evaluate these elements:

*Bullet* Rhyme Scheme – Perhaps the most easily recognizable characteristic of a poem is whether it rhymes. When reading a poem for review, it is helpful to recognize what rhyme scheme was used. A rhyme scheme is the pattern of rhyming lines in a poem. It is usually referred to using letters to indicate which lines rhyme. In other words, it is the pattern of end rhymes.

For example, a poem with a four line stanza (called a quatrain) in which lines one and three rhyme, and lines two and four rhyme, would be labeled with the rhyme scheme A-B-A-B:

To fight the grand perception - A
that my stress is in control, - B
I carry without exception - A
A stone able to extol. – B

*Bullet* Meter – Meter is determined by groups of syllables arranged into ‘metrical feet’. A metrical foot will have a determined number of stressed and unstressed syllables. Many forms of structured poetry are constrained by the number of poetic ‘feet’ allowed per line; in other words, by it’s meter.

In English poetry (sonnets) a metric foot is called iambic. An iambic foot is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. We could write the rhythm like this:

da DUM

A line of iambic pentameter is five iambic feet in a row:

da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM

To illustrate the iambic pentameter (5 metric feet), consider the following line:

1 2 3 4 5
Shall I..|..comPARE..|..thee TO..|..a SUM..|..mer’s DAY?

*Bullet* Number of Lines or Stanzas – As you are reading a poem, notice if the poet disclosed in what poetic form the piece was written. If it is a Sonnet, for example, the poem must contain fourteen lines (The Shakespearean Sonnet has three quatrains [stanzas of four lines each] and one couplet [stanza with two lines]; but the Petrarchan Sonnet consists of two stanzas, an octave of eight lines followed by a sestet of six). If it is a Minute Poem, it must have twelve lines arranged into three (quatrain) stanzas.

*Right* To read about the guidelines of many forms of structured poetry, visit this amazing site: http://www.shadowpoetry.com.

Demystifying the Review Tool

What IS the Review Tool?

The Review Tool is a helpful feature here at Writing.com. It is essentially a place where members can create and store templates of their review outlines, which they then access from any reviewable item at the outset of the review. It is possible to store many different Review Tool templates, one for each genre you typically review: short story, poetry, essay, article, etc. The beauty of the Review Tool is that it keeps your reviews organized while saving you time because you don’t have to retype the standard headings and signatures you include in every review.

Where do I find the Review Tool?

The Review Tool is located below the Site Navigation bar found at the top left side of any Writing.com (WDC) page (except "shop" pages and "web pages"). Scroll down and click on ‘My Places’. A pop-up window will appear; find and click on ‘My Review Tool’.

From here, you can create a new template, edit an existing template, store a copy of a review you have not finished yet, or delete a template. But, it is not the only place to access your templates! After reading any item that allows reviews, you will find at the bottom of the item page the box (What’s YOUR opinion? – Rate this item!) where you are able to rate the item and type a review. If you scroll just below this box, you will find three tabs marked: ‘Submit Review’, (which you would click IF you typed your review directly into the dialogue box directly above); ‘Preview (Below)’, (which you would click IF you typed your review directly into the dialogue box and wanted to look it over before submitting it); and ‘Review Tool’.
By clicking on ‘Review Tool’ at the bottom of a reviewable item, you will launch the Review Tool containing all of your saved templates. Select the template you wish to use and away you go!

*Right* There’s no better way to learn than by doing, so let’s work together and create a short stories Review Tool template to get you started. I suggest either printing out this lesson to have in front of you as you create your template, or keep this lesson page open while you work so that you can click on the tabs and move back and forth between these instructions and the Review Tool page. Ready? Here we go!

Instructions for Creating a Review Tool Template

1. Below the Site Navigation bar at the top left side of any WDC page, scroll down and click ‘My Places’. From the pop-up menu that appears, click on ‘My Review Tool’.

2. Read the information in the box that appears. You will see the Tool defaults to ‘Choose a Template’. Eventually, by clicking on the arrow to the right of this, all your future templates will appear in a drop down list. For now, look to the far right, past the currently unavailable buttons labeled ‘Load’, ‘Edit’, ‘Delete’, and find the ‘New’ button. Click on ‘New’.

3. Read the information that appears. Then, in the Title box, please type:
Short Stories

4. Tab over to the main dialogue box. Here is where we will type our review outline. Please note, we will be using WritingML to spice up our reviews. If you are not familiar with WritingML, please take a moment to read up on it: Under the Site Navigation bar, scroll down and click on ‘Site Places’. From the pop-up list that appears, click on ‘WritingML Help’.

a. It’s nice to begin with a friendly hello to the author you are reviewing, and include a place to add the item number of the piece being reviewed. So, please type the following:

Hi ! After reading {item:#######}, I offer you these comments:

*Right* Each time you access your review template, you will add the author’s name after ‘Hi’, and you will replace the #’s with the actual item number you are reviewing. Please triple space after the word ‘comments:’.

b. Next, type three headings:

{c:green}{b}{u}First Impression:{/c}{/b}{/u} (Please hit enter three times, then type:)
{c:orange}{b}{u}Suggestions:{/c}{/b}{/u} (Please hit enter three times, then type:)
{c:indigo}{b}{u}Punctuation/Spelling/Grammar:{/c}{/b}{/u} (Please hit enter three times.)

c. Good! Almost finished. When building a well balanced and encouraging review, it is important to include BOTH positive comments on what is working well in the piece, AND feedback on what is lacking or not working. Critical comments can be hard for a writer to hear, so great care and tact must go into the wording of negative comments. It is an excellent practice to end the review on a positive note. I like to thank the author for sharing their work, or reiterating something noteworthy in their stylistic choices or simply encourage them to ‘Write on!’. For a place to add these positive comments, please type the following:
{e:star} (Please double space.)

d. Last thing. Signatures. Many members at WDC have personal signatures that they attach to reviews, emails, etc. You may add one of your signatures here, or simply your name/handle. It is important to note that the Review Tool allows more than one signature/image; however, if you choose to make your review public only the first signature/image you use in the review will appear on the Public Review Page.

So, type your name or add your signature here. Now, you have two options at the bottom of the box: ‘Store Template’, or ‘Preview Template’. Please click on ‘Preview’. Take a look, does it look like this: *Down*

Hi ! After reading {item:} I offer you these comments:

First Impression:




(Your name or signature here)

*Right* If yours does not look like this, you may have added a space in your WritingML tag that must be deleted (No spaces between the curly brackets in WritingML tags!!), or you may have a typo. Look it over, make any necessary adjustments. When you are satisfied, click ‘Submit’.

Congratulations!! You have created a review template for short stories. Great job!

*Right* Once you have become comfortable creating and using the review tool template, explore your personal review style and create other templates that reflect your unique “voice,” or the types of feedback you enjoy conveying. You can also create different templates for poetry reviews, chapters, articles and essays; and templates with signatures or banners that reflect various groups you belong to, for example reviews for the Angel Army, Simply Positive Review Group, Native American Indian, etc. The possibilities are endless!

I hope this article has shed some light on the importance of an in-depth review, the types of things to look for when you are reading a short story or poem for review, how to express both positive and negative feedback, and how to create a review tool template. With a sharpened focus, encouraging tone, and the intention of helping your peers hone their creative writing craft, your review practice will flourish – and both you and the author you review will benefit from the experience!

1  {R.M. Zeigler at http://www.helium.com/items/1075008-plot-creating-a-strong-plot-elements-of-fict...

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