Advice on how to write more detailed reviews.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Originally written as a newsletter editorial for the "Unofficial Erotica Newsletter Group" .
Today, I'd like to talk a little bit about the reviewing process. This is inspired from a conversation over on the "Unofficial Erotica Newsletter Forum" , where quality reviews (and how to get them) was being discussed. In my opinion, you can't ever expect someone to go to the time and effort to really write up a comprehensive analysis of your work... to have that kind of expectation of your readers is destined to end in disappointment sooner or later. Detailed feedback takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of thought... and to be honest, some people just aren't interested in making that kind of investment in someone else's work. Heck, I have been (and still am) guilty of that from time to time. Even though I'm capable of - and try to - provide a quality review, there are times when I just want to jot down a few quick, overall notes in the review form rather than spending 15-20 minutes on a review with a word count that rivals the story's!
But while we all may have times where we're not particularly inclined to write up a full, in-depth review... some people NEVER write up a full review. And it's difficult (and a tad hypocritical) to expect detailed, quality feedback from others when you don't provide it to other authors. That said, this editorial isn't intended to put everyone down and tell you that you're doing a horrible job reviewing. Instead, this editorial is aimed at suggestions for how to provide a detailed, quality review for those who may be uncertain about what they should talk about in their reviews. I was fortunate enough to go to school for film studies, where I was taught in my screenwriting classes to break down a story into individual elements, and evaluate those elements on their effectiveness (and how they tied into the story as a whole).
So this newsletter is for anyone who is looking for a way to infuse their reviews with a more well-rounded, detailed commentary... the kind that most of us hope to receive whenever someone else reads our work. If you can commit to even doing a few reviews that discuss the majority of these elements, chances are your analysis will be more appreciated by the writers you review... and there's always the possibility that someone will return the favor. While you don't have to address every single point listed below, some aspects of a story you might want to mention in your review:
ELEMENTS OF A STORY
The concept or premise is the central idea behind the story. If you could summarize your story into a simple descriptive sentence of what it's about... that's your concept. Some familiar concepts: "An archaeology professor embarks on an adventure to find the mysterious supernatural Ark of the Covenant" (Raiders of the Lost Ark); "An ogre has to go rescue a princess in order to get his isolated swamp back, which has been overrun by exiled fairy tale creatures" (Shrek). "A young man and woman from wealthy, warring families fall in love (Romeo & Juliet).
Concept is worth mentioning because, while execution does play a more important role, there are some stories that are grounded in a good idea, some that are grounded in a so-so idea, and some that are just a bad idea from the start. It's worth considering and commenting on one or more of the following aspects of their concept:
Is the concept new/unique, or is it something that's been done before? If it has been done before, has it been done exactly (or almost exactly) like this, or does the author put a new twist on it?
Is the concept interesting? If you only heard a one-sentence summary or "pitch" of the concept before reading the story, would you still be interested in reading it?
Is the concept marketable or mainstream? What kind of audience would this story appeal to, and how big is that audience? Is this something that only a select group of people would enjoy, or is it accessible to a lot of people?
Is the setting appropriate for the story? Is it an engaging, interesting setting, or is the setting unimportant and/or ineffective?
Does the concept live up to your expectations? If you only heard a one-sentence summary of the concept before reading the story, would you be satisfied with how it unfolded, or did it fail to live up to your expectations of its potential?
The storyline is the actual narrative progression of events. This aspect of a review, unlike concept, focuses on the execution. Basically, it's an analysis of how the story worked. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the concept was an adventuring archaeologist looking for the Ark, but the storyline is Indiana Jones losing the idol at the beginning, being charged with finding the Ark, going to see Marian for the scepter head, finding the location to the Ark in the chamber in the desert, losing the Ark to the Nazis, being captured and tied up while they open it, etc. etc. etc. In Shrek, the concept was an ogre trying to rescue a princess as part of a deal to get his swamp back, but the storyline is Shrek having the fairy tale creature invade his swamp, meeting Donkey, going to talk to Farquaad and receiving his quest, rescuing Fiona from the dragon, bringing her back to Duloq, developing feelings for her, and then having to come to terms with those feelings.
Storyline is worth mentioning in a review, because it's important to let the writer know whether their story lived up to the potential of the concept, and if there were any problems with the narrative itself. It's worth considering and commenting on one or more aspects of their storyline:
Does the storyline have enough going on? Should there have been more or less happening? Is there sufficient conflict throughout the story?
Was the storyline engaging and easy to follow? Were there any problems getting into the narrative or staying with it? Was it confusing at any point?
Was the storyline logical? Did events progress realistically and understandably, or did things happen for seemingly no reason or without any motivation?
Is the central conflict clearly defined? Is it clear what this story is about?
Is there a strong emotional pull? Does the reader genuinely care what happens in the story?
Characterization is the process of developing and showing information about the characters through the course of a story. The characters are, of course, the central element of a story - they're who the story is about and usually what engages the audience in a tale. The best characters are ones that change in the course of the story... who go on an journey that creates an arc for them the follow. In Shrek, the title character starts out being a grumpy isolationist. He just wants to be left alone, but he's pushed into going on a quest, at which point he eventually warms up to a friend (Donkey) and finds someone he wants to share his life with (Fiona). That arc is carefully developed in each scene as Shrek's personality, history, and interaction with the other characters is developed.
Characterization is worth mentioning in a review because the characters are what a reader invests in. If they don't care about the characters, it doesn't matter if those characters are going down to the corner store for some milk, or on the run for their lives. Without a reader's engagement in the characters, it doesn't matter what happens to them. It's important for an author to know whether their characters are interesting and engaging, or if they're lacking in some way that weakens the rest of the story. Some things you may want to consider when thinking about characterization:
Is the protagonist likable, sympathetic, empathetic, or identifiable? Does the reader care about the central character in this story? Why?
Are the characters engaging, credible, dynamic individuals who will interest a reader? Are the characters effectively revealed/shown through action and words, or is the author just telling the reader what they need to know?
Do the characters (especially the protagonist) change through the course of the story? Is their character arc effective and engaging to a reader?
Is the antagonizing force strong enough to effectively challenge the protagonist, or does the protagonist walk through the story seemingly without opposition or conflict? Is the antagonizing force truly a formidable opponent for the protagonist?
How are the secondary characters handled? Are they fresh and lively and interesting, or are they cliched stereotypes and/or archetypes? Do they leave a lasting impression or just serve their purpose and disappear?
Structure is the skeleton of a story. If a story were a body, the storyline is what's on the surface that makes it so visually appealing - skin, muscles, hair, etc. In that case, structure are the bones on which everything else rests. If there's a good, strong structure, the story looks and feels well written and well presented. If there's a poor structure, the story is often unappealing in one or more ways and feels like there's something missing.
The hands-down most common dramatic structure is the three act structure. At it's core, that means a beginning, a middle, and an end. For more information, you can check out "UEN 149 - SoCalScribe - Story Structure" , but the this is the basic structure that's found in the vast majority of movies, novels, short stories and other fictional tales. The first act (beginning) is usually used to establish the central conflict in the story, and introduce the characters to the reader. The second act (middle) is all about creating rising action and upping the stakes for the characters as they struggle to overcome that central conflict. And of course, the third act (ending) is how it all works out.
Structure is worth mentioning in a review, because a good structure will help elevate the emotional impact of a story. A poor structure can decrease the emotional impact of a story, as well as weaken other aspects like character development and the storyline. Some structural issues that you may want to address in your review:
Is there a clear beginning, middle and end to the story? Is the central conflict clearly established and addressed throughout the story? Are the subplots (if any)?
Does the pacing of events build effectively to a climax? Does the script move, build, intensify, and continually hold attention? Are the stakes in the story high enough to make it compelling?
How is the exposition handled? Is it subtly presented throughout the story, or thrown at the reader bluntly and all at once?
Is the story cohesive? Do all of the various elements gel and flow together?
Is the ending predictable? Is there a satisfying payoff or ending to the story?
Dialogue is the element of a story that's spoken between characters. Human beings are conversational beings, and our voices are one of the primary methods we use to communicate. It's only natural that characters in a story communicate the same way. Dialogue is, by far, one of the most difficult elements of a story to do well. Effective dialogue needs to be realistic, concise, not too on-the-nose, and interesting. I addressed dialogue in greater detail in "UEN 150 - SoCalScribe - Realistic Dialogue" , but generally speaking, readers know good dialogue when they see it. They know when a line works and when it doesn't.
Dialogue is worth mentioning in a review because dialogue is an integral part of establishing character, narrative progression, and a reader's overall enjoyment of the story. Some things you might want to mention about dialogue in your review:
Is the dialogue realistic and/or believable? Is it wordy, stilted or artificial?
Is the dialogue memorable? Are there truly memorable lines that are compelling, sparkling, witty, and/or razor sharp?
Does each character speak with a unique voice? Is each character's voice consistent throughout the story?
Is the dialogue lacking in any way? Is there too little subtext? Is it too expository? Are there too many dull, long speeches? Is it too profane, explicit or inappropriate for the story?
Does the writer rely too heavily (or not enough) on dialogue to propel the story?
The technical aspects of a story are how the story looks on the page. Spelling and grammar are big parts of this category, but also worth mentioning is diction (word choice), syntax (word/sentence arrangement), typos, and all the stuff that makes up how those specific words appear on the page in that specific order. Obviously the typos, and spelling errors and whatnot are an important part of the editing process so that the story is clean and professional - and those quick fixes are worth mentioning - but more than anything, an author needs to know if their story is as good as it can be on the page. Are the sentences clear and effective? Is a particular word the author used the best word in that situation, or is there a better one they could have used?
Technical issues are worth mentioning in a review, because... unlike the other creative elements which are largely subjective... mechanics are a largely objective issue... they're a direct commentary on the author's ability to write a compelling story. If the mechanics are weak in some way, this is the area that a review will be able to most clearly point out, so the author can improve his writing on a fundamental level. Some technical issues you might want to address in a review:
Are there any typos in the story? Are there a lot of them?
Are there any spelling errors or wrong word form uses (their/there/they're, hear/here, its/it's, etc.)? Any errors that repeatedly show up?
Are there any grammatical errors (run on sentences, improper punctuation, etc.)? Any errors that repeatedly show up?
Is the diction and syntax effective? Are there any incorrectly used words or phrases? Is the writing too simple or needlessly complex?
Is the overall formatting of the story effective? Are there large, unwieldy paragraphs? Effective spacing? Clear, easy to read font/colors/etc.?
Style is perhaps the most intangible element of someone's writing. The creative elements like character and storyline and structure can be justified with examples of the work compared to other more effective works of a similar nature. The technical elements can be justified with examples of the work compared to established rules of the English language. Style on the other hand, is an ethereal element that a reader just has a feel for... and is often something that only makes itself apparent in either longer works, or by reading several works by the same author. Style should be the ultimate goal of every author... to write convincing, compelling stories that stand out as distinctly their own.
Still, it's important to talk about style in a review, because the author should know if they were successful (or how close they came) to creating a work that was not only effective, but also enjoyable to read and stood out as entirely their own. Some things you may want to consider when addressing style in a review:
Does the author have a unique "voice," or is the story told in a bland or uninteresting way?
Is there an elegance/sophistication to the writing (well crafted sentences, use of literary devices, vivid prose, etc.), or is it lacking in some way?
If you've read other stories by this author, can you recognize this as one of his or hers? Are there any recurring themes, characters, motifs or stylistic elements that distinguish this author's writing?
Can you clearly imagine the scenes being described? If not, what can the author do to help a reader visualize the narrative?
Is the writing itself memorable? Is the presentation of this story going to be something that sticks in your mind (narrative twists, descriptive lines, dialogue, etc.), or is it ultimately forgettable. If it is forgettable, what can be done to make it more memorable?
Overall is what you thought of the story as a whole. Whether you consider that the sum of all of its individual elements, or your "gut" impression of the story after you finished reading it, this is the section where you can tell the author how you felt about his or her work in broad strokes. Personally, I like to use this section of the review to summarize my points above, reiterating specific issues and also reinforcing the good parts of the story. I always try to include at least one compliment, especially if I criticized a lot of things in the review. It's just as important to be positive and encouraging as it is to point out the areas an author needs to improve. Some things you might want to consider when commenting on the story's overall quality:
Did you enjoy the story as a whole? Why or why not?
Was the story satisfying, or did it leave you wanting more (and not in a good way)?
Does the sum of its parts make up for any minor issues or specific elements of the story? Or does the overall story suffer as the result of one or more issues with its specific elements?
Is this something you would read again, or would you be tempted to read something else this author has written? Why or why not?
If you had to summarize this story in one word... what would that word be, and why did you choose it?
Hopefully this editorial will give you some food for thought when it comes to reviewing other writers. WDC has a wonderful reviewing system and, even if you can't give an in-depth, thorough review every single time you read someone's work, try to make an effort to provide these types of reviews on a semi-regular basis... especially if you'd like to receive them in return.