Pros and cons of breaking up your review into sections.
One of the biggest differences between reviewers is the structure of their reviews. Some people are very structured and organized when providing feedback, while others prefer to write more freely, addressing issues and providing feedback as inspiration dictates. The purpose of this article is to explore the pros and cons of breaking down your reviews into sections or components. The point is not to say that one method is correct and the other is wrong, but to merely present alternative options for reviewers to consider.
When it comes to actually breaking down a review, there are several methods that can be employed. The two structures I prefer and use most frequently are what I've come to call my General Review, and my Detailed Review. General Reviews are typically divided into a few key sections. For my own, I use: What Worked, What Could Be Improved, and Overall Impression. I'm certainly not the only person to use a structure similar to this; it's an easy to way outline for the author what you - the reviewer - thought was good and bad about the item, as well as your overall thoughts of the item (including anything that doesn't strictly fit in the above categories). Detailed Reviews, on the other hand, are typically divided into several sections that are designed to more thoroughly examine a work. My Detailed Review for fiction, by way of example, utilizes the following categories: Concept/Premise, Storyline, Characterization, Dialogue, Structure, Technical, and Overall.
By contrast, some people choose not to break down a review at all, simply addressing issues that they feel are worth mentioning, in no particular order and without any particular set of guidelines.
Let's look at the pros of each approach:
PROS OF STRUCTURED REVIEWS
Easy to reference. When a review is broken up into structured components, it makes referring back to the review very easy to navigate, both for the reviewer as they write it, and the author when they read it. By having a review broken up into sections, it makes it easy to refer to only that section when necessary. So if, for example, I want to rewrite my story and I'm currently focusing on polishing up the dialogue, I can go back through all of the structured reviews I've received and can easily find the feedback I've received about dialogue.
Ensures a well-rounded review. If you have categories built into your reviews (especially if you use the Review Tool to set up templates), it ensures that you have a variety of topics to discuss about the item being reviewed. This will not only help you get to a minimum 250-character count to be a Qualifying Review, but also ensures that you'll hit all the "key points" in a story and encourages you to come up with something to say for each of them.
Helps with constructive criticism. Very few items are all good, or all bad. In most cases, items are a combination of elements that work, and elements that can be improved. When you have a structured review with different sections being addressed, your chances of finding something that can be improved (in a good item), or something is already good (in a bad item) are dramatically increased. This can help you create a more "fair and balanced" review by giving the author constructive criticism. The storyline might be great, but structure could use some improvement.
PROS OF FREE-FORM REVIEWS
No restrictions. One of the greatest benefits of a free-form review is that there are no requirements. There are no required sections that must be addressed, so a review can be about whatever strikes you as being important to discuss. Thus, more time can be spent talking about what you want to talk about, rather than finding something to write about the concept, if you really don't have much to say about concept.
Feels more personal and targeted. Unlike a structured review, which looks and feels like a template, free-form reviews feel like they're written from a more sporadic, spontaneous perspective. Instead of hitting pre-arranged points of discussion, you're writing about what aspects of the item immediately affected you and were most prominent. So if you're writing entirely good things about the characters, the author knows the characters are strong and work well; if you're writing mostly about the technical issues in an item, the author knows the mechanical errors are what most stuck out; and if there's no mention of the dialogue, it was pretty middle-of-the-road or unremarkable.
Flexible format. Since free-form reviews are writing about what strikes you when you read an item, you can write about any type of item without restriction or modification. A detailed review for fiction might include topics such as character, story, and dialogue... but those sections are hardly appropriate for a nonfiction article or a message forum. So where a structured review has to be tailored to the specific type of item being reviewed, a free-form review is applicable to anything and everything you read.
Like anything, however, there's always a downside too. Let's examine the cons of each approach:
CONS OF STRUCTURED REVIEWS
Not all items are created equal. Not every item has the same elements to it. An item might not have any dialogue... or, ideally, technical errors. A structured review might therefore have one or more sections to it that aren't applicable at all, leaving you to either leave them blank, or delete them out of the structured review.
Can feel overly formal and impersonal. Like any form or template, structured reviews run the risk of feeling generic. Especially if you're reviewing multiple items in a short period of time, the act of reviewing can become repetitive, where you're just filling out the same responses over and over again.
CONS OF FREE-FORM REVIEWS
Potential for disorganization. Without any structure to a review, it can appear disorganized or disjointed, depending on the reviewer. Without specific categories or sections for discussion, you're on your own as far as putting together a cohesive review. If you're naturally an organized individual, this may not be an issue, but if you tend to write as inspiration strikes, you run the risk of having a disorganized review that, for example, might address dialogue, then transition to structure, then goes back to dialogue, then talks about character...
Difficult to reference. When looking back on a free-form review, it can be difficult to find specific pieces of information. While structured reviews have headings and categories that can be easily located, free-form reviews may or may not be broken up into specific sections, which can make locating specific bits of information (or gathering all of the information about a specific element of the item) tough to do.
Ultimately, good reviewing is about effectively communicating what works and what doesn't work about a particular item. The whole point is to give the author of a work meaningful feedback (which they can use or not use as they see fit), that you - the reviewer - believes will improve the item and make it even better. The most effective way to do that is to present the content of your review in an easy-to-reference format. Some people prefer structured reviews that break down the feedback into small, more manageable categories; others prefer to just write whatever strikes them while they read and consider an item. Use whichever method works best for you, as long as your review is presented clearly and effectively.