How the skilled reviewer evaluates a short story or poem to provide optimum feedback
Guide to the Well-Balanced Review
A skilled reviewer understands the foundations upon which a positive, critical review is built. But why should a writer strive to be a skilled reviewer?
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. And 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. When a review is well-balanced, informed and encouraging, everybody wins!
This article will explain some of the elements of short story and poetry writing which a skilled reviewer evaluates when reading a story or poem for review. Let’s begin our discussion by defining the Well-Balanced Review.
The Well-Balanced Review
A story or poem on Writing.com (WDC) that receives a 5-star rating is, in the eyes of that reviewer, technically sound, error-free, and ready to submit for publication. The reality is this: The majority of items posted on WDC are not 5-star quality. Therefore, a Well-Balanced Review is one that accompanies a rating of 4.5 stars or less, which communicates that story’s (or poem’s) strengths AND weaknesses in a way that justifies the rating it is receiving.
The Language and Tone of a Well-Balanced Review
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, insightful and encouraging, instead of insulting and disrespectful. Remember that the writer is proud of his/her work, and that it is difficult to recognize faults in one’s own writing. Never use judgmental language in a review. Avoid making insensitive remarks, such as, “I didn’t like this boring story.”
But what if you really didn’t like a boring story?
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. It’s best to discuss, for example, where the pacing slowed down or a character did something that rang untrue. The key to reviewing success is wording your negative comments in 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
Some important elements on which you, the skilled reviewer, can focus a critical eye when evaluating a short story are:
Characters – As you read, identify the roles each character plays in the story (Protagonist, Antagonist, Side-line Characters, etc.) What makes each character tick? What are their conflicts? Then, provide feedback to the author on the strength and believability of the characters’ portrayals.
To learn more about character types, click here:Seven Common Character Types, by Terry W. Ervin II
Characterization: Ask yourself how well the characters are described. In a review, point out weak characterization, when for example an author leans too heavily on physical descriptions, or when an author tells, rather than shows, the reader what emotions the characters are experiencing. However, praise an author’s use of varied characterization techniques which bring the characters to life, including ‘Show, Don’t Tell” descriptions, vivid dialogue, actions, gestures and body language, and internal thoughts.
To learn more about ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ characterization, click here:T is for 'Telling' Truth, by Barbara Dawson Smith
Point-of-View (POV) Narration: Determine through whose eyes the reader “sees” the story playing out. The character whose perceptions the story filters through 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.
To learn more about POV narratives, click here: Voice and Point of View, by Karen Miller
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. Plot begins to unfold with an initial situation or conflict. Comment on any logic problems you notice in the plot. Also mention if a short story lacks a beginning, middle or end, or fails to answer the story’s questions: What? Why? And how?
Beginning and Endings: The most successful short story beginnings hook the reader through action, descriptive language, or an intriguing statement that draws the reader 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. Discussing the strengths of each can provide valuable 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, in order 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.
To learn more about Plot and Pace, click here: The basic Plot Elements of a Short Story, by Jael Kingston
Punctuation/Spelling/Grammar: Although a reviewer should not take on the burden of a story's line-by-line edits, it is important to be knowledgeable in: comma and semi-colon usage, punctuation and capitalization in and around dialogue, and verb tenses.
To refresh your understanding of grammatical rules, visit this fantastic website:The Perdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) – In the site's search engine use keywords such as comma, quotation marks, etc.
Evaluating the Elements of Poetry
Technical aspects of poetry can also be broken down into many categories. It's important to identify whether the poem you are reading and reviewing is free form or structured. Here are some of the most important things to evaluate:
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 within the constraints of specific guidelines with regard to syllabic count, rhyme scheme, meter, or number of lines or stanzas. Vocabulary that will help you evaluate these elements are:
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, or pattern, was used. For example, do lines 1 and 3, and 2 and 4 rhyme (A-B-A-B)? Or lines 1 and 2, and 3 and 4 (A-A-B-B)? Does the rhyme scheme repeat in every stanza? Are the rhymes “true” (cats/bats) or “slant” (cats/bask)?
More about Rhyme Schemes here.
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 ‘feet’ allowed per line; in other words, by its Meter.
In English poetry, (Sonnets are an example), a metric foot is called an iamb. An iambic foot consists of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. The rhythm of one iamb sounds like this:
A line of iambic pentameter consists of five iambic feet in a row:
da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM
To illustrate iambic pentameter (5 metric feet), consider the following line:
1 2 3 4 5
Shall I..|..comPARE..|..thee TO..|..a SUM..|..mer’s DAY?
More on Meter here: Meter in Poetry and Verse -- A Study Guide
Number of Lines or Stanzas – As you are reading a poem, notice if the poet disclosed in which poetic form the piece was written. For example, if it is a Sonnet, 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). Another example of poetry constrained by its number of lines is the Minute Poem, which must have exactly twelve lines arranged into three (quatrain) stanzas.
To read about the guidelines of many forms of structured poetry, visit this amazing site:Shadow Poetry
I hope this article has shed some light on the importance of providing a Well-Balanced Review, that benefits both the author whose work is being critiqued and the skilled reviewer providing the feedback. We discussed how to identify an item’s strengths and weaknesses by evaluating the elements of the short story or poem. Remember, a skilled reviewer is one of WDC’s most valued assets! 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 profit from the experience!
The Review Tool organizes your reviews through the use of time-saving templates. Learn how to get started with this simple to follow lesson: