Some thoughts on reviews in peer review groups.
There is no right way or wrong way to write an in-depth review.
The goal of this article is not to give a list of obligatory or forbidden elements of a review. One of the purposes of a peer review group is to provide us, as authors, with multiple perspectives on our fiction. In turn, when we review something, we will bring our own individualized styles, values, and expectations to a work. It is in this stew of diversity that we thrive as authors and improve our craft.
Still, we all know there are some reviews that are more helpful than others. Partly, it's that some reviews are more informed. They can be from authors who are more experienced, or have studied craft more deeply, or teach us something new. But there's more than just the specific content of a critique that makes it helpful. The purpose of a review is to communicate. A review can have brilliant content, but if the if its delivery obscures the message, it's useless, or at least the utility is debased.
What I'd like to address in this essay, therefore, are some things that make an in-depth review helpful communication.
The most important single thing, from which all else flows, is respect. As with any piece of art, a work of fiction is an act of courage. It exposes a slice of the author's soul to the world. That act, those words on the page and the person who put them there, deserve our respect.
Writing fiction is deeply personal. Respectful reviews are careful to separate the fiction--the words on the page--from the author. Tone matters. Email famously has no tone, and reviews often fall in the same category. But we're all striving to be authors. We should use our craft to create reviews that are not hurtful but are still helpful.
Respect means reinforcing and praising the things the author has done well. It means understanding the author's artistic goals. It means finding specific ways to help the author achieve those goals. It means being honest. It means being specific. Sometimes it means digging into the nuts-and-bolts of the sentences and paragraphs. Sometimes it means delving into the psychology and motivation of the characters. It could involve a discussion of the interaction between setting, character, plot, and pacing.
Respect could be many things.
Reviews that gush about how fantastic a work is or that snipe about how much it sucks are equally unhelpful. If it's "fantastic," it's because character, setting, plot, hook, tension, theme, psychology, sociology, prose, cadence--everything!--work together to create a holistic work of art. If it's fantastic, you've got plenty of ways to illustrate with specifics. If the work fails in some or even all of these areas, it still doesn't "suck." It just could be better. That's respecting the works and the authors, who have taken a huge risk exposing themselves to the world.
In an author critique group, we are reviewing with a purpose in mind. Our primary goal is to help our fellow authors achieve their artistic goals and, ultimately, be published. It requires that we think critically and deeply about the author's artistic goals, as revealed in the words before us. It requires that we reason through how those goals interact with creating a story that will engage readers and ultimately sell books. We do this not merely because we'll get reviews in return. We do this because we become better writers by critiquing other authors. We are acquiring a skill, that of critical reading. This whole process of thinking things through, reasoning what works and what doesn't in the context of varied artistic goals, helps us craft better stories.
Of course, there is also an element of trust in sharing and reviewing. For this reason, everyone should respect the group's confidentiality rules. ▼
Each of us has a different perspective on what matters in crafting fiction. Each work of fiction makes unique demands on the reader and, most especially, on someone writing an in-depth critique. For this reason, there is no compendium of topics that "must" be included in every review, nor is there a list of things to "never" include. I do use a template to help structure my reviews, but I often deviate from it. Each work of fiction is different. Each reviewer is different. Respect those differences and you'll give and receive more helpful reviews.