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The Paradoxes of Reviewing

"Reviewing" means different things to different people. Today, I'm going to confine my essay to 'reviewing static items on Writing Dot Com'. Static items include stories, poems, essays and the like. Over the years, I have enjoyed reading and reviewing others' items. I have also received constructive feedback for my own items, which has helped me grow tremendously as a writer. This has made me think about reviewing itself, and I'd like to tell you how I've found reviewing to be a series of paradoxes.

The first thing to hit me when I review is the look of the item. Physically, how it appears. Is it in the default font, default size and default line-spacing? If so, maybe it could have been easier on the reader's eye had the writer taken a bit of time to choose these with some WritingML, instead of letting the default ones be. However, once I get past that, it's likely I'll find a brilliant story or essay and get so carried away with the content -- the characters, the plot, the setting and the insights I gain from the author -- that the look of the piece no longer bothers me. So in my review, should I mention (harp on!) the look, which might put other readers off, or should I let it be? How do I balance the two? That's the first paradox -- review content, review presentation, review a combination of both, and how to find the balance? Then, once I've decided that, I have to decide how objective or subjective to be about the content. Should my personal biases come in? I hate cuss words for example -- but should I give a piece a lower rating because the characters cuss? Being personally biased against cuss words, how do I find the objectivity to decide whether the author has put them in for effect, or whether the characters really need to utter them?

Which brings me to my next paradox. I write myself. So, I'll be responding to the piece in two ways -- as a reader and as a writer. Which hat do I wear while reviewing it, the hat of the audience, or the hat of someone who knows the behind-the-scenes goings on? Do I say: "Oh, this piece made me tingle with joy" or do I say, "If you were to stop the second paragraph before she utters the dialogue, the reader's imagination can fill in what she says more effectively than anything you could actually put down." ... ? If I review as a writer, am I honing someone else's craft, or am I, in fact, hindering them in expressing themselves? I have received reviews by writers who have done precisely what my example says, and I have been grateful to them for the help they have given me. On the other hand, when suggesting something like that in a review I hesitate ... am I being too dictatorial?

The third decision I have to make is about what the writer wants to hear. Now, I don't mean I'm going to gush a bout a piece that didn't interest me just because the writer wants me to praise it. What I'm saying is -- if I'm reviewing 'cold', how do I know what the writer wants reviewed? For example, there are times when I've entered the official WdC contest, which puts a lot of emphasis on spelling and grammar. Last month, I asked a friend to review my final edit of the story a couple of days before the submission deadline. I specifically told her that I wanted only spelling and grammar to be reviewed for accuracy, and nothing else. It was too late to make changes in the plot or the characterisation or anything else. She read the piece from only that perspective and gave me her feedback. On the other hand, early on in the month, when reviewers reviewed the same story, they asked questions about the character's physical appearance and other things, and having the time and the word-length (and the inclination to accept the suggestion!) I incorporated those in the story. So -- how do I, as a reviewer, know where the writer is, in the story, and to what depth I should go in my review? Should I be attempting to second guess this at all? If I do, am I cheating myself as a reviewer? If I don't,, and the writer doesn't want those suggestions, am I wasting time reviewing? Which brings me to the paradox -- is reviewing for the reviewed, or for the reviewer, or for both of them?

To conclude, I'll say that through all its wonderful paradoxes, reviewing is one of the most enriching activities you can do on Writing Dot Com. I've grown (and groan!) as a writer and reader, and made some great friends through the exchange of reviews. If you're already reviewing, review on! If not, start now!

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