How do I assess people's work when reviewing?
|There are two kinds of reviews I do. There are the ones where I simply try and encourage an author, especially newbies, which usually involves giving more stars than the piece was worth and then there are the authentic reviews. If you received a low mark from me it was probably because I was taking you seriously and giving you an authentic review and in that case, the below applies. If you are a serious author and received a high mark it was probably because you deserved it. My training and experience are about taking people apart and no one intimidates me. But while it is easy to do that it is not a productive use of time and so I prefer to bless rather than to judge. Of course, blessing someone can still have a little bite to it. |
The below is about my authentic reviewing style which I only apply on request or with authors whom I think can handle it. Also sometimes I simply hate a piece of work but I will tell you why in my review.
This was written after receiving a particularly low mark in a WDC Contest. I reviewed the reviewer's own rating philosophy agreeing with him that rating inflation was a problem on this site and that I needed to lower my ratings. I also wanted to review what people looked at when reviewing my own work. In the interest of fairness and consistency, it seemed important to write down a coherent strategy and system for reviews which I will try and keep to as of October 2021. A major adjustment was made in November 2022 after receiving a comprehensive review of this document from another writer. This is detailed in the last section.
WHY REVIEW AT ALL?
1) Reviewing should help others. So if you give a low mark, say why and make it helpful.
2) Reviewing helps us grow also. We can learn from other people's stories and the mistakes they make. Reviewing helps us to see our own writing flaws more clearly also.
3) To promote the good, beautiful, pure, noble, and true. Nobility is something I have often neglected in favor of authenticity but I increasingly believe that inappropriate sexual scenes and foul language for example can discredit a writer's art and that a capacity for honor and respect makes for powerful characters. Goodness and purity are religious conceptions that require a foundational faith in God to fully justify and explain though there are unhinged examples of these in the lives of people who lack a connection to the Divine. Beauty and truth are explored more fully below.
STRUCTURE OF MY REVIEW (Marking)
1) Why am I reviewing your piece, where did I find it?
2) My summary of what I think you are saying.
3) Commentary on the content and characters of your piece. An assessment of the truth, beauty, and quality of what you said.
My personal reactions to this content. ()
4) Mechanics ()
So a perfectly written piece with drivel for content will get a two. Edifying, realistic, and high-quality content with too many mistakes will get three stars.
i) CONTENT AND CHARACTERS
Some pieces are content-focused and others character-focused. These are two different styles that require two different approaches. I weigh content and characters more highly than mechanics, but you can still lose two stars for a poorly written piece. To see how I view characters follow the link below:
How do I assess content? I have three main criteria. Is it real? Is it high quality? Does it elicit a personal reaction in me?
A) Truth and Beauty
In a morally relativistic age which tends to regard all truth claims as subjective, this criteria can be controversial but there is a thing called truth and there are definite methods to establish the authenticity of a piece. Similarly, people have diverse definitions of beauty but most people recognize it when they see it. For me truth and beauty are intertwined in the same perspective on reality, I have four main methods for assessing authenticity and beauty:
1) Christian theological. I take a broad view of Christianity that affirms scripture and most of the decisions of the first four church councils with the resulting credal declarations. I also accept that people of other religions, no religion, and indeed Christian heretics often have an overlap with the truth in regard to spiritual and moral matters. I have read the Quran three times and Hindu and Buddhist works also and taught the six major religions for a season but regard the focus of truth to be in the Christian faith positions. There is something incredibly beautiful about the Divine and to the extent that God is revealed in a piece of art, it may be beautiful or ugly. That said there are people of integrity who are atheists or people of what I would regard as false religions who seem to grasp truth and indeed beauty within the parameters they have set for their lives to the extent that they are a witness to these things. They may not connect to the real story or root of truth and beauty and yet have something powerful to say about it that I can respect and recognize.
2) Historical - primary sources, the credibility of historical testimony. I would add historical weight to this. Sun Tzu's Art of War for example is a remarkable work the advice contained within it has endured through millennia. Whether or not one man wrote it the wisdom in it is tested and has survived immense changes. It has the quality of truth because generations of people in diverse cultures have recognized this. The same goes for the strongest Christian traditions. If you look at pictures of women then you can see that standards of beauty have varied through the ages, also there are diverse approaches to what constitutes beauty per see in different cultures yet nonetheless certain statues and pictures and writings survive as a form of art that generations of people have affirmed as beautiful.
3) Scientific - Can it be established by the scientific method, is there a scientific rationale behind it that could possibly justify the storyline? Fact-checking is important in most stories. Beauty cannot really be defined scientifically but things like health, symmetry, fitness, strength, and range of function can be defined quantitatively and are factors contributing to beauty.
4) Experiential - I am not a kid, have lived, read, and traveled widely. The experiential is when a story passes the first three tests but still feels false. It might lack a human connection for instance. I have my own subjective appraisal of beauty also. It mystifies me why a friend is attracted to one kind of woman and me to another yet the difference is real enough. But experience can teach us to see beyond our own preferences and accept that a wider audience than ourselves can see more beauty in something than we ourselves can see. There are also ways in which our experiences can blind us as to what is in front of our faces. If we allow genuine human connections to occur with the art that we read and the people we meet we can overthrow illegitimate prejudices in our lives while reinforcing worthwhile convictions. The connection is key however, you cannot criticize someone you have not first attempted to 'love' and understand. Praying for your enemies gives all sorts of insights and broadens and deepens our own effectiveness as writers and indeed as people.
On occasions, metaphors can be used to describe complex truths. This is different from pure fantasy which has no metaphorical resonance, expansion on, or connection with literal-historical truth. I appreciated C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien's attempts to build parallel universes in which Christian truths were embedded and articulated in other-worldly realities. However, on reflection I consider them to have been monumental diversions into fantastical cul de sacs that left too many people stranded from the truth. They helped spawn an unmoored and implausible genre of literature that is in effect pure foolishness. So generally I try to avoid reviewing the Fantasy genre unless it echoes or gives insight into the real world.
The definition of quality is regarded by many as purely subjective and a matter of personal preference. However, there are objective ways we could assess a piece.
1) Impact - Its impact on others. Whatever people think about Shakespeare and Dickens for example these were impactful writers sharpening the trends of their age toward national identity in the case of Shakespeare and a social conscience in the case of Dickens. They articulated and affirmed the deepest sentiments of their age in a way that impacted lives. Today impacts might be defined in terms of book sales and the number of likes or followers on social media. But many of the most popular figures are quite shallow and inconsequential in their actual impacts. In fact, there may be a direct link between popularity and lack of real impact or imperative for change in most cases. So there is a difference between real impact and perceived impact.
2) Connectivity - Does it bring out the key issues of our age or personal experience? Does it provoke questions? Is it memorable to the point that we think about it long after we stopped reading? Does it reach into our souls and make us listen to what it has to say?
3) A Masterwork - Is this perfectly written - This connects to the mechanic's section below but is not entirely dependent on it. I have read stories that had no grammar errors and obeyed all the rules which sounded flat and robotic. The difference between a poet and an AI is clear but hard to define. True writers connect us to the heartbeat of the characters and place us directly in the locations they reveal. We feel with them, bleed with them, and even breathe with them as we read their works.
C) Emotional Reaction
At the end of the day, there is a personal preference. Some you like and some you do not. Some make you feel and some leave you dead and detached. Every writer has to get used to rejection and the reasons for this are often as subjective as the particular person who read your piece just did not get it, or was having a bad day or you used words or themes that triggered a negative reaction. Even worse than getting a negative review is getting no review at all. The absence of feedback gives you nothing to work with and no room for improvement. For example, you may think you are writing a hero story where the man rescues the woman and then you get a reaction from a woman who has perhaps been abused by forceful men along the lines of did the woman even want to be rescued and where did she give her consent to this? This criteria of assessment can seem totally unfair but if enough people react to your piece you do get a picture from this rejection of how far your words resonate with the typical reader who has engaged with your writing.
ii) MECHANICSClick to expand ▼
MAJOR CONTROVERSIES ABOUT REVIEWING
1) Should a story mean something?
Should it hint at, affirm or demonstrate values? Not all moments captured in literature can readily be integrated into some kind of overarching meta-narrative, nor should they be. But when something is clearly designed as an attack on truth then it is a different beast.
2) Tell versus show.
As a preacher, I have a message to tell and work at making that compelling for actual real-live congregations. Sometimes the show versus tell brigade sounds like they have nothing clear to say and are suggesting that the Omniscient Narrator does not exist. This kind of moral relativism must be rejected. That said even good preaching requires anecdotes to connect to people and to show them the meaning of what is being said. The God I believe in generally explained Himself to mankind by demonstrating what he meant in history. The abstract interpretation of what He did came later. A novel that preaches could sound more like a textbook or be a little boring and you need to hook your reader in by pulling them into the narrative where they can do their own thinking and where the actions of your characters speak louder than words. In practice therefore a balance between the two is required with more show than tell in longer works especially. As with real life, actions reveal the real character of a person more effectively than their words do.
3) Personal preference and Objectivity.
This was partly covered in the Content section above. For those who have no religious moorings the question of theological truth is an open one. I have been dismayed to find even some Christians are free-floating on many theological issues where definite answers have already been agreed on by the church. But historical and scientific argumentation can lead to more definite conclusions for all readers and somebody who has lived or heavily researched something is generally better equipped to talk about that.
4) The balance between technical skill in writing and the content of what is being said
So for example, if someone writes a beautiful piece glorifying pedophilia do you publish it? If someone writes a piece glorifying demons or Satan is that worthwhile literature?
5) "I am not a Christian, so why do you apply a Christian perspective to my writings?"
We all argue from definite positions even if sometimes these are entirely confused. The difference here is that I am being very clear on what my perspective is. Since much of modern literature stresses the importance of POV this should hardly be an issue. There is an 'objective' spiritual and moral perspective. It is just saying that rubs against the grain of the moral relativism of the modern Western world. People in the West forget that most of the world has much more certainty on the big questions than many of them and Westerners often think that to argue from a definite position is non-inclusive and antagonistic. In response, I would suggest that this is how the world is and that it is not Christians that are creating conflicts by suggesting definite convictions but rather those that disagree with them. Mutual respect without relativism is more honest than suggesting nothing is ultimately true and that we are all just stabbing in the dark. I believe that ultimate accountability is to the Christian God. Showing that I have misunderstood the Christian perspective is another thing and critiques of that sort are of course entirely welcome.
RESPONSE TO REVIEWs:
REVIEW BY Lone Cypress Workshop November 2022
I made some significant adjustments to the piece as a result of your comments on the following lines:
1) I have adjusted my weighting from mechanics to content such that content is now more important for a person's mark.
2) The assessment of truth claims is now complemented by a discussion of the beauty of something.
3) I changed the title- this is not philosophy per see it is a philosophy of rating and reviewing. By that I mean it gives me a structure and concept framework by which I can approach reviewing in a semi-coherent way.
4) The coercive aspect of truth claims as opposed to the persuasive aspect of them is an important point. Basically, a writer puts people's backs up by being coercive and brings them with him by being persuasive. I have tried to adjust my text accordingly.
5) I have tried to show more respect for people of diverse viewpoints without conceding to the view that there is no objective truth.
6) The points about the value of human connection have been reinforced as the writer's art really seeks to connect with its readers.
Our main differences:
In effect, you are arguing what is a morally relativistic and almost solipsist point of view. Everything is subjective and a matter of opinion and we share and connect with each other from diverse bubbles of consciousness that have different value systems. The best we can do is to tune our art to connect to those diverse bubbles, provoking emotional reactions in them.
Having studied religions quite widely it is very clear to me that there is a hierarchy of credibility with Christianity and Judaism at the top and then Atheistic views and Islam, then Hinduism, and the rest. There are lots of factors in this assessment that are articulated in my philosophy of reviewing.
Teaching and preaching can sound coercive to you because it implies that someone outside your bubble is telling you how to organize the furniture in your place or is wagging a finger at your decisions and claiming to know better than you, who is, after all, inhabiting the place that you call your own.
As a Christian, I think that your very design as someone made in God's image is the main reason for the resonance between human beings, and the possibility of connection springs from that and from a shared language. There are similarities and differences in the way you organize your world and mine. The similarities mean that teaching and preaching can resonate and help to restore the original blueprints of a person's existence in much the same way as lies and confusion can sabotage those blueprints making their lives less tenable, and reducing clarity and connection. Good preachers have power because they echo the Divine and because their connection with the Divine comes across in their connection to other human beings. There are monks who have the vertical connection and cannot talk to real people and there are atheists who are the most powerful of connectors on the human level who have nothing of the Divine worth sharing. Truth and beauty have a deeper foundation than situational ethics allows for.