Writing Reviews [part 2]: Tips & Examples

Transform your inner reviewing kitty from this…

A few weeks ago I explained how important it is to know the formula of writing a review – particularly when the review is to help other writers improve. This week I’m going to be a little more detailed and give a tip on how to style your review. Style is, of course, not quite as important as the formula and this post in no way explains the only method of reviewing.

Before I go into that, what do I mean when I say ‘style’ and ‘formula’?

Formula: A method of doing or treating something that relies on an established, uncontroversial model or approach.

Style: A quality of imagination and individuality expressed in one’s actions and tastes; A customary manner of presenting printed material, including usage, punctuation, spelling, typography, and arrangement.

Formula is a lot more ridged and you should really know what goes into writing a review. Style is less important but it does contribute to the overall effect. The method within this post is how I approach reviews. This is in no way the correct style but it’s useful to know about. Let me state that I’m no expert. I’m just a pleb with a pen like most other human beings. I just know some stuff. Japanese word of the day: 研究 (kenkyuu) = research.

Here we go:

This isn’t about you or me

The best way to distance yourself from the writer is make it clear you are focused on the text. How do you do that? Avoid the subjective personal pronoun ‘I’ as much as possible and, most definitely, the pronoun ‘you’. This will feel strange at first but the story is what is being discussed, not ‘you’ and not ‘me’. What this does is focuses our critical opinion and distances the author’s emotions – not entirely, of course, which is why you must still phrase yourself carefully.

Example: “This story has terrific flow and a strong, consistent, narrative voice. Susan is a believable old lady and her relationship to her daughter and her community is heart warming. The pace is well managed – a wonderful example of writing down thought and speech without making the scenario confusing, or inconsistent.

The only section that may need consideration…”

As you can see, I’ve managed to talk about some of the key strong points and I’m about to discuss its potential weaknesses. At no point was it necessary to say ‘I think you didn’t do this well’ or ‘I think the dialogue is strong’.

The dialogue is strong, it is consistent and the pace is well managed. Learn to recognise the talents and pit-falls of a piece of writing and make concise statements about them. That said, it does take practice to recognise universal strengths and weaknesses of a piece and not what is your opinion (but you’re reading this post so I’m guessing you intend to exercise your reviewing ability). What do I mean by this? When you notice the factors of a story that make it awesome or shite, you think, I’m quite certain everyone thinks the dialogue is amazing and not just me. This would make it a universal strength and ‘not just your opinion’.

The screenwriter Danny Stack is in love with this method of critiquing and I’m going to quote him so you can see how I agree and disagree with his approach:

There is no ‘I’ in ‘Reader’ so avoid phrases like: “I don’t think this works” or “I laughed out loud” because the coverage shouldn’t bring attention to the reader, it should be wholly focused on the script. Your comments represent what you think so there’s no need for any first person narrative. Some comments like, “in this reader’s opinion”, are okay because it helps to qualify the balance of critique being offered. Also, don’t try to be too funny, jokey, glib or dismissive. This doesn’t help anyone.” page 8

Stack’s approach to reviewing is intended for the eyes of an executive and not for the writer, but he does justly say that a review should be wholly focused on the script/novel/extract, not the reader or writer.

Sometimes it is just you

It’s not likely that you, reader of this blog, are writing a review for a film director or agent – you’re writing a review to help an author improve. In this case, it’s not always possible to omit yourself from a review. You are just one person, after all, and how you respond to a piece – though valid – might not be universal. When this happens it’s necessary to fall back on the SPP ‘I’. This usually happens when you find something about a story that’s confusing, vague, offensive, potentially unnatural or you just aren’t familiar with the genre rules.

Example: “There was also a swap in tense that didn’t help, which is: ‘says’ instead of ‘said’. I understand this was deliberate but (and it may just be me) it didn’t quite sit right. I just thought I should point it out in case it proves jarring for someone else, too.”

As you can see, I made it clear to the author that I’m not condemning them for their choice, nor have I phrased myself as if my opinion is certain. Many other people might disagree with me, and the majority rules, but I felt it was important to bring this use of tense to the author’s attention. Now, if I’m the only one who ever says this line is problematic, the author will know it’s just me and can easily dismiss my opinion, or vice-versa.

Bad Example: “There was also a swap in tense that didn’t help. I found it confusing because I don’t think it feels right, even if it was a deliberate choice.”

Can you see how, if read with the wrong intonation, that second sentence can be misread to sound condemning or absolute?

Always think about what is your opinion and what is clearly bad or beautiful writing.

What to look for

Sometimes after reading an extract, the reader can think: “Man, what am I going to say and where do I begin?” But this is where knowing the basic structure of a review is a valuable tool of reference. This also depends on how in-depth you’re willing to go. Obviously, the more thorough you are the longer it will take. This is why editors (or at least freelance editors) get paid so much. It takes time. For the rest of this section I’ll be quoting Stack almost verbatim.

A safe starting place is CONCEPT: is the idea any good? Is it commercially appealing or more intellectual and discerning? Or is it just a shameless rip off of a million genre flicks before it? Or does it bring something new to the table? Is it genre?

PLOT: Does it make sense? Is it convincing and/or original? Too predictable maybe. Jumbled?

STRUCTURE: is there a basic understanding of craft on display? Is it a join the dot three-act-structure or does it contain a solid and reliable framework to tell its story? However, the reader shouldn’t get bogged down with restructuring tips because it’s not a full-throttle editing exercise. You’re a reviewer, remember that even if the line is blurred.

CHARACTERS: Are the central and minor characters believable, original, compelling, inspiring, colourful, loathsome, boring etc? Decent character development or emotional journey for the protagonist? Effective use of subplot with the supporting character?

DIALOGUE: Distinctive, realistic, off-the-wall, on-the-nose, funny, dull, plain, quirks, true to each character?

TONE: Does the writer have an original voice; is the tone of the story consistent to the genre etc?

PACE: Pace, rhythm, tempo. Scenes start too soon, too late? Cut too soon, too late? Boring segments with little dramatic impact or importance? Where does the pace flag? What’s its overall effectiveness?

SETTING: It is important to the story – does it make a valid and visual contribution to the characters and plot? Does it effectively build a fictional world and hold it up?

Not all of the points above need to be addressed in a casual review but if you’re feeling lost on what to talk about, these are the key factors.

Final Example

I don’t write perfect reviews myself, I just know what makes a good review. A useful review. Here is my final example, a review I wrote for the opening chapters of The Power Inflicted by Sam Kearns. I now hope you have all the basic tools you need to write good reviews as well. Hooray!

There is nothing fundamentally broken about The Power Inflicted to point out! This is very typical of the Epic Fantasy section and is lavished with beautiful descriptions. The metaphors and imagery used throughout are vivid; I could almost feel the mud of the mangroves.

Saying this, there are some sentences that try too hard to be descriptive. As an example: “He would test his endurance and his agility in the clustered jungle at the centre of the islands where the foliage was thickest”. It might be better to cut out ‘in the clustered jungle’ as it goes on to say ‘where the foliage was thickest’, which imply the same thing. Aside from these few clustered sentences, the rest of the narration flows wonderfully and has maintained being descriptive without over-saturating the reader.

The dialogue may also need a little consideration. It’s so very close to sounding natural but not quite there yet. A few exchanges between Tantha and Parus felt staged, like an anime. These are few but it might be an idea to read out the dialogue with a friend.

My final note is something that personally bothered me. There’s a lot of standing on the cusp, lips and tide of the sea. It’s a beautiful scene, a beautiful beach, beautiful descriptions – I can feel the water tickling my toes and smell the salt air – you don’t need to keep reminding the reader that Tantha and Parus are stood by the water’s edge. It was by this point (example coming) that I didn’t want to see the sea’s edge mentioned again: “Parus clasped her arm as they stood on the cusp of the sea and stared in wonder.” It might just be me who was irked by the one repetitive imagery, however, which is why it’s a personal add-on.

As you can see, these aren’t major problems. The pieces IS fairly typical of the genre and might need work to stand out amidst other Epic Fantasy novels, but it’s an enjoyable read. You write with vivid flourish. 🙂 ”

You can read the opening chapters of The Power Inflicted by Sam Kearns [here] Thank you Sam for letting me use this review!

Script Reading in the UK: The Complete Guide by Danny Stack [see his blog here] or [download the chapters here]

…to this! Clever cat indeed.

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Striking a Pose (Women and Fantasy Covers) via. Jim Haines

Willow: I don’t have time to write my follow up post on reviews until the weekend but in the meantime, I wanted to share with you Jim Haines post about the use of women on fantasy covers. It’s incredibly amusing but highlights how women are posed to give the illusion of strength and courage.

Striking a Pose (Women and Fantasy Covers)

A while back, we had a discussion on the blog about the cover art for my princess novels. For the most part, I really like these covers, but they’re not perfect.

Now I could talk about the way women are posed in cover art … or I could show you. I opted for the latter, in part because it helped me to understand it better. I expected posing like Danielle to feel a little weird and unnatural. I did not expect immediate, physical pain from trying (rather unsuccessfully) to do the hip thing she’s got going on.

I recruited my wife to take the pictures, which she kindly did with a minimum of laughter.

Being me, I naturally couldn’t stop there. I headed over to Amazon and grabbed a sampling of book covers, primarily urban fantasy, and spent the evening doing a photoshoot. Click on if you want to see the results (or if you just really want to see a shot of topless Jim).

// For your amusement and food for thought, follow the link to see more: http://www.jimchines.com/2012/01/striking-a-pose/

How to write critical reviews; a skill every writer should learn.

NOTE: There is a hyphen between every paragraph because wordpress keeps trying to delete the breaks. Sorry!

I recently joined a site designed to help writers improve. It works on the basis that for every review you give, you get one in return. The more popular your work gets the higher up ‘the list’ it goes until a publishing company reads it. Rather professional sounding, wouldn’t you say?

It worries me (and in some cases infuriates me) how unprofessional some of the members of this site can be when writing reviews for other people. Bare in mind, these are not newspaper reviews, these are the type of reviews intended to help people become stronger writers. Aforementioned members seem to have no clue about how to write a review. By all means, they know what they’re talking about but not how to phrase themselves. I don’t care how many pieces of work you’ve had to trawl through, your professionalism should not slip and no one is unworthy of your time.

Below I have written the Dos and Don’ts of writing a critical review and, in the same vein, how to receive reviews. If you are a writer this is an important skill.

So, yes. These are things (listed in what I feel is the order of importance) that have bothered or offended me, but I hope I’ve made strong and valid points that you can take away from this post. 🙂

Let’s begin…

Writing Reviews and Giving Criticism

  1. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it
    As a reviewer, you are reading someone’s work to help them, not to assert your authority or flash your experience. Let me say that again. You are reading someone else’s work to help them improve. This does not mean you are entitled to the author’s gratitude and it does not mean that your opinion holds water. Your opinion is your opinion, it is not necessarily correct and when you give your opinion be diplomatic. Don’t force it down someone’s throat – this is a good rule for life, too. There is a difference between your opinion being correct and your opinion being valued; informative.

    This means think before you speak. It’s all well and good pointing out the flaws of a piece of writing but delivery is key. Speak honestly but kindly. Phrases like: “Your descriptive prose sacrifices clarity for a stylised approach which I am charitably assuming is intentional” are not kind. The point ‘your prose lack clarity’ is a valid opinion and a very useful one for the author to note down. The delivery, however, is full of snobbery and gives an impression of disgust. ‘I am charitably assuming’. You are not being charitable. The author is not to be pitied or looked down upon.

    This attitude is what makes writers look like snobbish, elite and self-indulgent twats. So you’ve been published six years, had marvellous reviews throughout your career and have met Lady Pembury, have you? That’s nice. Did you leave your manners at the writing desk, too? Nine times out of ten, no one made you read the text. Even editors in the publishing industry can read the first page, the first chapter, and then decide the rest isn’t worth their time. You should never try to make the author feel grateful that you took the time to read their terribly unpolished work and then took the time to write a review as well. Who do you think you are?

    Part of this is down to the internet (where we shall assume you give your reviews), that screen blocking you from face-to-face interaction. Your intonation does not travel well through text. You have to remember: one sentence can be read in many different ways and with many different inflections. Be clear when you phrase something. What sounds friendly or funny in your head may not translate on the page. Also, this is the internet 😀 If you just can’t make something sound as nice as you intend put a bloody emote. It won’t offend the other person, just don’t abuse emotes to the point they litter the review. Make an effort before resorting to an emote.

    Delivery is one of the most important things to remember when writing a review. Even the most hardened of writers can be stung by pompous or snide remarks. It makes them feel resentful for trusting you to be professional.

  2. Honesty is the best policy
    Always be honest. This does not mean you are allowed to say, ‘this is shit’ – please see the section above. Lying to the author gets them no where. This can be particularly tough if you aren’t used to editing your friend’s work. If you are editing for a friend, though, you are under even more obligation to be honest. You are a safe person, your friend trusts you and they will be grateful that you pointed out their ‘baby’s’ flaws before the big bad world got their hands on it, so don’t panic if the plot-holes outweigh the gems. Being thorough is extremely helpful.

    Unfortunately, if a writer cannot handle criticism (criticism, not rudeness) then they are probably not meant to be a writer. The problems with any Meisterwerk won’t go away unless someone points them out and it’s up to the author to take on board what we, as the reviewer, say. But whether they do or not – that’s a different matter all together. Remember: you’re being honest, and this honesty is based upon your opinion. The author doesn’t have to bow down to what you think should be changed.
  3. Don’t just seek out its flaws
    A review should consist of the bad and the positive. If I were to focus on everything wrong with your personality, rip it to shreds, hold these things in front of you and then say goodbye, it’s very probable that you would want to give up on being ‘you’. I know, you’re critiquing the work and not the person and the author especially needs to remember this. But if you focus on only the negatives of someone’s work it’s very likely they will feel like a failure and never want to write again. They will, of course, get over it if they’re passionate enough, but still. They’re a writer – you’re probably a writer – this is what you both love! What did you enjoy? What did they do well? And don’t just say, ‘Joey is a nice character’, give the author a little satisfaction.

    What’s nice about the character? How did that really good scene make you feel? Did a particular description flare vividly in your imagination? If there are only negative remarks in your review the author may come to the conclusion that the whole thing is shit. This doesn’t mean you have to spend paragraphs praising them on what you think they did right, it means you have to give the writer hope. They should feel eager to improve their work come the end of a critical review. Always end on a positive, if you can. If the Meisterwerk was blatantly written by a monkey with a paintbrush stuck up his nose and purple dribble for ink, well… Just be nice. It still has feelings.
  4. Make an effort
    You took the time to read it. Brilliant, thank you! You made notes on things that need improving. Even better! Oh, wait, why have you dumped your initial, unedited thoughts on the page and not made transitions between each of you brief points? You just copy pasted your notes, didn’t you? This is not particularly helpful. It’s about as helpful as writing an instruction sheet on how to build a 34 piece Christmas tree. If you’re going to write a review go the whole ten yards and be helpful, be detailed. Give some suggestions, examples and explain why something did or did not work.

    OK, so maybe you didn’t enjoy what you read and maybe it really was stressful to read, but if you’re going to write a review at least put some effort in. Reading it was effort! I hear you cry with weary rage. Oh, was it? I’m sorry to hear that. Please, I really want to know what you didn’t enjoy and why it was stressful. May you help me by explaining what was wrong? Perhaps tell me tomorrow when you’ve had a break and time to think about it.

    Thank you, I really mean it. From, the author.

Receiving Criticism

  1. Some people are just douches
    This will never justify being spoken to like an imbecile or treated like a turd, but some people just don’t know how to be nice and have a pole wedged firmly up their arse. Don’t let these people get you down. This can be extremely hard, I know. Maybe I wrote the worst heap of words since P.C. Cast and her daughter Kristen Cast, but why did some reviewer have to treat me like cretin unworthy of their time? They didn’t have to treat me that way. They didn’t even have to say they detested my story, but for whatever reason they are a bitter person and felt they had a right to speak unprofessionally to me.

    Find a close friend who understands your plight, share your woes and then get over it.
  2. Don’t lash out, that’s just immature
    Someone just took the time to write you a review. You read it. Overall, they didn’t like it and their negative points outweigh the positive. Don’t you dare throw a tantrum and tell them they are wrong to have such a negative opinion of your work.

    “I think you’ll find everyone else likes my work! It’s had 5 star reviews. Yours is the worst review I’ve ever had. Please don’t ever read any of my work again.” I have received something like this almost verbatim. I was shocked. I had tried my best to be as honest and friendly as possible, which was hard because zes story was incredibly racist. You want help, don’t you? You want to improve as a writer? You won’t improve if all you ever hear is half-hearted reviews praising your work.

    Do not take a review personally. Take a deep breath and reread it later after the initial sting has worn off.

    Is the reviewer fair to you? Have they been thoughtful and explained as much as possible why they feel something didn’t work? Have they tried to point out the positive things? This is a good review. They have been honest with you and tried hard to make you understand what might be wrong.

    On the other side of the coin, have they been snide? Unhelpful? Made remarks that really hit you in the gut? Then you have every right to feel hurt, but don’t lash out. You will only look like a fool and more of an asshole than the person who wrote your review. It is horribly hard (honestly, I know) but if you HAVE to say something, say ‘thank you for reading my work’.

This post is already long enough. Next week I’ll share examples of how to write reviews and tips on how to distance yourself from the author.

I sincerely hope this has been helpful. Now I need a mug of tea. Mitch Allan, where are you?!