Exercises, Reviews, Writing

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?!



6 thoughts on “How to write critical reviews; a skill every writer should learn.”

  1. Very nice post, Willow! I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who feels like reviews and crits should be written and received with professionalism.

    Thanks for linking to my related posts! If you’re interested, I also posted a series of posts a couple of months ago on Critiques. http://wp.me/p1w1MU-4y is the final post in the series, and links back to the previous ones.


    1. Thank you very much for saying so! I’m also glad to see I’m not the only one who feels this way.

      It’s my pleasure. I shall wave around as much information on this topic as I can, hopefully. Thank you for the link to more of your related posts, I will certainly check them out at a later date.

      Have a great day


  2. Hey – this was a really thoughtful post, and a good reminder for those of us currently doing reviews.

    I would agree that the most important thing to do (on both sides of the process) is to spend a few minutes away from the screen making a cup of tea, and remembering THIS IS NOT A WAR. At the end of the day all that happened was slight disappointment, either in the reader or the writer. No one threw a nuclear bomb.

    And, you know. Just treat people like you would in public. Or like they’re human (even the ones which could only be written by monkeys. And God there are a lot of those).


    1. Ah! I’m so glad. It seriously bogged me down and has put me off wanting to use the website. I’ll get back to it once my scripts are done but I felt it was important to point out the obvious; as the obvious has frequently been forgotten.

      THIS IS WAR. IT’S THE MOMENT OF TRUTH AND THE MOMENT TO LIE *continues to yell/sing*

      On a slightly more serious note, yes. You’ve highlighted some of the key points I hoped people would take from this.

      Thanks for you comment and see you soooooooon!


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