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.
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!
- Guest Post: Write Yourself a Bad Review (artistsroad.wordpress.com)
- Breathe Life Into Your Writing! Part IVb: Dialogue (sundancepress.wordpress.com)
- Step 4 of the Kerrigan method of ‘Writing to the Point’ – FUNCTION OF A PARAGRAPH (costofcollege.wordpress.com)