How To Give Good, Helpful Feedback

Reviewing is the backbone of fan fiction. I’ve talked before about how much I love reviews and ego-strokes so I won’t mention that again beyond this sentence. Promise. Instead, for this post I’m going to talk about how you can give someone else that awesome feeling by writing an AMAZING review.

There are three basic rules to reviewing and one bonus round rule. They are

  1.       Remember who you’re talking to
  2.       Be specific
  3.       Be constructive

And just for bonus points 4. Sandwich.

Not That Kind

So in order to do this in an orderly way I’m going to go through each of these points and explain firstly why they’re important and secondly how to incorporate them into your review

Rule 1: Remember who you’re talking to

Fan fiction authors aren’t professional writers (mostly). Often they’re hobbyists writing because they love their fandom. Quite a few of them are younger and are still learning their craft (more power to them) and ALL of them are choosing to spend their time writing something for your enjoyment.

I’m not saying that ANY of that excuses them if the story is not up to par but it does help to give some explanation as to why that may be. It also means that you should not criticise them in the same way you might criticise a published author who (presumably) should damn well know better.

Another point to note (and this is important so pay attention) is that the people who post fan fiction are human.

I know that there’s a temptation when you’re writing on the internet to let your inner bile-demon out to play. Because you can’t see beyond someone’s username there’s always the temptation to think of them as some kind of abstract entity rather than a living, breathing, feeling person exactly like you. Remember that old adage about treating others how you’d like to be treated? It’s a good rule of thumb to reread ANY review you write and question if you’d like to be on the receiving end of your cutting and insightful prose.

Rule 2: Be Specific

There is nothing less helpful and more frustrating than a vague criticism. ‘This could be better’ or ‘Some of it didn’t really make sense’ are about as helpful as… something really not helpful (The similes aren’t really working for me today). Hopefully, if the author has gone through the revision and editing process before publishing, they’ve released the best story they know how to release. If they thought a story could be better it would be. If they thought something didn’t make sense they would have rewrote it until it did.

Unfortunately, they don’t have the benefit of seeing things from your viewpoint. So you need to help them get there by being as specific as possible. However that requires a little effort from you.

If you came out of a story thinking it was garbage miraculously transformed into prose you need to stop and think why. Was it the story itself (content)? Or the way it was written (style)? Were the characters a little off (characterisation)? Were there many errors (mechanics)? Or was it something else? Whatever it is, the more specific you are the better (Even down to quoting the author to highlight whatever issue you’re talking about). An author can’t even hope to fix a problem if they can’t see it.

Rule 3: Be constructive

It’s one thing to specifically point out where a story doesn’t work and it’s quite another to go about fixing it. I know from my own experiences of editing my own work that simply highlighting a paragraph with either a note to ‘make it better’ or a comment on how lame it sounds leads to more than the average number of facepalms.Knowing something’s bad is one thing. It’s often quite another to work out how you’re going to go about fixing it. Once again, that is where you, the world-weary reviewer get to shine. Because you come from a different point of view than the author you’ve probably got ideas for the improvement that the author would never think of.

For example, if you believe that the story is sounding a bit too rushed (that is, there’s trouble with the pacing) you can suggest that perhaps the author could spend a bit more time on characterisation or flesh out the scenes a bit in order to stop the story from racing from plot point to plot point like it’s got a hungry cheetah running it down. Give the author something to work with and you’ll always be surprised at the results.

That said there is another incredibly important factor that you need to take note of while you review: Just because it’s not written the way you would write it does not make it wrong.

This is one that’s really difficult to get your head around. You may have noticed that I tend to write in a conversational but fairly straightforward style. I’m not one for descriptions and if there’s an efficient way to say something I’ll use it rather than wasting too many words. That doesn’t make people who are adept at writing long descriptive sentences wrong. It just means that they’re different and I have to curb the urge to rewrite things to be the way I would write them. The trick is, of course, to recognise when something needs to be fixed and when something’s just you being precious. It’s not a skill that can be taught— just something you need to work out for yourself.

Bonus Round: Sandwich

So great, you’ve worked out how to frame your review for your audience, how to highlight specific problems and how to suggest solutions. Good for you. I can almost guarantee you that any review with the format of ‘Here’s your problem and I have a solution if you’ll just listen to my brilliance’ is going to first be written off as a flame and then (if you’re unlucky) be replied to with an unloading of bile like you’ve never experienced. Why? You did everything right, didn’t you? You gave them the definition of constructive criticism.Guess what? People don’t like to be criticised. Even if they SAY they want to be criticised NO ONE likes it. Especially when you’re talking about their baby that they (hopefully) lovingly crafted and edited to perfection before sending out into the cruel world. ESPECIALLY when you criticise them with a valid point. ‘Your whole story sucks and you should probably go die in a ditch somewhere’ can be shrugged off as the rantings of a mad person mashing their keyboard with Dorito-stained fingers. ‘You have some issues with characterisation where character X confronts character Y in this scene. Character X seems to be working in complete contradiction to his stated motives with no apparent explanation. Is there a reason for this? Possibly adding in an explainer somewhere before this scene could help clear that up’ hurts in a special not immediately dismissible way. Piling these on top of each other will probably just hurt the author you’re only trying to help.

So what’s a well-meaning reviewer to do?

Sandwich that shit up, that’s what. The Sandwich technique works thus Praise, Criticism, Praise in a delicious sandwich of non-flamey joy. So let’s break down the technique and explain why in almost 100% of cases (there’s just no reasoning with some people) it leads to a positive response from the author whose story you just tore into shreds.

If only there was an expression to help explain that...

Praise
Start out of the gate with some praise. Work out what parts of the story you liked. Was it the characters? The idea behind the plot? The author’s style of writing? As many things as you can think of. This has a dual effect: telling the author what they did right and encouraging them to continue in the same vein and making them willing to listen to you. Sounds a bit manipulative (and it is) but people are willing to listen to you if you spend a bit of time stroking their egos. I could go into some psychological bullshit and group membership and crap but suffice to say that when you’re nice to people they start to think that you’re on their side and are willing to listen to your opinions more

Criticism
Apply all the techniques we talked about above. Remember, be specific, suggest solutions and remember that you’re talking to a human being who probably likes criticism as much as you do.

Praise
End on a high note. Assure the author that the issues you highlighted do not mean that you didn’t enjoy the story. Because if you didn’t enjoy the story my guess is that you wouldn’t have spent such a long time picking it apart. Reiterate the good points about it and ensure that the author has the understanding that they’re awesome and though their story has a few issues these are easily remedied and their story is indeed wonderful. This is the last part of your review they will read and is the part they will remember when it comes to the decision to either get angry at your review or accept that you may have a few good points. The placement of your criticism between two lumps of praise does wonders for softening the blow to the ego and helps authors who aren’t professionals and who are maybe only getting the gist of this ‘storycraft’ thing accept your criticism and incorporate it into their own writing.

Seems a bit simplistic, I know, but you’d be surprised how well the sandwich technique works, allowing you to be critical and nitpick while maintaining good relations with the author. Because if the author doesn’t like you they’re sure as hell not going to take your advice— no matter how good or pertinent it is.

Of course, if you’re going to follow these rules your review is going to be a little bit longer than normal. But what if you don’t have the time to sit down and write a small novel in response to someone else’s small novel? Or if there is nothing redeemable in the story?

If you simply don’t have the time that’s fine. PLEASE still write a review. It’s only courteous. However DON’T criticise. If you want to point out the flaws in a story have the decency to sit down and write more than one line. Be respectful and always be mindful that people probably won’t act on your opinions unless they like you or believe that you have the authority to criticise them. Instead, just write a bit of praise. Point out the one thing that stood out in the story and encourage the author to continue with whatever that thing is.

If there are no redeeming points? Why did you spend your time reading it? Even if it comes down to ‘I like your writing style; It’s easy to read’ there’s something. Otherwise you would have hit the back button well before you got to the point of umming and aahing over reviews.

In Summary (The TL;DR Version)

There is technique in writing a good review. Remember to be specific, constructive and to always remember who you’re writing to. In addition, it’s always a good policy to sandwich your criticism between praise. Reviewing helps new authors to learn what they’re doing right and to address any problems they have but let’s all try to be civil about the process, okay?

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About Meg Laverick

I can never be found without a cup of tea in my hand or a notebook in my bag. In between university and generally being awesome I read, write and nerd (that's a verb, right?). I also like analysing things that are probably best left alone.
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6 Responses to How To Give Good, Helpful Feedback

  1. JuliansGIrl says:

    Once again, right on the money! Why can’t those fix staplers just take the time to fall down at our feet in praise and awe?!?

  2. phoenixandtiger says:

    Completely agree, as always. Can you read minds or something?
    (sorry about the short-ness of the comment – my brain got fried from five hours of rehearsal)

    • Meg Laverick says:

      Yes. Secretly I’m ALSO a mind reader. Well… not so secretly now, I guess. XD I hope your brain has recovered.

      • phoenixandtiger says:

        I’m just gonna be completely selfish and whine for a bit….
        Brain recovered, definitely…then six hours of rehearsal the next day (today, actually), followed by a two hour dinner break and then a three hour concert. And during the concert, I was freaking out because my section leader was getting dehydrated and we were all worried he was going to faint (thank god he didn’t). And my feet hurt from my heels.

        Yes, I’m whining like there’s no tomorrow. But I’m proud of myself for playing through Beethoven’s Fifth. And other stuff :).

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