Monday, January 16, 2012

How to Write Neutral Reviews (Contest!)

Details on how to win a review of either a short story or the first chapter of your novel will be found at the end of this post. :)
“You suck,” says your reviewer. “I hate the main character you came up with. This is the worst science fiction novel I’ve ever read. Why were you wasting your time on this?”
            With every word, knives plunge into the story you’ve worked so hard on, and sink through to the offering hands beneath. Your heart doesn’t escape the massacre; you put it into your manuscript, after all.
            You resolve to never let anyone see your writing, ever again. Maybe you resolve to never write again, period.
            The above is an example of what not to do when reviewing a work, especially when it’s the work of an amateur, or someone who’s never received much feedback.
            I’m sure most writers flinched while reading the above example. Maybe you’ve received a similar review in the past, or maybe you’ve received one that’s even worse (Ouch). But if you’d like some specifics on why a review like this is not helpful…
            The Knives:
·         Accusing Words: “You suck.” “You came up with.” “You wasting Your time.” This reviewer failed to put distance between the work and the author, equating you with this one story (Friends or family might do this on the other end of the scale, gushing about the story and giving praise just because their grandchild/child/best friend/etc. wrote it.).

When receiving a review like this, just remember. Your heart may be in this book, but it will grow back, in time for you to put it into your next story, and the one after that. Just because your book sucks (at the moment) does not mean that you suck. Also, the point of feedback is not to fluff your ego. It’s to make your story better.

When reviewing, try to emphasize the fact that this is one opinion. “I didn’t like this because…” “I felt that the character was…” Etc.

·         No Specifics: “I hate your main character.” Why? Was the character flatter than the paper he was printed on? Did they hate his personality, or the choices he made? Or did they just hate the character because he just happened to share a first name with the reviewer’s ex?

When receiving, ask follow-up questions if you have the opportunity. Get the reviewer to elaborate on their answers. If that’s not possible, think about what the problem might’ve been, and perhaps ask future reviewers to make notes on what they liked or didn’t like about that area (characters, dialogue, etc.).

When reviewing, be specific. Say exactly what you disliked about something. How else would you expect the writer to fix things? Also, don’t forget to sat exactly what you like about a project, so the writer knows what they’re doing right.

·         Sweeping Generalizations: “This is the worse science fiction novel I’ve ever read.” There are a lot of science fiction novels out there, folks. There are a lot of novels in any genre. None of us have read all of them. And not all of us can be on par with the greats, especially during the drafting stages. 

When receiving, tell yourself that the reviewer must have simply been very selective/lucky in their book choices up until now. Remind yourself that it’s an opinion. If you reeeeeally have to, think of the worst book you’ve ever read in your genre, and ask yourself, “Am I writing at this level or higher?” If your honest answer is no, then maybe you still have some work to do. But remember. Published books have usually gone through countless revisions, with professional editors, etc. You have some time to reach that level.

When reviewing, try not to exaggerate. Remember that there’s a person on the other side of the screen, and when you say ‘worst ever’, some people will hear and believe that you mean ‘WORST. EVER.’ And considering some of the books out there, ‘worst ever’ is a big statement to throw around.

·         No Encouragement: “Why were you wasting your time on this?” Wasting our time? Imagine someone who’s trained since birth to be the master of their field, growing in leaps and bounds, jumping up and down in excitement with every advancement. They are approaching what they believe is the pinnacle of their successes thus far… And then someone walks by and says, “Why you wasting your time on this junk? Go do something worthwhile with the years you’ve got left, ya’ hobo.” There can be no graver insult. This is the added twist to the knife. Wasting our time?

When receiving, remember the movies where someone has a dream, and when passersby say “You’re wasting your time”, all they do is work harder. They prove the passersby wrong. That is you. And you are not wasting your time. Even if your work-in-progress right now never reaches the heights you’d imagined, it’s practice. It’s a step on the stairs leading you to success. With each thing you write, you get more and more experience. And that is not wasting your time. 

When reviewing, always try to include something positive. Never give the writer the impression that ‘there is no hope.’ Point out an area where they’re strong, or where you can see that they’re almost understanding what it is they can do to get better. Encourage them to keep writing, if not with the current story, then with the next.
            At its core, the what-not-to-do example is an example of feedback, perhaps by an inexperienced reviewer. A reviewer who got eepy “NO, DON’T DO THIS” vibes about a certain something, but didn’t know how to put the problem into words. Were they polite? No. Were they harsh? Kinda, yeah. But at its core, the above example was saying:
            “I do not like your main character. This book might not be ready to compare with already-published books in the genre. I would consider working on a different project.”
            Not perfect, but better. A step in the right direction. And one opinion.
            Keep writing, everybody.
            How would you rewrite the what-not-to-do review? What other things have bothered you in reviews? What’s the harshest review you’ve ever received, and has it helped you improve at all since receiving it?
            Also, a reminder: Comment on this post and you can be entered into a drawing to win a review of either a short story or the first chapter of your novel. If you also comment on the previous post, you’ll receive a second entry in your name. I'll draw for the winner(s?) in one week. Good luck!

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