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The Art of Reviewing

(Written by Mary Ann Back)

Congratulations! You’ve written a literary masterpiece. Surely, a Pushcart Prize awaits you! Before sending your work out into the world, you decide to do the smart thing and submit it to your online writing group for review. Let others behold its brilliance and catch the tiny nits that could stand between you and greatness. Each day you eagerly pull up your submission, hoping to find new, insightful reviews.  And each day you are filled with bitter disappointment.  Your story languishes on the review board like a beached whale.

What’s a writer to do?

Review more stories. Do unto others. You aren’t the only writer with a masterpiece adrift off the coast of greatness.  Pay it forward. You might find it comes back to you in spades; besides, reviewing makes you a better writer. If you aren’t altruistic by nature, start reviewing more because it teaches you to analyze the anatomy of writing.

If reviewing isn’t a skill you’ve mastered along the way, focus on the basics.

Review Etiquette

  • Read a story thoroughly, twice if possible. No skimming. Read it once for flow and content, and then again for technical scrutiny.
  • Be constructive. You’re a writer – use your words to address issues without demoralizing the author. Focus your comments on the piece itself and not the author’s ability. Point out both what works and what doesn’t work. Include examples of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Suggest edits for the author’s consideration.  The value of a review is in its details. Vague compliments are useless. If you have no nits to pick because a story is absolutely superb, give specific examples of what made the story exceptional.
  • If you have no knowledge of the subject of a story, say so. Make the author aware that a general audience may have similar issues. Don’t give the author a poor score based on your lack of knowledge. Review the mechanics of the writing.  The author may have a specific target audience in mind.
  • Don’t retaliate against a bad review. If you can’t reciprocate constructively, simply opt out; otherwise, if you’re tempted to opt out of reviewing a story ask yourself why. Is the quality of the writing poor? Does the story flow like tree sap? Is it a snooze fest? Have you no interest in the writing style or the genre? Those are all bad reasons for opting out of a review. If the story has technical problems, tell the author. That’s the purpose of a review. You don’t have to buy the story – just review it.


Review Elements

  • Title: Does it fit the story? Does it grab your attention?
  • Mechanics: Does it demonstrate proper grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure? Is the tense consistent or does it inadvertently change? Is the narrative clear or confusing? Is a single point of view maintained throughout the story?
  • Structure: Is there a beginning that pulls you in or did you lose interest before the end of the first paragraph? Does it establish a goal for the protagonist? Does the middle provide an inciting incident and interesting obstacles for the main character to overcome, or has the author made things too easy for the protagonist? Does the ending provide some sense of satisfaction or does the reader turn the page convinced there must be more?
  • Characters: Do they grow within the story or are they one dimensional Flat Stanleys?  Do you care about what happens to them? Why? Why not?
  • Pacing: Is the story constantly moving forward? Are the transitions smooth? Does it slog like it’s mired in quicksand or careen out of control giving you whiplash?
  • Word Choice: Did the author use active verbs to move the story forward or are adverbs and passive verbs sucking the life out of it? Is the writing tight or is it filled with throw away words and details that add nothing but length? Is the story an easy read or is your dictionary serving as an interpreter?
  • Dialogue: Is it realistic and in keeping with the character’s voice? Is it propelling the story forward? Is it clear which character is speaking? Are the dialogue tags nearly invisible or are they awkward and distracting?

Awareness of review etiquette and story structure is half the battle. The other half involves analyzing details and developing the self-confidence to share your opinion with others. Reviewing, like most other skills in life, is something you learn by doing. Find a pile of un-reviewed stories and dive in. Both you and the authors of those stories will be the better for it. And do it soon, please.  The beaches of greatness await you!

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