Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror

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How to Review

0. Workshop Rules
0.1. Are there any workshop rules regarding reviews?

1. The Ratings
1.1. Could you explain the ratings system?
1.2. How does the ratings scale work?
1.3. Does my review have to include ratings?
1.4. Could you explain the ratings categories?
1.5. What's the overall rating for?

2. Giving Reviews
2.1. How do I write a basic review?
2.2. What if I can't find anything wrong with a submission?
2.3. How do I critique a writer who's better than I am?
2.4. What if I don't want to hurt someone's feelings by saying something negative?
2.5. What if the writing is so awful I can't find anything positive to say?

3. Getting Reviews
3.1. How can I get more reviews of my submission?
3.2. How can I encourage more useful reviews of my submission?
3.3. What's the difference between submission "views" and submission "viewers"? (Do my own views count?)
3.4. Why are so many people reading my work and so few reviewing it?
3.5. What can I do if a review is really awful?

0. Workshop Rules

0.1 Are there any workshop rules regarding reviews?

Yes:

0.1.1. Review the writing and not the writer.

The focus in a workshop is on improving craft. Critiques should focus on craft. Reviews that contain personal attacks will be removed at the discretion of the workshop administrator.

Reviews that contain nothing but praise for the writer will not be removed. But they are not very helpful.

0.1.2. Reviews must contain content to be awarded points.

Reviews must contain some text, not just ratings, to be accepted. Workshop administrators keep a log of all reviews. One-sentence reviews such as "Keep going!" or "Good and interesting," while well-intentioned, do not help either the writer or reviewer improve their writing skills.

Very brief reviews are allowed, but will not earn points.

Members who post longer but contentless reviews will be contacted and asked to provide more helpful comments. Continued posting of contentless reviews will lead to loss of review points at the workshop administrator's discretion.

0.1.3. Be honest about the writing and your reactions to it as a reader.

Over and over again, our members ask for honest reviews--they want the reader's true reactions, good and bad, and want to know why people stopped reading (if they did) and where. Obviously, we can't enforce this one. But we're including it because so many members said so. We're assuming that they were honest.

1. The Ratings

1.1. Could you explain the ratings system?

We include numeric scoring according to specific categories because it is useful for many reviewers and helps to structure the critiques. It can also be helpful to writers, if their submissions consistently score lower in some categories compared to others.

1.2. How does the ratings scale work?

It's a simple 1-5 scale, where 1 indicates serious flaws and 5 indicates excellence. Reviewers should use the following guidelines when giving ratings:

  • Choose (1) Doesn't Work if a submission has flaws in that category that are so serious or wide-ranging that they make the submission unreadable, or if the author should put it aside to work on something else.
  • Choose (2) Shows Potential if the submission has flaws in that category, but you feel that the author could improve it with some time and attention.
  • Choose (3) Good But Needs Improvement if that category is handled fine in some places but has flaws in others.
  • Choose (4) Very Good if you enjoy the submission but still notice some minor flaws in a particular category.
  • Choose (5) Excellent only if you don't notice any flaws and that aspect of the submission stands out compared to other SF/F you've read.
  • Choose No Rating if the category doesn't apply to the submission at all.

1.3. Does my review have to include ratings?

No. But every review must include written comments. Members have told us that the written comments are usually more useful to them than the ratings alone.

1.4. Could you explain the ratings categories?

Sure. There are five categories that highlight important aspects of craft and storytelling. They are:

1.4.1. Professionalism of Writing:

Are the grammar, spelling, and punctuation correct? Is the writing easy to follow and understand? Can you just enjoy the story, or do you stumble over some of the writing choices?

Good things: variation in sentence structure, vocabulary, and imagery; a sense that the writing is carrying you along through the story.

Bad things: awkward repetition of words, clunky or confusing sentences.

1.4.2. Setting:

Does the setting of the story feel real to you? Is the world-building convincing? Does the writer use the five senses to describe the world?

Good things: interesting details worked into the story, a setting that "comes alive," descriptive phrases staggered throughout the exposition, narrative, or dialogue.

Bad things: infodumps about biology, politics, history, or other aspects of the story's setting; the story coming to a halt to make way for description; characters lecturing each other in an unrealistic way; feeling confused.

1.4.3. Character Development:

Are the characters believable and sympathetic? Are their actions consistent with their personality? Do the characters show change and growth in order to solve their problems?

Good things: characters seem like real people and act in believable ways; characters reveal themselves by their actions and their words; characters grow or change during the course of the story.

Bad things: infodumps about the characters (their personalities, appearance, background history, motivations, etc.) that interrupt or slow down the story; wooden characters; characters whose actions are (and remain) inexplicable or contradictory; characters who don't grow and change in reaction to the plot.

1.4.4. Plot Credibility:

Does the story hold together and ring true? (This is a gut-feeling thing; you believe, when you're reading a story, or you don't.) Does anything pop you out of the experience of the story? Is there a beginning, middle, and end--does it feel complete?

Good things: The story unfolds in a way that makes sense to you--if you are in the dark temporarily, you sense that it's on purpose, not accidental; the events are believable in the context of the story; the plot has forward momentum--the pace of it keeps you reading to find out what happens next.

Bad things: The story confuses you or makes no sense; the plot twists are so clichéd and familiar that you knew they were coming a mile away; the plot has unneccessary twists or underdeveloped or forgotten threads.

1.4.5. Dialogue:

Does it sound believable? Does it develop the characters or plot? Do the characters have different voices?

Good things: Dialogue that matches the setting of the story, without anachronisms; moderate use of favorite phrases, accents, etc., to help delineate character; knowing who's doing the talking as you read, even without a lot of dialogue tags.

Bad things: Stiff or boring dialogue; dialogue used as exposition; repetitive dialogue; characters with speaking traits (accents, favorite phrases, etc.) that are unbelievable; use of dialogue as infodumps.

1.5. What's the overall rating for?

This is just an average of the values of the five ratings. It's a general grade or score for the submission, though the five ratings themselves are more useful in pinpointing which facets of the submission need work and which are good.

2. Giving Reviews

2.1. How do I write a basic review?

If you are at a loss, we suggest the following model for critiques, based on a technique used by Maureen McHugh when she teaches at places like Clarion. Reviewers should write at least four sentences, one on each of the following areas:

  • A one-sentence summary of the submission. This lets the writer know whether or not the reviewer got the main point of the story or chapter.
  • Point out one good thing about the submission. Be specific. Refer to the writing, setting, dialogue, characters, or plot.
  • Mention one thing in the submission that you didn't like. Again, be specific.
  • Ask one question or make one suggestion for improvement.

This method helps guarantee balanced reviews and reminds reviewers to include something positive and something helpful. If you aren't sure how to pick out specific details, good or bad, about writing, setting, dialogue, characters, or plot, please reread section 1.4 above.

This is not the only method or model. Different reviewers have different critiquing strengths. For other resources on how to write helpful reviews, please look at the following links:

Any review that provides specific, helpful feedback to the writer is a good start.

2.2. What if I can't find anything wrong with a submission?

Uh...try harder.

Even the most successful professional writers send their stories out for critique to improve their writing. If you can't find anything in a submission to improve it, then go steal a Hugo award and start engraving the submission's title on it at once.

For a list of all the possible things that can weaken a story or be improved, we suggest you read Bruce Sterling's "Workshop Lexicon," especially the latter portions. Although it's geared more towards SF, the problems it points out regarding character, setting, and so on apply to any fiction writing. (Read it just to find out if you have a squid in your mouth.)

2.3. How do I critique a writer who's better than I am?

Develop your ability to look at a submission as a reader, not a writer. Don't compare your skills to those of the author, but ask yourself, if you read this in a magazine, what would your reaction be? Which places slow you down? Which parts interested you the most? Learn to read critically.

2.4. What if I don't want to hurt someone's feelings by saying something negative?

Your compassion commends you. However...

If you don't tell writers where they can improve, they'll never get any better. By following the model we suggested above (section 1.1), you will always give a balanced review, with positives as well as negatives.

Several workshop members also suggest a light touch. Brie writes: "HUMOR. It's a way to get past defensiveness. Larry West, for example, may absolutely rip my stories apart at the seams, but i'm generally too busy giggling to get huffy."

2.5. What if the writing is so awful I can't find anything positive to say?

First, remember that we were all beginners once.

Second, don't try to correct everything. Pick out one specific area--grammar, dialogue, setting--and give the writer one piece of advice, one tool, that he or she can use immediately. The next time you see a submission by that writer, you'll be able to find one positive thing to say!

3. Getting Reviews

3.1. How can I get more reviews of my submission?

You mean aside from bribes? :)

The easiest method is to give more reviews. Pay attention to writers who do reviews, and then critique their work. Promise "crit for crat" in your author's comment, but only if you intend to keep the promise.

Some members find success by joining one or both of the workshop's discussion lists (links at top of page). The success can be from outright begging for reviews, but more often it comes from just being yourself and making a good impression on other workshop members.

3.2. How can I encourage more useful reviews of my submission?

Use the Author's Comments to do the following:

  • Mention which chapter it is, especially if it comes later in a book. Provide a brief summary that can help bring potential reviewers up to speed on the plot and characters (consider this practice for writing synopses later on).
  • Ask questions! If you really want help on, say, setting, then direct the reviewers' attention to that. Most will be pretty good about answering your concerns.

3.3. What's the difference between submission "views" and submission "viewers"? (Do my own views count?)

The "view" number shows how many times your submission has been clicked on and viewed. Every visit by the same person is counted as a separate view. (The author's views are not counted. Visits by workshop staff are counted like any other views.) The number of submission "viewers," on the other hand, indicates unique visitors--one person looking at a submission three times would generate three views but only one viewer. (Again, the author's views don't change the viewer count.)

The numbers are often different because many reviewers download a submission, review it offline, then upload their review, which would cause two views per review.

3.4. Why are so many people reading my work and so few reviewing it?

This question must be accompanied by a scream of despair--WAAAAHHH!!!

An informal poll of workshop mailing-list members in October 2000 suggested that most submissions receive about ten "views" for each review. If you have significantly more views than this of your submission, and still no feedback, then refer to section 3.1, including pleas to the chat list.

3.5. What can I do if a review is really awful?

  • Do what pros do when they receive a bad review in the press: ignore it.
  • Consider the review and not the reviewer. Judge the critique on its merits and not on the attitude of the reviewer. Hey, even jerks can be right sometimes.
  • Do not flame or attack the review or the reviewer in public. It's not cool, it makes you look bad, and it discourages honest reviews (see section 0.1).
  • If you have a specific complaint about a review (for example, it contains a personal attack or is contentless), please contact the workshop staff via our Contact Us form.

Suggestions for additions, corrections, or modifications to this FAQ should be directed to the staff of the Online Writing Workshop for SF & F via our Contact Us form.

This file may be freely distributed provided that it remains unedited from its current form. Sections may be quoted for reference providing its source is given. It may be printed out for personal use. Compiled by Charles Coleman Finlay, with input from Ellen Key Harris-Braun of Online Writing Workshops and many members. Special thanks for the contributions of Brie :D, Jennifer de Guzman, Heidi Wessman Kneale, T. Coral Mair, and Lee Masterson.