Writing Reviews: Review Etiquette

Writing critiques of other writers’ work is all about providing the author with constructive criticism which helps them to refine their craft, not slamming their work. Although our moderators don’t make judgments about your review technique as such, we don’t allow reviewers to simply trash someone else’s writing, no matter how bad you may think that it is. At the same time, ignoring the faults of the work isn’t doing the author any favors either. Tell the truth, but be polite about it.

It can be a tall order to analyze a story that someone else has written and it’s probably a mistake to try to cover every aspect of the story in one go. The following are all elements that you may want to think about when you’re writing a review. Some are relatively easy to assess, while others demand a certain level of skill. All reviews have their value and every reader review can help authors to refine their work and create a better end product. This list doesn’t cover every possibility, but it makes for a good starting off point.

  • Did you enjoy what you read?
  • How did the author’s work make you feel?
  • Were you immediately engaged in the story or did it take some time to hook you?
  • How well did the piece flow from plot point to plot point (or point to point if nonfiction)
  • Did you find the story confusing at any point?
  • Did you find the characters to be likeable? Were they believable?
  • Did any of the elements of the story seem jarring or out of place?
  • Did the story make you feel as if you were fully immersed in its events?
  • Were you able to imagine the sights, sounds, etc. as experienced by the characters?
  • Did you become emotionally engaged in the story?
  • Was there any conflict in the story?
  • Was there any point at which you wanted to quit reading the story?

We also have a list of criteria which can help you in writing a good book review. You don’t need to rate what you’ve read according to the items on the list, but they can provide a guide for thinking through the story and organizing your thoughts.

As you write your review, keep the following four basic rules of critiquing in mind. Obviously, different reviewers will disagree on certain points and if you’re new to writing reviews, start off with short, informative reviews and refrain from offering your suggestions until you feel confident enough about your skills to do so.

1. Say something positive: It’s easy to say something nice if you genuinely like what you’ve read. However, what if you’re reviewing something which seems to need a lot of work or worse, seems like it’s completely unsalvageable? You could point out your appreciation for the effort that went into the work or focus on particular sections you liked in the story. Every writer has to start somewhere (and you’ve certainly made plenty of mistakes yourself as a beginning writer). Not many novice authors produce something perfect early on. Give the author your encouragement to keep going, whether it’s on the project you’ve reviewed or something less demanding to help them sharpen their skills as a writer.

2. What works? What parts of the piece do you think are working? It could be a great idea, well drawn characters or anything else – point out these elements.

3. What needs some work? Next, think about what isn’t working in the piece. Were there things that you found confusing? Did parts of the story fail to engage you?

4. How could the piece be improved? After thinking about what works in the story and what doesn’t, it’s time to offer some ideas for improvement. This isn’t your story of course and you’re not supposed to rewrite it, but you can offer some pointers, such as “what if this happened?”. You can suggest editing parts which seem to drag or adding to parts which come off as less than fully developed.

Sometimes, you’ll come across work which needs a major overhaul. Rather than trying to cover everything that isn’t working about the story (which could end up discouraging the author), suggest a few larger elements to start with. They can always work out the minor details when the story is farther along. Don’t nitpick; if the author makes major changes to the story, they’re more than likely to end up ironing out the small stuff along the way anyhow.

Some writers may present finished, well polished pieces, but part of writing a good book review (and good review etiquette) is to present your opinion. Talk about whether or not the piece worked for you as a reader. You shouldn’t go looking for problems and keep in mind that you’re not the author’s line editor, so hold back on the nitpicking, especially if the piece is still an early version which will probably see several revisions before being finished.

Start slow if you’re new at writing reviews. The more reviews you write and the more reviews you read, the more you’ll know what to keep an eye out for as a reviewer. When I first got started writing reviews, I learned a lot from reading other people’s reviews and used what I’d learned to develop my own style.

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