Lesson 2: Reasoning
The next aspect on the agenda for you lovely reviewers is reasoning. Essentially, what this lesson is all about is how you explain your ideas to the author you are addressing. We covered this a bit in lesson one, where we looked at tone and how, even if youíre trying to be nice, your comments and criticisms can be greatly misconstrued. Now, weíll be examining reasoning in a bit more detail, because it is so important that you are able to articulate why you liked or didnít like something by explaining things fully.
First things first, though.
Review a story you like.
We cannot stress this enough. Of course, we donít mean that you have to adore every single part of the story with all your hearts. Nor do we mean holding out on criticism even if it would be helpful to the author.
What we do mean is that you review a story that you essentially can say more good things than bad about. What you need to do before you hit submit is weigh up your compliments and your criticisms. If you feel youíre criticising too much, take a step back. Think about if you genuinely want to leave a review that is 80% crit ó it may all be helpful crit, but that means your review is, inversely, 20% praise. The problem with over-critical reviews is the fact that they can upset the author if not understood fully, which is why good reasoning is critical for any review.
If you're in that situation, you have two options. One: find another story to review. Thatís a simple solution to what might be a problem if the author you're reviewing takes your review in a negative way. Two: you balance the crit with praise. If you think thatís too hard to do, or that you canít think of enough praise, go back to option one and choose another story to review.
The key to reasoning is simple. Use evidence. This works both for criticism and praise. Of course, itís far more important to qualify your criticism because, as weíve mentioned in Tone, you need to ensure that you deliver your crit in a thorough way.
Now, evidence can come in several forms, and each form is great in some ways but can also be limiting in others.
Quotations from the story are great, especially if youíre quoting good lines, because that illustrates points regarding style.
But they can also be overused, both by having too many quotations and by having overlong quotations. The key to this is to ensure that youíre using them for the right reasons. By that, I mean, donít use quotations to ďbulk upĒ your review. If you feel, for any reason, that your review looks too short, the last thing you want to do is add a load of irrelevant quotation in there just to make it look longer. Length is no substitute for meaningful content.
Therefore, try and keep quotations shorter and keep the actual evaluation of the story the main focus. Quotations should also be kept relevant, so youíre not quoting too much of the story back to the author. After all, they wrote it and know what happens; comments in context will usually do fine when referring to plot points and characterisation. Even if you thought a whole paragraph was really well-done, maybe pick out a sentence or two that would illustrate your point.
Canon is another great tool to use as evidence in your review, both for criticism and compliments. Canon can be used to point out canon errors, but you could also use canon to back up a point about characterisation or plot or even style. For instance:
I loved the way you wrote Fleurís accent ó not just the letters she misses out, but also her tendency to slip into French when it comes to complicated words. I thought it was very similar to canon, which helped make her characterisation really authentic in your story.
Again, though, just be aware of how you use canon as evidence. Canon is a lot of things: the books, family trees, interviews and Pottermore. So the canon error you might want to point out could be anything, from who George really marries right up to who McGonagall was engaged to. Not all fanfic authors will know every canon fact out there, so some valid canon picks can come across as pretty finicky. With Pottermore, especially, the author may not even have read about certain things and will have got spoiled. In that respect, just tread carefully when it comes to the really minor bits of canon.
Preference may also be something you use, not so much as evidence, but more as a basis for some of your points in your review. Preference could be a personal one, something that you like or donít like, or it could be a fandom one, like how a story is similar or different to typical portrayals in the fandom. Whatever it is, you may be making a valid point and may even be a compliment to the author, but also, often, this isnít the case.
So, use caution and always create context, as stated in Tone. Do this by using examples from the story as well as canon. Donít just say that something was similar or different from fandom portrayals. Explain why. As well as that, just bear in mind the fact that personal preference isnít always a reasonable basis for a criticism. You might not be a fan of present tense, for instance, but that doesnít invalidate the story in any way just because you donít like it. Now, if the use of present tense is inconsistent and this hinders the story, or else the non-linear structure doesnít make much sense to you, then say that and point out specific examples of why. Donít make it about what you prefer, but what is actually in the story.
Articulation of criticism
This overlaps quite a bit with Tone, but thatís because Tone is very much linked to Reasoning. Phrasing crit well is a huge part of good reasoning.
Letís look at an example of something that should never grace anyoneís review page first.
I didnít like the dialogue. It sounded pretty unnatural to me, and you had nowhere near enough contractions. Everyone sounded like they were reading lines from a book, and thatís a shame because I did think the plot of this story was excellent. Unfortunately, though, the dialogue really let the story down.
This sounds ridiculously disparaging. No author ever wants to hear a reviewer say they ďdidnít likeĒ something. Weíre not saying to sugar coat criticism, but do remember that authors are people, and itís not nice to hear someone thought something ďlet the story downĒ. Always bear in mind that people spend hours writing these stories, so it is neither fair nor warranted to belittle their efforts with a carelessly worded comment rather than one that is phrased in a helpful way. Theyíre sharing a gift with you, so their work should be treated in kind.
Essentially, if you donít like something, say it in a nicer way. Letís look at another, much better example with the same crit but different, more positive phrasing.
As Iíve said, I thought the plot of the story was excellent, but I wasnít entirely sure of the dialogue in places. It would have helped if you used more contractions in order to make the dialogue sound more natural, as I thought perhaps it sounded too formal for Harry.
Rather than saying how unnatural the dialogue is, the reviewer suggests improvement to make it more natural. This just sounds more positive even though the same point.
On the other end of the spectrum, though, you may also have problems articulating your criticism by dismissing it yourself.
This time, weíll use an actual example from Sorayaís noob!reviewing days. This is from a review for The Stars as my Witness by Gmariam.
I wasnít entirely sure about the over formalness of Siriusís words, at times. I know that it was written from his point of view, so it technically counts as narrative, but occasionally, the absence of an apostrophe made the dialogue slightly stilted. One example of this is the use of the word ďcannotĒ. However, I don't think it sounds right or appropriate to use ďcanítĒ, yet ďcannotĒ sounds very formal and a little un-Sirius. Iím assuming that this was your intention, since the mood of the fic is sombre. So in that respect, I suppose it is fitting to use formal words. Never mind, I just answered my own question :)
What Iíve done here is made what was, looking back on it, a pretty valid point, but I dismissed myself. ďI answered my own questionĒ, so to speak, and that basically made my whole paragraph a waste of words. There is no point criticising something if youíre not going to be decisive about it. Again, if youíre unsure about criticising something, donít criticise it.
So, hereís the revised paragraph:
I wasnít entirely sure about the over formalness of Siriusís words, at times. I know that it was written from his point of view, so it technically counts as narrative, but occasionally, the absence of an apostrophe made the dialogue slightly stilted. One example of this is the use of the word ďcannotĒ, which sounded very formal to me and not entirely in character for Sirius. Perhaps that was because of the storyís subject matter, as your fic is very sombre, but Iím just not sure Sirius would have such a formal voice, even after James and Lilyís deaths.
See? I stuck to my guns this time, and that made me sound more decisive as a reviewer. In that respect, my crit is far more clear-cut. Also, remember that the author has the opportunity to reply to your review and inquire about the meaning of something that youíre not sure about. Most authors on MNFF reply to their reviewers and are relatively open to contact with their readers. Our community is fairly unique in that respect, so use it to your advantage.
Beta versus Reviewer
Finally, letís look at the line between being a beta and being a reviewer. They are two different things, and itís important to distinguish between the two.
A betaís role is to edit someoneís story, to make suggestions that may completely change the direction of the story and to nitpick the story basically to death. A beta is very different from a reviewer, though, for one key reason: the author chose the beta. The author doesnít choose who reviews their story. Therefore, betas have slightly more liberty when it comes to criticising the story and being honest about it because they were asked to.
For that reason, you have to be more careful when youíre reviewing, because you have to bear in mind the fact that the feedback youíre giving doesnít have to be taken. Remember, youíre evaluating what the author considers to be the final version of the story. Your job as a reviewer isnít to do a beta job on it, therefore, and this goes back to the importance of balance. You may have a load of critique you want to give the author that may all be valid, but you may also have only one or two positive things in your review.
So, how to ensure you sound like a reviewer and not a beta? Well, think about what youíre nitpicking. Is it a spelling mistake or a few lines of dialogue that need fixing? Or are you, in fact, telling the author in no uncertain terms that her comma placement is terrible? Because if it is the latter, itíll probably work in your favour not to mention it. Things like comma placement, a bad ending, major characterisation picks that change the outcome of the story completely are all critiques a beta should help with, as they can often mean big changes to the story, or the style of the story, and thatís not your role as a reviewer.
Overall, good reasoning can really get to the heart of the story and fill out your review. Of course, itís vital that criticism is always phrased in a friendly and polite manner, so not to offend the author but also to ensure you retain your role as a reviewer. Bear in mind the importance of articulation when it comes to reasoning. If you explain your ideas well, the author youíre addressing will understand those ideas and come to appreciate them.
1. Find a review* where you think you explained something that you liked or didnít like. Write why you thought you were successful in reasoning. This doesn't have to be a full-length SPEW review, but it does have to have more than a few sentences in order to function well for this assignment.
2. Then find another review* where you donít think you explained why you liked or disliked something adequately enough. Make a note of the things that you could have improved and rewrite the review*, using canon, examples from the story, quotations and any other forms of evidence you see fit to use.
*This doesn't have to be a full-length SPEW review, but it does have to have more than a few sentences in order to function well for this assignment. Three average-ish paragraphs or more is preferable, but not required.