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Discussing: The Other Art of Giving Feedback

The Other Art of Giving Feedback

Since we're on the topic of feedback, let's look at the equally important art of giving it. I've said elsewhere that writing reviews is just as hard as waiting for them. I don't know about others, but when I sit down to review something (as opposed to dashing off a quick, appreciative comment), it takes me anywhere from half an hour to a full ninety minutes to assemble my thoughts in such a way that they might be useful to the author. It's not just content that takes up so much time: it's the organization thereof, figuring out when I've said too much (you're all laughing, I can hear it! :-) ), and deciding on tone and approach. My personal goal is to make myself review more often than I merely 'comment' and to improve my reviews--in doing so, I exercise the same judgment that can help me judge my own work, so I'm really doing myself a favor, even if no one else.

So here we go. I'm just going to go through and note a trend I've seen, then take apart my own reviewing habits and give the reasoning behind said habits. Hopefully it'll all be just something else to think about, and feel free, as always, to comment and to do the same with your own reviewing methods.

We all know that cutting feedback that is contemptuous is not good, so we won't go into that. What I'd like to address is the opposite reaction, which can be just as bad in its way as a very negative review. If you write well (and chances are good that you do, or that you're interested in learning to write better since you're here), you will find plenty of people in various places who will leave you glowing feedback. Some of it is positive enough that you blush with pride to read it; some of it, though, causes you to blush on behalf of its author, who seems to have flung dignity to the winds in order to squee over your fic.

In an effort to spare others that latter reaction, I try to treat my reviews as little mini-essays/speculative postings. I aim to have closure at the end, to have some final summing-up remarks, and to focus on the fic itself, not the author thereof. If I want to praise style, I praise the style by describing it--sentences that hang together, nice alliteration, pointed turn of phrase, good choice of words, poetic, etc. I do not tell the author she must have gone to Harvard and been a literary guru because her writing is just that good. If I want to praise the plot, I pick instances that demonstrate how the plot evolves--good symmetry between the state of characters x and y in these places; nice use of an otherwise obscure line in the books to make the plot turn. I do not tell the writer that she must be related to Tolkien (although I might say her style is Tolkien-esque, if it is).

If I have criticisms, I will often times put them in the form of a question, which invites the author to a) think about that question him- or herself and b) respond in turn. I also try to follow the principle of charity if I have serious qualms about something--so while I criticize on the one hand, on the other, I try to find reasons why it might have been necessary for a particular scene to unfold as it did. Sometimes the author can take that out, and affirm that my alternate line of reasoning was correct; otherwise, it gives her something to chew on that might actually be helpful to her because it suggests a way out of a plot hole or dilemma she hadn't recognized before as such or hadn't yet figured out how to handle.

The point of it all is to be accurate, reasonable, and give concrete examples of what I consider the strong and weak points of the story I'm reviewing, not to praise the author directly (although, of course, I am by praising her or his handiwork and by taking the time to construct something as elaborate as a review). I try to avoid hyperbole, unless I'm being humorous--there's enough of that to go around. Because as flattering as it may be to get that e-mail that says "You must be related to Tolkien!", you and I both know that that's not true (unless you *are* Christopher Tolkien in disguise). And it doesn't help you understand what you've written, so what good is such extravagent praise?

Likewise, the dozens of adjectives that are strung together until the reviewer exhausts her vocabulary--what use are they? Do they help the author unpack what s/he has written or tell him/her what aspect(s) of the fic were good, or which need work? Do they tell another reader (who is surfing reviews to decide if the fic is worth reading) anything useful? No, not really. And this is why, after the initial glow of "Wow, they like me, they really like me!" wears off (after one reading, it usually does), I'd almost rather the spare, grammatically correct, "I liked this. Nice job" than a glut of praise.

Of course we all would prefer a solid review to either of those options, and that's why I'm writing this. Flames are not approved of, but if you're here, I assume you're not going to be writing them anyway. But not-flame¬-short doesn't necessarily equal a good review, and a sufficient number of extravagent reviews can be as damaging to open discussion of a fic as flames.

Some people say they can't write good reviews--they have trouble articulating more than "I liked it" or "I didn't like it." I'm not saying it is necessary to write reams--I don't always do that either (if you can believe it) because maybe the story didn't strike me hard enough for anything in particular to stand out, or maybe I can't figure out a good way to say all I feel needs saying. But instead of saying "I liked it/I didn't like it," I will try to pick just one concrete example of something I liked or disliked--something that seems central to the text if possible, but *something* worth noting, even if it's an off-handed little bit of text--and let the author know that that line is what I liked. It may be short, but it's informative, and trust me, the author will be grateful to you for having done that.

 

 

Re: The Other Art of Giving Feedback

I'm putting up the full text in the resource section of an article I found called "Beyond Comment ? The Art of Critique" from 'The Attic.' Some abstracted pieces that may add or expand on what you have said-

Areas of possible comment:

1. Overall impression of the story:
In general, did it work for you? If not, what didn't work?
Did you enjoy the story? Do you want to read more?
Did the author set your expectations appropriately for resolution of plot twists, characters or conflicts.

2. The story's opening:
Did it hook you?
Did you enjoy it?
Was the direction clear?

3. Conflicts/Plot
What types of conflicts are presented (after all, this is partly what keeps us glued to the page!)
Does the main character have a clearly defined problem to solve?

4. Setting
Were descriptive passages too long, too short or just right?
Was there too little detail, too much detail or just enough detail about places and events?
Did descriptive passages set the mood or detract from it?
Did the places seem real to you?
Were the characters' behaviors believable for that particular time/place?
Does the language used to describe the scene help set the appropriate mood or tone? Does it fit the situation? For example, when describing a fight scene, does the author use language that might be more appropriate to a romantic encounter?

5. Characterization
Were the characters believable?
Did you care what happened to the characters?
Did any of the characters seem one-dimensional or flat?
Did you get a sense of the character's emotions, thoughts, feelings, values?

6. Dialog/Dialects
Were you comfortable with the dialog? Did it drag? Was there too much? Too little?
Did the dialog or dialect fit the character saying it?
Were there too many "he said/she said" tags or substitute dialog tags "she expostulated," "he snarled"?
Did each character have a distinctive voice? Which ones didn't?

7. Flow/Pacing
Did the story have the right tempo?
Did it flow smoothly?
Was it too rushed? Too slow?

8. Point of View (POV)
Did the author have more than one point of view present in a single paragraph? (Identify these for him/her.)
Did the author jump from one character's POV to another? And if so, was it clear who was thinking/speaking?

9. Accuracy
Were story facts believable?
Were explanations for science, magic, fights, geography etc. believable or accurate?
Are story details handled consistently and chronology handled correctly?

10. Distractions
Was there anything you found confusing in the story?
How does the author disseminate critical information ? is it done as an "info dump" and if so, was it handled unobtrusively?
Were you distracted by anachronisms (something that seems to be out of its proper time in history)?
Are there too many gimmicks to provide information? (E.g., flashbacks, internalization).

11. Grammar/Spelling
Most professionals encourage staying away from detailed critiques of grammar and spelling unless the author has specifically requested it. It takes up a lot of time/space without providing a lot of valuable comments. If the author has regular difficulties in this area, you might want to provide the information to them through a private e-mail rather than a post on the Board.

Snip...


It?s not what you say, but how you say it. Good intentions don't count. No matter how valid one's comments, they aren't going to be of much use if the recipient feels s/he can ignore you because you appear to have it in for him/her. The judicious use of emoticons can also help to mitigate hurt feelings.

Being diplomatic doesn't mean providing only positive comments. It?s natural to want to avoid negative comments because you're worried about hurting the author's feelings. However, story improvements are more often based upon negative comments than positive ones. It just means that your negative comments should be politely phrased.

If you don't like the story or it's just not written in a style that appeals to you ? tell the author so, but do it politely. For example a comment such as, "Your story was well written but I generally dislike Drow protagonists" will make your point without offending the author.

Diplomatic phrasing often takes the form of opinion rather than fact. For example, you could say something like: "You may find it helpful to use your spellchecker. I find that frequent spelling errors distract me when I'm reading as I begin to pay attention to the errors rather than to the flow of the story."

Lyllyn


 

 

Re: The Other Art of Giving Feedback

Oooh, very useful advice! Thanks for posting this! I wish I'd read this before I started leaving reviews on ff.net, though. *shudders*

Out of morbid curiosity, I went to check some of the very first reviews I gave on ff.net today... *cringes and crawls under a rock* On the bright side, at least they didn't have any spelling/grammar mistakes. On the not-so-bright side, I'm embarrassed to be the author of said reviews.

I've now left 117 reviews since I signed up with ff.net, and looking over those reviews, I can see a definite trend of improvement. But, it still intimidates me when authors demand only "useful" reviews, and I often end up not leaving one altogether in that case. (Yes, Dwim, I'm talking to you. Ever wonder why the only feedback you get on S & S from me seems to consist of pokes from my electric cattle prod? I promise that I'll try to piece together something coherent for your next chapter, though. Really! I'm trying!)

Anyway, question for the reviewer experts - When I leave reviews, I mostly just comment on the author's writing style and characterization. Then I pointed out my favourite parts in the story. 99% of my reviews are positive (if I thought the fic needed work, I usually just don't review). Is that necessarily useful? I'm somewhat specific about what I like (i.e. great flow, lovely dialogue, etc.), but do comments like that help authors at all? Or would there need to be more substance to them?

~Aralanthiriel

 

 

Re: The Other Art of Giving Feedback

Drat. Long reply just got eaten. So let me say, Aralanthiriel, that the sort of review you describe is exactly the sort I like. I want to know:

1) who's reading my stories (because I have a hard time writing for a faceless audience. Not like I see your face anyway, but you know what I mean.)
2) what they like (so I can do more of it)
3) what they think of my characters and the relationships between them (so if they aren't coming across the way I want I can fix it in the next story I write about them.)

More detailed feedback can also be nice. But I'll be desperately grateful for anything, even 'read it, liked it,' since that tells me who my audience is.

Blessings for helpful and prolific reviewing!

Deborah

 

 

Re: The Other Art of Giving Feedback

Aralanthiriel wrote:

it still intimidates me when authors demand only "useful" reviews, and I often end up not leaving one altogether in that case....

*g* Yes, I know, it scares many people, I suspect. I will plead guilty to intentionally taking a harder line on ff.net, because the squee factor gets on my nerves. There is nothing more irritating than getting a new review and then discovering it says, "Wow, can't say anything. LOL its so good! Write more." There's nothing there to give the reader any idea of whether that story is worthwhile, what to expect, and it doesn't help me very much, either.

When I leave reviews, I mostly just comment on the author's writing style and characterization. Then I pointed out my favourite parts in the story. 99% of my reviews are positive (if I thought the fic needed work, I usually just don't review). Is that necessarily useful? I'm somewhat specific about what I like (i.e. great flow, lovely dialogue, etc.), but do comments like that help authors at all? Or would there need to be more substance to them?


This is a good point, and one that I've been circuitously attempting to address. First rule of good essay-writing: identify the question you are trying to answer. ;-)

What I'd like to suggest is that there is this unwarranted assumption that "useful" must mean being able to point out mistakes and that a description of what people like about the story is neither useful nor substantial. Positive reviews can be both.

Consider Miss Padfoot's "Exile." I love this story to death, and cannot really find anything in it that bothers me (except that I want more of it), either on the basis of characterization or the mechanics and cultural assumptions in place. But I do leave what I consider to be substantial feedback in the form of "I liked x, y, and z. I noticed this, that, and the other thing. Your style is smooth; Aragorn feels youthful to me" etc. (Well, I did before FF.net terminated the old Dwim account and took signed reviews with it...)

As to cattle prods, yes, well, I'm now able to light the Christmas tree simply by touching the wires, thanks to all the electrical surplus in my system. ;-) And I swear, I'm working on it!

 

 

Re: The Other Art of Giving Feedback

Since I brought up how not to respond to feedback in the receiving feedback topic, I should probably bring up How Not To Give Feedback here.

So here let's start with this:

Just the typos. I got a review that consisted of pointing out two typos in one of my stories. Nothing else. I thanked the reviewer for finding those typos and asked her thoughts on the story.

But why give a review that's just typos? It's not a terrible thing to point out some typos in a story in a review. I have no problem with that. But if you are going to give a review that points out typos, why not let the author know what you thought of the overall story?

--Ainaechoiriel

 

 

Re: The Other Art of Giving Feedback

It's the opposite side of the squee review - some people are, I suspect, so terrified of looking like a ditz that they are reluctant to say anything nice. Either that or perhaps they assume that the author will believe that anything not directly criticized is perfect?

I certainly point out typos when the author is asking for them, but except in a beta situation (and usually even then) I don't limit my comments to those.

Cel

 

 

Re: The Other Art of Giving Feedback

Let me just run you guys by this short list, to see if I have understood what type of review is helpful to an author:


- Tell him/her what I liked in the story. To tangent a bit, what I would like to know is whether a statement such as "The style was engaging and evocative" qualifies as something that makes sense.
Things to take note of: Plot, style, characterisation, dialogue...

- Tell him/her how he/she can improve on the story, if applicable; or point out possible errors.


I suppose I should leave a review based on what I would like to see in reviews of my own stories. I don't think I have had enough experience to form a solid opinion, but I admit, when Galadriel's Inbox was still up at FF.Net, I found that I preferred the reviews that told me what they liked about the fic, more than the ones that simply said it was good... then again, it was a lame humour fic, and it seems to me to be a genre that has some different 'rules' where feedback is concerned.

On a final note... to this day, I have yet to give a useful review, but I'm working on that, seriously!

 

 

Re: The Other Art of Giving Feedback

Hi Klose,

"Engaging and evocative"--yes, this is helpful. Of course, if you can say of *what* it's evocative, that'd be even better. But sometimes stories evoke things that are very personal, which you wouldn't want to tell someone else who didn't know you very well.

Actually, if you want, go look at the categories in the standard recommendations form here at HASA. This little list is useful for more than one reason: not only is it standardized (thus making it easy for people to skim and take in), but it can serve as the basis for your review.

So, for example, let's take my recommendation of "Bearer of Bad Tidings." I said:


  • Canon - Enhances original

  • Characters - Family Dynamics

  • Characters - Well-handled emotions

  • Plot - Bittersweet

  • Plot - Joy

  • Writing - Clear prose

  • Writing - Engaging style



Check out all that useful, presorted info! I can now write a review based on these options. So:

"Dear LoTRlover,

I found "Bearer of Bad Tidings" to be a wonderful tale of closure for Elrond fans. Great speculation that makes me appreciate the story of Elrond anew by revealing that even Wise Elf-lords have family, have difficult, painful personal choices, and that they can be worn down in ways that just isn't evident to others. It's wholly appropriate that Elrond's happiness hinges on the three women in his life: Celebrían, Arwen, and Galadriel, and you bring that out beautifully. You handled the emotions very well--the changeover from melancholy and anxiety to joy was convincing. Your style was clear and engaging. Thank you for writing!"

I didn't even need to waste time coming up with categories or whatnot--I just fleshed out and added to the standard recommendation I'd already given.

Now, if I'd had some criticism, I would simply add it in between "clear and engaging" and "thank you." (Note: the following is *not* my opinion of Judy's story--I hope she'll forgive me making it a hypothetical example): "I noticed, however, that you had some awkward phrasing. I think you might want to check with someone about those verb tenses. I'd also like a little more elaboration on Galadriel, who seemed very stiff. " If the problem isn't as obvious as that, then you might consider why you didn't choose some of the other options on the recommendation form--was it simply because "poetic" isn't appropriate for the author's style, or was it because the style was positively clunky, rather than simply not-poetic?

I think that the standard recommendations can be a *great* tool for helping you figure out what you want to talk about. For any fic you want to review (even if not necessarily recommend) put together a little list based on those recommmendations, then use that as a way of figuring out what it is that you like about a story. Julie and Ang have done the really hard work of sorting out the framework--you just have to fill it out. Try it. I'll be interested to know whether this method is helpful to you and to others.

I found that I preferred the reviews that told me what they liked about the fic, more than the ones that simply said it was good... then again, it was a lame humour fic, and it seems to me to be a genre that has some different 'rules' where feedback is concerned.

Everyone loves those sorts of reviews that tell you something concrete. I think humor is hard for people to judge--we don't often analyze why we laugh. Why we cry, absolutely, but we seem to take our laughter for granted, or so I think. That doesn't mean there are different rules for reviewing humor fics, it just means we don't tend to apply them very well when reviewing.

 

 

Re: The Other Art of Giving Feedback

Everyone loves those sorts of reviews that tell you something concrete. I think humor is hard for people to judge--we don't often analyze why we laugh. Why we cry, absolutely, but we seem to take our laughter for granted, or so I think. That doesn't mean there are different rules for reviewing humor fics, it just means we don't tend to apply them very well when reviewing.

Hmm... interesting. But I've always figured that humour in stories is a very diverse thing. There's superficial humour, and Literary humour. To Kill A Mocking Bird, for example, has some dark humour, with some double meanings. As for Galadriel's Inbox... It has references yes, deeper meanings, no. Yet, I'd find it easier to comment on 'Mocking Bird' in a more 'scholarly' fashion than 'Inbox'.

 

 

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