Constructing Criticism

This was written by Merlin Missy in 2007. Some references may now be dated but the general advice is very good. It is used with permission. — Cygnet


Ah, fanfiction! That light in our otherwise dreary, colorless lives. Or maybe that’s just me. Regardless, if you clicked on this article, gentle reader, you are probably already well-versed in what fanfiction is. If not, this essay is perhaps not for you.

So you have just read the most wonderful, heart-pounding, well-crafted piece of fanfiction it has ever been your pleasure to open, and you’d like to leave a review. But where do you start? Is a simple “I loved this, please write more” sufficient? What if you didn’t find the story perfect, and you’d like to say so? And what if you are the fanfiction writer, opening a new review and wondering how to respond?

Dr. Merlin can help. Dr. Merlin has been there. Read on.

Why Review?

Dr. Merlin recently conducted an informal poll regarding the top reasons readers do not leave reviews on stories. Dr. Merlin, being an incurable egomaniac who rather likes referring to herself in the third person, wondered why her gentle readers, who just spent over an hour reading her latest work, would then not take a moment or two to respond.

Aside from enabling her to receive a few extra reviews on the story in question, the poll also yielded some interesting responses. A popular reply was that her readers felt they had nothing further to add, and had no critiques to make; leaving any comment along the lines of “I liked this” would seem trite. Now in the interests of all fairness, Dr. Merlin does know authors for whom a review of “I liked this” would in fact be unwelcome. However, Dr. Merlin has been assured these authors are seeking the proper dosages of their respective medications and will be feeling better soon.

Reviews are polite, and as everyone knows, manners are the lubrication of society. Someone has just spent time entertaining you, and as you cannot applaud, sending a note is the next best thing and will probably make someone’s day, regardless of the brevity. Also, it is in one’s self-interest to leave feedback for authors writing one’s preferred fandom/pairing/etc., as this encourages more stories to be written and posted, and everyone is happy.

The Positive Review

When sending out a new story to the world, the fanfiction writer’s dream is to receive a basketful of glowing reviews. Who wouldn’t want to hear that one is a genius in loving emails from complete strangers? (If you just held up your hand and said “ME!” then I humbly suggest you refrain from posting fanfic online.) But how does one do it?

That bastion of democracy is by far the largest fanfiction archive on the planet, and lucky for you, dear reader, makes it very simple to leave a review. Simply point and click at the bottom of the story you have just finished reading, and you don’t even have to log into your account. Many large fanfiction sites include review features in order to make it easy on you to drop a note to the authors. Some older fanfiction archives lack this functionality, alas, and so if you are going to leave feedback, you will need to use the author’s email address, if given, and the older the story, the less likely that email address will be current. (I’ve gone through a number of email addresses, but I’ve had what I now use as my main contact address since 1996.) Going the extra mile to leave a review is always appreciated, but if your author makes it too difficult, the best you can do is sigh and perhaps recommend the story to your friends instead.

But should you be able to contact the author, what ought you say? Is a simple “I liked this” enough?

It is. Let no one tell you otherwise. You have told the author that you enjoyed her or his work and thus thanked her/him for sharing the story. If you’d like something slightly more elaborate, I submit the following examples, to be used as desired:

  •  “I really enjoyed this piece.
  • “This was a lovely story.”
  • “Thank you for sharing this with us.”
  • “Truly magnificent.”

These and other permutations on the same idea — that you liked the story — take very little thought-process or effort, and can send an author over the moon. Dr. Merlin has often read stories which reduced her brain to piles of gibbering glee, and has found these responses to be useful while she recovers. (Friendly addendum: telling an author her or his work melted your brain into a puddle of gibbering glee is also a wonderful review.)

Some readers are more gifted with review and response than this, and they are to be saluted. One will never have a more valuable review than one that goes through the tale point by point, remarking what does and doesn’t work, and using metaphor and simile to compare one’s story to the greatest works of fiction. These reviews are rare. Do not feel bad if you never leave one or receive one; that would be like feeling sad because your review of the latest “Pirates of the Caribbean” installment was less detailed than Ebert’s. “I loved it!” is just as valid a review as a two-page essay on one’s use of lunar imagery. It’s also easier to read. Do not decline to leave a review simply because you are not in the mood to give in-depth feedback, and please do not think you will come across as a lesser reviewer because of it. Your feedback is desired and appreciated regardless.

If you are in the mood to give a story the fine-toothed comb approach but don’t know where to begin, here are some starting points:

  • How well the author captured the “voices” of the characters. That is, could you hear the characters speaking those lines?
  • How well the author structured the story. Did the story have a traditional structure? (Rising action to a climax, and then a quick fall and an ending.) Was the story non-traditional? (Ex: Time sequence intentionally out of order, a mood piece rather than a plot-driven story.) Did this work for you, or did it leave you uncomfortable and wondering what the author was trying to do?
  • How well the author handled the subject matter.
  • Was the piece humorous or serious, and did the author maintain a good tone for that subject? If the story was longer, did the author strike a good balance between lighter and angstier sequences?
  • How well the author managed to achieve her/his goal. If the work was AU, did the author make the AU believable for the duration of the story? If the work was supposed to adhere closely to canon, did the author manage to hit the right pieces of canon and slide the story into continuity? Did the plot make sense?
  • How well the author handled other pieces of the story. Were there original characters introduced, and if so, did they come across as useful additions to the story? Did the author overuse or underuse any particular technique?
  • Does the story feel complete? There is a difference between a great story begging for a sequel and a story that is unfinished.

I should stress that this list is neither complete nor compulsory. It is merely a suggestions list for anyone who’d like a jumping-off place to spread their critiquing wings. Again, “I liked this” is fine.

Negative Reviews

More fondly known as “constructive criticism,” negative reviews are just as important as positive ones, even if they do sometimes smart on the receiving end. If you have just read a story which was good but you feel was marred by some aspect or another — perhaps something was not canonical, perhaps the author spelled a character’s name wrong — you should not feel intimidated about pointing this out to the author.

To leave an effective critique, you must keep some things in mind. First, you are not superior to the author, and the author is not superior to you. You are peers and equals, perhaps not friends but certainly companions along the road of fandom. Using a review to further a grudge, call names, or make yourself feel important is impolite and counterproductive. As a rule, stick to language you would feel comfortable relating to your mother. (Dr. Merlin is aware her relationship with her own mother is perhaps a poor example for this case, but rest assured Merlin’s medications are being adjusted as we speak.) Find something positive to say about the story at the beginning and end of your critique, even if you are merely complimenting the author’s spelling. Also, and this cannot be stressed enough, if you are nitpicking a detail, make sure you are right before you critique; few things are as embarrassing as pointing out that the author is misspelling a character’s name, only to discover you’ve been doing so all along. Fact check yourself, and you will come across as a reliable source of information. Be truthful, be specific, and again, be polite.

Constructive criticism is often best handled via private email rather than public messageboard. You can engage in a dialogue with the writer and perhaps the concerns you had will be explained as intentional on the part of the author rather than errors, at which point the discussion becomes a matter of what is and isn’t effective storytelling. As an example, years ago I received a critique on a story that used an obscure character from canon in order to show what was going on in the lead character’s mind. The reviewer suggested that no one would know who the character was, which made it less effective. This was useful to know for character choice in future stories, but it was also not as relevant for the story in question as the intended audience was a small subset of the fandom who were very familiar with the character. This discussion was vital for us to understand each other’s position.

Critiques on small details (spelling, eye color, canon trivia) that can be easily changed, especially right after publication, are blessings on an author’s house. Critiques on large details (pacing, characterization, plot structure) are lessons for future stories, and are also blessings. Critiques on small details for older stories, especially those more than a few years old, are perhaps not worth your time in pointing out. Critiques on large details on older stories can be useful; use your best judgment and remember that the author may have forgotten this story entirely or may already look back on the story with embarrassment.

Checking the publication date is key in all cases of leaving reviews, but especially in those leaving constructive critiques. For example, if the dialogue and interests of a particular character seem strange, a quick check of the publication date may show that the story was written before the character even appeared in canon and was speculation based on a casting spoiler. The feedback you leave can then alter from: “This character is completely OOC,” to “I see that canon didn’t end up supporting your speculation,” with or without a discussion on whether or not the story still stands on its own merits after having been jossed. (v. 1. Fanfiction term coined in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer fandom regarding fanfics whose plots were rendered AU by later canon developments, usually those written by showrunner Joss Whedon.)

Brief negative reviews can be helpful, if only for the information that a story didn’t work. Some helpful phrases:

  • “This story didn’t work for me.”
  • “While I liked your use of X, your characterization of Y doesn’t correspond to what I feel is the correct characterization.” (Examples from canon are often helpful in this instance, but are not strictly necessary.)
  • “This story could have been stronger.”

The in-depth review list presented earlier is just as useful for a negative review as a positive one, although if you find multiple problems with a story, you may wish to focus on one or two particular aspects at a time, and give the author a chance to work piecemeal on improving her or his work. If you have the time, offering to beta read future stories may help this process, although that may be more effort than you wish to expend.

Do not be afraid to leave negative reviews. Do understand that authors will not always respond graciously to them. If an author does respond in anger to you, ensure you haven’t committed a faux pas in your review such as getting the details wrong yourself or submitting a not-review (see below), then decide if you wish to continue correspondence with the author. Unless you are good friends with the author, you probably should not advise the adjustment of medication, but rest assured it will probably happen in good time.

While all feedback is in and of itself a good thing, there are certain things you should try to avoid in a review. These are not comments on the story itself but bring in outside factors that are not necessarily related to the story’s quality and could be perceived as needlessly inflammatory or even downright rude. Remember that the root of “constructive” is “construct,” which means that it can be built upon.  Criticism that is positive or negative that cannot be built upon is not constructive, and while positive non-constructive critique is generally welcome as pleasant egoboo, negative non-constructive critique is flamebait.  The following types of non-reviews provide a handy if incomplete list:

  • A review that consists entirely of describing your hatred of the primary pairing in the story unless it is followed by the words “but I really liked how you handled them here.” Taking review space to tell the author how much you hate their favorite ‘ship is not constructive, and it is poor manners. In terms of a critique, following with “and I’m sorry to say this story did not move me from my dislike” can be useful but should only be employed when you honestly believe the author could benefit in some fashion from the comment. (If you believe the author could benefit from no longer enjoying the pairing in question, you should perhaps seek the remedial course in “Fandom: We All Like Different Things and That’s Okay.”)
  • A review consisting entirely of how much you hate the source material on which the story is based, again unless it is followed by praise of the author’s ability to make you enjoy it. This is poor manners and it begs your ability to read a story header. The Internet is opt-in; no one forces you to read anything here.
  • Calling the author names or otherwise engaging in flaming her/him based on your prior interactions with her/him. While none of us are perfect, your reviews should be focused on the work, not the person. If you cannot separate the two long enough to comment, don’t comment. (I’ve encountered this several times in my fannish history, and so I’ve learned not to read works by those whom I dislike too much to review without bias.)
  • Telling the author how you would have written or ended the story, unless it is to point out a problem with the story’s structure. (For example, a sword-and-sorcery epic that ends abruptly when the hero pulls out a pistol and shoots the villain.) If you feel strongly that the story should have gone in a different direction, there’s always room for more fanfic. Just be sure to ask permission of the original author before you write an alternate ending to her or his ‘fic. Better still, write your own story from scratch and really show us how it’s done.
  • Telling the author what her or his next story should be, in great detail. Saying “I liked this and would like to see more in the same vein” is very different from saying “You need to write the prequel where this and this and this happened, and then they met this character.” One is polite and begs to be pointed to your previous work without imposing; the other is demanding and a touch childish. A middle ground would be to contact the author privately stating that her/his work was inspiring and has given you ideas, which you would like to share, perhaps even as a co-writing opportunity, or with permission, and off-shoot fanfic universe.
  • A review that is entirely about your own stories and ideas instead of a comment on the story you’ve just read. If you would like to discuss your story ideas with the author, that’s fine. Simply say so when you review, and give her/him the opportunity to say, “Of course I’d love to hear your ideas,” or “I’m sorry, I barely have time to keep up with my own ideas right now, but perhaps we can discuss it later.”

Please do not let these notes intimidate you, gentle reader, nor should you take them as hard and fast rules. They are merely pieces of information I have collected in my travels around the Web, and I present them to assist you, not to chain you in any fashion. Not-reviews are frustrating to writers, because they are not useful. They do not tell an author if the story worked, if the idea was sound, if the characters were on point and all the notes well-played. They bring the reviewer’s dislikes and biases to the forefront rather than putting the story there, and should be kept private.

Receiving Reviews

Now we flip to the other side of the bright reviewing penny: hearing the chime in your inbox of a new review. Is it a glowing testimonial to your wit? Is it incomprehensible squealing? The eagerness and anticipation can eat you alive until the moment you click.

And now your dilemma: how do you respond?

Once again, Dr. Merlin has the answer. The proper response to a positive review is “Thank you.” You may feel free to add to it, respond to reader questions, comment further on some aspect the reader brought up, but remember to be polite! Your reviewer has taken time from her or his day to thank you for your work, and every reader is important. Give thanks.

Should the review include in-depth analysis of your story, the proper response is to do a little jig and then respond in kind with even greater thanks.

If the review is negative, the proper response is still “Thank you.” Reread that last sentence! Negative reviews are just as valuable as positive reviews, if not more so. Negative reviews tell you what didn’t work in the story, be it intentional or otherwise, and this is what you need to know for next time. If something was intentional, you may wish to indicate this, but do so politely. Thank your reviewer for the time it took to write such a useful piece of feedback. Keep your mental critiques of the reviewer to yourself, especially when you were the one who screwed up (and if you did not — regarding a piece of canon detail, for example — you may indicate so with a reference to the episode in question). Fix what you can, save the rest for your next story, and move on. If the reviewer suggests you find a good beta reader, take the advice to heart, and if the reviewer offers to be that beta, thank your lucky stars because you have just found someone who loves your work enough to reread it half a dozen times per story and is bright enough to find your mistakes before you release your ideas to the world. (Caveat: Be sure to review other work by this same person before you accept, as it is best to know up front how strong your beta’s writing skills are and how closely their view of the characters are to your own.)

The proper response to a not-review is to smack your head on your desk, type “Thank you,” and then wonder at the intelligence of people with web access. You may feel free to point him or her to this essay if you so desire, but many reviewers who leave not-reviews may not be ready to hear why these kinds of comments are not helpful.  Use your best judgment.  Don’t assume a negative review is a not-review.

Say “thank you.” Always say “thank you.” (“Thanks” is also acceptable.)


My thanks now go out to you, gentle reader, for following me through this essay. I hope it has been enlightening, or at least amusing.

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