Poetry or story or book reviews are a highly subjective undertaking. We are sharing our opinion on someone’s creative work and there are no golden rules to follow on how to perfectly do it. However, here are a few tips on how we can express our opinion on something that we are reading.
1. It’s about the work, not the writer. Whether it’s a poem or a short story or a novel, when we give a feedback or a review, we must always target the product in front of us. It doesn’t matter how much we do -or don’t- like the person who wrote the piece. Critique the work – and only work, nothing else.
Though saying ‘how well you write’ or ‘what a splendid writer you are’ makes the writer whose work we’re critiquing feel good, it really doesn’t help them improve their writing skills.
Avoiding giving feedback on a poem or short story simply because we don’t like the writer, for whatever reason, is not a trait of an impartial reader and a good writer.
2. Emotions you feel while reading the work. Do we like it- Why? We don’t like it- Why? We must always follow up our statement with an explanation that justifies our claim. The writing technique, show, don’t tell, applies even when giving reviews. How to do it? Well, we can start with quoting a line or a dialogue that we like and share the reasoning behind it. What kind of feeling does the whole poem or the entire story evoke in us. Were we happy, sad, or angry after reading it? Did we feel disgusted by it? If it delighted or disgusted us, we must point out which part of the work made us feel so.
3. Strengths and Weaknesses. Every piece of writing has some strengths, so be sure to acknowledge what has been done right. When we find places that need improvement, it is important to point them out too. It would be better if we can suggest ideas on how to enhance it. Perhaps, rephrasing a sentence or two is helpful. Let’s not stop at the grammatical errors or sentence construction.
Depending on how skilled or experienced we are in reviewing a piece of literature, this is a piece of cake. Sometimes, however, only interest in learning is all that is required for us to become one because the art of reviewing is an acquired skill.
4. Central theme. Every poem or story has a central theme. It generally answers the following questions:
- What topic or subject it mainly deals with? Is it too common? Is it something to be admired? Is it too cliche’?
- Does the topic chosen have a place in the 21st century literature?
- Is it a piece aimed to entertain or does it give new insights? Does it question your own perspectives?
- If it is a poem, what kind of poem is it? Are the lines too descriptive or do they take you along as you read it? Does the last stanza wrap up the previous stanzas/lines?
5. Plot Holes. They are gaps, flaws or inconsistencies in a narrative that contradict the flow of logic established in the story.They are like needles in the haystack. Though they’re difficult to find, it is a must that we find them whatever the cost is; otherwise, our story becomes weak and will have no chance at winning if we write it for a writing competition.
~An all-powerful being failed to prevent a catastrophe.
~A character who is nerd, coward and weakling suddenly becomes a karate expert.
~A character is shown to beat up a bad man who killed one of your friends but you don’t beat him enough to kill him. Then later on, the same man comes back in your life and kills another of your friend.
~A blind man who lives alone with his dog but ties the dog outside at night.
To enjoy reading stories with fantastical elements, readers suspend some measure of disbelief. That is why we accept a talking dragon or a stone that can transform someone into something else, or a character jumping off a quite tall building without a scratch, etc. However, there is a limit as to how much we can accept for the sake of entertainment. This is the time when we must mention these gaps or inconsistencies because readers are supposed to be the extra ears and eyes of the writers. At times, writers can miss some important details in their stories and it would be encouraging if we’re able to point that out.
a) Relatable characters. Whether your characters in a story are relatable or not is a subject for debate because it will always be dependent on who our readers are. For a parent, a character doing the usual type of parenting that we see in our own households can be relatable to any parent reader. But this is literature. Though parents are ordinary or too common a character in the script of life, they can be made extraordinary by giving them personality that we hardly see in many parents.
Two children are fighting over a particular side of a boiled corn. An ordinary parent would say to one of the children, “You’re the elder, give it to your younger brother.” Or “She took it first, so she gets to eat it.”
An extraordinary parent would say, “Don’t you know that the quality of a great man depends on how much he shares with others? And if the other is also a great man, he will see to it that he only takes enough so that the other person gets his fair share.”
b) Are the characters personality and action consistent? This simply means, do the characters talk and act according to how we describe them? If our character is a violent CEO, do his words and actions mirror with each other? If we describe our character as a kind and compassionate person, we don’t show them smashing a spider, trapping a rat, or eating chicken for dinner. You get the gist, right?
All these minute details can be uprooted from the story. When we do so, we suddenly have something to comment about.
7. Setting. Whether it is an imaginary or a real setting, does it coincide with the rest of the details in the story? Unless it’s a time travel kind of plot, we cannot set our story in 1990 and show our characters chatting via Skype or Facebook Messenger. That’s the idea.
We must attempt to pick out what we can appreciate about the setting. Is it well-described to the extent of making us feel as though we are present at that particular time and place while reading? Is it lacking with something?
Basically, it all boils down to how much we know. The more we know about the subject, the more we can talk about it and suggest varied ideas to help the poem or story read better.
8. Dialogues. Sometimes when we read novels from classic authors, we may jot down dialogue lines that are interesting and memorable, those that are worthy of quoting because somehow they speak our mind or they resonate with us. Some dialogue lines, however, are lame and too cliched. But even if they are, it is advised to convey the same to the writer to help them improve.
Characters and dialogues go together. We don’t let our Professor character speak claptrap. Professors are supposed to be well-read, open-minded, and sophisticated. Make sure they match up.
Whether they match or not, it is a good idea to let the writer know that they are or aren’t, for amateur writers may not know this yet.
9. Narration. Narration is simply the process of dropping story details where they are necessary. It should be done in a clear, coherent, and comprehendible way. Sometimes, story details are not sequenced well that we need to reread the previous paragraphs to understand the current section that we are reading. That’s okay. But when we do it all the time throughout the story then the narration is faulty.
When we find such a problem, we will certainly feel dissatisfied and it would be helpful to the writer to share this discontent with them .
10. Active Voice versus Passive Voice. Though it is recommended to write sentences in active voice, passive voice is fine when required and used moderately.
Check the example below:
Active voice: Samantha ate the apple.
Passive voice: The apple was eaten by Samantha.
Sentences in the active voice have a strong, direct, and clear tone, just like in the example above because the subject (Samantha) is doing the action (ate the apple). Sentences in the passive voice are forceless and weaker, but when it’s essential it has its own place in your narrative.
Taking “The apple was eaten by Samantha” for example. This sentence construction is indispensable if the apple was the focus of your writing and not Samantha.
The same tip applies to poems as well. Whether it is written in the past or present tense, the active voice is still preferred more than the passive voice. It gives readers the feeling that they are being taken along line after line.
Example: (A line from I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth)
When all at once, I saw a crowd,
When all at once, a crowd was seen by me,
In the former line, the action is direct. You saw the crowd. This line transports you to the place itself where you can see the crowd. The latter, however, doesn’t have that impact. Though the line is grammatically correct, it surely can be rephrased to make it clearer, stronger and direct.
Pointing out these issues in a story or a poem can add to our list of what to write in our review.
11. Too much telling, less showing. Some stories are too descriptive or elaborate. Unless we’re writing a novel, too many descriptions or itemized actions are not necessary in a flash fiction or short story. Every description is to either give personality to our character or provide an ambiance to the setting. Every action leads to how the story ends. But overdoing it is bad writing. Follow “delete and see” strategy. Delete a detail or an action and see if it makes the story line falter. If the story still stands fine, then there’s no need to add those details.
Similar thoughts apply to reviewing a poem. Do the words used play an integral part to the overall impact of the poem? Are the words carefully chosen or are they simply put together without making some sense? How about the stanzas? Do they connect with each other? Do the last lines give closure?
Once we’re able to identify these pointers, our review is lengthier and deeper by now.
12. Grammar and Punctuation. Whenever the opportunity comes, I always emphasize that grammar and punctuation come next to creativity, originality, or imagination because grammar can easily be corrected. It is a language skill that can be learned. However, if not taken care of, they hinder the flow of the story (or a poem). To be able to point out grammar and punctuation mistakes, we have to be familiar with ‘when and how to use punctuation’, or ‘which verb tense to use when’, etc.
When we point out this area, we must make sure not to stop at saying ‘the grammar has gone haywire’ or ‘the punctuation marks are running around wildly’. Although we don’t need to itemize everything we see, pick up a few examples to show where the problem occurs.
We hope that these tips make our reviewing journey a more fruitful one. Looking forward to seeing everyone applying these tips in their feedback to their fellow writers’ works.
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