I have always believed that reading a good book is like being in a relationship and that when the book ends, it leaves you feeling sad and a bit lost. I, for one, feel bereft after I end a good book. I experience a sense of loss because books have that magical quality or rather I should say that writers have the talent to suck us into a plot and make us feel like we are a part of the narrative. However, they do not get to that point without braving detractors and critics.
When I started writing short stories about 6-8 months back, I thought I was quite good. In fact, I actually thought I was smashing it out of the ballpark. If you had asked me back then to rate myself on a scale of 1-10, I would probably have rated myself at an 8. However, as a few months passed by and I started submitting entries for more competitions, as I started reading the work of other amateur writers, my confidence nose-dived. Truth be told, every second person out there was better than me. They were prolific writers who could give any wannabe writer a run for his/her money. I was disheartened. For a person who thought that her work was good, it was a humbling moment. My self-rating dropped from an 8 to a measly 2-3. I still stand by that rating, the latter one I mean because I believe I am still learning and I have miles to go yet.
However, once that realization dawned, I knew what I had to do in order to grow – I had to embrace my critics. I realized that if I wanted to get better then I had to benefit from the reviews that I received on my stories. And, believe me; embracing my critics and reviewers, has helped me immensely as a writer.
Although being reviewed made me a better writer, I still needed to learn how to extend the same courtesy to other fellow writers. Communication is a two-way street, it’s a dialogue and I realized that I needed to give if I wanted to receive. And, trust me, it was not easy. It is easy to read a story and heap accolades on the writer without taking on the onus of actually appraising it critically. Let me tell you that in my quest to be a better reviewer, I stumbled a lot at first. Let’s face it; writers, even amateur or wannabe ones have massive egos. So when I reviewed stories, I rubbed a few people the wrong way. They did not take kindly to be reviewed by a writer who had not published much. Although I was careful to keep the tone of my review mild, respectful even, writers were pretty dismissive of me. So, I started paying attention to the techniques of reviewing. I started making a note of how the more proficient reviewers were doing it. That is when I understood that the ‘feel good’ factor of a story that endears us to it, is just the tip of the iceberg. There are other factors that need to be considered while reviewing someone’s work.
Underneath are three factors that I have learnt to keep in mind while reviewing someone’s story. My experience may be of some help to you too.
- Plot, story and content– All of us when we read a story tend to imagine ourselves in that story. That’s a way for us to endear ourselves to it, to live it and feel it. Hence, nowadays I pay particular emphasis to the plot of the story and how the story develops. The build-up to the end is important. So, I keep the central plot/theme in mind when I review the story for the writer. If I think the writer has faltered in their treatment of the plot, I tell them albeit politely.
I also learnt on this platform how important ‘showing’ is in comparison to’ telling’. So, now I try to search for instances in the story where the reader has shown us an incident instead of just telling us about it. That for me is real content and I review based on the treatment a writer has given to his/her content.
- Language, grammar and narrative – If the language in the story has imperfect grammar then the reading of the story is not smooth for a reader. The narrative does not flow from one paragraph to the next and if it appears too disjoined then a reader may abandon the story altogether. So, I learnt that the language of a story should be accorded some importance in a review. Punctuation, tenses and prepositions are very important, so now if I spot a mistake I try and gently point that out to the writer and even suggest a way to re-write the sentence. There was a time when I would merely review a story and say that tenses are not correct. However, since I am on a quest to become a better reviewer, now I take the time to mention where exactly the writer has gone wrong and what he/she has done wrong.
Overall impact – Every writer has a particular style and that style will resonate in the tone of his/her story. Earlier as a reader, I would either like or unlike a story. However, once I started paying attention to the finer points of reviewing, I realized that the overall impact that a story creates is really important. The emotional connection that a reader feels with a writer’s characters is vital. That is what the popularity of the work depends on. Hence, as a reviewer, I started paying closer attention to the tone of the story and the emotions that the story evoked in me. I realized that it was actually quite difficult to review a story once you started delving into emotional aspects. What helped me was to trust my gut on the story while remaining impartial.
Gradually as I reviewed more, I learnt to separate my personal perspective from that of the writer’s. I realized that in order to review a story I had to understand the writer’s perspective or delve into their thinking. That was the only way to do justice to their work. I could not bring my perspective to the table (how I thought the story should have been written because let’s face it, it’s not my story). This fundamental understanding has, I think, helped me a lot to become a better reviewer.
I admit there are times when some stories confuse me. But, at that point instead of just shrugging it off and saying that I did not understand, I now question the writer and at times also ask them to clarify. In the bargain, sometimes I learn something new and at others, I am able to suggest edits in the story that benefits the writer.
All that I can say is that learning is a constant process both as a writer and as a reviewer. And, if you want to be a good writer, you have to learn to be a better reviewer first because reviewing and writing have a yin-yang relationship.
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