Monday, December 28, 2015

Reviewing: The Flaws You See, and the Ones That Matter

Hope you had a merry Christmas; I know I did, but now it's time to get back into the swing of things.  Today's post is about the subject of reviewing itself.  I'm going to specifically focus on what I do here, though the general subject is also applicable to more casual reviewing, or to leaving comments on stories.  Specifically, I'm going to be talking about something that I've obliquely mentioned a couple of times, and that I know Titanium Dragon has discussed in the past: how much importance or relevance to assign to the issues you may find in a given story.  Get my thoughts, below.

When I'm writing reviews, my biggest goal is to give readers an idea of what I considered the stories' strengths and weaknesses, as well as an idea of the degree to which those things struck me as positives or negatives (I'm going to be focusing specifically on the negatives for the rest of this post, though what I'm discussing can (more rarely) also happen when discussing the aspects of a story that impressed you).  As it turns out, talking about a story's flaws is remarkably easy--few and far between are stories which don't have plenty of little things to complain about.

But finding "plenty of little things to complain about" not at all the same as identifying a story's biggest flaws, and there's the rub: it's usually not hard to tell how much you liked a story.  It's usually not hard to find things wrong with a story.  But finding the specific things that were wrong with a story that made you like it as much (or little) as you did?  That can be much more of a challenge.

When a reviewer fails this challenge, the result is usually a review which focuses on seeming minutia, or where it feels like disproportionate weight is given to trivial plot points.  The latter doesn't always indicate the former; sometimes, a seemingly trivial plot point can have a flaw which undermines the entire story, or at least ruins one's immersion.  But when that's not the case, it usually means a reviewer is highlighting a flaw or flaws other than the ones that really bothered them about a story.

Why does this happen?  As I said, some errors are easier to spot than others.  Everyone's had the experience of reading a story they didn't enjoy.  For casual reading, that reaction is all that matters, but a reviewer is expected to quantify (or at least, justify) their reaction; "I think this story is boring" doesn't do much to tell a prospective reader whether they'll enjoy it or not.  And yet, it can be remarkably hard to quantify why one found a story boring; in cases like this, it's tempting to simply point out a few easy-to-spot problems or plotholes, and attribute one's overall opinion to them.

But that doesn't get to the source of a reviewer's issues with a story, and is misleading to prospective readers.  For a while now, when I've reviewed stories, I've made a point of trying to start from personal impressions, rather than looking holistically at the work.  In other words, rather than trying to find mistakes or problems as I'm reading a story, I try to keep track of how I'm reacting--am I engaged?  am I bored?  am I confused?--and then trying to identify specific causes for those reactions (holistic analysis is also useful, of course, and I do it too--my point is that I don't rely on it exclusively, and I tend to find it's a better way to identify supporting details of a review and central premises).

Titanium Dragon, talking about this issue in the context of accepting or rejecting stories, had a good metric for determining if one has found the flaws that actually bothered one.  He asked, "if those problems were fixed, would this story be accepted?"  This is always a good question to ask when one is reviewing; if a story didn't have whatever mistakes or issues I've mentioned in a review, would I love it?  If not, why?  And why didn't I mention the things that would still stop me from loving it in the review?

Often, it's easier to just point out a few missing commas than to identify why, specifically, you didn't react well to a story (and sometimes, missing commas can have a serious impact on a story's readability, in which case they are important flaws to note).  But it seems to me that a good review will tell you not just what problems a story has, but what the key problems are.  Being able to do that is the mark of a good reviewer, and it's something I continue to work on--but whether one is a dedicated reviewer or a reader trying to explain in the comments why they didn't like a fic, it's a valuable skill to have.


  1. "This is always a good question to ask when one is reviewing; if a story didn't have whatever mistakes or issues I've mentioned in a review, would I love it? If not, why? And why didn't I mention the things that would still stop me from loving it in the review?"

    So true. I agree with you on how it'd be so easy to take the easy shots when it comes to boring pieces - personally, I've found them to be the hardest to review right - the discussions always go into the sticky territory of dissecting the elements, looking at the context, and weighing them around to see why they aren't having the punch they should be, every step of which is influenced by bias, which needs to be laid out as well so that it's acceptable advice... The thought of going to such lengths only for it to fall on deaf or confused ears is a little disheartening, but that is what must be done.

  2. For me, there's an important step missing in there:

    1) I didn't like the piece, and I identified certain flaws in it.

    2) *

    3) If those flaws were fixed, would I accept the story?

    Step 2 should be: am I being fair in actually calling these flaws with the story?

    Chris has discussed this in his column before, but it's important to identify whether something you're calling a flaw is something hindering your enjoyment or something that can really be considered a misstep on the author's behalf. And too many reviewers can't do that. They'll never call a story good if they didn't like it, because they can't differentiate quality from enjoyment. So the question in step 2 should be: Are these actual flaws or just personal taste issues? I'm certainly not the best source of information on who does that well, since I just don't read that many review blogs, but for my money, the good ones are Chris, PaulAsaran, and Present Perfect.

    1. I'm not even a reviewer, but this is something I consider when rating stories (and movies, back when I had Netflix). Hell, any time I get into a discussion about media, I always try to make a distinction between stuff that's bad and that which I just wasn't into for personal reasons. Like, I'm not into first-person shooters, but I don't think they're all bad and can even appreciate the better ones to an extent. Good game design is good game design, after all

    2. Very good point; There's nothing wrong with enjoying, or failing to enjoy, a story because of personal taste issues, and it can be very helpful for a reviewer to identify those issues which they found affected their individual enjoyment... IF they can, as Pasco puts it, "differentiate quality from enjoyment." A lot of people have trouble separating the two, and in there defense it's sometimes difficult to tell one from the other, since many issues of quality/enjoyment exist on a continuum (that is, there are very few things which are entirely objective criticisms, but that doesn't mean that all other criticism is equally subjective).

      This would be a good subject for me to delve into a little more in another post, I think; certainly, it's something I spend a lot of time thinking about when writing reviews.

  3. Haven't been on as top of these things as I should have been, but thanks for the shout-out. Obviously, I agree with the contents of this post.

  4. It is, of course, a lot easier if you decide from (nearly) the start that your so-called "reviews" really are just "talking about whether I liked this story". In other words, those I publish are openly and explicitly based first and foremost on personal taste. Plenty of others (including yours) are more useful as reviews in a more traditional sense, but then that's not quite what I'm trying to do. :)