"I'm still new to writing. All these stories are so good, I don't know what to say for a review. Those writers know way more about what they're doing than I do."
Sound familiar? This is a common worry among people new to writing websites and critique in general. It can feel impossible to approach a well-written piece and offer them anything of value. After all, they're more advanced than you, so what could you tell them that they don't already know?
A lot, it turns out.
You probably can't explain technique to someone who knows more about technique than you do, it's true. Forget about trying. The key thing to remember is this:
You don't have to know how to fix an issue, you only have to identify that there is one.
You don't even necessarily have to know why you don't like something. Your job is to point out problem areas in the story. The author can then use that information to figure out what to do next.
Mary Robinette Kowal breaks down critique brilliantly in this ten minute video. I'm going to borrow her terminology because I find it so helpful:
Symptoms - This is your reaction to the writing. Thoughts like "I feel bored here," or "I was confused by this."
Diagnoses - This is when you go a step further and identify why you felt that way. "I was bored there because the description was so long," or "I was confused by the lack of dialogue tags when you had so many people speaking."
Treatments - This is when you suggest how to correct the problem. "You could try shortening these two paragraphs down into one or two sentences," or "Give the characters more action beats throughout the conversation."
Symptoms are far and away the most valuable, and they take absolutely no skill or experience for you to identify. This is what you should focus on if you feel out of your depth. Diagnoses can be helpful--sometimes you can hazard a guess as to what made you feel a certain way, and that can direct the author more specifically to the problem.
Treatments are very dangerous, and are not nearly as valuable as you think they are. A really experienced, professional writer may be able to identify a specific technique thing the author could improve. Or for instance, if you (the reviewer) have the same particular weakness and so have had to learn really good ways of dealing with a problem that you want to share. However, it's very easy to lead authors astray. The fundamental question here is whether or not you got the diagnosis right. If you misdiagnosed the problem, your treatment won't work.
-> An example to make this more clear. Let's say you feel that an argument between two characters doesn't work. That's the symptom, and that's the most important part to get across to the author. Something needs to change about that scene. In an effort to be more helpful, you suggest that the reason it doesn't work (the diagnosis) is maybe because the dialogue feels out of character. Maybe this is true. Or maybe the real reason is that a previous scene was out of character, and your expectations got set up incorrectly. If you simply tell the author "I didn't think Mark cared about that issue so much," they can look at their scenes and realize they didn't set Mark up to come across the right way. If, on the other hand, you say, "Lines x, y, and z don't sound like something Mark would say in this scene, and maybe he should say a, b, and c instead," you might confuse the author as to the real problem, or encourage them to change things that aren't the issue.
-> Another example. How about a plot twist that feels underwhelming. That's useful information right there. Let's say the real reason is because x wasn't foreshadowed, but you misdiagnose it to be because the wrong character delivered the information. You suggest it would be more powerful if her mother was the one to have the conversation with her, not the best friend. Say the author listens to that advice, changes it, and you both are stuck scratching your heads over why the new scene is still underwhelming.
All this is to say: suggestions on how to fix things are overrated.
The author is the one who knows what they intend to say, and their skillset is what they'll be using to tweak problems and rewrite scenes. The onus isn't on the reviewer to tell them how to do that. We feel like we should, because isn't that what makes a review helpful? NO. It isn't.
How to approach something you feel clueless about reviewing
Stick to your reactions. Most importantly, point out where you feel bored, confused, your mind starts wandering, or you find something unbelievable. To borrow again from Mary's video, she refers to the big three as where the reader...
- Didn't care
- Didn't believe
- Didn't understand
Even if the writing is absolutely spectacular, and even if you feel you could never in a million years tell that author how to improve, you honestly can be super helpful by doing this.
Another technique that I find very useful is to always recap at the end on plot, setting, and character. Again, reactions only. My suggestion is to include one sentence about what you liked, and one about what you didn't like. An example:
Plot: I can see we're headed for a murder mystery type story and I'm intrigued. I was a little confused by why she would be at the drycleaners at 2am, though.
Setting: The rundown feel of the drycleaner really comes across from the descriptions. However, I didn't realize it was set in alternate ancient Egypt until you mentioned the sarcophagus.
Character: I loved her determination to get her laundry done no matter what. It's not quite clear to me why she knows jujitsu, though.
Things to avoid
- If you don't know how to fix something, don't worry about trying. Tell the author how you felt, and let them do what they want with that information.
- Cheering them on is fine, but praise alone does not equal critique. Try to find things that you didn't like (particularly the big three mentioned above--uninteresting, unbelievable, or confusing). Don't feel bad about pointing out things that are in need of improvement--that's why an author has posted their work for critique! No need to apologize or feel guilty.
- If you think it's your own fault for being confused, it can still be worth mentioning. For instance, if you got a wrong idea in your head (eg about a character's personality, about which location they were at, etc, strictly because you misread a sentence or something) and that muddled everything else up, that still could be something that could be strengthened. Maybe it's okay how it is, but an additional line of clarification would prevent other readers from making the same mistake. Reader error is sometimes preventable, so it's helpful to know when it happens.
- And most importantly, don't avoid reviewing something just because you don't feel qualified! Reviewing others will teach you a lot more about writing than getting reviews. So in that sense, it's actually good to review more advanced authors! By analyzing how and what they're doing, you may start to realize what makes their stories (and thus your stories) stronger or weaker.
Go forth and review!