Critique 101: Writing Helpful Reviews

Hey-o! Your friendly World Anvil Enchanters here, bringing you a handy dandy guide to celebrate the inclusion of an absolutely wonderful addition to our growing base of World Anvil user resources!

During The Great Summer Camp Challenge of 2018 in July, we launched a new channel in the World Anvil Discord Server (#worldbuilding-review) aimed at providing three necessary features for our Discord:

1. A place for World Anvil users to show off their individual works in a controlled environment dedicated to that purpose;

2. An easier method of gaining constructive feedback and critique on those pieces, from other World Anvil users;

3. A way to bolster the use of World Anvil’s Likes and Comments systems, which we felt were being sorely under-utilized.

The reception was so great we decided to keep the channel around. And just three months after Summer Camp we’re proud to announce that it’s still going strong! With recent changes in the channel’s rules, however, we feel it’s time to introduce a guide for the most useful tool in our arsenal as creators: The Critique.

 


Critique And It’s Purpose


Critiques, good critiques, are critical assessments; thoughtful analyses of a creative work, aimed at evaluating its overall quality. In writing such as what occurs on World Anvil, that usually means examining a work’s setting, plot, and other details- both on the micro level as an individual work, and on the macro level (or as it exists within the context of the greater world it’s a part of).

The purpose of a critique is to analyze a work’s quality- then respond to it in a way that helps the creator improve it. This makes critique a necessary tool for our growth as content creators.

In other words, a critique isn’t pure criticism (it’s a thoughtful analysis). It’s not meant to hurt (it’s meant to help). It isn’t meant to be destructive (it’s meant to be constructive). It’s not about grammar or syntax, either (it’s about plot and worldbuilding). Likewise, it isn’t about the author (it’s about the world and the story). Nor is it supposed to be personal (it’s objective).

But we often forget the most important reason we critique in the first place. We also forget the necessary elements that actually make our critiques useful. And that’s what this guide is here to help you with.

 


Critique 101


Get Objective

We’re all individuals. As individuals, we have preferences; content we like reading, settings we prefer, topics we enjoy more than others, and so on. Not every piece of writing will fit within your preferences- and World Anvil’s content isn’t immune to that… Likewise, every author has their own style, writing voice, and method of approach.

However, a good critique ignores all of this. Instead, it looks at a piece of work in an objective manner.

It’s important that you don’t approach critiques with the intent of showcasing how you would personally write something… But with the intent of helping the author improve their work as they would write (and have already written) it; that you’re able to distinguish between what’s simply a matter of personal preference, and what legitimately doesn’t work for a piece for logical reasons.

Read Thoroughly

Make sure that you can offer a critique that’s both thoughtful and helpful- which means reading the work in full… Carefully… Top to bottom… And then reading it again for good measure; really making sure you understand a work before you decide to critique it.

Nothing’s worse than receiving a critique where it’s clear the person didn’t understand the work- or worse, didn’t even read it before responding.

Choose Your Subjects Wisely

Remember, World Anvil is a worldbuilding site. The focus is on the various elements of worldbuilding– not the various technical and design skills of the author. In other words: You shouldn’t critique things such as formatting, CSS design, or grammar and syntax… It’s not relevant- nor is it usually helpful in light of World Anvil’s focus.

There are only two exceptions to this: 1. When an author has explicitly asked for you to include these topics in a critique; and 2. When these elements impact the work’s coherency or readability in a significant manner; when wonky wording, poor CSS design, or some other technical element actually makes it difficult to understand or read the text- necessitating a legitimate clarification on the subject, or a change in CSS.

Don’t Fixate On the Negative

The core of critique is criticism- a word loaded with negative connotations in the English language. But while criticism is arguably the core, it’s only one element of a successful critique.

A good critique should never respond solely to the work’s failures. Instead it should identify a work’s weaknesses as well as its strengths- both in the context of the piece individually, and in regards to how that piece fits within the context of the setting as a whole. This is done by not only by criticizing the elements that don’t work, but also by praising the elements of a piece that do. So if you liked something, give it a shoutout!

Specify and Explain

As someone critiquing a creative work, your job is to understand the writer’s goals- and aid them in achieving them. Vague or highly generalized criticism, then, is far too nebulous to be of any legitimate use to the author.

Instead of being vague, be specific. Point out concrete areas where the elements of a piece don’t work- and where they do. Provide examples. And most importantly: Explain why they don’t (or do) work for you; a 10 page essay isn’t necessary- but the more detail you give, the more helpful your critique will be.

Be Constructive

Remember, the purpose of critique is to help an author improve the quality of their work. And as we all arguably know as people (not just as creatives): It’s incredibly hard to improve on what you’re doing wrong, if no one’s offering suggestions on how to do so. So don’t just say “I don’t like this thing and here’s why”. Offer the author something solid that you think is a reasonable solution for it.

Be Kind About It

Providing good, constructive criticism that legitimately helps an author absolutely requires some amount of compassion and kindness… That doesn’t mean coddle them and refuse to point out the failures in their work, however. That’s contrary to the point of a critique altogether. But contrary to popular belief, “brutal honesty” is not a thing.

Criticizing something doesn’t mean you have to be rude and ignore the feelings of the author in the process; it’s entirely possible to say you don’t like something about a piece- and you can certainly say as much in a way that respects the author, and the amount of work they put into it. Furthermore, it’s necessary for critique to work in the first place.

 


Some Things To Ask Yourself


1. How well did I read and understand the work? Do I have a decent grasp of the setting, the subject, and the important details?

2. If you didn’t understand a section: Did I misunderstand this section, and can rereading it more carefully correct my understanding of it- or could it actually be worded in a better way to facilitate understanding?

3. If you didn’t understand a section: Is the lack of understanding due to a language barrier (such as in the case of me reading, or the author writing in, a language other than my / their native one)- or could it actually be worded in a better way to facilitate understanding?

4. If you didn’t understand a section: Have I asked questions and given the author an adequate opportunity to explain the elements I’m struggling with in order to help me understand this element of the work?

5. Is my problem with this element of the work due to personal preference- or is it an actual flaw in the storytelling or worldbuilding? Am I being genuine and objective in my evaluation of these flaws?

6. Is my issue vague, or could it be better defined? Can I provide a specific example? More importantly: Can I adequately articulate my problem with this element, and why I think it’s a flaw?

7. Is my critique constructive? Have I offered specific, concrete solutions to help the author fix the problems I found with it- and are the solutions I offered reasonable?

8. Have I provided adequate praise for the elements of the piece that do work, and provided adequate explanation for why I think they work- or is my critique overly negative?

9. And most importantly: Are the various elements of my critique relevant to the work (and the setting it exists in)- and is it relevant to the purpose of World Anvil itself?


Hopefully this article will help those of you struggling with how to write critiques for articles posted in the channel. We also hope it’ll encourage more people to participate. Regardless, Staff here at World Anvil are greatly enjoying the addition of the new #worldbuilding-review channel.

Seeing everyone’s posts, and watching engagement, has truly been wonderful. We definitely look forward to seeing more articles as they’re posted.

Happy Worldbuilding!

A tea obsessed, cat loving Dungeons and Dragons DM with way more time on her hands than is actually reasonable for any single human being to possess.

I’m part of the World Anvil Community Team! Find me on Discord, or check out my worlds on World Anvil!

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