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Tips on Critiquing Fanfiction

Hi - I wrote this essay when I realised there weren't many sources on how to give fanfiction an in-depth critique. I've tried to avoid presenting my opinions as the One True Way, so please do point out where I've suggested something is 'wrong' when it may simply be a matter of taste.


Tips on Critiquing Fanfiction


by Amber_and_Ash


A common misconception is that you have to be a good writer to be a good
critiquer. You don't. What you need to be is a good reader. Your reaction
is representative of a good portion of other readers, and this is the
information the author needs to know. Our job as critiquer is not as a
colleague, concerned with the overall progress of the writer and the meta-aims
of  the fiction (to practice English, to learn how to write action scenes,
etc) - that is the role of the beta-reader who has a personal relationship with
the author and whose name appears on the final product. We are concerned with
the story itself and the effect it had on us as readers.


Before I start, let me note there are many ways of doing about this. This is
simply one way, intended to give advice to people who are unsure how to start.
It is based on many other essays (see the links below) and personal experience.


Step 1


Read the piece through once as a casual reader. Write a two or three line
summary of your impressions - the plot, tone, and characterisations. This allows
the author to see what people are getting out of the fic in comparison to what
they *hoped* they would. ("They think is was a fluffy pre-slash scene? It's
meant to be a deeply sarcastic battle of wits!" or "But that wasn't meant to be
the important bit!")


Step 2


Let the author know if you have personal prejudices about anything in their
writing (particular pairings, unsympathetic main characters, redemption fic,
etc). If you absolutely hate the premise of the story, it doesn't mean you can't
critique it - on the contrary, it often allows you to view it with a more
objective eye. However, the author needs to know to take your comments (or lack
thereof) on that aspect in the right context.


Step 3


Now read through it again, critically, bearing the following elements in
mind. Be specific, and suggest alternatives wherever possible. Try to phrase
comments as personal opinions rather than accusations ("I didn't understand x"
rather than "x makes no sense") - it's easier for the author to hear and it
doesn't detract from the point you are trying to make.


Grammar, punctuation and flow:

This really should have been corrected before it got to you, but if you're
feeling generous go ahead and look out for it. Things to look out for in
particular include tense abuse; lack of variation in sentence length, paragraph
length and diction; 'thinness' of exposition  and  excessive emphasis or use of
exclamation marks.


The beginning:

Did it interest you sufficient to continue reading? Was it too 'strong'? (e.g. a
death/rape/etc. of a character you don't care about yet, a battle when you don't
know which side you're supposed to be supporting, etc.) Was it recognisably part
of the fandom?


Plot:

Is something happening? Is there meaningful conflict? Is the pace too fast or
slow? Are there unbelievable coincidences? Is the ending satisfying?


Characterisation:

- Canon characters: (Unless marked OOC). A simple rule - the further away the
character is from canon, the longer it must take to get there. Rather than
accusing the author of not having read the books, suggest that they explain what
happened to turn Snape into a sentimental romantic, or Neville into a bully.

- Original characters: Does this character serve a plot function? Do they feel
like a real person? Are their names, actions, dialogue, clothing, etc.
consistent? (A character described as gentle and quiet is not going to wear loud
clothing and become involved in bar brawls) Is the characterisation appropriate
to their situation? (A British child attending an expensive boarding school like
Hogwarts is not going to behave in the same way as an American gang member or an
impoverished refugee)  


AU and Canon

There are three main categories of AU:

- 'From event': the fic only accounts for information given before a certain
event (e.g. "This fic is AU from the beginning of book 5"). Critique the fic as
normal for canon introduced prior to the event, and ignore any violations from
later in the source material.

- 'What if?': the fic changes one of the premises (e.g. "What if Wormtail had
been captured in PoA?", "What if Harry had been sorted into Slytherin?"). The
'theme' of the alterations should be readily apparent, and the fic should be
mainly concerned which the effect the changes would have. Watch out for changes
in canon that have no plot function (e.g. change in eye colour) or are given no
consequences (e.g. Hermione actually comes from a pure-blood family, but this in
no way affects the relationships between her and the rest of the students). Also
watch out for too many changes - if Harry is actually some sort of royalty AND
the twin of Hermione AND a secret weather mage AND Dumbledore's forgotten love
child by Severus Snape, then it had better be intended as a comedy. Point out
which changes you feel to be central to the plot, and which are merely
decorative.

- 'Alternate Universe': the fic takes all or most of the characters and places
them in a different environment (e.g. aboard a pirate ship or during the Russian
Revolution) Here, characterisation becomes all important. If all the names are
blanked out, can you still tell who is supposed to be who? Are the relationships
between them equivalent? (e.g. Is Snape still in a position of limited authority
over the children? Is Voldemort still a dangerous enemy? etc.)

When the fic deviates from canon other than in the circumstances above, note it
and give the author an idea of where this canon information can be found.
Realise that some details are a matter of debate (e.g. the exact number of
Gryffindor's in Harry's year), so try to provide whatever supporting evidence
you have.


Brit(and any other culture)-picking

This is a contentious topic, but as broad guidelines:

 - The spoken conversation and thoughts of a person should sound like a
person from that culture - it is as out of character for Hermione to say 'Mom'
as for her to suddenly start swearing. If you know enough to spot these, point
them out.

- Elements that don't exist in a particular culture but are not contradicted in
canon (e.g., cheerleaders at Hogwarts) should have significant in-fic
justification for existing.

- Expressions in exposition (e.g. 'lowly' meaning quietly) should be ignored
unless the author has specifically asked for them to be pointed out.


POV:

- Omniscient: the author tells the story as an omniscient observer. This style
can be found in fairy tales, but is not common in most modern fiction ("Sally
was a very silly girl who thought she knew better than her mother. Sally's
mother loved her daughter very much and did not like to see her upset, but she
knew how dangerous it was..."). If the author does not come through as a
distinct voice, then it is NOT omniscient, it is simply rapid changes of 3rd
Person POV, below.

- Limited 3rd Person POV: Telling the story strictly from one person's
perspective at a time. Check for information being introduced that the character
could not have known, rapid shifts in point of view, lack of clarity about whose
POV it is, and inappropriate POV (if the story would work better if we were in
someone else's head).

- First Person POV: uses "I". Watch for knowledge the character could not have
known, commentary that is out of character (if the POV character wouldn't notice
what another character was wearing, then he/she wouldn't comment on it for the
audience to find out either), and actions/thoughts that would alienate the
reader.


Tone:

Is it appropriate for fandom? (A 'Friends' style comedy does not fit into 'LOTR').
This is similar to OOCness -  the further it is away from the tone of the
original, the longer it has to take to get there. Is the tone appropriate for
subject matter (is the fic a flippant story about suicide?). Is the tone
consistent throughout the story?


Logic:

Does anything violate established facts without explanation? Are there
continuity errors? Are they referring to songs by Eminem when the fic is set in
the 70's? Are you ever confused about what happened, or assumed A to be
surprised later in the fic that the author actually meant B?


Redundancy:

Is there a lot of writing before the plot actually starts? Are details repeated
unnecessarily? Is information introduced that serves no purpose in the story
(plot, characterisation or tone)?


Other common mistakes to look out for:

- Mirrors. A description of a main character by having them look into a mirror
is a bad idea. Yes, that does include anything that can be used as a reflective
surface.

- "As you know, Bob". If both parties already know a fact, they are not going to
tell it to each other about it. If you can preface the sentence with 'as you
know', then it's a strong indicator that it should not be included ("Mom, my
middle name is Anne").

- Said bookisms. Forget High School creative writing classes - the word "said"
cannot be overused. Readers regard it almost like punctuation. "Interrupted",
"whispered", "stuttered", "screamed", "insinuated" and heavens help us,
"ejaculated", can be overused exceptionally quickly. This also applies to
adverbs - "he said angrily", "she said quickly", "she said winningly".

- Mary Sue. Point out the specific problems - "the character is so powerful that
I found the conflict to be trivial to her", the OOCness of the other characters,
any breakdowns in logic and violations of canon - rather than a blanket
accusation.

- Fandom Cliches. We might have come to dread these little 'canon' touches, but
the author may have no idea how overused they are. Examples: Albus's twinkling
eyes,  'Gred and Forge', increasingly silly 'sweet' passwords and random
unregistered animagi.


IMPORTANTLY: Also tell the author when she/he has done any of
the above well. Comment on the details you felt to be examples of excellent
characterisations and the plot points you found to be satisfying. Not only does
this make an author more open to hearing your criticisms, it provides useful
contrasts between what works and what doesn't.


Step 4


Wrap up with a summary of the fic's strengths. By this stage, if you have
done your job correctly, the author will feel a little battered. Use this
section to reassure them that while you were looking for the negative, the
positive was still there!


Bibliography:


How to Critique Fiction by Victory Crayne


How to deal with critiquing by Rich Hamper


Critiquing the Wild Writer: It's Not What You Say, But How You Say It by Andrew Burt


Hardcore Critique Guidelines by Amy Sterling Casil


Tags: fandom:fanfiction, fandom:fanon, other topics:criticism
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  • The Science of Pureblood Prejudice

    The wizarding world has many inherent prejudices, the most notable of which is pureblood prejudice against muggleborns and squibs. On a…

  • The Missing Babies

    Exploring: Infant mortality in the wizarding world and why there is so little evidence for it How wizarding society functions Why having a…

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