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DISCUSSION: Op-ed: Fanfic Reviews Aren't Reviews

Snuggle Tier List

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Op-ed: Fanfic Reviews Aren't Reviews​
Op-ed is shorthand for Opinion Editorial. They are opinion pieces that are not affiliated with the site's editorial board (in this case, the Writer's Workshop moderators). They exist to give outside opinions that a publication normally wouldn't carry (in this case, the Workshop Writing Academy). This pops opinion bubbles and can jumpstart or reinvigorate debates, but it also means their authors (in this case, me) are not vetted. The opinions expressed in op-eds are just that: opinions. Do not view this as a statement of fact; view this as a different perspective on established norms within fanfic.


Reporters don't make news. They report it. Similarly, the vast majority of reviewers, professional or amateur, don't create the product they're reviewing. When a movie critic gives two thumbs up, or a music critic gushes about some hipster album, or when a YouTuber revisits a childhood game; they don't change the work.

Fanfic reviews do.

As the result of a review, fanfic authors often directly respond to their reviewers. Thoughts and criticisms are considered when writing new chapters. Some authors even edit their fic as the result of reviews, making reviews instrumental to their fic. Without reviews, fanfics often wither and die, their authors no longer motivated. They are so instrumental to fan fiction, we have entire systems set up to encourage reviews. The Review League. The Review Game. Private review trades, or unofficial review games in the Written Word.

As I've become familiar with fanfic culture, there's one contradiction I cannot parse: reviews should help the author. This is a phenomenon entirely unique to fan fiction, and it has merit. Fanfic, by definition, cannot be legally sold. There are no customers for a review to inform. Even if you ascribe to "time is money", fanfic reviewers are horrible at informing customers. They give away spoilers, lack genre tags. Three months on this forum, I've yet to see a review directly address the fic's "customers". Because the customer of a fanfic review is the author.

At this point, the concept of a review has become so perverted, they are not longer reviews. Fanfic reviews aren't reviews; they're reports. Reporters don't write the fic, but what stories they cover and how they do so informs others. Whether it's an internal company report or film at 11, reporters influence. And by calling fanfic reviews "reviews", we lose that important distinction.

This phenomenon is widely recognized within fanfic. Fanfic review guides go out of their way to specifically recommended constructive criticism. Assisting the author's growth is not only encouraged, it's enforced. Disrespectful reviews are Bad Sportsmanship, as I have learned the hard way.

I've spent the past two months immersing myself in the Writer's Workshop "review culture". I've read guides from the Workshop Academy and moderators, participated in extensive private conversations with forum moderators. I've participated in public discussions pertaining to reviews, even beta-tested a review template with volunteers. I've become practiced writing fanfic reviews, yet something still feels wrong. And that's because fanfic reviews are reports.

We need to start calling fanfic reviews reports. Reviews and reports require different skill sets. They have different goals, different expectations. Calling reports on creative works "reviews" confuses those objectives. Anyone wandering into a Pokémon fan forum has more than likely seen YouTube reviews. Perhaps they've read professional game reviews, or seen discussion on game reviews. They already had an idea of what a review is; transferring that idea to reports creates sloppy reports.

I realise report is a scary word. Anyone who's attended school fears the dreaded report card. And professional reports can be vicious, especially when they come from outside sources. But in truth, most reports are benign. They are check-ups, not buyer's guides; they exist to improve what they're criticizing (even if you're failing all your classes). And while a badly-written report may be demoralizing, it still recommends areas of improvement. And even then, some reports may be positive! If there are areas where a fic excels, reports are obliged to point them out.

Calling fanfic reviews reports will not magically prevent sloppy reports. But it will better inform both fanfic authors and reviewers what to expect. It detaches any preconceptions seen in non-fanfic reviews. And it reminds reviewers to report on positive aspects of a fic that fall into the purview of their report. I don't think it's practical nor fair to require reviews be labeled reports. But if you find yourself writing a fanfic review, consider using the word report. Then, even those unfamiliar with fanfic reviews will know what you're writing.


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Well, this article came out of nowhere. The premise (fanfic reviews are unlikely any other review) was an epiphany I needed to write down. I'm not sure "reports" is the perfect word — I'm heavily considering "critique" as an alternative. But I personally found critique to imply a high bar for entry, even if it more accurately describes fanfic reviews. All my mind is certain of is that fanfic reviews are radically different than any othee type of review, and so shouldn't be placed in the same boat. It's a lesson I'm taking to heart, and whether others agree with me or not, I'm not too concerned. At the very least, a surgical rebuttal would further refine my critical eye. And if it turns out my perspective helps others better understand fanfic reviews, I'd be a shame if I didn't post this editorial somewhere. I know my review style's been skewed by emulating non-fanfic reviewers. Perhaps I'm not the only one.
 

canisaries

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I'd wager it's a pretty common view here that fic reviews and "real" reviews are two separate things. Fic reviews are mostly written for the sake of the author, while mainstream reviews are typically meant for a wide audience to help determine whether they should see the movie or read the book in question and if they do, what they should expect. Sometimes reviewers and critics are also entertainers, and one could argue that's always part of the mainstream review experience, as writers are expected to have sufficient rhetorical skills to make reading through their opinions not a complete snore. Either way, it ties into the fact that traditional reviews are for a crowd, fic reviews for the author (and, in some cases, partly for the reviewer themselves as a learning experience). Now it is true that there are some fic reviewers out there that build themselves a reputation and followers and begin to take on a bit of an entertainer role, but those are still in the minority and don't really represent the review culture I've bumped into on here and Serebii. FFnet may be a different story, however, if the exposure I've had is anything to go by.

I've personally had several moments where I write "here's a review" and backspace to correct it to "here's a reply" because I just don't think the word "review" fits. A review considers different aspects of the work and evaluates how well they work or what they bring to the table. I can't bring myself to use the word, at least with good confidence behind it, if I feel like I didn't have enough to say or I focused too much on a single topic. However, a reply will always be a reply as long as it says something about the work - and due to the rules in the forums I've used, almost all replies contain feedback outside of just "good story pls update".

Speaking of "feedback", that may be a good word to use. "Critique" has a negative connotation and sounds a bit snobby as a word, but feedback is something anyone can give. Feedback is what sites want from their visitors and those definitely aren't all web designers. People know feedback can be both positive or negative, and that the most useful feedback is constructive. Sometimes feedback is neutral, too - simply thoughts on a concept or event. Or bad jokes like the ones I can't stop making.

I'm guessing "review" is used currently because it's just the word everyone is used to, and it does have more of a connection to works of art than "feedback". Regulars know what "review" is code for in the fic community, but you're correct in that newcomers might mistake it for something fancier than people are okay with. I too remember wondering if I really was "qualified" to give my first review.

I'm not a fan of "report". As someone not extremely familiar with the term, it looks just as fancy (if not more) as "review", with the difference of me not being sure what a report even looks like. "Report" has a school assignment feel to it, like it's something you're required to do and not something you do because you think it's beneficial or fun. Using that word instead of "review" feels like it would just get people even more apprehensive about leaving feedback.
 

Snuggle Tier List

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@canisaries Feedback is a perfect word. I like it better than "report" myself (I went with it to make the news analogues, but I'm happy eating crow if it means a better word is found). I'm mainly concerned with establishing "fanfic reviews ≠ reviews" and the problems the wrong word choice causes, and you seemed to have understood that point well.

Also, I wrote this in like an hour in a mad frenzy before bed, and I still don't know what exactly triggered it. I literally couldn't sleep until I put this to paper. I think it was a perfect storm of months investigating review culture + an uneasy feeling after reading uA's reviewing guide + bedtime reading of On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Regardless, I have a personal vow to avoid editing my "public record", so I'll leave this op-ed as is. I'm considering a follow-up if this generates lots of attention, where I state how my opinion has shifted, but I got fics I'm procrastinating on I really need to finish editing.

And for the record: thank you! Always nice to read detailed feedback.
 

unrepentantAuthor

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Looks like Canis more or less covered this for me already, but I figure I may as well add that the "review" nomenclature is something of a holdover from early fandom culture, for want of a robust replacement term. "Review" is what fanfiction.net called and still calls reader comments, regardless of their content, and FFN dominated early fanfiction culture. I "grew up there" if you like, so the word has stuck in my brain. I'm sure the same is true for a lot of people.

Besides, it might not accurately describe the content and purpose of reader feedback if taken to mean the same as a "review" in the wider world, but it is both a noun and a verb, it's website-agnostic, and it doesn't actually prescribe a certain "style" of feedback. While "review" may make one think of movie reviews, it's also used in other terms, such as a work review or the phrase "let's review".

Alternative terms trade in one or more of these qualities, typically for a benefit of lesser value. "Report" for example, brings to mind either a news report, or a school report, neither of which has a close semantic flavour to what we're going for. "Feedback" isn't bad, but it connotes a certain relationship with unnecessary specificity, and we're not talking about the beta reader process in this context. "Reply" is forum thread specific, hence its advocates here, but they don't have "replies" on other hosts. They have "reviews" on FFN and "comments" on AO3. "Comments" is good, and probably the best candidate for a replacement term, but it's much more general in scope. Whether that's a benefit is up to you. I guess I'd support "comment" taking over as the de jure nomenclature. But I don't really care.

Having said all that, I don't think people here or elsewhere tend to have any misconceptions about what "review" should be taken to mean in fandom culture. After all, there's no mechanical facility on this website to "see reviews" or look at reviews by a particular reviewer, or support a rating system of any kind. When all's said and done, it's a pretty harmless semantic oddity.
 

Beth Pavell

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'Feedback' seems reasonably accurate to the sort of reviews you find here. The main difference between a fanfiction review, and a review as written by a critic (To give it a woolly definition), is that a fanfiction review usually addresses the author, not the audience. This explains why it's often considered good review practice to be constructive in criticism.

As a matter of community, then we do insist in civility, and the reasons behind that are no doubt obvious. Civility doesn't necessarily obviate criticism, though. I take as an example a review I wrote for some rise by sin, which I quote here to remove the need for clicking through links:

Not your best chapter, I'm afraid, El. I think I can winnow my criticisms down into three:

Point one. Now, whether this is really a criticism or not depends on what you were going for, so bear that one in mind. Silver is a jerk. And a cruel, mercurial, violent and self-righteous jerk at that. If you were intending to paint him as a victim of circumstance - with his enmity with TUPpy almost a case of two warships passing in the night - then that's something that only exists in TUPpy's own mind. At every point Silver could have simply avoided her. Instead he's consistently threatened her with violence the moment he hasn't got his own way. The justification of Icarus or her attack on Ariana just doesn't hold up, since two minutes thought would tell him that she really didn't have any other choice. Or her attack on himself, which doesn't hold up because he very much started it. The Rocket regime is one step away from INGSOC in the way that it punishes sedition. Silver has choices - she doesn't.

Point two. I'm beginning to hope that TUPpy's attitude towards herself isn't going to last through the entire fic. I'll be honest, by the end of this chapter I was beginning to get tired of her constant vacillating between guilt over, well, defending herself against a violent thug and recognising Silver for what he is. The unreliable narrator is all very well, but it's possible to overdo it. In this case I think the reason why it's getting tiresome is because it's all predicated on one short conversation under the illusion of a truce. There's all this talk of uneasy alliances and matters of honour, and all I want to to is shout "HEY, it's not a negotiation if you threaten to psychically squash the other person when they say 'no' to anything".

This leads me on to the related point three. This particular chapter needs some real tightening up. There's a lot of inner monologue that meanders around here, especially in relation to Gaia and Silver. That it's difficult to follow over 6,000 words is one thing - the bigger issue is that I don't think it serves to move the story on, either.

It occurs to me that this is probably the most critical review I've given this story so far. I've tried to frame it in a way that is as clear and concise as possible. I'm aware that some of my thoughts, particularly point two, probably won't be shared by other readers. It's probably fair to say that I have a lower tolerance for the unreliable narrator than others do. You've always had a habit, I think, of writing with a poetic bent; I think in this case you've got carried away and lost a lot of meaning. As I type this though, I return to that same 'but' - I suspect that I will be in a minority on this one

Now, granted, kintsugi and I know one another well enough that I can 'safely' be direct in my reviews - she knows very well it isn't personal, and I know very well she prefers this style of criticism. But what it demonstrates, I think, is the wide range that constructive criticism can over. In don't offer many solutions here. My opinions are placed in their proper context (i.e: this is my opinion and I don't claim it to be at all universal). My critique is focused on the content of the story, not the character of the author
 

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As of now, I've gotten multiple posts of detailed feedback. Thus, for the sake of time, I'm generalizing opinions expressed towards my op-ed.

Civility doesn't necessarily obviate criticism, though.
Correct. It doesn't necessarily obviate criticism. It does, however, discourage it. Blunt criticism, as I can personally testify, can be disrespectful. And if I may anonymously paraphrase someone wiser than me:

Respect is subjective...but I can give you my personal philosophy of how I try to communicate and how I teach others. I try to consider the needs of all parties involved and try to find the best way for to meet all of them if possible. I also aim to be sincere regardless of whether or not I can meet a request. Striking a balance of sincere and professional is difficult for many people. This is especially true as different people will respond very differently to the same language. It's really something that the majority of people only reach after much experience.
In other words, one man's criticism is another's disrespect. You do give an example showing civil criticism is possible. But your example needed both experience and personal repertoire. That creates a barrier new reviewers cannot overcome, as they have no experience nor repertoire. Thus, we as a community should be looking to lower those barriers. Widely communicating the target audience of fanfic reviews, whether it be through terminology or some other form, is step one of many.

Note that this op-ed is only concerned with step one. Broader questions on encouraging a healthy review culture are outside my focus.

Having said all that, I don't think people here or elsewhere tend to have any misconceptions about what "review" should be taken to mean in fandom culture.
I can confirm what "review" means in fandom culture took me just under three months to grasp. That stemmed from the word review. While I'm a sample size of one, this demonstrates the term "review isn't harmless. It may be may be "pretty" harmless, but it is not harmless.

Whether that's a reasonable interpretation, your examples don't dispute. FFN.net, while still influential, is no longer the universal arbitrator since AO3's formation, meaning different communities should independently determine how to phrase fanfic reviews. Your examples "work reviews" and the phrase "let's review" are unrelated to art and thus unlikely to be thought of by those definitions. Thus, I proposed the term report as it's rarely used in artistic contexts (and thus implying similarity). I do think canis's feedback is better than review because it's rarely applied to art and lacks formality. And I disagree feedback as popularly understood "connotes a certain relationship with unnecessary specificity" to the general public, as Merriam Webster demonstrates:
Merriam Webster defining feedback said:
1a: the transmission of evaluative or corrective information about an action, event, or process to the original or controlling source
also: the information so transmitted

1b: the partial reversion (see reversion sense 3a) of the effects of a process to its source or to a preceding stage

2: the return to the input of a part of the output of a machine, system, or process (as for producing changes in an electronic circuit that improve performance or in an automatic control device that provide self-corrective action)

3: a rumbling, whining, or whistling sound resulting from an amplified or broadcast signal (such as music or speech) that has been returned as input and retransmitted
Merriam Webster's example sentences said:
The company uses customer feedback to improve its products.
He asked for some feedback from his boss.
The computer makes adjustments based on feedback from the sensors.
We were getting some feedback from the microphone.
I do support "reply" as a possible replacement. While the word itself is unspecific, this means posters would need to form entirely new context (who will see this reply? to what standard should this fic be judged by? how might the author respond? etc.)

Regardless, replacing the word "review" is one potential means to an end. I'm proposing fanfic reviews barely resemble pop culture's media reviews. Thus, the idea fanfic reviews are written for the author is not automatically implied for those just entering the community. Knowing your target audience is step one to any form of writing. If we wish to promote a healthy, active review culture, we must communicate step one.

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To keep the conversation on track and open-minded, I shall make a refined statement of opinion:

Fanfic reviews, unlike popular understanding of art reviews, are not targeted at potential consumers. They are targeted at the fanfic's creator. Newcomers to the community are unlikely to understand this. Thus, while I don't believe "review" is an accurate description, I'm more concerned with clearly communicating FANFIC REVIEWS AREN'T REVIEWS. Whatever word is used, whatever methods are used, I'm willing to concede so long as the target audience is clearly communicated to new community members.

Oh, and this discussion is inherently skewed because those who had negative experiences reviewing aren't likely to show up. Because they've left the Workshop. I still think this conversation has merit (hence this reply), but I don't consider it representative of the typical, not-deeply-invested Writer's Workshopee. And hard data on word choice is unlikely to exist, so the best we can do is form educated opinions. I definitely feel like the contrarian and will do my best to back up my argument, but on a meta level I feel alone. Replying to this thread is exhausting and I probably can't keep it up long; I'll do my best, but eventually, I'll need to step back. Expect to see someone else get the last word. Thank you everyone for your interest, but I'm getting pooped.
 

Beth Pavell

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I will agree that in reviewing strangers one is more likely to be less negatively critical. I also agree that to a degree respect is relative. This shows the need for a moderated community, where moderators can act as neutral (That is to say, moderators should be neutral) arbitrators. To what extent is User A disrespectful? To what extent is User B unreasonably sensitive?

An easy example of what happens without this arbitration would be fanfiction.net. With nothing resembling moderation, let alone arbitration, the door is open for trolling and fandom wars
 

unrepentantAuthor

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It sounds like you've had enough of this, Snuggle, so I won't go on about it any further, but I expect that I'll make a note about the semantics discussed here when I revise my reviewing guide. However, I'm a descriptivist by nature, and I have no intention of trying to single-handedly enforce the use of a more etymologically appropriate word across fandom culture. As odd as you may find it, I suspect it's here to stay.
 
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