Acknowledgements: This is an updated version of a guide I was requested to make for AGNPH in 2007. The original drew on my own views, those of forum comments and CaptainSaicin's review guide on Yiffstar. I've gone through this one, updated and expanding to include art as well as stories. I haven't included examples to avoid upsetting anyone. This is aimed at SoFurry but a lot of the advice is applicable wherever you can comment or vote on submissions.
This guide assumes that reviewing is the correct thing to do. Not everyone agrees but this is not the place for such a discussion. My views on reviewing submissions are available in this opinion piece published on Flayrah.
-When to review -What to include in a review -What to exclude from a review -Replying to reviews -Use of star-based rating system
When to review:
This won't apply to too many people but don't review until you have spent some time going through submissions. If you are going to review in a constructive manner you need to have an idea of what is out there, which you will only get with time, and how the submission you are reviewing compares to what is already available.
This might even differ between fandoms and media. Your standard of measuring traditional pencil and paper sketches will not be the same as your standard for digital art and that will not be the same as your standard for painting. Similarly, authors online are seldom professionals and probably have not been trained to write. You can't expect the average story online to be the same quality as the average novel.
Once you have an idea of what is out there then I would say you should try to review as often as possible. The artist or author will sometimes have spent hours of their time, often unpaid, to create something and it only takes a few seconds or minutes to comment on it. When that's all that they get it can mean a lot.
What to include in a review:
The most important thing is to include your opinion of the submission and it's quality. You aren't there to attack the artist's lifestyle, fetishes or other reviewers. If you don't like the artist or the subject matter of the submission then you probably shouldn't be reviewing it. SoFurry allows you to block users or tags and whether you like or agree with the content of the submission does not affect it's quality or make it any less important than any other submission but it does bias your review.
The second most important thing is to substantiate your point. Comments and reviews that do nothing more than say, “It was good,” or, “You suck!” are not helpful. If you're going to take the time to review then you must have an interest in what was done and would like the best-possible submission possible, similarly I expect artists and authors to strive to improve themselves. To aid this you should try to tell the artist or author what you liked and what you didn't like.
If you say, “It was good, I especially liked how well your plot elements welded together. However, Mary’s lack of surprise at her child being born a sheep seemed to me like you didn’t think her reaction through thoroughly.” That way the author knows what you liked about the story, i.e. what he or she should maintain, and what you disliked, i.e. what he or she needs to work on.
What to exclude from a review:
While you know should have an idea of what to include a review there are also certain things that should not be in your reviews.
Do not start fights in reviews. You can disagree with the author or artist or other reviewers but keep it civil. Insulting people is not going to get them to listen to and will only polarise the disagreement. In addition it's disrespectful of the author or artist to use their submission as a battleground with someone else.
Do not ask the author or artist if he or she will review your submission or use the comments as a chance to advertise your own work. That is inappropriate and such requests should be sent privately. If the submission is something like a journal discussing reviews then it is appropriate because that remains on topic.
Replying to reviews:
I've said a lot about writing reviews but I also want to take a chance to talk about replying to reviews.
No matter what the review’s content, unless it was just a hate review, do not forget that the reviewer is offering their opinion and wishes to assist you. Just because they didn’t like your story doesn’t mean they don’t like you. Take a note of what is being said and if you find a multitude of people are all saying the same thing it is certainly time to seriously consider what you are doing.
Those people have also taken time out of whatever they were doing to give you feedback so treat them politely. I’m sure you’ll find that the number of users that review is depressingly small compared to the total number that view your submissions, therefore each is like a precious. While it may be tempting to ignore smaller reviews or reviews that present an opposing view the least you can do is acknowledge them. Thank those that have praised you and promise to consider the words of those that offer advice to improve.
As an author and artist I too know how good it feels to get comments and how much it hurts when people don't like what I do but ignoring your fans will just cause them to abandon you and that will hurt more. Just remember that you both want you to do well and no matter how good you are there is always room to improve. Use of a star-based rating system:
Although there is a fair amount of dislike for SoFurry's star-based rating system it's what we have and they are very common elsewhere too. Many of the problems with the rating system stem from people using it incorrectly or inconsistently. This section is here to explain how to use it to best effect and limit the negative aspects.
To use the rating system requires more thought than many give it because, for it be useful, everyone needs to use it in the same manner. That is the star rating should be a measure of the quality of the submission, regardless of the content. That distinction is one that you need to make actively and which many users struggle with. That's not to say that enjoyment shouldn't factor into the rating but as it enjoyment is extremely subjective it should not form the majority of the rating.
There are a number of guidelines that you need to look at when rating a submission but they aren't all applicable in every situation and they aren't rules. Sometimes you can do the opposite and enhance a submission. To judge this you need a certain amount of familiarity with the medium and to put your self in the place of the artist or author. Breaking a “rule” deliberately for effect is very different to breaking it due to ineptitude or ignorance and you need to take into account the work as a whole.
For a piece of artwork, things you might consider are: Are the lines clean and smooth? Are characters in proportion and showing correct anatomy? Does the image show correct perspective? Is it coloured and why or why not? Does the colouring stay in the lines? Is it shaded? Is there a full background? Was it done through digital effects or by hand?
For a story you will want to see: Does the author use the appropriate sort of language for their story? Is the structure and grammar correct? Is the spelling correct? Does the story make sense or contradict itself? Could you identify with the characters and understand why they did what they did?
The answers to the questions above should form the majority of your rating. In addition though you should adjust it to a limited extent to other factors such as: Was it enjoyable? Memorable? Original? Have previous suggestions been taken into account or are the same mistakes being made?
You should not adjust your rating because you are friends with the person or they have left a bad review on one of your own submissions or you dislike the content.
At this point you need to give the submission a score. Giving everyone five stars doesn't help anyone judge quality or see an improvement in their work. There should be an obvious difference between the different star levels and you shouldn't be seeing more than a one star difference between people. The stars should mean something like this.
1 star – Submission is bad with many mistakes. 2 stars – Submission is below average. 3 stars – Submission is about average. 4 stars – Submission is better than average but not perfect. 5 stars - Submission is excellent and the sort of thing you would read a year later or recommend to someone with different interests.
You should only seldom see submissions with 5 or 1 star and just as seldom be voting that way, unless you exclusively watch the top posters. But remember to always vote fairly and honestly. One of the worst things you can do is to look at the current score and then vote to try pull it where you think it should be. Vote what you think it deserves and leave it at that. If more people vote, and vote correctly, then the system should correct those imbalances.