Essay from Troy


Please note that this essay isn't the be-all end-all of how to do critical reviews. This, instead, is to help make you more aware of what you're doing when you're giving critical feedback, and effective ways of taking on these different modes.

Additionally, this is not here to tell you how to take criticism. This essay is based off of scholarly work done by people in Rhetoric and Composition, and it exists to explain the different roles and mannerisms people giving and taking criticism tend to fall into. It is largely sourced from classrooms, but expanded and adapted with additional information from works dealing with critical approaches on the internet.

I'm using a lot of things that might cross over into jargon, so please, let me know if any part of this little essay doesn't make sense.

Add a note here-ish: Assume examples are just examples. In practice, you would go more in-depth, and explain why you're saying what you're saying. Don't just say ""The containment is very well written." because that's what the example says. [Phrase this is non-terrible terms.]

— TroyL


Effectively, when you start giving critical feedback, you start taking on the role of critic or reader. In this role, you have certain modes that you're engaging:

Critical Modes

Pointing: You point to a specific part of the writer's text when responding. This is best used for giving a micro-example of a macro-problem or simply indicating a small issue.

  • For example, "Here, you say 'The item must be contained in a cylindrical cell,' but later, you don't make mention of why."

Advising: You make a general or broad suggestion to the writer. These are usually statements that provide little actual help. They are not necessarily bad; just not very useful.

  • For example, "Try bringing out more in the log." or "This is a pretty good article."

Reacting: You respond to the writer's work by providing some estimation of value. When not used as a form of cushioning an otherwise negative review, this is very effective at indicating the better sections of a work.

  • For example, "The containment is very well written."

Eliciting (Critical): You ask the writer for an answer concerning a section. This is a strong way of leading authors toward clarifying sections of their writing without outright prompting them to do so.

  • For example, "What do you mean by 'fluidic reactions' in paragraph three?"

Questioning: You ask the writer about a specific section of the text, generally to determine value. This method forces the writer to consider why something is included. Generally best saved for sections that are otherwise distracting. If overused, generally leads to negative reactions.

  • For example, "What is the point of paragraph three of the description? It doesn't seem to tie into the rest of the SCP."

Elaborating: You clarify a previous comment with examples. This is usually done in response to the writer's question (See 'Eliciting' under 'Writer's Modes). Always be prepared to elaborate.

  • For example, "Oh, when I said it was rough, I meant the second sentence, where it's very choppy and hard to read."

Confirming: You justify the writer's (or another reader's) interpretation or comments. Confirming a Writer's concerns is effective, as is allaying them. Jumping into someone else's critique with nothing more to say than "I agree with " is pointless, distracting, usually just a tool to appear more savvy than you actually are. Do not confirm unless you plan to elaborate beyond that point.

  • Effective Example: "Yeah, Dexanote is right about that sentence. It's just too long to have that much technobabble. Have you tried breaking to down into different sections? Or maybe eliminating some of the needless points that don't come up later?"
  • Ineffective Examples: "Listen to Dexanote. He's an experienced writer."

Justifying: You defend your comments by giving reasons or citing sources. Usually effective when addressing single points. Extremely ineffective when addressing multiple points.

  • Effective Example: "No, the containment shouldn't have any expungement. Check out the How to Write an SCP page's containment part. It'll show you some good examples."
  • Ineffective Example: "Did you even read the guides?"

Hedging: You cushion your comments and tone with phrases that appear to lower the value of your critique. Hedging is not really a tool of critique, but instead a social construct which we use to avoid appearing like "the bad guy." Works to avoid author resentment, but overuse will devalue your critique to the level of pointlessness.

  • Effective Example: "While the containment is done very well and the piece is well written overall, it's just not grabbing me. Have you thought about including a stronger hook?"
  • Ineffective Example: "I'm not sure what other people might think, but this section sounds a little off."

Dismissing: A purely negative response to a writer's work, usually due to a kneejerk emotional reaction or due to anger or resentment caused by the either the writer's perceived oversight or ignorance. Dismissing is only effective if the goal is to shame or humiliate the author.

  • For example, "This isn't how you format a SCP, your containment procedures are abdurd, and this makes LITERALLY no sense. Downvoted."1

Just as critics takes on different modes when engaging, so to do the writers.

Writer's Modes

Responding: Reacting to the comments that you've made. This usually comes in three varieties: accepting, dismissing, or deflecting.

  • Accepting: "Yes, I see what you mean."
  • Dismissing: "I simply don't agree with you."
  • Deflecting: "I can see why you'd say that."

Usually, each of these modes can — since the internet lacks social clues — hide another mode. People can be dismissing your ideas while appearing to accept them. The best way of gauging how a writer is responding to your critique is by moving them into one of the other two writer modes through eliciting or questioning (see Critical Modes, above).

Eliciting (Writer): Asking questions explicitly and expecting answers. Almost all reviews start this way ('Can someone look at a draft?'). As long as the Writer is in a more 'eliciting' mode, they are engaging with you as a critic.

  • For example, "Do you think that the object description works? If not, how can I make it better?"

Clarifying: Explaining intentions and supplying further information to help the reader understand.

  • For example, "I was going for a more memetic effect."

Each of these different modes2 are the things that we — as readers and critics of others work — tend to do.

The Internet and these Modes

All these different modes have their point and purpose. However, I should also note that getting feedback from people on the internet has a different form and style than in a classroom or writing group. There is a tendency for a more extended 'back and forth' than it might otherwise. In chat, people tend to use the 'pointing' method or 'reacting' method, then wait for the writer to give a response of some sort.

Forums are very, very different.

We don't want to point to a specific place, then wait for the writer to respond or 'fix it,' then post again. This is where the line-by-line-breakdown style feedback, where you quickly attack and break down the entire object with comments, developed. It's much more easy for the person doing the review, and the person getting the review, to have large posts which address a number of different, perceived problems all at the same time.

Each of these methods has problems, but namely, the issue is that since you're typing instead of speaking, it goes slower. This leads to writers getting chat reviews becoming a little more confrontational at times.3 Even when you're solely engaging with the text, it becomes difficult to avoid the writer taking comments on their work personally (see Effective Review Techniques, below).

On the forums, writers can be overwhelmed by the length of a line-by-line review, and they may end up disregarding the entire thing as 'too much to deal with'. This leads to resentment by the critic (since, 'I typed all that out for them, didn't I?! Why do they still suck and not pay attention?') and the writer ('I can't believe they expect me to read all that!'). In general, the longer the post, the more likely important points you want to make — as critique — are lost. It's not the writer's fault. They're overwhelmed.

You can avoid this by breaking down your review into manageable chunks. When doing a line-by-line, try putting collapsibles around each section (Containment, Description, Logs, etc.) rather than the entire document.

Effective Review Techniques

As a teacher, I always address the paper as if it's a living, breathing thing (and it is!). For example, 'This paper needs to be polished a bit more. The grammar is weak toward the end.' This is to take away the issue of the author believing that the shortcomings of their work are actually personal shortcomings of themselves. Saying 'You need to have more information in your description' immediately targets the author. Even if you're not being negative in your comments, it will feel as if you are.

Try to maintain a 'neutral' voice. This is nearly impossible on the internet, but you can attempt to do so effectively by concentrating on targeting the work itself. This often won't work, and you have to pay careful attention to the writer's response to your feedback to understand how they're taking it. The most important part of effective technique is positive engagement with the author, usually through asking questions or getting clarification. If there is a healthy, back-and-forth of questions, observations, clarifications, and examples, then you know that — even if the criticism is heavy or strong — you're doing it effectively.

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