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I'm doing a writing circle with friends where I had to review a fan fiction. I was far from the ideal reviewer for it because I didn't play the game it was based on, only a few hours of a later one in the series. Plus, I've barely read any fan fiction before.

I left a lot of comments for the author (more than my co-reviewers). Some of what I said likely stemmed from my ignorance of the source material and may not have been helpful, since I expect much of the appeal of fan fiction is for fans to see familiar characters in a new adventure (or maybe the reverse, new characters in a familiar setting). I had no idea who any of the characters were, nor much about the setting.

But other comments I made I think were genuinely helpful. "Show not tell", for example, is fairly universal. I also like to think that I'm pretty good with grammar.

As a reviewer, how can I minimize ignorant, unhelpful comments about a fan fiction while maximizing helpful feedback?

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You sure can review, but the author might not appreciate your input

The big question here is what is exactly "fan fiction", what is its target audience and why people write it.

If the answer is "fan fiction is written and read by the hardcore fans of the original fiction" then your options are limited. You may comment on style and grammar, but not so much on plot and character development. "Novice" critique would likely be dismissed by the author, just like critique of an academic paper by an unqualified outsider. How you can help that? Read the original work first.

But if the answer is "fan fiction is for everybody, and it should help making new fans", then the author would be motivated to hear the opinion of an outsider. All "novice" questions would be appreciated, and possibly addressed.

In my personal opinion, fan fiction should be for everybody, and it should be able to stand on its own. Reading fan fiction book should be no more demanding than reading another book by the original author set in the same universe. But I realize that there are strong communities of fans who have extensive trivia knowledge and expect similar level of knowledge from other members.

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Focus on whether their plot, and characters, make coherent sense. Look for story problems.

Presume, if they give no indication otherwise, that details about powers, skills, relationships, etc are in the game or original work.

Those things might be errors, but focus on what you are capable of judging, and leave knowledge of the universe to others.

As you did with "show don't tell."

But I also know, say, the Three(/Four) Act Structure, so I can tell if the progression is off somewhere. If the action is too soon, or too late. If the story turns into wish-fulfillment with a can-do-no-wrong protagonist. If there is a decent mix of high and low points, a sufficient number of protagonist failures. I can tell if in the first Act I sympathize with the hero.

I can also spot "talking heads" syndrome. Off-key dialogue. Repetitiveness in description. A lack of sensory description; e.g. only what is seen; not heard, not felt. Is it ever hot? Cold? Muggy? Windy? Are they ever tired? Sick? Frustrated? Bored? Do they describe touch? Are things warm, cold, rough, slick, sticky, sharp, jagged?

Often in reading, I sense something is missing in the described scene, it feels too sparse, or too sketched. In one case there was a lack of actual color, nothing had any color. (From a normally sighted author.) That's a writing critique.

Stick with what you know about story, and presume basic character information and universe information is already known.

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You can minimize ignorant, unhelpful feedback in fan fiction the same way you minimize ignorant and unhelpful feedback in any story. By focusing on your honest reactions to the craft demonstrated in the writing, you communicate the effectiveness of the author’s technique of storytelling.

The most important feedback for a story is your level of engagement as you are reading the piece. Where does it bog down and where were you hooked into the story; and of course some description of why you were engaged or bored.

The least valuable feedback you can provide are line edits correcting their spelling or grammar. The reason for this is because stories being workshopped are works in progress and the authors have not necessarily gone through them with a fine-tooth comb. Since there is a good chance after workshopping that large tracts of the text are going to be rewritten, any line edits provided in the workshop is going to be wasted effort.

If I get or give line edits, they are usually in an edited copy of the original document that I can diff with my work, letting me merge the ones that I agree with and ignore the ones I don’t like.

And, finally, it's best to avoid large well-worn phrases like show don’t tell. Showing is a very important element of creating an engaging story. But so is telling. It’s about finding the correct balance in a story of engagement, empathy, and pacing.

By focusing your feedback on where the author was effective and ineffective at holding your interest in the story — and sharing how or why — you will both build your own skills as an author as analyzing a story and providing useful and encouraging information on improving their story.

Ask yourself, how many times have you heard someone say ‘I liked your story.’ then proceed to tell you what was wrong with it. I’ve lost count.

By focusing on where they held my attention and why and where they lost me and why, I’ve become a better writer because it makes me more aware of the subtle elements of craft and I am more aware of technique which lets me glean even more technique from successful authors.

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  • That's true about grammar. But I felt like a lot my feedback was "who is this character and why are you telling me he's awesome and where is this", some of which would have been answered by being more familiar with the canon setting. (And the parts I pointed out as "show don't tell" I think the author agreed needed to be fixed.)
    – Laurel
    Dec 16, 2021 at 4:58
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The first thing you may want to do is discuss with your group whether the members want feedback from non-fans. Some fanfic writers want to make their work stand on its own as much as possible.

If the writers want it, be sure to mention up front that you are not a fan and you are criticizing it from a stand-alone perspective.

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