These are the five major criteria we use when highlighting the important aspects of craft and storytelling, offering good and bad examples, for all short fiction submissions and when reviewing.
PROFESSIONALISM OF WRITING
Are the grammar, spelling, and punctuation correct? Is the writing easy to follow and understand? Can you just enjoy the story, or do you stumble over some of the writing choices?
Good things: Variation in sentence structure, vocabulary, and imagery; a sense that the writing is carrying you along through the story.
Bad things: Awkward repetition of words, clunky or confusing sentences.
Does the setting of the story feel real to you? Is the world-building convincing? Does the writer use the five senses to describe that world?
Good things: Interesting details worked into the story, a setting that “comes alive,” descriptive phrases staggered throughout the exposition, narrative, or dialogue.
Bad things: Info-dumps about biology, politics, history, or other aspects of the story’s setting; the story coming to a halt to make way for description; characters lecturing each other in an unrealistic way; feeling confused.
Are the characters believable and sympathetic? Are their actions consistent with their personality? Do the characters show change and growth in order to solve their problems?
Good things: Characters seem like real people and act in believable ways; characters reveal themselves by their actions and their words; characters grow or change during the course of the story.
Bad things: Info-dumps about the characters (their personalities, appearance, background history, motivations, etc.) that interrupt or slow down the story; wooden characters; characters whose actions are (and remain) inexplicable or contradictory; characters who don’t grow and change in reaction to the plot.
Does the story hold together and ring true? (This is a gut-feeling thing; you believe, when you’re reading a story, or you don’t.) Does anything pop you out of the experience of the story? Also, is there a beginning, middle, and end–does it feel complete?
Good things: The story unfolds in a way that makes sense to you–if you are in the dark temporarily, you sense that it’s on purpose, not accidental; the events are believable in the context of the story; the plot has forward momentum–the pace of it keeps you reading to find out what happens next.
Bad things: The story confuses you or makes no sense; the plot twists are so clichéd and familiar that you knew they were coming a mile away; the plot has unnecessary twists or underdeveloped or forgotten threads.
Does it sound believable? Does it develop the characters or plot? Do the characters have sufficiently different voices?
Good things: Dialogue that matches the setting of the story, without anachronisms; moderate use of favorite phrases, accents, etc., to help delineate character; knowing who’s doing the talking as you read, even without a lot of dialogue tags.
Bad things: Stiff or boring dialogue; dialogue used as exposition; repetitive dialogue; characters with speaking traits (accents, favorite phrases, etc.) that are unbelievable; use of dialogue as info-dumps.