The first question you have to ask yourself is "Do I care?" If the answer is "no", then save yourself some time and click the back button now.
Still here? Good. That shows that as an author, you want to improve your skills and are willing to take steps to do so.
The first thing you do is read all the reviews you've received. Ignore any and all personal attacks. (Even flames can have useful information in them once you get past the insults.) Do the reviews bring up valid points? If they don't, there is nothing to worry about. If you think they've simply misunderstood or misread something, there is nothing wrong with sending an e-mail (when possible) asking for clarification. But if the reviews point out actual problems, then you've got some work to do.
Ask yourself, "Why were those problems in my story in the first place?" Hopefully, it wasn't due to laziness. If you get a material fact wrong, find out what the correct information is. Research is good for you. If you're still in school, it's good practice too. (If you as the author have changed a material fact for story purposes, don't forget to drop the readers a clue.)
If your formatting is wacky, try a different format. (For , I get the best results with .txt files that have two carriage returns between paragraphs and no carriage returns anywhere else. Yeah, it's vanilla. But it works.)
If people complain about your spelling, use spellcheck. If you don't have it, go get it. If you can post work on or any other internet site, you can find some method of spellchecking your work. If you can't be bothered to spellcheck, well I doubt you're still reading this.
If people complain about the grammar, read the work out loud. Better yet, have someone else read the work out loud. (Please note, I did not say use grammar check. I don't feel that grammar checking software is good enough to rely on yet.) If it doesn't make sense when you hear it, odds are you've got problems. Getting a decent beta-reader or editor can greatly help with grammar problems.
One special note about spelling and grammar. Occasionally, spelling and grammar in a story are bad because English is not the author's first language. I have nothing but respect for authors who post work in a language that is not native for them. A lot of folks can't write in their own language. Doing so in a foreign one takes a lot of guts. I'm willing to go the extra mile in editing and critiquing for non-English speaking authors.
Factual errors, formatting, spelling and grammar are all technical mistakes. Fixing a technical mistake is like clipping a fingernail. You do it, you don't obsess about it and you go on. (For example, I've already made one set of corrections to this piece.) Sometimes you don't do it right, but that doesn't mean you can't fix it again later.
Next up: Negative opinions on your characterizations. If it's about a 'pairing' in your story, feel free to ignore it or at least take it with a very large grain of salt. The reader is entitled to his opinion of which couples work and which couples don't. You are entitled to yours. What's more, you're the one actually doing the writing.
If it's about a character being a 'Mary Sue'... I'm sorry, that's still another essay and I will get to her sometime before I die. I hope. Or I may just give up and refer you to somebody else's essay on the subject.
If it involves giving a character a 'power up', you should probably take the comment seriously. Can't characters figure out better ways to use the powers and abilities they already have instead of being granted superior ones from on high? This one particularly bugs me when an author gives a character a power up and then denies doing so. (I'd like to see, just once, a story with a 'power down'. Just for balance.)
If it involves a character being 'out of character', here is my advice: An unexplained change in a character is out of character. An explained change in character is character development. (Good character development also lets you give new abilities without it being a power up.)
Comments about the plot are a different animal. Most plot comments fall into two categories, plot holes and opinion. A plot hole is an internal consistency error. Shooting seven times from a six shooter. Calling Alice "Sally" for two pages before changing back. In other words, a technical mistake on par with saying Cleveland is the capital of Ohio. You fix it, and go on. Once a plot hole is pointed out, they tend to be easy to repair.
The most famous plot hole in history is in the movie "Citizen Kane". Kane dies alone. So how does anyone know his final word was "Rosebud"? I leave figuring out ways around this problem as an exercise for the student.
The biggest remaining source of negative comments on plot involves plot developments. Basically, when a reviewer asks, "Where the (expletive deleted) did -that- come from?" Something happens in the story that strikes the reader as so unlikely that their suspension of disbelief is totally shattered. To paraphrase Douglas Adams (may he rest in peace), "Boy meets girl under a silvery moon which then explodes for no adequately explained reason." The plot goes in a direction that just doesn't fit with what is already there.
To paraphrase me, "There is plot twist and then there is plot destruction". I know when I see plot destruction because I invariably say "Oh, come on!" when it happens. This is usually followed by my hitting the review button or the back button.
When you get this kind of comment, you might have a bad fic on your hands.
You've come to the realization that you've written a bad fic. What next? You can just leave it there and do nothing. Hopefully, you have at least learned not to make the same mistakes next time. Preferably, you'll either delete the work in question or fix it. Just don't hide behind "I'm the author and I said so."
Please realize that it is not a crime to take down a story. Most authors act as if once they've submitted a story, it must remain there, as is, until the end of time. This is so not true it isn't funny. If you think you've really screwed up, if you realize that even you don't like what you've posted, pull it. You can always resubmit later if you want.
also has an update feature that allows you to post corrected material without pulling a story. I find this extremely useful and I am amazed that more people don't use it. When I note (or am told about) an error in one of my stories, I'll quietly fix the problem, upload the corrected material and nobody knows it but me.
The dividing line between pulling and updating usually revolves around one question. Does the new version significantly change the plot? If so, pull the story while you work on it because what you will eventually have is not the same as what you've started with.
If not, it's just error correction and there is no need to remove the story while you work on the new version. While pulling it will get rid of all those negative reviews, there is no... Oh, nevermind.
Another important not-a-crime is asking for help. Some folks simply can't do it, but it is not illegal. In an author's note, ask for a beta-reader or an editor. Although asking is no guarantee of getting help, it does increase your chances.
If you have specific areas of concern or problems that you are aware of, make sure to mention them in your request. Anything to make it more likely that if you do get help, it will actually do you some good. Me, I'm fairly decent at grammar and internal consistency, but lousy with character relationships. I try to leave the plot alone as much as possible, but object strongly to plot destruction. "No, Batman can't have a spare Green Lantern ring stashed in the weapons vault. It would wreck the story."
Pre-readers, beta-readers and editors: My views.
As far as I can tell, a pre-reader is someone who reads the story before the general public and gives a private review. Personally, I don't see the point. "I liked this." Well gee, thanks, but it doesn't help much.
A beta-reader is someone who reads the story before the general public and gives constructive criticism. This can actually be useful if sometimes not specific enough.
An editor is someone who goes over every word of a story to make sure it's the best it can be. The nicest thing about being an editor is you get to critique the plot without feeling guilty about it. Playing devil's advocate is a close second.
I consider myself an editor and I'm proud of it.
Editing and beta-reading are not one step processes. If you disagree with your editor, it is vitally important to let him know why. This can lead to some fairly lengthy exchanges and multiple rewrites. I believe my personal record for exchanges on one chapter is something like eight. But it turned out great and great stories are what it's all about.
Ghost in the Machine
Author's note: In the credit where credit is due department, I'd like to thank red-nail-polish for her review of "How to get your fic read" that inspired me to write this essay and the note on songfics that I'm adding below.
SIDE NOTE ON SONGFICS: This has nothing to do with the rest of the essay. Feel free to skip it if you want. When asked about songfics by a reviewer, this is what I e-mailed her. (Slightly cleaned up, as I don't edit my e-mails that thoroughly.)
Songfics. I think in the time I've been on , there has been exactly ONE songfic that I've liked. I couldn't even tell you what it was now, it's been that long.
To tell the truth, I don't really like the concept behind songfics. At least as I've seen them done. In most cases, the 'author' simply takes a song they like and has a character from something else they like sing it. Tiny amounts of framing material show that the songfic is a Ranma songfic, or a Harry Potter songfic or whatever. Rarer is having a character listen to the radio with the song granting them some sort of insight into their situation. Instant epiphanies. Yeah, right.
The creative effort expended is minimal at best. You could change a few names and a descriptive line or two and poof, 'new' material for a different fandom. And face it, the songs themselves are copyrighted material. While fanfiction also deals with copyrighted material in the form of characters and situations, most songfics feature a word-for-word copying of the source material. My personal set of ethics wouldn't allow me to do that, so I'm not real happy when I see other people do it.
That does not mean that music has no place in fanfiction.
As part of a larger piece, music and song lyrics can greatly help set a mood or inspire a character into action. Carrotglace, even though I'm not that fond of him, does this to excellent effect on occasion in "Mirrors Multiplied". But when you take a songfic, subtract the song and are left with a couple of meaningless paragraphs, that's not enough for me. Have the music point a direction for a story, not just magically summon the conclusion.
If this had been a real essay, it would have been longer and more coherent. 8)