Bad Reviews Suck

No matter what you do in life, you’re going to receive critique about your work, and it’s going to hurt, and as much as you need to toughen the shell around your ego, it never gets ‘easier’. All of this is true.

Yet, perhaps surprisingly, this post is not a complaint about receiving low-star reviews. Talking about this earlier with an author friend of mine, I started to think what life would be like if people only ever left good reviews. I didn’t like the look of that life. I happen to stand in the camp that negative reviews actually help an author improve and develop his/her craft… when done well.

When I say “bad review” I mean just that — “a poorly written review”. Now, I will kick off by admitting I’m directing this post at the low-star reviews because it’s easier to swallow an “Amazing!” than it is a “Booooring”, but in actual fact, my thoughts could be applied to either end of the spectrum.

So I guess the point of this post is just to reflect on the nature of some of the reviews I’ve received and what I wish I could see more of.

Opinions are subjective. At no point in my life have I believed (hoped, sure, but never believed) that I will write the perfect, universally well-loved novel. I know people will dislike my work as much as I can start any number of novels and not be swept away by them. Style – character – plot devices – whether we like them or not comes down to personal preference.

Personally, I don’t like writing reviews about books I don’t like, especially if I know it’s for a subjective reason. I would hate for my personal bias against… peanuts, let’s say (not actually, peanuts are great), to put me off a book where in every scene one character is eating a bag of them, then I leave a negative review about how the book focused too much on peanuts, and as a result be a reason that someone else sees a low ranking and decides not to pick up a book that, in actual fact, they might love. Let’s face it, people don’t necessarily read through each individual review to see why people do or don’t like a book — they look at the overall ranking, and lower reviews can hurt it.

The above is me from a reader perspective. From an author perspective, every once in a while, I do read my reviews — sometimes with cookies, sometimes with something a little stronger — but I do so with the intention of seeing where I might have failed a reader and what I could strengthen in the next book. And it has helped. I’ve tried to pay much more attention to pacing and character development in my more recent novels, for example. But development will always be a work in progress.

Unfortunately, I can’t do anything with reviews that say, “I didn’t like it”; or “Couldn’t finish it. Don’t bother reading it” (to summarize; the length of the review is never the issue). With reviews like these, I bob my head, say “Well, that’s too bad”, and move on with my life. Reviews that go into somewhat personal attacks — well, they hurt a little more, and on a bad day can make me feel like I’m in the wrong line of business (until I walk it off with an ice cream), but they still don’t help me improve.

One of my favourite reviews is actually a 1* review. This reader took the time to CRITIQUE the work. He broke down what he didn’t like with examples, with specifics. The blow was no less painful to the sensitive author ego, but I still come back to that review from time to time to pull from what he had to say, because he narrowed in on my weaknesses — which I will ALWAYS have, even if they shift across projects — so I can see what I need to focus on.

To prove that I’m not just attacking the low-star reviewers, I’ll repeat that all of this can be applied to the mid- to high-star reviews as well! “Amazing!” is a nice warm hug on the ego, but why is it amazing? What has the author done that you’ve really loved? Is it the flare for dialogue? The world building? The character development? Sometimes it’s nice for an author to know what he/she is already doing well so she/he can focus on what still needs to be smoothed out.

(Again – the length of the review doesn’t matter. I’m not discouraging anyone from leaving a short sentence)

So by no means is this a post trying to deter you from leaving low-star reviews. Don’t censor yourself if there’s a reason you don’t like something, or feel that you need to learn to like everything. But when you leave a review, ask yourself why you’re giving it the rank you are. As someone who does try to learn from them, I would appreciate the help!

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