"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Art of Writing Reviews

Authors are often asked to give another author a book review. Readers nowadays are also free to review books online. In this digital age, I see some very mean-spirited stuff out there. It makes me think of what my mother used to say: “If you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all.”  It makes me wonder why people read books they absolutely hate. Nowhere is it written, “Thou shalt finish every book you start.” So why not move on to something that brings you more pleasure? Life is too short to read bad books.

However, if you’ve been asked to review someone’s book, you could be facing a difficult conundrum if the book really is awful.  So here are some suggestions.

Put yourself in the author’s shoes. Often this person spent years writing their book. There has been blood, sweat, and tears involved. If the author was fortunate enough to sell the book to a publisher then an agent and an editor both felt it was worthy of publication, as well as the marketing department.  Look for the qualities they might have seen. And, if the author self-published, again put yourself in that person’s position. If it was your book, would you want someone to drive a stake through your heart?

Start off by finding one or two good things about the book. Yes, there will be something, even if it’s only that the author is good with some element of writing be it dialogue, action, descriptions, characterization, etc. How about saying the concept was good (you don’t have to say they failed miserably in pulling it off). Or you could say, “Fans of (fill in the blank) will love this story.” Who knows? They actually might even if you didn’t.

If you must say something about its shortcomings, try to do so with some class and sophistication.  I recall revision letters I’ve received from editors. They always start the letters off with a few lines of praise. Then they list the things they would like the author to revise, but they always do so with positive input. It also keeps authors from slashing their wrists.

If you’re a reader, I still ask the question: “Why did you bother to read something so awful if you didn’t have to?” Nevertheless, if you were foolish enough to do so and you are hearing voices that say, “Thou shalt warn the entire world against this horrible affront to literature,” you, too, can accomplish it with some degree of kindness and professionalism that won’t make you look like a total jerk. Yes, that’s right. A vicious review will only make you look small and mean-spirited, and nobody will take your review seriously, except the author (who has already shed enough blood just getting those 100,000 words down on the page). But, ultimately, if it makes your day to viciously attack someone’s hard work through the security of anonymity, ask yourself how you would feel if the shoe was on the other foot. It’s a simple question with a very simple answer.


Anonymous said...

Linda, as usual, you are right! Reviewing a book is about the same as judging them for contests. There is no need to crush an author. A reviewer or judge can always find something good about an author's work.

Sherry R.

Anonymous said...

Great blog, wish every reviewer or judge could read it and then take it to heart.

Sue Anne H.

B.J. Anderson said...

Great article and so very true.

Christi Moné Marie said...

I agree with you Linda! After putting years of blood, sweat, and tears into a story, it hurts terribly to have someone rip it apart and criticize you. As a writer, we only want to hear the positive.

On the flip side, as a reader it rankles me when I pick up a book that has nothing but good reviews and imho, it's awful! Like you said, life is too short to read a bad book! And with limited resources, you have to make a choice A or B. You can't always have both.

But with that said, I think people can definitely soften their criticism and judgment. I love how people who don't write much in day to day life or have never written a novel think they are so qualified to critique. I understand they may be seasoned readers, but have they ever gone through the laborious process of crafting a novel? If not, I'm not really sure they have the credentials to critique!!

Thanks for such a thought provoking post :)

LadyMac said...

I think it's subjective. I know people who hated The Hunger Games and Twilight Series - two series that practically have cult followings they were so popular.

There's always something good about a book and that's always the best place to start, as you said.

Goor blog, Linda. Thanks for the insights.

Maxine M.

Will Edwinson said...

Great post, Linda. I've read some pretty bad books in my time, and reviewed some of them. While always wanting to be as truthful as I can about my feelings toward the book I try to find a diplomatic way to offer my criticism.

I remember one novel my kids gave me as a Christmas gift. It was over 700 pages, and very dry, but because it was a gift from my kids, I felt a certain obligation to them to read it all the way through. It took me three months to finish it.

It was an historical Western (no it was not Raveled Ends of Sky :).
I decided to review it but I did try to temper my remarks with a little diplomacy.

On the other hand, I've had writing instructors who were absolutely brutal in their remarks about some of my work. All I can say to that is, I'm thankful that my parents helped me to grow a thick skin. :).

I like your previous blog. Kinda reminded me of a cantankerous mare I had as a kid. She didn't dump me by running too fast, but rather by stopping too fast. :).

Linda Sandifer said...

Thanks to everyone who read and commented on this post. Next up, "How to Respond to a Bad Review."