How to Be Critiqued

Discussion and controversy abounded on the Novel Publicity Facebook page last week over a blog post written by Anne R. Allen, “Amazon Reader Reviews: 12 Things Everybody and His Grandmother Needs to Know”.  Without going into too much detail about the original blog post, the NP folks seemed to agree that authors should not demand readers leave only 4 and 5 star reviews and never anything lower.  They also seemed to agree that readers and reviewers had a right to leave negative reviews if the book in question truly warrants it.

Glowing reviews are a wonderful thing, don’t get me wrong.  Nothing makes me smile wider than when I am praised by someone who has read my book.  But at the end of the day I am in the school of thought that says that the occasional negative review is one of the most powerful learning tools an author has.

Negative reviews, provided they are honest and not just someone with a bone to pick, are a fantastic way to diagnose the problems with your stories that you as an author might not be able to see.  They have the potential to set you on the right track and give you an honest look at areas where you need improvement.  They usually don’t come from people with a vested interest in keeping you happy, so you can trust them even more than you can the reviews your mom gives you.

Most of the time, someone who puts in the work to write a review is going to be a serious reader with a vested interest in seeing stories of the highest quality on the market.  People who are easily pleased or who aren’t as passionate about books probably won’t take the time to write a critique.  So chances are that if you’ve been reviewed it is by someone who knows what they’re talking about.

The things these people say should be taken very seriously!  It’s not going to do you any good as an author intent on improving your craft to get angry or dismiss the reviewer’s opinion or to lash out at them in any way.  In fact, please don’t lash out at a reviewer!  The best response to a negative review that you can give is no response at all.

And now for an example of what we can learn from a negative review….

I was extremely lucky a couple of weeks ago to get a 3-star review for my novel The Loyal Heart on Amazon.  This review exemplifies several different points about how to read, accept, and learn from a negative review.  Here it is:

*** Engaging

I enjoyed reading this book.  It was fun and engaging.

If I was going to offer the author some pointers I’d say:

a) Add a little more description to set the scene.  I kind of know what medieval England might look like but not everyone would.  It would also add to the atmosphere.  

b) All the characters need a little more depth, back history, motivation and detail.  Why and how is Aubrey so good with a sword?  What did Crispin do that was so awful in the past?  Why don’t the people of Ethan’s estates want him back?

c) Find another word for smirk!

OK, so that last one was a bit pedantic but it was used enough that I started to notice it.

In spite of these points and a few other minor quibbles it was a pleasure to read and I should say that the sex scenes are really well written.  It moves along at a good pace.  I liked it enough that I’ll be reading the sequel.”

So that is my 3-star review.  It’s actually pretty flattering.  But the meat of the lesson is in the pointers.  Each of the reviewer’s three points brings up a different issue in how to accept a critique.

The first point is about setting and description.  This is a Style Critique.  The reviewer would have liked more description.  My personal style is not to spent too much time on description.  I would rather create the setting through dialog and action.  But what this point tells me is that there are readers out there who would like to have more of a picture painted in their mind.  I can be mindful of this in my future books and look for ways to set the scene better going forward.

The second point is about character.  This is more of a Content Critique.  Of all of the points this reviewer raises this one goes the farthest to put my nose out of joint.  Why?  Because the answers to all of the questions the reviewer poses are, in fact, answered in the book.  The reviewer just missed them.  The critique makes it look as though the story is missing something that is not missing at all.  But that also tells me something.  Maybe I was too subtle in delivering my characters’ back stories.  Maybe the way in which I presented my characters drew emphasis to the wrong things.  The important aspect of this comment is to remember that while I know everything there is to know about these characters, the reader must figure it out as they go along.  Next time I need to make sure that I communicate everything the reader needs to know.

The third pint cracks me up.  It is a Technical Critique.  Yes, I absolutely had WAY too many “smirks” in the first edition of this book.  It was ridiculous.  I mean, completely silly.  And this reviewer wasn’t the first person to notice.  I have since gone back and removed 85% of the smirks and republished the book.

So there you go.  I’m sure I’ll get worse critiques at some point.  I like this one though because it covers a lot of bases and makes a great example.  I disagree with some of it, I agree whole-heartedly with some of it, and some of it makes me wish I could sit down and explain a few things to the reviewer.  I’m glad I received this review though.

Embrace those negative reviews.  They can teach you more than effusions of love can.


7 thoughts on “How to Be Critiqued

  1. I agree with all this! I appreciate honest reviews. Glowing ones are nice, yes, but I enjoy the ones that readers really took the time to write. I have 3 star reviews that are actually quite nice – pointing out flaws for them but also the good points. When I send someone a free book, they take the time to read it and write a review – I greatly appreciate it. The mix of reviews is what makes a book so unique to each person. I love that!

    • Yep! That’s exactly it. Plus I find I can learn so much more from a negative review than a positive one. And after all, isn’t the point of this whole crazy profession to be constantly learning and improving and growing?

      Thanks Donna!

  2. I honestly think you might be fine on her letter b, merry. I agree that you want to make sure you’re not too subtle, but you also don’t want to be so clear that it sticks out unnaturally or gets more focus than it deserves, derailing the plot or anything similar.

    I say this in particular because I read this review before and letter b stopped me and I thought the same as you. She didn’t answer those questions? Wait a second *thinks while staring up at the ceiling* I could swear Merry answered all those questions in the book…maybe the only one I could see is the final point: Why don’t the people of Ethan’s estates want him back? That one was more subtly answered. I think I was also helped in that answering a bit by having already read your post here about how peasants usually thought of those controlling the land they worked (ie they really weren’t strict go down in flames with the previous lord loyalists and didn’t really care who had the land by the reins so long as life was good). At the same time though we kinda got to see that Ethan’s a bit preoccupied with…himself in this book, add on to that the knowledge that he’s been an absent lord for awhile and I prolly woulda figured without your website post why Ethan’s people weren’t so loyal.

    Anywho, I do get what you mean by reviews like this. The few negatives I brought up in my own made me very uncomfortable, because they are just my opinions and I did love the book. I’m glad to know you’re not only okay with feedback like this but that you use it to grow 😀

    I will say I saw some indication that might be the case anyway while reading the faithful heart (yeah, I still have yet to review it…I’ll get to it eventually). While book 1 was straight out of my childhood fantasies, book 2 noticeably kicked the craftsmanship up a notch to where I actually prefer it. I’ll get to that in my review when I write it.

    • Aw, thanks Saronai! It’s always nice to have someone back me up. It makes me a little more certain that I’m not completely making things up. 😉

      And I’m super glad to hear you liked The Faithful Heart. Can’t wait for the review!

      Oh, and never be afraid to be critical when reviewing. As long as you’re not being mean, that’s the best tool for improvement that a writer has!

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