20 March 2017

Bad Review Blues

Many years ago, when I could fit my theater resume on a matchbook, a local director asked me to produce his next play. He had years of experience so I thought I'd learn a lot from him, and I was right. Alas, when the play opened, we received a review that shredded the show inch by bloody inch. when I calmed down enough to read it with an open mind, I realized that the critic pointed out several bad choices we had made--updating the play made the mindset of the characters anachronistic, for example--and supported his opinions with facts and quotes. I learned more about theater from that bad review than I'd learned in the past year from friends and family telling me how wonderful I was.

Jump ahead thirty years...

A few months ago, someone on a writing group list complained about receiving a bad review for one of her books, and several other members of the group commiserated. They suggested reasons for the reviewer's bad opinion ranging from stupidity to prejudice about the genre to anger about the results of the November election. I didn't read the book, and what's even more interesting, I didn't get the impression that any of the dozen or so people who responded did either.

Even though I didn't read the book, the review struck me as possibly accurate because it included specific examples and passages. It also reminded me of a comment Chris Offutt made at the Wesleyan Writers Conference when I attended it: A hand-holding group is not really a group. It's a club.

You can learn more from a bad review than you can from a good one--assuming the review is legit and you're willing to polish your craft, both of which I admit are iffy.

Long-time agent Peter Riva wrote in Publisher's Weekly a few months ago that Amazon reviews are useless, and I'm willing to agree with him. If you're interested, here's a link to the article:

I get few reviews on Amazon so maybe this whole discussion is moot, but bad reviews aren't the end of the world. It that's all it takes to ruin your day, you need to get out more often. Let's look at the whole pie.

If you're a writer, you are selling your books. You're no different from a baker, tailor, carpenter, car mechanic or anyone else who provides goods or services for pay. If someone buys your product, they have the right to expect quality and also have the right to complain if they don't believe they got it. You should look at their complaint and learn why they're dissatisfied. Maybe their reasoning is weak or they misunderstood something, but you need to make sure. If they do have a reasonable case, you need to do better next time.

Restaurants come and go, and there are only three reasons for this: bad location, bad food or bad service. The first one is unalterable, but the others can be fixed. If many people say the fish is overcooked or they waited a long time for someone to take their order, the restaurant needs to do better. If they don't the word will get around and people will go elsewhere for that fish. It's the same with clothing, plumbers, tune-ups or books. Critics--the few who remain--are supped to help people spend their entertainment dollars wisely, so if they don't like a film, play, CD or book, they will say so. They should explain why (not), too.

This is where writers miss the gifts in a bad review. What they do well will never keep them from succeeding. When someone points out something they (read, "you") do poorly, they're doing you a favor. They're showing you what you need to fix. 

Granted, Riva's comments about useless reviews are easy to support. No one-sentence review is worth the second it takes to read it. No review that lacks details or examples can tell anyone anything. The more details and examples, the more valuable that review might be. 

Ignore the five-star reviews. That's easy for me, and you already know you're wonderful. But if you get a three-star review or lower, read it and see why the person gave you that score. If there's no reason or it doesn't match their details, ignore it. But if they offer details, maybe even quoting a passage or discussing a character, they're showing you how to improve your writing.

Don't worry about the idiots who give you one star because you write romance and they don't like romance. That just means you shouldn't offer more free downloads. Ditto if they don't like profanity and your characters curse a lot. That's their effing problem, not yours. 

But if someone points out that your character's behavior is inconsistent or hard to explain, maybe you should think about it. If they say they can't follow your plot because the events don't seem to lead from one to another, consider that, too. If someone says that she's never heard anyone speak the way your character does (Clockwork Orange is an exception), you need to write better dialogue.

Put simply, a review is a beta reader. It comes too late to help this book, but if someone points out something you do poorly, you owe it to yourself, your craft and your future sales to do it better next time.

When I send an MS to a beta reader, I tell them "I don't care what you like. Tell me everything that bothers, confuses, or upsets you, no matter how minor, even down to the type font. If they say something positive, I skim over it because I don't need to fix it.

But the beta reader who told me that Run Straight Down had "too much description and teacher routine in the first chapter" saved me from a bad review saying the same thing. Explanations and back-story belong later, after the plot and conflict gain some momentum. The Night Has 1000 Eyes made one beta reader say, "I wonder if this scene would have more impact if you put it in the other character's point of view."

Those comments helped me make the books better. What could I have done with "Gee, this is really great and I love your writing"?

Yeah, good reviews make us feel good, but they don't spur us to improve. I think I know my main weakness and I'm still trying to make those less visible, but someone has to remind me about them, preferably beta readers instead of reviewers.

If you don't want to get better, why are you writing in the first place?


  1. Steve, I wholeheartedly agree but at least my bad reviews came privately. I like to think I can take the punches, but in public, I'm sure I'd feel devastated. I saw one seasoned writer go into near-cardiac arrest. I respect your seizing upon the review as a means of learning. That's admirable.

    I've come to believe that accepting criticism is the mark of maturity of an author and a major key to success. You couldn't give better advice to aspiring writers.

  2. Good points here, Steve. And thanks for the link to the Publishers Weekly column. We're doing a session in my Reviewing course on Amazon reviews and other crowd-sourced kinds of review sites, and your post here and that column will both help add additional perspective!

  3. Art, I meant to refer to your previous article about reviews and forgot about it because I wrote most of this essay a month ago and forgot to insert it. I apologize.

    Leigh, I tell people that until you can take criticism, you're not operating at peak because you need an outsider who isn't emotionally invested in the work to see it clearly. One theater I used to work with often had a preview performance the Tuesday before opening and gave the audience a long and specific set of questions to answer about the performance. Sometimes, they saw something that merited changing at the last minute...because the director, cast and crew were so used to it that it no longer registered as a problem.

    FWIW, re-reading this a few minutes ago, I found another typo. Oh well...

  4. Hi, Steve --
    No worries at all! I understand completely. (My comment about that wasn't a nudge but just part of my appreciation, just to clarify!) :-)

  5. I've avoided writer's groups (you know, the kind that meet in a living room and read their latest aloud) for years because the two that I tried turned into pretty much the "praise me or I die" groups. That doesn't help. I expect my friends to tell me what's wrong as well as what's right with my writing, because I do want to get better at it.

  6. I agree with you, Eve Fisher and the others. It's harder for us beginners when our baby is ripped apart. I get it that time and experience helps provide perspective.

  7. Good post, Steve. And I agree with pretty much everything you say. We can learn from bad reviews if they're backed up with reasons why. I always tell people (that I know) who read my stuff, I don't care if you like it or don't, but tell me why either way. And, as you point out, it seems like some people read a mystery and then complain it's not a romance. They shouldn't be leaving reviews.

    And mostly I let reviews slide, but there've been a couple that I wanted to respond to. Not because they were "bad," but because of things like they don't like that genre or seem to have an axe to grind. But I never have responded.

  8. I too love my beta readers, Steve! They've definitely provided me with bang-on feedback, and I've made changes to books because of them.

    Re reviews: I guess many of us remember fondly the good old days when professional critics did the reviewing. I think the problem today is the allowing of anonymous reviews. There's some weird shit going on out there, in the way of trolling. It could all be solved if Amazon insisted that people stand behind their words.

  9. Hi, Steve and everyone.

    I distinguish between negative reviews and bad reviews. Negative reviews can be good if, as you say, they zero in on what caused the reader's dissatisfaction in terms the writer can address in future books. Bad reviews, on the other hand, don't provide any valuable feedback. They may not even do the job of reviewing but be excuses for the "reviewer" to pontificate.

    Also, I can't equate reviews -- wherever they appear: PW, Amazon, etc. -- to beta reader feedback. By the time reviews are published, authors can only act on them for future projects that may not have the current project's issues anyway. Beta reader feedback, on the other hand, can be addressed before the current project is published. The former has potential to limit book sales. The latter is more genuinely well-intended and constructive.

  10. Above, I commented that published reviews have potential to limit book sales. I meant, "to affect book sales," speaking generally. Good reviews increase book sales; bad reviews limit them.


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