When Good Reviews Go Bad
By Leanna Craig
Giving your opinion is one of the most valuable and arguably most damaging things you can do. When you're asked for your take on something, whether it be a friend's outfit, a song you've heard on the radio, or a book, it's always a dicey proposition to let it all hang out and tell someone how you feel.
Sure, you could always fib so you don't rock the boat and say that those jeans look fabulous, or you couldn't put a book down. However, if you want to be truthful, it's the way you say it that matters. Try a little kindness - it does go a long way. Tell that friend that you think the color of the shirt brings out their eye color, or that the book was a nice change of pace for you - find something positive in the sea of negativity you're currently drowning in. It will show at the very least that you value the effort, if not the end result in its entirety.
While reviewing, I've certainly had those moments where I've struggled to find something significantly positive enough not to tank an entire book. Have I ever had a DNF (Do Not Finish) book as a reviewer because of it's quality? Never. I feel it's what I'm supposed to do when functioning in that capacity - finish the piece I've chosen/been assigned and give an accurate account of my feelings towards it. How could I possibly do that if I didn't complete the story? Not everyone works that way though, and that's absolutely fine with me. That being said, yes, I have DNF'd books that I've purchased (or downloaded for free). As a consumer, I feel that's my right. If the plot is so choppy that I give myself a headache making sense of it, or the editing is loose/messy enough that I spend more time translating than I do enjoying the story, then I'll put it down for a day or two. If at the second attempt things don't improve, I consider myself done.
What do you do when you read a book that you really didn't enjoy for one reason or another, and you want to tell someone about it?
Before you open your mouth or flex your fingers to begin typing, take a moment and really think about why you didn't like it. Was the plot full of holes, or the characters one-dimensional? Was the editing so off that you're guessing that the author might not have used a Beta reader or editor prior to publishing? Was the world building either too involved or not detailed enough to draw you in? Could it be that the story was sound all around, and you just weren't comfortable with the subject matter or truly hated the characters? Identifying the motivations behind your feelings for a particular book is an important step to constructing a useful and solid review.
How often have you seen a one line bit of feed back on a bookseller's site that's hateful and tells you virtually nothing about the experience? Is it constructive in any fashion? If not, the reviewer has not only wasted their time, but that of anyone happening to read the opinion as well. Does it hurt an author to see that a reader didn't enjoy their work as much as they'd hoped? I'm sure it does; I know if someone wrote that they hated a piece of mine and it was a "waste of time" I'd feel discouraged. How difficult would it have been to offer a specific instance that may have turned a particular reader off to the piece, and present it in a manner that's compassionate and constructive? Not very, but then I've learned the hard way that manners and perspective are not qualities that everyone possesses in any quantity. You might be surprised to know that these types of scathing reviews are also left by fellow authors, whom I think should know better. The Golden Rule is going the way of the Unicorn folks, and that's sad. There's competition in any industry - it's healthy to use other's successes as a means to inspire yourself to improve and grow. It's not alright to have that "mean girls" mentality and tear another author down by looking for "blood in the water" and inciting a frenzy. What author "A" writes is not exactly like what "B would (if it is, you have an entirely different issue on your hands), so celebrate the difference and use that as an opportunity for self-improvement.
Admittedly, my full time job is not in the writing industry. I manage a staff of ten people for an agency that does consulting work. One of the facets of my job is to review outgoing correspondence for accuracy and content on a daily basis. I have staff that may not have the highest accuracy rates, however, they learn from each bit of feedback received and try to apply it accordingly. I also have staff that spend so much time cataloguing what everyone else is doing wrong to "keep score", that their own work suffers greatly as a result. Seeing a trend here yet? The staff should all be aware of what their co-workers do in a sense of how it contributes to the larger picture aspect, but not to the degree that work quality is in jeopardy. Incidentally, the "cataloguer" has typically shown themselves to be intolerant of any sort of feedback, to the point that asking even asking them for clarification on something is painful for all involved.
Finally, let's talk about grammar. If you're anything like I am, you have a love-hate relationship with it. We all chuckle about "grammar nazis" but the reality is, how you present yourself, whether in person or written form is important. Quality is key. Writing a review that is sound grammatically goes a long way to showing that you're attentive to detail and knowledgable about the subject being discussed. No one enjoys having to work though a paragraph filled with spelling errors and abbreviations that should only be allowed in a text message. Yet they're out there in all of their glory for the world to read. I have spell check on all whenever I write. Even if I know how a word should look, I'm human, and my typing skills are not fool-proof. I re-read what I write for accuracy and flow prior to sending it to be published because if I don't, I'll cringe at the mistakes later. I feel that it's just as important for a review to be edited prior to publishing as it is for a story. In my mind, authors and reviewers are cousins; both write to be heard. So be heard with the most clarity that you can and edit before you publish. Some review companies have staff in place dedicated to editing submissions prior to publishing, which can be useful, but in no way a substitution for looking it over yourself.
Authors love reviews, and we as reviewers love to give our opinion. While you may not be able to tell someone that their piece was one hundred percent okay, you can offer them points that you found really enjoyable, and perhaps some others that they could consider working on for the future. It's all in the presentation folks, so watch your mouth (as my mother would say). If you find yourself with the almost uncontrollable urge to spew a volcano of venom, think twice before hitting that submit button. Take a breather to discover why you want to throw your book or e-reader across the room and see if there's a nicer, more constructive way to let it out.
Please Note: no authors, reviews or e-readers were injured as a result of this article. All views are singly my own, and are not connected to any particular site, blog, literary piece, etc.