A few thoughts on reviews

Last Tuesday night on the way home from work, my car slid on an icy patch and spun into a curb. I was fine, but my car needed some TLC. After the stress of getting towed, calling my insurance company like a billion times (note: they were great), only to end up paying out of pocket, I gave myself the week off from writing and blogging (and anything that costs money).

Instead, I read. I finished MATCHED and WILLOW, and started and finished PEGASUS. All three were pretty good. I wrote more in-depth “reviews” at GoodReads, and that got me thinking…

What is the purpose of a review? What makes a good review vs. a bad review?

(Please note that what follows are my answers, not necessarily the only answers. Also, I am generalizing. There are always going to be exceptions.)

From a reader/consumer’s point of view:

Just because someone doesn’t like something doesn’t make it BAD.

I am awful about remembering that, and I have a tendency to take opposing opinions personally. As if not liking something I like automatically means you are making a value judgment about ME. (“She likes Katy Perry? Oh god, she must be completely unimaginative and tone-deaf!”) But that’s ridiculous. If someone doesn’t like something that I like, it only means ONE thing: That person did not like that thing.


Again, not liking something does not mean it is BAD. So a review along the lines of “OMG I HATE THIS BOOK IT SUCKS” is neither accurate nor helpful. To ANYONE.

In my opinion, reviews should not attempt to make a value judgment of a book. Because art is subjective. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. {insert additional applicable clichés here}

Instead, reviews should explain how much the reviewer did or did not like the book, and WHY. That way other potential readers can say, “Well, that’s not what I look for in a book, so maybe I will like it,” or “Hmm, that’s exactly the kind of thing I’m reading for, so I better steer clear.”

From a writer’s point of view:

Look, it’s always going to be hard not to take a bad review personally. Always.

But what would be smarter than curling up in a corner and crying, would be to try and learn from the bad reviews. If we assume that everyone is trying to write helpful reviews (as I described above — yes, this is a big, generous assumption) then writers could learn a lot about where they have room for improvement.

That said, There is NO WAY to please everyone. So don’t even bother trying. Learning is good, but losing yourself in the attempt to make everyone happy, is not.

From a compassionate human’s point of view:

Don’t hate; appreciate.

I know you’re mad about how much the book costs, or you think vampires are stupid, or your hardcover had sixteen glaring typos in it. I’m sorry. You’re right, all of that sucks.

But human beings write these books. Human beings like me, and like you! Writers work hard at their jobs, the same as anyone else. We are not trying to type a bunch of crap in a Word doc and have you pay for it. First of all, that just would be wrong, and second, EVERYONE IS WATCHING. I mean, if you do poorly at your job, maybe 10-20 people will find out. If WE do poorly, 10-20 HUNDRED, or THOUSAND, or MILLION people could find out, and they will tell their friends and family, and it will be embarrassing and suck.

I’m not saying you can’t write a negative review. I’m just saying that if/when you do, please try to remember that there are human beings on the other side of your screen — on the other side of that book — doing their best. And their best may not work for you, that’s fine. Just explain why, politely, and move on.

12 responses to “A few thoughts on reviews”

  1. Sonja Avatar

    I write good reviews and bad reviews, maybe more bad than good, but it’s pretty down the line. If I’m writing a 5 star (best) review, mostly I just want to give kudos to the artist/creator and support their work, boost their rating, and add another good review to the list. I just did this with KT Tunstall’s “Tiger Suit” album. My other motivation for writing reviews is when something was missing from the product description and other reviews that I wish I had known beforehand. For instance, I just wrote a review for a DVD called “Living With Wolves” and the product description and other reviews all sang with this DVD’s praise about how much you can learn about wolves. No one mentioned (of the reviews I read, which were most but not every one) that the wolves were not wild. This is a very important tidbit of information. (The missing tidbit isn’t always negative, by the way. Sometimes it’s something really cool that, for reasons unknown to me, no one has mentioned.)

    I admit I don’t spend much time considering the artists/creators themselves reading my review, and I’m not sure if I want to do that, since my review isn’t for the author – it’s for potential buyers. Should my work ever be reviewed publicly, I reserve the right to change my mind about this policy. :)

  2. Kristan Avatar

    Oh, yeah, I don’t think it’s *necessary* to think about the artist/creator to write a good review (positive or negative). But I do think a lot of bad (negative) reviews — the kind in all caps, with lots of exclamations and oftentimes profanity — could benefit from a little compassion.

    Sonja, I’m pretty sure your reviews are not the kind I’m looking at out of the corner of my eye, hehe.

  3. Natalie Whipple Avatar

    I have to politely disagree on the writer section. Unfortunately, a writer can’t learn much from a negative review. Why? Because any “lesson” learned is specific only to that book—a book they cannot change.

    Every book is like learning to write again. There are different problems and different solutions and it is in no way your last book.

    Not to say that people shouldn’t leave bad reviews, I’m just saying that reviewer shouldn’t think that the author can learn from it. Mostly, it just drives them crazy that they can’t do anything about it.

    Which is why I have already vowed to never read reviews if I do get published. Reviews are not for me—they are for readers.

  4. Kristan Avatar

    Polite disagreement is totally allowed. :)

    And I do get where you’re coming from. There’s nothing an author can do about “I hated Edward, he sucks (no pun intended).” But I do think — and maybe this is naive of me, in a lot of ways… — that SOME negative feedback could be turned into positive growth. Like, “I wish there had been more descriptions of the setting.” Well, no, a writer can’t change it for that book, but s/he can look at a new project and make sure s/he’s being descriptive enough.

    I dunno, maybe my optimism comes from my mom saying to me, after we both read over someone’s harsh review of my work, “Well, she has a point.” Lol.

    (My mom never lets me ignore criticism. And even if I don’t read reviews, she’ll probably call me to tell me about them!)

  5. Carrie Avatar

    Great post!

    I think you are absolutely right, and that even if the reviews are aimed at buyers (as opposed to writers) there is still no need to be cruel. What’s the point? Some people seem to build their entire personalities (online and in person) around being snarky about others, and yes, it can be funny, but it isn’t contributing much to the community. If you don’t like something and you can’t make a thoughtful and useful criticism then you should really just not press send!

  6. Sarah Avatar

    You know, I don’t often review books or even read reviews for that matter because I don’t want to put in the time that is required. Because in order to write a helpful review, it requires thought, clarity, evidence to support your argument, etc. I think that a lot of people rush in to say whether they liked a book or not without any particular reason and that’s not valuable to me. Sure, it’s opinion, but why do I care about some stranger’s opinion? Now, your opinion, Kristan, is valuable and helpful. That’s why word of mouth is so powerful…and saves us lazy folk from reading “bad” books.

  7. Les Avatar

    Gross, sorry to hear about your car :(

    Regarding neg reviews, I think some people just love to be mean unfortunately… It’s up to the author to handle it with grace.

  8. Jon Avatar

    Sorry about the car!

    Nice analysis of the reviews. They’re at the heart subjective so shouldn’t be taken too personally. No one person is right–although certain reviews, like your editor’s, should be taken more seriously than others.

  9. Larramie Avatar

    What I try to remember is that for every book there is a reader who will love it even though it may not be my cuppa tea.

  10. Kristan Avatar

    Exactly. And you know, I think there’s a difference between humorous “snark” and just being flat-out mean. Sometimes snark is done with love! But a lot of negative reviews are just vicious and helpful, and like you, I don’t see the point.

    Word of mouth is the best!

    Ick, but you’re probably right: some people DO just like to be mean. I don’t get those people, and I don’t want to.

    Haha, hopefully editors don’t leave reviews on Amazon… but yes, point taken! Some “reviews” definitely matter more than others, and it’s a valuable skill (both giving and receiving criticism).

    Me too! Sometimes I’m more doubtful than others… but usually yes, SOMEONE will like each and every book. That’s what’s so wonderful about stories. :)

  11. Meghan Ward Avatar

    Kristan, I write book reviews for the SF Chronicle from time to time. I think becuase I’m a writer, I have a difficult time giving anyone a BAD review. If I don’t like a book, I tend to critique it the way I would a piece in a writers’ group – mentioning both the positive and negative aspects, without passing too much judgment. Maybe it makes me a softie reviewer, and I’m not someone who will NEVER write a bad review (I find it disturbing when people say, “I only review books I like”), but I do try to give everyone a fair chance – the same that I hope reviewers will do for me someday.

  12. Kristan Avatar

    “Maybe it makes me a softie reviewer, and I’m not someone who will NEVER write a bad review (I find it disturbing when people say, “I only review books I like”), but I do try to give everyone a fair chance – the same that I hope reviewers will do for me someday.”

    Exactly! {nods} I’m the same way with just my GoodReads reviews.