Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

How to Write a Negative Review

I got a Goodreads review the other day that included a mild criticism of one aspect of my book. The review was an excellent example of Nathan Bransford’s “sandwich rule” that he requests people use when critiquing someone’s writing on his blog or forum—a positive comment, followed by “very polite constructive feedback,” followed by a positive comment. This particular piece of criticism was specific and thought-provoking, something for me to consider while writing subsequent books. I may or may not end up changing anything because of it, but it was an insightful observation and worth pondering. And I appreciate the way the reviewer presented it, sandwiched between two positive comments.

When someone reviews a book, usually they’re writing for other readers, not to give the author feedback. But in this day of Goodreads and Google Alerts, there’s a good chance the author will see the review. Should you keep that in mind while writing a review? That’s not a rhetorical question; I’d like to know what you think. Do you think a reviewer should consider that the author might very well read her review—or should that be completely irrelevant? Please feel free to express your opinion in the comment trail. I’ll express my opinion right here (and you’re welcome to disagree with me):

My answer is yes, the reviewer should consider that the author might well read her review. Shocking huh, that an author would feel that way (no, I don’t pretend to be a disinterested party in this discussion). But here’s how I see it: when you’re reviewing a book, you’re reviewing the work of another human being. While you don’t have to like the book or praise it, and you should definitely feel free to give your honest opinion (how helpful is a book review if the reviewer is fudging on what he really thought just to be nice?), I think there are more thoughtful and less thoughtful ways of presenting a negative opinion. And I mean thoughtful in two senses: 1--You really think about what in the book didn’t work for you, as opposed to tossing off the equivalent of an easy “This book was awful.” 2--You consider that another person is involved here who will be affected by what you say and how you say it. Hence, two suggestions:

1-Be specific
2-Be polite

Specific criticisms are far more interesting and helpful (both to readers and authors) than general criticisms.

General criticism: “The characters were flat.”

Okay. Clearly the characters didn’t feel like real people to you, but why? What about them didn’t work?

Specific criticism: “The main character was too good to be true—her perfect beauty and total lack of personality flaws made her seem flat and fake. And the secondary characters had no distinguishing characteristics—I kept forgetting who was who.”

Now the people reading your review know why you felt the way you did. And the author has specific feedback to consider and something to possibly improve on in future novels. The author (and other readers) may or may not agree with your opinion—reactions to fiction are very subjective, and if an author tried to reconcile the differing opinions of every reviewer, her authorial brain would implode. But you’ve given the author something to think about, not just something to cringe over.

General criticism: “This book was boring.”

Specific criticism: “The story developed too slowly. There were several chapters at the beginning of the book where nothing happened to advance the plot.”

General: “This book was poorly written.”

Specific: “Some of the sentences were awkward; I had to read them twice to figure out what they meant.”

General: “The dialogue was unrealistic.”

Specific: “The main character spoke in a stilted, formal way that didn’t ring true. It sounded like he was always making speeches, not having casual conversations.”

Being specific about what in the book didn’t work for you leads to a much stronger review than just general statements about how the book was lousy. It also gets you to stop, think, and analyze.

As far as politeness: yeah, I have a sarcastic streak too. But when you’re writing a review, I recommend resisting the urge to indulge in snarky wit at the author’s expense. “This plot was so corny that the author could pop it and serve it with butter and salt.” “I wanted to run this book through the shredder and use it to make New Year's Eve confetti. At least then I'd get some enjoyment out of it.” You’ve made your point, but you’ve done it in an unnecessarily mocking way. Snarky comments can bring a dash of cruelty instead of candor. Is that really what you’re going for?

Give some thought to Nathan Bransford’s sandwich rule. I’m not saying I think every review has to follow that critique format exactly, but I do think book reviewers should look for ways to include positives with the negatives. Chances are you didn’t think everything about the book was rotten. Was there a plot twist you liked? A character you related to? Some beautiful writing? A well-executed climax? Even if your overall opinion of the book is negative, you can mention some of the positives you found along the way. You can write a negative review of a book without mocking it or slaughtering it.

Be careful if you’re not well versed in the genre you’re reviewing. If you’re not familiar with the conventions of a genre, you might be inclined to criticize something as a flaw when regular readers of the genre would have no problem with it. I think (feel free to disagree) that it doesn’t hurt to offer a disclaimer in this situation: “I’m not usually a romance fan” . . . “I don’t read a lot of LDS fiction” . . . “I haven’t read a mystery in years” . . . something to alert the reader that your review—while valid and worthwhile in expressing your opinion on the book—might not reflect the viewpoint of the majority of fans of that genre. If I were reviewing a romance and offered a criticism like “The outcome was so predictable—I knew right from page one that Joe and Jane would end up together”—the savvy romance reader would stare at me in disbelief; of course you knew that. Having the hero and heroine end up together is a requirement of the genre. On the other hand, if I said, “There were no surprises in this book—at every turning point, I knew exactly what was going to happen next”—that would be a valid criticism, and one that wouldn’t make readers go, um, you don’t read much romance, do you?

To sum up: I hope I’ve made it clear that I do not for one instant think that reviewers shouldn’t write negative reviews of books. But I think there are ways to be both graceful and honest in expressing opinions.


At 4/13/2011 2:44 PM, Blogger Melanie Jacobson said...

I really like the sandwich concept and I need to do a better job of using it in my public reviews. I definitely do this when I critique a ms for a friend, but not on places like Goodreads. Part of that is because I know several of my friends trust my Goodreads recommendations and just want to know if the book is something they're going to want to pick up. They need a sentence or two. Yet as an author, I kind of hunger for more specific feedback when I see a three star review. I'm all about trying to kick it up a notch. I embrace really good pointers and always appreciate a different point of view.

But then again, in my reviewer's hat, I kind of think, "How does specific help when the book is already out? My reader friends will want to know that the characters are flat, not why they're flat."

And since you witnessed the lovely negative review debacle I was party to a few months ago, you know I'm way, way over criticizing anything publicly for the author's consumption. I will offer an opinion privately and only when asked, but lesson learned. I'm keeping my mouth shut.

At 4/13/2011 2:51 PM, Blogger Sheila said...

Stephanie I agree with you in many ways. Here is how I look at it. I am a book "reviewer" not a critic. My main goal, is to tell the readers of my blog what I thought about the book. I always tell what I liked about the book. I figure if my blog readers find something they agree with in my review to pique their interest, then I have done my job. I have felt it is not my job to tell the author how to write his book better. Most of the time the author will be able to tell what the readers liked or didn't like by certain comments. I almost always try to find something positive about the book I read whether I gave it 3 or 5 stars. If I give the book a lower rating, I usually tell why I did. I also try to base it back to something I didn't like, such as material that I feel is not appropriate for a certain age group.

Thanks for this post. I do not think that there is any place for someone to be downright mean. I have no respect for someone that does that without giving reasons why they specifically did not like something in the story.

At 4/13/2011 3:20 PM, Blogger Suzanne Lucas said...

I'm not a novelist so people don't "review" my work, but they do leave comments. I respond to almost every comment made at BNET, so I've noticed that people generally make well thought out comments that aren't attacks.

People disagree all the time, but do so in a polite manner. Most of the time.

However, when I write something controversial I am guaranteed several really nasty emails that all seem to conclude with an insult to my glasses. Please, people, my glasses are cool.

I think these people aren't fully clued in that there is a real person at the other side of the keyboard.

At 4/13/2011 3:53 PM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

Fiction is art. Non-fiction is information--no matter how artsy the presentation. When you review non-fiction, you're wrestling with facts, casting a bright light on falsehoods presented as fact, and searching for truth. When you review fiction, you're wrestling with beauty, casting a bright light on blemishes presented as beauty, and searching for story.

In a documentary done by BYU-TV about President Eyring's father, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics (which means he's a lot smarter than most of us), President Eyring relates that his father was interested in everyone he met. It didn't matter if the person was a great scientist or beat farmer. And he told the young President Eyring that there wasn't anyone from whom he couldn't learn something. That truth applies to authors who read reviews too. There is usually something the author can learn from every reader. Even the ones who trash our work with general comments instead of specific ones, though you’re right, the specific ones provide a little justification for their existence.

Readers usually catch our weaknesses in dialogue. They find lapses in the logical presentation of the story---places where they didn't get it because, darn it, we didn't present our story or our characters in a way that made sense. The reader didn't know the story or the characters beforehand. The author did. And the reader holds us accountable for not presenting the parts of the story or characterizations that are left in our brain and should have been penned on the page.

The same principles that applies to writing in the point of view of a character, also apply to the point of view of the reviewer of a novel. When the reviewer puts down on paper a description of the novel--its strengths and weaknesses, the things they liked and didn't like--we end up learning much more about the reviewer than we ever learn about the novel.

Try it out. Go back and look at some reviews. They're all over the charts. There are reviewers who liked your work and those who didn't. But the telling thing about the review isn’t that that the reviewer had good or bad things to say about your novel. The interesting point is that the reviewer reveals themselves on the page by the descriptions they choose, by the tone they use, by the word choices and by the opinions they express---much like the characters who people our novels. Point of view, my author friends, is something you can learn from even the most negative, snarky, trashing review ever written about your novel.

Like President Eyring's father always said, "Hal, there isn't anyone from whom you can't learn something."

At 4/13/2011 11:30 PM, Blogger Maggie said...

Great post Stephanie. I don't know that it's the readers JOB to point out specifics, but I do know, as a writer, I am always happy when they do--so I can learn and improve.
A lot of what you had to say made me think about critiques as well as reviews. I think the sandwich technique is a fantastic idea. My critique partner and I both agree that in addition to pointing out the many things we need to improve in our writing, we also have an obligation to help build each other up and encourage each other.

At 4/14/2011 10:11 AM, Blogger Michael Knudsen said...

Great points. It IS possible to deliver constructive advice without a personal attack on the author. Like you, I don't want to risk offending anyone I know personally, but even when I review books by big name authors on Goodreads, I try to get more than just an impression to them--I try to let them know exactly why I did or did not like the book. Your suggestions for getting specific really help.

At 4/14/2011 11:52 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Thank you so much to everyone for the excellent thoughts and insights! It's fascinating to get different perspectives on this, and I really appreciate the comments.

At 4/14/2011 12:50 PM, Blogger Cami Checketts said...

Thanks for this post. It is so difficult to review a book that you didn't personally enjoy. I try to do the same thing, show the positive and if I think I need to share the negative do it in a constructive way.
Great post!


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