Friday, March 5, 2021

How to review a book you didn't like

Part three of my musings on how to give helpful and fair, yet kind, polite, and uplifting feedback on writing.

This part deals entirely with public reviews of books, and specifically how to tactfully review a book you did not like. By "public reviews" I am mainly referring to reviews you post on websites like Amazon and Goodreads, reviews that the author and everyone who looks up the book are going to see. Reviews that you post on your (professional) blog or social media are in a slightly different class, because these reviews will generally only be seen by either a) people who follow you or b) people who do an Internet search specifically for reviews of a given book. These reviews are not as prominent or far-reaching, but I will touch upon them briefly.

First off, here's a great article about this subject, that I used for a lot of the points in this blog post. I recommend giving it a read!

Remember that a public review for a finished work is not the same sort of animal as beta feedback for a work in progress. In a review, the focus should be on helping other readers know what you took away from the book and what they should expect from it. Beta feedback is focused on helping the writer know what to improve in future drafts. In a review, you should expect that there will be no future drafts (a little more on that later on, though). You should also write with readers in mind as well as the author.

As an author, I value reviews because they help me know what readers think I'm doing right and how I can improve. But reviews are also extremely important for other readers, because they help the readers gauge if a book is right for them - or worth their time - based on peer opinions. Authors or publishers can say all the flowery things they want about a book to try to sell it to you, but the reviews will tell you what's really going on.

Phrase opinions as opinions. We all have opinions. That's okay. That's normal and healthy. I myself am a very opinionated person, I'm just usually not that outspoken about it because I don't like getting into arguments. But the key is to remember that your opinion is what you think about something. It doesn't necessarily reflect how everyone else thinks. Sometimes, it may not even have a basis in objective reality.

Sometimes it does have a basis in objective reality. For example, I don't think anybody (in their right mind) feels like train wrecks are a wonderful part of life. Even then, if you're writing a review, the key is to focus on how you are feeling about something. Talk about how off-put you were by the train wreck, how it soured the whole book for you and put you in a down mood for the rest of the day.

It's also important to share insights about yourself that could help a review reader (and the author) understand where you're coming from and how it affects your opinion of a book. For example, you could mention that you were actually in a train wreck, so you especially hate reading about them because it's very triggering. That will help readers to understand that if they are similarly triggered, they should not read this book--or conversely, if they don't feel as strongly about train wrecks, they'll know that your experiences are not relevant to how they themselves should approach this book.

In college, I learned how to write reviews that were all about staying completely objective and focusing on how effectively the author said what they were trying to say. I've come to realize that that only works for reviewing academical works for research purposes. When you're reviewing a book that you read for personal reasons - either nonfiction because you were interested in the topic, or fiction because you wanted some entertainment - you can't stay objective because being subjective is part of the reading experience. Your subjective reactions to a book are an important bit of information for others who are going to have their own subjective reactions. Reading reviews that keep talking about how the reviewer was bored, annoyed, or disappointed with the book help clue the buyer in that they might not get an fulfilling experience from this particular title.

Plus, it helps the author too. Some people don't realize that what they're writing can be triggering unless a reviewer alerts them to it, especially if an author is trying to bill their work as "family-friendly". I ran into a book once where the author claimed it was a "family read", and yet it contained content that I not only would not want any child encountering, but was highly triggering to me and a very distressing read overall, and a book I would have stayed far away from if I'd gotten the proper content warnings. Just because an author doesn't think something is a big deal, doesn't mean everyone feels that way. Some authors need to be reminded of that.

Try to stay emotionally neutral. If a book invokes a strong negative emotional reaction from you (it's okay, I've been there too), don't write a scathing Amazon or Goodreads review right there in the heat of your emotions. You'll probably end up saying some things that you regret and wording your opinions more strongly than was necessary. Give yourself a day or two to cool off. Organize your thoughts and feelings and write from a place of calmly expressing why the book wasn't working for you, rather than an angry outburst.

Again, I want to emphasize: it's okay to have a strong emotional reaction to a book. Words and thoughts are powerful things and our brain can respond to them very strongly. Allow yourself to feel angry or sad or even hurt by a book you hated. But Amazon and Goodreads are not the right places to show all of those emotions as you're feeling them. Which brings me to my next point:

Don't write public reviews to relieve your feelings. Your emotions need release, yes, but such a public venue is not appropriate and could lead to a lot of embarrassment and misunderstanding. Writing a vehement Amazon review is the equivalent of grabbing a loudspeaker, going to Times Square, and shouting your feelings to thousands of total strangers. It's awkward and reflects more on you than what you're trying to say.

There are more appropriate places to vent about a book. Your own blog or review website works well for getting a little more in-depth about your beef with a book. Most personal blogs and websites are expected to be full of the author's opinions and emotions, and will generally only be read by people who agree with, or at least empathize with, the blogger. I often look at blogs and websites when I'm interested in someone's no-holds-barred opinion about a book. Even if I don't necessarily agree with them 100%, it's still interesting to me to understand how their mind works and how they feel about certain things.

And there may be times when you just need to share a really emotional negative reaction to a book, and I think that should only be done in a very trusted and personal setting. Find someone who you trust to be there for you when you just need to fall apart for a moment - a family member, a close friend, a spouse, or even your therapist/counselor - and then let yourself cry, rant, flail wildly in frustration. Those are the times when you need a hug, or someone to laugh with you about how stupid the whole thing was, and maybe take you out for ice cream afterward. But nobody else needs to know about those vulnerable, private times.

All right, so back to actually writing the review. This one is important: Keep the author's feelings in mind. Just because you don't like the book, doesn't mean a) nobody else likes it or b) the author doesn't like it. In fact, the author might think it's the most incredible thing they've ever read. And for them, it likely is, because it came from them and they're fully aware of how much work and heart they put into it. They wrote something they loved and that spoke to them. It behooves a reviewer to respect that.

Writers are especially in a good position to empathize with other writers. I invite you to try this thought exercise. Take a deep breath and think about one of your favorite things you have ever written. Maybe it's your newest release that's the culmination of all of your writing training up to this point. Maybe it's a story that came from a deep place inside of you and said some things you felt were really profound. Think about how much you love that writing and feel like it would be of great worth to others.

Now, realize that this is the way nearly all other writers feel about their work.

Kind of puts things into perspective, doesn't it?

I invite you to, next time you encounter someone talking about their writing, remind yourself that their writing is just as important and meaningful to them as yours is to you. When I started doing this, I was amazed by how much more supportive I became of my fellow authors. Commenting on their work was no longer about nitpicking at technical details or turning my nose up at tropes I disliked. It was about caring about the author as a person and wanting to see them succeed in sharing their talent, their message, and their unique literary experience with the audience it was meant for.

You are not writing a review to make the author feel bad. That does not help anyone. No author should be shamed about their work. So, even if you mostly have frustrations with the book, try to be nice, and try to find ways to not make the book sound hopelessly terrible. 

Talk about the book's strengths, as many of them as you can find. I've found that even in books where I thought a lot wasn't done right, there was still some stuff that was. Respect that an author may just be coming from a drastically different place than you, writing with some firmly entrenched ideas that make sense to them but only alienate you. 

For example, I often take issue with male fantasy/sci-fi authors who tend to make all of their main protagonists male, and either don't give their female characters a lot of development, or make them all follow the same personality type (usually overbearing and argumentative), and arbitrarily make them the male lead's romantic interest. However, I acknowledge that these writers are writing from a brain that is the opposite gender of mine, and how they relate to and understand women is different from how I do. So I generally am not interested in stories that feature male main protagonists and stereotypically aggressive female romantic interests. But I respect that that is something that some authors enjoy and get fulfillment out of writing, and leave it alone to focus on stuff I enjoy.

In fact, one of the articles I read recommended finding ways to put a positive spin on the fact that a book just wasn't right for you--because although it might not have been right for you, chances are it is right for somebody else. For example, let's say I was leaving a review for one of those aforementioned male-forward novels. I could say something like "You might like this book if you enjoy stories about strong male protagonists and outspoken female leads". If that's something that speaks to you, you deserve to know that's what you can expect from this book.

Finally, don't write public reviews with an expectation that they will help the author improve this particular book, because they are likely done with it. Some authors will occasionally revise older books if they feel it is warranted. Most authors don't do this. They're too busy with new books. Or, sometimes authors have a "turning point" in their writing where they feel like they crossed a threshold into being a "good writer", and any mistakes they may have made in post-threshold novels aren't disruptive enough to merit a new edition.

I myself am an example of this. I think my "turning point" novel was The Voyage of the Kaus Media. By the time I published it, I had gotten to a point in my writing where I was really starting to understand things like plot structure, character development, worldbuilding, pacing, and effective prose. So now, even three years after it's come out, I can still read it and feel like it's a really solid book. Sure I've got some nitpicks, but they aren't big enough for me to want to make revisions. I think it reads just fine how it is and I don't anticipate revising it.

On the other hand, Skydwellers and On Borrowed Wings are "pre-turning point" novels, and boy does it show. Skydwellers is on its third edition--yes, I revised it twice, and each time I did some heavy reworking of the characters and plot structure, and even gave the prose a badly-needed retuning. On Borrowed Wings is on its second edition because it also required that same sort of reworking. I'm even contemplating doing a new edition before I get it narrated, because it's so old that I'm just not sure I'm comfortable with having it narrated as it stands.

But anyway, I think authors like me are the exception rather than the rule. I think reviews should phrase a book's weaknesses in a way that suggests things the author could improve on in future books. Because if you're implying that the author should make changes to an already-published book, you're implying that the current edition was not fit to print, and that can be really hurtful to an author.

Now, I do want to say a word about if you find a book that really does read like a rough draft--specifically if the author is an indie writer, which means their book may not have been professionally vetted. In this case, while you may want to leave a review nicely explaining why it wasn't working for you, you may also want to contact the author directly and let them know that you feel their work could use some professional editing. Sometimes indie authors, especially when they're just starting out, think that they can just publish their first draft as-is and it's perfect. They need someone like you to kindly help them understand the value of good editing, so they can progress on their journey to become the great writers they want to be.

I'm saying this because that was my own experience with Skydwellers. I had a tough time finding beta readers for it. One beta just said he liked it and that was all the feedback I got out of him. Another beta only said she couldn't find any typos. So I was impatient and went ahead and published it. Thankfully, a few years later, a very generous story editor friend did a full story development treatment on it and helped me see everything that needed to be improved, and that's when I did the second edition.

So reviews are important for helping the author improve, and can be a valuable resource for other readers. It's just also important to make sure you are communicating tactfully, respectfully, and diplomatically for the benefit of readers and the author alike.

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