Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Thoughts on accepting critical feedback/reviews

See this essay for some follow-up thoughts on this topic.

After my musings on being on the critic's end of things, and after having gotten more book reviews than usual over the course of a book tour, I've been doing some thinking about how it feels to be on the receiving end of critical feedback. I'd previously written a post about it in a Goodreads group, and then followed it up with another post the other day. So I thought I'd share the contents of both posts here and expand on their ideas a bit.

For starters, I ought to explain that I am very, very sensitive to criticism. I'm a perfectionist and I struggle with being way too self-critical. To have criticism come from an outside source is like rubbing salt in the wound. I also grew up in environments where I was constantly criticized. 

So for me, receiving criticism is hands-down the most emotionally difficult part of writing. Believe me, I wish I could just somehow write perfect stories all the time. I haven't quite gotten there yet. But I also know, on a rational level, that I need to know what I'm doing wrong so I can fix it. So I'm definitely not antagonistic toward criticism. It just stings me a little deeper than it does some people, and I have to emotionally support myself through receiving it and processing what it means for my work.

Skydwellers, my first and very amateurish novel that I published fresh out of college, got a two-star review on Amazon a few months ago. Part of me was wondering when that was going to happen. Part of me was hoping it would never happen. But it happened nonetheless. The review was brief, but the only positive comment was that the idea was interesting. Otherwise, the reviewer had only negative opinions of the book.

My emotions were mixed. I wrote Skydwellers back when I had really no idea what I was doing, and even after two revisions it probably still reads a little rusty. But I was hoping it wouldn't be that terrible. Like, maybe not my best work, but still something you wouldn't feel like you wasted time reading, unless you just didn't like it as a matter of personal taste.

I also felt confused because many of my readers love Skydwellers. Despite how old and (debatably) bad it is, my story editor loved it. My proofreader called it life-changing and said it was the book that helped her enjoy fiction again, and she actually started crying (happy tears) when I told her I was writing a sequel. All of the five-star reviews it has on Amazon are natural reviews from people who honestly liked the book that much.

Part of why that review stung so badly was because I'm the sort of person who wants to take people at their word. It's difficult for me to remind myself that what people say may not be an accurate reflection of reality, and different people just have different ideas of what makes something a quality read. Even when someone is presenting their opinion as fact, it's still just their opinion. (There are lots of people out there who like to think their opinion is fact.)

I am all for learning where I can improve in my writing, but I do appreciate when it is pointed out to me diplomatically and with a tone of kindness and helpfulness. I try very hard to take that approach when I write reviews, because the last thing I want is to make a writer feel bad about their work or themselves. I know, though, that there are people out there who don't care so much about courtesy or the author's feelings. Putting my work out there for potentially anyone to comment on means that I have opened up the forum to politeness and brusqueness alike. It's the price one has to pay for going public. But the payoff - bestowing quality media on the world - is well worth it.

As a reviewer, I try hard to respect the work that went into a book, and I love loading my reviews with as much positive praise as I can find. I generally try to maintain high opinions of others' writing, and even if a book isn't something I absolutely loved, I usually find something to like about it. The only times when I've given something one or two stars is not because of technical quality, but because I found it offensive or triggering, which are the two things that are an automatic stop-reading-immediately for me.

But I know there are people who struggle with the bad habits of negativity and criticism and it shows through in their reviews. For them, a review is an opportunity to point out all the flaws, not to give a balanced overview that will help the writer improve and prospective readers make an accurate judgment call about the book. And once most people get the negativity snowball rolling, they find it's on a very steep hill.

Remember: a review is never authoritative. It's simply a summary of how a single, imperfect mind reacted to a book--otherwise known as an "opinion". Lots of factors go into an opinion. Not all of them are the author's fault. (For example, if you write a well-written book about fairies, but the reviewer doesn't like fairies. Whose responsibility is it when you get a two-star review that says "I hate fairies"?)

Is it cathartic to vent about things you didn't like in a book? Sure. Is it something you should be posting publicly where the author can and will read it? Probably not. One of the double-edged swords of the Internet is that anyone can say anything they want, and opinions are more visible than ever before. It's wonderful to hear how much some people love our work, but it's also terribly disappointing to hear just how much some people hate it.

However, even the most memorable and beloved classics have had their scathing critics. Just because someone feels a certain way about a book, doesn't mean it's either true, or how most people feel about it.

And good emotional support is always helpful to an author, and to artists in general. That's why I'm so grateful for the readers who do enjoy my books. I write for them, not to try impossibly to please everyone.

I spoke with a friend and former story editor about the review, and she had this to say (edited for clarity as this was a text message conversation):

"Skydwellers is not unreadably terrible! Not at all! When I did surveys for [our] church our rule was to never consider the outlier comments - the absolute worst and absolute best ones - because they are always going to come, they are very rare, and they throw off the real experience 99% of people are having.


Also keep in mind that reviews are often subjective and more about what they expected out of the book than whether the book actually worked or not. You could still have a solid entertaining story and if someone says 'I really wanted this to be a post apocalyptic romance!' then they will be unsatisfied regardless.


Feedback is hard. I always try to let it sit a few days before making any conclusions about my work from them."

I've come to discover that, despite all the literary training and critical analysis in the world, reviews are highly subjective creatures and are still essentially the reviewer's opinion. I've come to see that works for one reader will not work for another. What one person doesn't even notice will stick out like a sore thumb to someone else. Even among fans of the same genre, tastes and opinions can vary wildly.

And, "star" criteria can vary widely, as I'm sure you've seen if you have much experience on Goodreads either reading reviews or writing your own. Some people only give 5 stars to the most jaw-droppingly, life-changingly perfect books they have ever read. Some people give 5 stars to anything that they just really, really liked and couldn't find enough wrong with to want to drop it to 4 stars. Again, it's all up to the individual and what those ratings specifically mean to them.

So far in its blog tour, Pixeldust has gotten one five-star review, some four-star reviews, and one 3.5-star review. Clearly, people are having different opinions about the exact same text. And looking at the bloggers, I can see that, despite being fantasy fans, they all have very different personalities and tastes.

Also, a word to writers, do not get swept up in "5-star perfectionist mania". That's the phenomenon where you believe that if a book is not getting lots of 5-star reviews, it's rubbish.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm not sure how or why this started to happen, but somehow 5 stars has become the new 4 stars for some people. I've also seen this happen in, of all places, the gaming community. Video games are usually rated on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being "literally so badly made that you can't even play it, much less enjoy it" (I'm looking at you, E.T. for the Atari 2600), 10 being "an absolutely unforgettable timeless masterpiece" (hello, Zelda: Ocarina of Time), and 5 being "kinda fun, but nothing to write home about; typical for its genre" (like the zillion Mario Party sequels).

However, recently game reviewers' opinions have started to skew gamers toward a perception that any game with a rating lower than an 8 (or sometimes even a 9) is "bad" and not worth playing. Numerically, one can see that's just not the case. If we take 5 as average, anything above 5 must be better than average. Even a 6 game has merits that make it stand out from the pack--not as much as a 9 or 10, but still it obviously does something better than what's mediocre in its genre.

And what does that mean? Lots of games that are good - not near-perfection, but still good - get the stink-eye. "Oh, this game only got a 7/10? Gross." I've played plenty of 7 games that I found super fun and enjoyable. I've even played plenty of 6 games that, while I didn't ever feel the need to pick them up again, were still entertaining and not a waste of my time.

So let's review what book star ratings are generally supposed to mean (individuals' rating criteria aside). 3 stars usually means "average". Not remarkable in any way, but also not bad. You don't want bad. 1 and 2 star reviews are a huge red flag for any reader (unless it's clear that, upon reading the review, the reviewer just didn't like the book on principle and is not interested in being objective).

4 stars, though, means "better than average". 4 stars means it was good. You want good. 4 stars means your book is noteworthy and recommendable above many other books in its genre(s). How cool is that! You wrote something better than average! High five. 🙌

5 stars, on the other hand, is a rare treat. Most reviews reserve 5 stars for books that really bowled them over. What that looks like is different for everyone, but just know that it is a high compliment - and an uncommon one - to receive a 5-star review, especially from a seasoned book reviewer. It's definitely something to hang your hat on and be proud of and use in promotional campaigns. But it's not something you should expect all the time from every reviewer. I've found that many experienced reviewers reserve their 5 stars for only the books they find earth-shatteringly mind-blowing. Anything that they otherwise "just" really liked gets 4 stars. Which is still a huge compliment.

So, my advice is to aim for and focus on 4-star reviews. Enjoy the 5-star reviews when you get them, but realize that if you write a good, solid book, it will mostly get 4-star reviews. And those reviews are going to be very nice and complimentary. So enjoy those too. A 4-star book is definitely something worth checking out for nearly any reader. 

Also, acknowledge that it is just impossible to guarantee a 5-star review from anybody, even your biggest fans. Everyone has different tastes, and even when reading books from the same author, readers may prefer one story or series over another. You can't purposely write a 5-star book. It doesn't work that way. You can, however, do your very best, and enjoy your well-earned 4 stars and internally scream when someone thinks your book was a 5-star read. (It's okay to externally scream about it too. Just not in public.) 

I know, you really want to write that super incredible world-changing book that will rocket to the top of the best-seller lists. But whether or not a given book will actually do that is impossible to predict or control. What you can control is how hard you work at your craft and how much you try to learn about it. You'll get your big break when the right time comes--just don't give up. Keep the dream alive.

So, I've learned to really not take negative reviews that seriously. Yes, you can learn from what someone thinks you didn't do well. But if other people seem to enjoy the book despite the "glaring" errors that made one person thoroughly unimpressed, it's probably more that the book wasn't quite to that person's liking in the first place, as I suspect was the case with that Skydwellers review.

Another thing I've learned is to have empathy for the reviewer, even when you disagree with them. We have all read books we didn't like, and I think we've all read books that a lot of other people raved about but just weren't our thing. I find it helps me to put myself in the reviewer's shoes for a moment. If I read a book that just wasn't hitting any of the right notes with me, I'd be disappointed. As the author, I have to allow that in people. Clearly my work isn't a perfect fit for everybody, and that's okay, because I'm sure those people have their favorite authors who don't write anything like I do. What matters to me is that there are other people out there who show that my work does have the capability to be enjoyed by an audience.

Another thing that matters to me even more is that, reviews aside, my work helps people, and that's what it's really all about for me. Yesterday I got a super sweet note from a reader who told me that she'd been having a rough week, but she had been reading The Voyage of the Kaus Media and it helped her get through everything that had happened that week. And that completely made my day. That's why I write. That's what I want the end result to be: lives made better.

So don't sweat the bad reviews, writers. They're not the end of the world. They're ultimately just somebody's words, and you can do with them what you wish, whether that's to learn what you can from them or ignore them.

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