Saturday, June 15, 2013

Why I Read Bad Reviews

The dreaded 1-, 2-, and 3-star reviews. Every author gets them at some point in their career - it's the nature of the business, whether we like it or not.

I've been part of the indie circuit for 10 years now (well that made me feel old), and in that time I've heard a lot about book reviews. The conversations always intrigue me. Many authors say they don't read their bad reviews, just the good ones. Others say bad reviews don't matter. And still more say that people who leave negative reviews are just rude and obnoxious.

This is not to say that all authors feel this way, as there are plenty who feel the same way I do, which is that all reviews pose a great learning experience to better our craft. I fully admit to enjoying a good 5-star review for my books, as those comments are what keep us, as authors, encouraged to write more books. But I also want to hear the bad stuff.

Why do I read bad reviews? Well, the answer is three-fold.

On the one hand, 1- to 3-star reviews are to the point. They are not blanketed with love and words like "awesomesauce," and you don't have to sort through paragraphs of fandom to get to the meat of the review. After all, why do people read reviews? To find out why the book is fantastic, as well as to determine what's what's wrong with it. The only way to get this information is with direct, thought-out reviews that focus on the book's content. If there are tons of grammatical errors or many readers have problems with characters or plot development, then that's generally a good sign that I won't like it either.

Second, they teach me what readers look for in books. From this I've learned that readers are extremely savvy. They know when an author is trying too hard, when they clearly haven't researched a topic, when a book wasn't professionally edited, etc. Reading their negative reviews, in turn, helps me to be a better editor, as I can proof with both an editor's and a reader's eye. Knowing the trends as far as pitfalls keeps me aware of today's biggest problems in the indie world.

And third, I learn more about readers in general. For every bad review that's constructive, there's another that's just plain rude. You can tell who is leaving constructive criticism and who is being nasty just for the sake of being a total dick. Reviewers, you know who you are. The reviews from people who didn't finish the book, who didn't bother looking up the genre they were reading, who left a bad review simply because they don't like a subject matter - these people are the bane of authors' collective existence. But, it helps to be aware of these people because on the flipside, it helps me better differentiate who is being a jerk and who I can actually learn from.

After all, why wouldn't an author want to learn from criticism? Ignoring bad reviews makes absolutely no sense to me. An author should always, always, want to improve his or her craft. That is possible only by being open-minded to the fact that our craft isn't perfect and there is always room for improvement.

(Side note - I've read many blogs and articles that say authors should never respond to bad reviews because, ultimately, it reflects poorly on the author. In most cases, this is true. However, I've also seen cases where the author responded maturely and professionally, and was able to have a constructive conversation with the reviewer. This is a conversation for another time, but it's good to note that both sides can learn from reviews and being open to discussion.)

Don't get me wrong, I love the 4- and 5-star reviews. They give me an ego boost and the confidence to write another book. Authors can't survive without positive reviews and praise. But I also want to know what's holding me back.

From my own feedback, I've learned that I tend to drag out the beginning of my novels, which can get boring. So, I've been working on that. I've also been told my lead characters are a bit...shall we say, bitchy. That's usually what I go for, but can see how that may turn readers off, so I try to make them a bit more appealing now.

So, to prove I'm not a book-hating fiend, I want to take a few minutes to show how those negative reviews can actually be useful. Below are brief snippets of reviews from Amazon (I do not know the authors personally or have any relationship with them). I've also only listed constructive feedback, not the absurd hate reviews.

1) Grammar

"Also, the spelling and grammatical errors... stop the writing further in its tracks when certain writing misses either beginning quotes or end-quotes..."

This is a review to take seriously. I've heard many authors say they are okay with these types of errors because they don't take away from the story. The truth is, yes, they do. Mistakes happen even in books published by traditional houses, so some are to be expected and excused. But when there are so many that the reader is too distracted to enjoy the story, it's time to re-edit and re-publish, even if you risk losing a high ranking on Amazon.

2) Voice

"I understand that the language is supposed to be representative of a typical teenager, but it just doesn't work...Does anyone talk like this?"

"...Nicely written, but the voice was way older than that of the main character."

One problem I see a lot of is voice. I run into this as well with my own writing, trying to create an accurate voice for a character who is younger, older, the opposite sex, etc. It is extremely important to ensure your characters actually speak the way you, the author, are trying to represent them. Otherwise, your readers won't believe the characters, and therefore lose interest in the story.

3) Repetition

"The Author constantly repeats the main characters feelings for one another. Once or twice is plenty..."

Repetition is a key thing to focus on when writing. I've seen many a reader comment on this, whether it's a phrase used over and over again, repetitive dialogue, or the author reiterating the same thought. You don't want your readers to end up thinking, "Okay, we get it already."

4) Detail

"There is too much buildup to the plot. Get to the point."

This is for one of mine. In past books, I've taken a lot of time to introduce the story and setting, leading up to the "point" with ten pages of introductory text. After reviewing my books from a reader's perspective, I realize they are right - that is boring. So I've learned from this and introduce the story in a different way, piece by piece rather than all at once. Hopefully doing so makes the books more interesting from the very beginning.

If anything, reading reviews has helped me develop a thicker skin. I've heard writers say that authors have fragile egos. This may be true, which is all the more reason to look at reviews as a learning experience rather than take them personally. We can learn from everything people tell us, even if what we're learning is to ignore a certain piece of advice and write the way we want (for example, you wouldn't stop writing fantasy books simply because one reader claims magic is stupid, which I've seen happen before in a 1-star review).

It stings to get bad reviews, but there are ways to take that sting away. Confidence and open-mindedness are key, as well as a keen eye for constructive criticism. With these things, we're all on our way to perfecting our craft.

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