On Being Reviewed

It isn’t easy to read reviews of your writing unless they’re gushing and full of praise. You read those little criticisms (or maybe those big ones!) and you hurt. You think, “how could I have missed that?” or maybe you think, “this reviewer’s an idiot!”

There are writers who have been heard to say that reviews shouldn’t be allowed. Or that only published writers should be allowed to write reviews, because only they know what goes into the writing of a book. I’ve never heard this opinion espoused by a consumer who isn’t a writer, because consumers find reviews by other consumers helpful. Reviews help them discover new books they wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. Reviews convince them that book X doesn’t live up to its hype. Reviews help them to make buying decisions with their limited money.

Reviews are useful to writers too, of course. I’ve bought a number of books based on reviews that I would never have heard of otherwise. I’ve convinced many people to buy books with my own reviews. But writers don’t generally see the connected sales figures — they just feel the pain.

Reviews vs. Chatter

I’m not just talking about “formal” reviews, the ones you see in the newspaper, or magazines, or maybe a few respected web sites. I’m also talking about posts in newsgroups, mailing lists and forums, and “informal” reviews on personal web sites.

I do this for two reasons. One, because chatter affects buying decisions too. And two, because I’ve seen writers get loudly and publicly bent out of shape over chatter.

Not Just for Professionals in the Field

Reviews and chatter aren’t just for professionals in the relevant field. No one has ever needed to be a professional writer in order to know (and express) what they do and don’t like about a book. No one needs to be an artist in order to know and express what they like or dislike about a painting or musical composition. Yes, it can help if a reviewer is able to address the professional issues. But it isn’t necessary. As long as we try to sell books to readers who aren’t writers, it’s their opinions that will matter most, not ours. This isn’t something we can change, and I believe it’s something we shouldn’t change. Keep in mind:

  • Being able to judge someone else’s work is fairly different from being able to judge your own. Plenty of people can critique other people’s work with skill, but have trouble finding the flaws in their own. This is normal.
  • Professional critiques of style aren’t always what people want. Some people just want to know whether the action scenes were cool (or whatever)–and that’s their right.
  • People can and will make up their own minds. Just because some random guy on a newsgroup says “it sucked!” your life hasn’t ended.

A Fact of Life

Reviews, chatter, and commentary are a fact of life–one that we can’t, and shouldn’t, put a stop to. People have a right to say pretty much whatever they want to about our writing, no matter how little we like it. Writers constantly spout off about free speech when it affects them, but when it comes to the free speech rights of reviewers, most of what I hear starts with “people shouldn’t review (comment on, talk about) books unless…” followed by all sorts of clauses about writing ability, publishing experience, etc. Some go so far as to say that all reviews are evil things that shouldn’t be allowed.

Not everyone is going to like what you write. It’s simply impossible to please absolutely everyone. No matter how good you are, someone somewhere will say that you suck. Don’t take that as a personal insult; don’t take it as a comment on you. If you’re going to write you’re going to have to deal with negative commentary. It’s that simple. You can’t put your material out in the public eye and expect the people who don’t like it to not say anything. It’s unrealistic and unreasonable to expect only the good aspects of public exposure, without any of the bad. It’s okay to feel hurt, but lashing out is not the way to make yourself feel better. It just looks petty and childish from the outsider’s perspective.

Yes, it would be nice if everyone out there would give a careful, considered review of your work. It would be nice if everyone would admit their biases, give examples, and detail their opinions. (I’ve written a guide to writing RPG reviews.) Certainly it’s a good thing to encourage such reviews! But not everyone will express his opinion in this way, and you have to learn to handle that.

If you yell at or berate someone, he’s hardly likely to come away from the conversation thinking, “oh, I’ll write a better review next time.” If you’re lashing out at people and telling yourself that it’s because you want to get them to write better reviews, you’re misleading yourself. We all know that yelling, anger, harsh
criticism and insults only make people defensive and stubborn; they don’t make people listen to what you have to say. If you truly want people to listen, then read on.

Handling It Gracefully

Again, there are people out there who won’t like your work. There’s nothing you can do about that. But you can behave gracefully about it:

Talk to the reviewer or other person in a reasonable tone. Don’t yell. Don’t berate. Don’t name-call or insult. Don’t be sarcastic or harshly critical. Even people who seemed unnecessarily vicious in a review often react reasonably if they’re approached in a reasonable manner. Approach them nicely and ask them why they didn’t like the things they didn’t like.

Use the opportunity. Don’t just tell the reviewer he’s wrong — ask him why he said the things he said. If he claims something wasn’t in the book when it was, don’t call him an idiot. Point out where it was in a friendly manner, and ask him nicely why he didn’t notice it. You might discover that there was something about the writing that caused the point to be non-obvious. You can learn a lot to help you improve your writing even from the careless reviews.

Stick to facts. It’s okay to challenge factual inaccuracies, particularly if you’re worried about someone getting an incorrect impression from the review. Stick to the facts, though. Don’t use it as an opportunity to slam the reviewer’s intelligence or writing style. And again, be reasonable and friendly, and ask why rather than assuming the problem was entirely on the side of the person reading your book.

Don’t reply when angry. If you’re really mad then don’t reply to the review right now. Go calm down first, decide it isn’t so important to set them straight after all, or ask someone with a more level head to read the review and talk to the reviewer. You won’t be able to be reasonable when you’re mad.

Be particularly careful when replying to chatter. Most people are not going to react well when you decide to set them straight in a newsgroup, mailing list, or forum. They tend to forget when having a friendly chat that an author might come across their words; your intrusion can feel like just that — an intrusion. Allow people to discuss your work in their own way and their own time. Don’t interfere with that. And in particular, remember the above points about being reasonable and not replying when angry. I’ve seen writers drive away their own loyal customers when they got mad about someone’s opinion in public. Remember that people are allowed to not like your work.

A bad review or negative chatter won’t ruin your ability to write or sell books. You aren’t perfect; every writer writes trash some of the time. Learn from your reviews and reviewers. Handle them gracefully. If you lash out they’ll simply get defensive, which means they’ll say even worse things about you. Approach them with aplomb and most of them will respond in kind. If you’re too angry to do so then just walk away. Not every review requires a response.

Reviews Based on Free Product

There is one exception to the general idea of “don’t get bent out of shape.” A company has a right to expect that when they give a writer a review copy of a book, that writer will give the book a fair shake and a thorough, well-balanced review. They don’t have a right to expect that the writer will give them a positive review, but they can expect a well-thought-out one.

When you’ve given a review copy to someone, you have a right to tell them that you think the results weren’t adequate. Try to keep a few things in mind when you do this, however:

  • Consider making your complaints privately. It looks less like sour grapes, and people are usually more willing to listen to complaints when they aren’t being publicly humiliated.
  • Make sure you aren’t really taking issue with the negative direction of the review. Get someone who’s less personally involved than you are to read the review objectively and give you their opinion.
  • Don’t expect a lot when you make your complaints. Reviewers are writers too, and like writers who get upset at negative reviews, they often get upset when their work is criticized too. Not good, but true.
  • Keep it polite. Be constructive–rather than complaining about what you don’t like, tell the reviewer what you would like to see. Try to find something positive to comment on. And if possible, use a friendly tone. If nothing else, remember that people are more likely to listen to you when you’re polite, friendly, positive, and constructive. Not just the reviewer, but anyone else who observes or finds out about the conversation.
  • Choose your reviewers carefully. Pick people who have written good, thoughtful reviews in the past. Don’t give review copies to people whose work you’re unfamiliar with, or to magazines that don’t exercise any editorial judgment over the reviews that are turned in.
  • If you’re going to complain about sloppy negative reviews of your product, then make sure you say something about sloppy positive reviews too. Otherwise, no matter how much you tell yourself otherwise, you are singling out the negative reviews for complaint. And that isn’t behavior that most people will take well.

With respect to reviews of roleplaying books: Most good RPG reviews take a lot more work, effort, and time than your average book review. (Trust me. I’ve done a lot of both.) Keep in mind that this is a lot of work for a $5, $10, or $20 free book. I’m not saying you don’t have a right to ask for professionalism–you do. Just try to keep things in perspective when you make your complaints. It’s hard to find good, thorough RPG reviewers (precisely because few people are willing to put in that kind of time and effort for so little return), and you don’t want to cause someone who’s just a little shy of where you want them to be to decide that the whole thing isn’t worth his time because you came down on him like a ton of bricks.

My Position in All of This

I am both a writer and a reviewer. I’ve read positive and negative reviews of my work, so I know what it feels like. I’ve seen some of my fellow writers behave terribly toward anyone who said anything negative about their work. I’ve seen them so sour their own fans that those people swore never to buy anything of theirs again.

I’ve also gotten very nice emails from companies whose books I reviewed negatively, thanking me for the suggestions or nicely expressing disappointment that I saw things the way I did. I wish more companies and authors reacted this way–this is the kind of behavior that builds fan-bases. In contrast, when I got a particularly nasty bit of commentary from an author whose book I actually loved and gave a positive review of (but had one or two small issues with), you can bet that I didn’t feel disposed to buy any of his other work.

It’s tempting to express your anger publicly when you get a lousy review that was obviously thrown together in two minutes with little thought. But you can get a lot farther (win more fans, convince more people to write thoughtful reviews) by being friendly and open to suggestions than you can by using sarcasm and anger.

Posted in Reviews, Writing

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