Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Book reviews can feel like a loose cannon on a storm-tossed ship to an author. You know that you can’t control what others think and say about your work, but, man, to put that opinion in writing for others to read…that’s a whole other eat-your-stomach-lining experience.
Last week novelist Rachel McMillan put up a celebratory post on Facebook. Her feat? Receiving a one-star online review.
She figured that, until you take that low blow, a writer hasn’t experienced her rite of passage. And, as she noted: “when i discover a new author on amazon and they only have four or five star reviews i get skeptical. not everyone can like everything!”
In the comments to her FB post, several people responded as if she had made a joke. Yea, right, every author longs for a poor review, they wrote with a snicker.
But Rachel assured everyone that she meant it; she was celebrating.
She raises good points to consider.
What are the benefits of poor reviews?
Perhaps the most obvious is the humility factor. Nothing reminds us of our fallibility and our need to work harder on our craft than an embarrassingly low view of our writing. A little humbling can sting, but in the long run, it keeps our work in perspective.
Every critique has at least some element of truth. At one of my former jobs, we had a saying, “Perception is truth.” By that we meant, if someone perceived a situation a certain way, even if his or her view was actually misperception, to that person, it was the truth. And we should receive it in that light. Rather than rail against it, embrace it as that person’s truth and decide how to respond based on that.
The writer also has the opportunity to see a previously invisible flaw in his or her work. Sometimes the critique might be harsher than necessary, but tucked inside that bitter pill might well be some helpful analysis of what you can do better next time. We don’t care to learn from our mistakes by having them pointed out in public, but nonetheless, that’s what a one-star review brings our way.
Understanding the world from a different perspective is another advantage of a negative review. One of my clients recently had her novel reviewed alongside a second novel that explored the same issue (racial tension). The reviewer praised the other book for its authentic look at how damaging it is to experience racial bias. My client depicted characters who certainly felt the raw rub of racial prejudice, but they chose to respond with forgiveness and kindness. The reviewer saw such a depiction as inauthentic and unnatural. Well, yes, forgiveness is unnatural, but it also is beautiful. Clearly my client’s book was nonsensical to the reviewer because the reviewer didn’t grasp grace. Our message won’t always be understood and might well be defamed. Yet, that response is a reminder of how others see life, and that can inform our future writing.
Connected to that point, the writer is reminded, as the reviews come in a mixed bag of good and ill, that readers will disagree with us. As Rachel McMillan wrote, Not everyone can like everything. That would mean that person actually has no opinion. We seldom have the opportunity for a productive interchange with those who write reviews (and defending what we wrote in response to a review seldom results in that kind of exchange). Writers must learn to live with the tension that inherently comes in making oneself open to criticism.
The author has the opportunity to show he or she doesn’t have a glass jaw when a one-star review lands a solid blow. If you’re not familiar with the phrase “glass jaw,” it’s applied to fighters who are prone to being knocked out when a punch hits them hard in the face. Publishing is a tough biz because writers wear their hearts on their sleeves; yet reviewers are ready to knock those hearts to hither-come. A writer has to be ready to keep on keeping on. No glass jaws allowed.
It takes courage, gumption, and probably a strong sense of calling to face down the blows of bad reviews. But I suspect many a well-respected author can recall the exact wording of a scathing review that caused the writer to tighten his belt and say, “I’m not quitting. What doesn’t break me, makes me stronger.”
Amen. Here’s to all reviews, whether they be instructive, incisive, insensitive, or idiotic. May they make us all the better for having received them. Right, Rachel McMillan?
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest, how would you rate the power of the punch of the worst review or critique you’ve received? What did you learn?
P. S. So who won Splickety Prime’s flash fiction Christmas contest? To find out, click here to view the newsletter’s free issue sign-up. Hint: One of our blog’s readers won!
What’s a writer to do with a bad review? Click to tweet.
Writers: Rejoice over that one-star review. Really. Click to tweet.
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Thank you for this article. It is very timely. Blessings!
I don’t have any 1-star reviews, but as a new author my two 2-star reviews were crushing. I welcome criticism of my opinion and my writing, but I wasn’t prepared to be condemned for being a white woman or for using The Message translation. But, as I remind myself often, if people don’t disagree with a book about evangelism then you probably didn’t write it well!
Those unfair reviews are the hardest to handle. I guess white women aren’t supposed to evangelize…? I love your book!
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
I had a contest judge boldly state that the Navajo mourning rituals I referenced in my story didn’t seem realistic “because I’ve read and watched a lot of Westerns.”
Well, I’ve read 27 reference books. And spoken to countless Navajo people who know of what they speak.
(Wants to type “so there!” but refrains due to Beth Moore levels of maturity)
What did I learn?
*I* know that I could basically explain the exact way a Navajo builds a bow, celebrates a baby, or mourns a loved one. That snarky crit person/judge knew nothing. Nary a thing.
I also know that my agent has an earned degree in Talking Jennifer Off A Ledge.
I rather suspect that your Western-loving critic also is convinced that, having seen several films on the life of Christ, Jesus spoke Aramaic with an Oxbridge accent.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
They truly thought films were 100% accurate.
Jennifer, you did right by going to the absolute source (members of the tribe) for your information. Most of the Westerns we’re all familiar with give a skewed representation of who the First Nations People truly are. I laugh at some of the books out there sporting a cover showing a muscle bound Native man with a volumptuous white woman at his feet.
I am really happy that the conversation can begin over here and really flattered that my little facebook chain inspired a post at a blog I read daily :). While I am an author I am first and foremost a voracious reader and both good and negative amazon reviews inform my choices. I always say I prefer reviews that though give only one or two stars show a careful reading of the book and pull on examples than books that have four or five stars and give little insight. Often times, what a reviewer didn’t enjoy in the book is what I am looking for in a book! If I see books without a range of stars and reviews I tend to think a few things: this book has only been reviewed by family and friends, this book has made no impact that could inspire disagreement or dissonance. The best books force us to think and feel and rail and gush! Strong books with strong messages are sure-fire targets for one star reviews on goodreads and amazon. When books inspire negative and passionate reviews, it often shows that they’ve struck a chord. Of course I love reading gushing reviews! Over the top enthusiasm is my favourite: I write book gushes ( my column at Novel Crossing was Rachel’s Raves!) all the time. But, I also really love differing opinions. I hope my subsequent publications receive careful reviews from across the spectrum.I love discussion– I also know that it is not a great idea for authors to read amazon reviews: too many positive reviews and it goes to your head, too many negative reviews make you doubt your craft ….
Rachel, I love the idea of celebrating a one-star. There’s a robustness (and humour) in that attitude that teaches us so much! (And makes me think, if I ever grow up I want to be like HER!)
* When I was teaching, I got a lot of poor evaluations that went something like, “…this out-of-date slave-driver expects us to learn from basic principles when we all KNOW that the computer’s going to do the math for us…” LOVED those.
Ah Rachel, we’re kindred spirits when it comes to book-buying. I am more often swayed to buy a book by the one and two star reviews. I like reads with unusual, unexpected twists. Somebody always dislikes those.
* For example, I just read “Room” by Emma Donoghue. Several negative reviewers were bored by the childish narration, which I found most intriguing. The son that came to us at age 5 had many quirks of speech–one was the absence of past tense. I came to understand that it was his way of processing his four homes in five years. I rejoiced when he said, “See what Daddy buyed me.” Ms. Donoghue let me relive some of that long-ago puzzlement and joy.
* Kudos to the thoughtful one-star reviewers (says she who has never written a one-star review, it just seems so mean).
I took a year long course in college where the only assignment for the entire year was to write a novel. We’d meet weekly as a gourd (there were only 6 of us), and we would exchange that week’s pages, and critique one another.
I learned a ton from that process, but the biggest lesson was how to take criticism. I learned that sometimes criticism is just a matter of preference. Not everyone is going to like your story because it’s simply not interesting to them. Some criticism is completely legitimate: sometimes you just didn’t do the best job with the writing or the story development. And sometimes criticism is confusing – you’ll never understand, so you might as well just move on.
I have thought a lot about that class as I’ve prepared to launch my first novel next year. It’s one thing to take and receive criticism for an unfinished book, because you can make changes if necessary. But a book that’s out there, published, and cannot be changed? It’s a little more scary.
Thanks Rachel and Janet for giving not only a good perspective, but also something to look forward to! A one star review means people are talking, and there’s something to be celebrated in knowing that your book was read by a stranger, even if they didn’t like it. I’m actually looking forward to my first bad review now. 😉
I loved seeing that Facebook post, Rachel. And I did a little happy dance for you. 🙂 Having the broad range of reviews tells a lot about the book, and the writing. 🙂
any time an author has submitted a manuscript to an agent or publisher, they have the opportunity to receive those first one-star reviews. my first submitted proposal was rejected at every publisher my agent and i sent it to. that definitely helps build up some backbone for eventual one star reviews. for this review, the reader hated my writing. you will hear similar ( if more polite and subtle) comments from editor rejections. sometimes a voice doesn’t jive. submissions to agents and editors prepare you for eventual one star reviews
Rachel, I so agree with you that the lower range of reviews can be just as informative as the glowing reports. I like to read what someone disliked about a book. Oftentimes that convinces me I need to read the book to make up my OWN mind about it. A book that receives all positive reviews makes me wonder if any stranger read it as well.
Heidi Kneale (Her Grace)
What an excellent way to view a one-star review.
I’ve never given much thought to one-star reviews on others’ books, because I’ve always known tastes vary. However, when I see a handful of one-star reviews amid a whole bunch of fours and fives, their honesty makes me feel I can trust the fours and fives. If I see a book with more than twenty reviews and they’re all stellar, I do wonder if they’re honest.
I haven’t received a one-star review yet. However, when I do, I’ll let it ride without raising an eyebrow.
And of course we all know never respond to negative reviews.
I also tend to lose interest in a book if those who write reviews don’t write about the book but about what a great person the author is. Those are friends and colleagues, giving a buddy a boost.
Great post, Janet, and I hope that it’s taken to heart by all who read it. Some thoughts –
* When I’m looking at for a book on Amazon, I generally check to low reviews…and find that many seem to be (as The Jennifer pointed out) uninformed.
* Other low reviews clearly come from The Place of Spite; individuals who have found a forum to bring low, in their minds, the mighty.
* And finally, the silliest one-stars are disagreements in premise. I’ve seen Christian books excoriated for presenting a Christian message. Kind of like slamming a math text for having too many equations.
* The low reviews to which I do pay attention are those that deal with shoddy research (which I try to verify) or craft. A special case might also be made for the deliberate spreading of false doctrine, but that’s an area I’m not qualified to address.
* That said, I haven’t received a lower-than-three-star review (bar one) for anything I have out there.I don’t check often, but “Blessed Are The Pure Of Heart” has a four-and-a-half-star average. It may be my pride talking, but I don’t agree with Ms. McMillan’s skepticism. People who’ve read it and communicated with me (or reviewed it on Amazon) seem to like the book, and they cite specific reasons for liking it. I don’t think it;s a matter of ‘liking everything’; the opinions do seem considered. The exception was a review posted on Facebook by an in-law, who took me to task for necromancy, since it’s a Christian story that has ‘ghostly’ characters. That individual is entitled to his opinion, but I’m certainly not going to change the sequel to accommodate that perception. It may be that person’s truth; it is not mine.
* And, pride…or perhaps, arrogance. While I can and do take advice from Betas and mentors, I also know that I’m both a competent writer and storyteller. I read 150-200 books per year, and took writing classes for seven years. This is not to say that my craft has deficiencies; it does, among them a slightly archaic style that makes use of (gasp!) adverbs, does occasionally use passive voice, and in one work…hushed tones, now…employs an omniscient narrator.
* But that’s my voice, developed through reading (and re-reading) the writers I have most admired – Nevil Shute, Herman Wouk, and Robert Ruark. I wanted to write like them, and have found, on re-reading my own work at the remove of years, that I have come happily close to that goal.
* A long-dead Greek gave us the exhortation, “Know thyself!” I find that now, being forced by circumstance to take stock of life, I do…and I’m not unhappy with what I’ve done.
* Not everyone will like it, but that’s OK, because I do.
An apology – Rachel, please forgive my referring to you as “Ms. McMillan” above…I was in very poor fettle when I composed the comment – it took a bit more than an hour – and under those circumstances, I become very formal, to the point of calling my wife “ma’am”.
Andrew, I agree that low ratings can be because of poor research. When the reviewer explains the errors (not based on watching a lot of Westerns, Jennifer), I make note.
I don’t have any published books, but I got some terrible feedback from the first contest I entered. I cried for a week. Then I put on my big girl pants and realised everything the judges said was true: I started in the wrong place (oh the dreaded backstory!) I didn’t give my protagonist a clear enough goal, and I had a very one-dimensional antagonist. While the critique hurt, the revisions made my story stronger.
p.s. Love the shelfari. Is it new?
I like Shelfari too, Janet – is it available as a plug-in? I’d rather like to use it on my blog.
Andrew, our web designer set up Shelfari. I just point out problems and ask her to fix them. Voila! We have Shelfari.
Jebraun, we needed to use Shelfari rather than the rolling view of the books we were reading because Amazon changed how it functions with its affiliates–without warning, I might add. I’m liking it, too. Thanks.
All great insights. My family love movies, but the opinions on IMDB can differ materially from say Rotten Tomatoes. Even so, I have seen many movies that were personally recommended and yet not rated by either, yet were surprisingly good. Critics represent an opinion, but lets be real – how far would a politician or presidential hopeful get if they heeded every critic? How far would Paul have got if he took his gainsayers seriously? Or David, or Jesus? I could go on. Yes criticism is helpful from the right quarters, but the pillory of public opinion is not something to take so personally that we are reduced to ships tossed about in a sea of opinions – as such, Paul writes about the armor of the Spirit, which amounts to acquiring the thick skin of a rhino. Sooner or later we have to learn to follow the compass of the heart, else we will be led by others and not by God. Invoke constructive criticism from trusted sources and be accountable to that, for that is biblical, but rather aspire to a heart that responds the same to both the highest praise and the harshest criticism. If we are writers at all, its because we have a fire burning in us and that fire needs to “be its own man” – you have a message, tell it. It is bound to invite criticism – I would be really disappointed if it didn’t, but just as a few of my friends have planted churches and plodded through the lonely 10s, 20s and 50s, to reach critical mass, pushing on because they absolutely believed in what they were doing and had no doubt of God’s calling, so writers need to be guided by a conviction – not a feeling, not the vagaries of opinion, not moods, but a defiant, bloody-minded conviction. Have that and only that, and God will use the contrary tides and winds to shape you and craft your skill into a voice of reason, in an age of unreason. As such, I hold to the view that if a writer catches that fire and just gets going, without looking back (as the writer of Hebrews suggests), it will work out in the end – if it hasn’t, its not the end. Keep going until it does make sense and adjust, refine, correct, rework, perfect, sharpen (my seminal work has been through about 5,000 versions) – whatever it takes, until it does make sense.
I meant to say, “elicit” constructive criticism. What I mean is that, “if you have served your time and earned your wings”, as in having run the gauntlet of testing, review, proposal, editing, etc., you must eventually make peace with yourself and go with it, else you will have 100% of nothing and an idea that is stillborn. Once Jesus had served His years of “apprenticeship”, he pushed back from his bench, stood up and moved on, never to look back, to the left or the right. Indeed, He set His eyes aflint towards Jerusalem and was inerrantly single-minded. He faced robust criticism, but instead of adjusting His posture pushed through it all because He was resolute in his stance and unwavering in His course. My brother had to do night-ratings for his pilot’s license and had to fly blind whilst trusting his instruments – in the same sense, we need to follow our internal compass and stop looking around for approval – for as Hebrews says, “The soul that draws back I will not delight in”. Be approved, walk in God’s approval, pass through your throng, whether they would crown you or kill you, and never turn back. He is with us: one of the supreme virtues of our faith, or so Moses thought, was that God goes with us. Get that right and you will sleep in storms. Get it wrong and you will fail to launch.
Peter, I so appreciate your perspective and add my “amen” to it. The tricky part comes when someone writes a scathing, unkind but accurate critique. That can be very hard–but beneficial–to receive. Finding what’s true in the critique is the challenge.
I’ve received some harsh comments from contest judges (along with encouraging ones). I think the contest judge is the closest thing an unpublished author can experience to a reviewer–someone who doesn’t know me at all and reacts purely to the writing. For that reason, entering contests is good practice for learning how to handle the emotional impact of reviews, away from the public eye.
Now, if only all reviewers were created equal, that would be the best of all worlds.
In one FB group to which I belong, when you get a one-star review, you serve one-star cake for everyone. You find a great photo of a cake decorated with stars and you celebrate with your fellow authors who have all been there. Rachel McMillan is right, getting a one-star review is a rite of passage for an author. It’s all part of writing in the cyber-age.
I love the cake celebration, Erica.
I don’t have “author reviews” yet. In one contest I entered, I thought I had put forth a great entry. Two of the three scores were some of the lowest I’d ever received. I was disappointed. But, after the initial disappointment, I looked at the comments left and realized the judges were right. This gave me the insight to go back and fix the story, and hopefully, make it stronger.
*I have some author friends who bake a cake to celebrate their first one-star review. I like that mindset. Writers will receive these because not everyone is going to like our writing. I’m hoping that if/when this happens to me, I can take it in stride with the mindset that Rachel has. 🙂
It such great practice to go back to a review or critique and to see the truth in it. Once we get over our emotional meltdown, of course. 🙂
Kristen Joy Wilks
Reviews are scary. For many years, the fact that I was writing at all was a closely guarded secret. I didn’t want to do badly or fail in front of an audience. But now that I have books out there, I must learn. I’ve learned so much from critique. The hardest critique was probably during an Institute of Children’s Literature class where I got back some thorough feedback and quit writing for several months. In the end, when I finally went back and read the feedback again, it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought and I learned. The most valuable thing, was to learn to value critique, which has just helped me again this week. Critique is vital, I can’t write how I want to write without it.
Kristen, the important thing is to give oneself the space to feel the injury of the critique and then go back to take a closer look.
When I wrote my first book and got back the aggressive edits, I went to bed for two days. The pain of it just did me in. But after two days, I got up and went to work on the manuscript.
I saw Rachel’s post on FB, and it made me think of one-star reviews in a new light. I imagine I’ll have some before too much longer, and I appreciate the gift of a new perspective. Thank you, Rachel and Janet.
One and two-star reviews certainly are valuable for exactly the reason Rachel gave: they give credibility to all the other reviews that praised the book.
I’ve found that the reviews that hurt a bit are the ones that attack my writing skill. I’ve had a few that said my book was poorly written, that I headhopped all over the place, things like that. Those kinda sorta do sting for a few minutes. But the ones where the reader hated it because it was a Christian book… Those don’t bother me a bit. I sure hope that something about God sticks with them and makes them examine themselves spiritually. I love it when my book gets in front of someone who doesn’t know God!
The best thing about low reviews is that you might pick up an area you need to work on, like you said, Janet. I’ve had a handful of reviews state that they had trouble here and there following who was speaking. So I realized I need to put in more speaker attributions than I thought necessary, more than we’re taught to include, actually. Because I sure don’t want any of my readers confused at who in the scene in speaking. Those reviews, no matter if they’re five stars or one stars, are gold!
Sally, I love your line about the critiquing reviews being gold stars. So they are. You can’t always pay for a good critique, let alone receive one for “free.”
I must confess that my stomach starts churning when it’s a 4 star review. Where’s the 5th star? What’s wrong with you?!? Ack! I’ll never write again!!!
Ha! Still some growing to do, no doubts.
The reviews that irk me are the ones that have nothing to do with the book, or are about a different book. One reviewer nailed my book with 1 star, and said the only thing that was any good about it was “the foreword by Ken Blanchard.” I’d love a foreword by the esteemed Ken Blanchard, but I’ve never written such a book!
Bill, that’s so funny about the Ken Blanchard foreword. Well, you knew not to take that review too seriously.
Writing is an emotional enterprise on several levels. I’m finding that I must grow as a person throughout all the processes, otherwise I would let the discouragement implode the effort. However, even the discouragements have a silver lining. If we are looking hard enough, the truth will surface and we will learn what is needful, whether positive or negative.
One star reviews are expected. I almost always read them when I am considering an author and their book. They give me perspective and reveal the reviewer’s bias or attitude.
Clearly, publishing is not for the faint of heart, is it, Norma?
Love this article for all the truth it shows. Less than stellar reviews come to all of us. My first book received many 5- and 4-star reviews, but for a while the comment I remembered most was the negative one stating my character didn’t seem the right age for the storyline.
It’s definitely given me things to consider in the years since then as I plot new books.
Cheryl, I recall reading a study several years ago that stated we need eight affirmations to counteract every negative comment. Ah, the power of a negative word–even if it’s a helpful word.
Here’s my favorite line of this post: “Writers must learn to live with the tension that inherently comes in making oneself open to criticism.”
I’m not naturally a transparent person and would prefer to stay private. But God has opened my eyes to how our brokenness and transparency can help others. Unfortunately, not everyone responds well to what we write or what we say and it can be very hurtful. Knowing that what I do is for God’s glory has helped me get past those who try to hurt me (although I’ve shed some tears at times).
I do love this perspective on a 1-star review. Thanks for sharing.
The hurt is very real. The question is: What will we do with it?
Janet Ann Collins
I never post bad reviews online even if I hate a book. I wouldn’t want people to post bad reviews of my books, and I think authors should support each other. If I hate a book I just keep my mouth shut because somebody else might love it.
I love that Rachel has a positive way to brace herself against harsh criticism. We all need that. In all aspects of life. This is very encouraging to me. One thing I know … writing a novel is hard work, and a harsh review should never come lightly.