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Thursday, 16 December 2010

Everyone's a critic: the art of writing and reading reviews

Whether we are in the process of writing a book or our works are already distributed on the market, there's always going to be critics. But is criticism a good or bad thing?

It could be both.

Writer's groups are among the best sources of critiques. Whether there are some available in your locations or online communities, valuable information, advice, and ideas can be obtained from such groups. Another perk of a writer's group is one of forming meaningful friendships with others whom we share common interests and the familiarity with the struggles of writing. Through writer's groups, our manuscripts can develop from a mediocre first draft to a stronger product ready to submit to agents and/or publishers, as well as offer support through the long process (and stacks of rejection letters)to fellow group members.

Criticism plays a considerable part of both literary agents and publishers. Such criticism and rejection is nothing personal to writers, but for the sake to make sure quality books are put on the market in addition to keeping in touch of what types of books will appeal to potential readers. So when we've received the ubiquitous rejection letters (keep in mind that even the very best authors received more than their share at the beginning of their writing careers before one took a chance on them), it's best not to take them personally.

Journalists whose focus is on reviewing books are paid to be critics. They are going to give opinions on our books that won't always be favorable. It's important to authors to put aside hurt feelings and sum up harsh reviews as simply opinions. After all, a book one critic may not like, another will immensely enjoy.

Above all, once our books are published and on the market, readers are our most important critics. They are the ones who do everything from reading our work online (or in print media, as it were) to purchase an actual copy of our books. Shouldn't we give them their money's worth? Like agents, publishers, writer's group members, and literary critics, all books won't appeal to every reader.

Taking the aforementioned into consideration, when should we take criticism seriously and when should we dismiss it? Here are a few areas to ponder:

1. Reviews focusing on the book's content. Reviews will be most helpful to potential readers if reasons why one liked or didn't like a particular book. Those who read such reviews will often pay more attention to reviews up to 500 words than if someone writes a long, pointless monologue. On the other hand, single-word reviews aren't helpful either.

2. Comments should be about the book, not the author. Doing such just comes across as biased for/against the author, and looks unprofessional. It's a given that most readers seeking opinions about a book of interest is not going to base their decisions whether or not to buy the book based on an author's personal life or some anonymous person's opinion of an author.

3. Those making critiques should ask themselves, "Is my comment constructive?" Writing a critique such as, "This book is awful, so [writer] shouldn't quit their day job," says nothing, whereas "[author's name]has a good story idea and their characters have depth, however, [what reviewer doesn't find appealing]needs more work to make the plot stronger."

Notice the latter is more constructive and useful, because the critique pointed out both the good areas and what others need improvement. As I like to say, a second pair of eyes reading an author's work never hurts. However, a good, constructive review is more helpful than a generic attack.

4. What reviews shouldn't include: There are other areas that authors and readers alike won't take seriously if they are included in critiques. According to review rules on Barnes and Noble , the following are also unacceptable:

  • HTML tags
  • Profanity, obscenities, or vulgarities (also makes reviews appear unprofessional)
  • Comments that defame anyone
  • Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • Comments that may ruin the ending for others (a definite faux pas!)
  • Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • Advertisements or commercial solicitation


Overall, criticism is not only part of being an author, but also a staple of life in general. The biggest art is knowing when to take it into consideration and when to dismiss it.

2 comments:

  1. Bad reviews are a writer's nightmare, because they can mean someone doesn't buy the book. I know I'm not alone in going by the reviews instead of the blurb.

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  2. If you have a good reviewer, he or she will never rip your book apart, but politely tell it wasn't for him or her, including the reasons.
    As said in the post, you can't please everybody. But if you really want to be an author, you better get yourself a thick skin.

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