Reviewing reviews

I’ve written about reviews before, but I thought I would go a little deeper into it from a writer’s perspective.

When you put your writing out in the public eye, you invite feedback.  Some will be good and some will be bad.  Don’t believe me?  Check out Amazon and the reviews for your most favorite author of your most favorite book.  There will be negative reviews.

Part of whether a review is good or bad for any given work has to do with personal preferences.  I have a friend who adores certain books/movies/music, and while I agree with some of it, others of her favorites I dislike or feel ambivalent about.  Personal taste.  It doesn’t make either of our opinions right or better than the other, they are just different perspectives.

There are also trolls out there.  We see them all the time on the Internet.  Their sole purpose in life seems to be going around actively bashing anything and anyone, usually in the rudest possible manner they can muster.  Ignore them.  They are not worth anyone’s time or energy, either to read what they’ve written or bother responding.

There may be other shades of types but we’ll group most of the remainder into people expressing a well-meaning review (admittedly some are less well-meaning than others).  They are trying to give honest feedback, and they may or may not accomplish it.

Trouble is, some of them don’t/can’t express themselves very well, so it gets lost in the translation.

Others, give “feedback” that says very little: “loved it”, “great story”, “this is amazing”.  While they’re being honest, and it may make us feel good, it isn’t particularly helpful.  What did they love?  Why was it a great story?  What is amazing about it?  Do they think the characters are brilliantly realized?  Do they consider the storyline utterly fascinating?  Is this the most original and unique story they’ve read in a long time?  What was it they particularly liked?  Writers need some idea of what it was they did right.  Similarly, they need to know what didn’t work.  “It was great for the most part” doesn’t give me much idea of where I need to improve.  What is wrong with the ‘non-most part’, and what in particular was it?  Did I put the characters into a completely unbelievable situation, but it was brief and you forgive me and just ignore that part?  What?  Details and specifics can help.  Examples can help.  Vague praise or criticism doesn’t do me much good.

The other sort of feedback that I see a lot of in fan fiction is quite specific (though sometimes presented a little nastily).  You can tell me you didn’t like something without being nasty about it.  Try really, really hard – you can do it!  Some of what they express is on-the-nose accurate.  Yes, I did mess up that part.  Yes, the story did fall a little flat in that part of chapter two.  Yes, I could have done more with that character.  But writers – DON’T take the reviewers’ words as gospel.  I’ve had people tell me I’m wrong about something when in fact they were the one that was wrong.  I’ve also had them express an opinion – but it WAS an opinion and not based in anything concrete.

If they offer criticism, examine what they are saying and try to honestly determine if they are right.  If you believe they are, then take it to heart and try to do something about it in your future writings (or fix the current one if that is possible).  If they are wrong, thank them for their input and ignore it.  I’ve seen some reviews and I’m curious about the person who wrote it so I go to see what they have written.  Many times it turns out that they haven’t written/posted anything, or what they have written is so poorly written that I wouldn’t even read it all the way through.  That being the case, why would I (or anyone else) listen to their criticism of someone else’s work?  But if I find that they have published stories and they are extremely well written, then I sit up and take notice.  They know whereof they speak.  I can learn from them if I will.

For those of us who post online in a format that allows making changes, we have the option of fixing things if we wish.  Hardcover or paperback books don’t have that luxury.  Any errors must remain until the next printing, and even then remain unless the book owner buys a new copy that fixes the error.  Since I write in the Lord of the Rings universe, and it is a huge, rich universe, there is a learning curve.  Early stories have detail errors that I only discover later.  I don’t necessarily go back and fix them if they are a major part of the story, I just don’t repeat them in the future.  Other things are trivial: I had given a male horse a certain name that someone pointed out would actually be a feminine name in Tolkien-verse.  That was easily changeable and so I made the correction.

But only once did I rewrite a scene after a reviewer said they felt someone acted out of character.  I agreed with them after reading their very specific comments, and it was easy enough to replace that scene in the story, so I rewrote it to try to bring it back into line with the character.  They were astonished, not expecting me to do that, but it was my choice not to leave that error in the story.

So, bottom line, take all reviews with a grain of salt.  Honestly examine what is said and try to fix what you can, either in the present or in the future.  And while you’re at it, try to leave constructive reviews for others, the kind of reviews that you would like to get.  There likely will never be a “best writer ever”, but we can all be better writers collectively, and help others toward that goal.

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