Good, Bad, and Something Else: How Do You Review Books?

What pushed me over the edge into writing and posting book reviews was getting my first ARC (that’s an advanced reader copy, which is a book that hasn’t been released yet), which was sent to me with the understanding that I would rate and post an honest review of it. I took (and continue to take) that seriously and put a lot of thought into what kind of reviewer I wanted to be.

This was especially true when I was requested to write a review for an ARC by the author of the book. When I most unfortunately did not enjoy much of the book, I found myself uncertain about whether or not to post what was a negative, though honest, review of it. Ultimately, I decided to post it, and I’ll tell you more about why in a bit.

I decided to write this post about book reviews after happening across two very different blogs about not posting negative reviews. The first is from a site I cannot find anymore, but the author was a man who chose to follow the idea of not saying anything if you don’t have something nice to say; I completely understand and respect this sentiment, but I have to say I think there is a fine line to be made between not saying something mean and not pointing out things politely in constructive fashion with no malintent.

The other blog was from author Kristen Lamb where she shares her own reasons for choosing not to post negative reviews. There are many of her points that I agree with or understand, but at the end of the day I have to disagree on the overall message.

There are countless posts citing many incredibly good reasons to refrain or be careful when posting a negative review. Many don’t believe in it at all and some have strong opinions about those that continue to post negative reviews. So, I decided to share my own thoughts and explain why I write and post even the negative reviews and subsequently how I review because there’s usually a lot that goes into it.

So, the Why and the How:

Why I write and post even the negative reviews

Stars and ratings alone don’t work- Two reasons why this doesn’t work for me.

  1. No matter what someone rates a book, I’m often curious what others’ thoughts are, regardless whether or not I take their thoughts into account in my ultimate decision. But if someone ranks a book with a rating of 1 or 2 out of 5 (or whatever the equivalent rating system), especially if there are reviews raving about it, I am painfully curious to know why it received the score it did. If you’re serious about writing book reviews, I thinks it’s important to be able to express what makes a book great for you as well as what doesn’t work for you and why. It also proves that a bad rating isn’t for an unknown petty reason.
  2. In Kristen Lamb’s post, she mentions that silence speaks volumes, and she’s right. Silence can speak volumes but it can also be easily misinterpreted. For instance, generally if you see no rating and no review on a book from someone, it’s very easy to believe or assume that the person hasn’t read it. No one will know you’ve read it unless you mention it, in which case, what do you say? Nothing? Or give your opinion? You can, of course, leave a rating without a review just as easily, but in this case, I do not see silence as a friend. A rating says a lot to some people, and leaving a low rating without any comment as to why may sound nicer than leaving a negative review. To this I posit that seeing a rating without a review can do just as much harm, if not worse, because the reader bothered to rate it enough to inform other users, but didn’t bother taking the time or energy to explain why. Was is it for objective or subjective reasons? To me, this makes silence a dangerous weapon when given no further context, which makes me question using silence as a reviewing tool in an attempt to be kinder than leaving a well written and thoughtful review.

Duty for reading an ARC in exchange for an honest review– I take this seriously anytime I’m offered or receive an ARC if it’s in exchange for the review. To do otherwise makes me feel like I’m stealing or lying, neither of which are high on my list of things to do. I give all of my attention to the book and review it the same way and with the same detail I do when editing or beta reading (feel free to ask me about either). I’m happy to send a review to an author prior to posting and discussing it with them, but if I’ve taken the time to write a review, generally it’s because I intend to post it. In the end, I’m trying to do right by both the reader and the author (which leads me another point later).

Possible help to author open to listening– First, I know how much it sucks as an author when someone doesn’t like your work. I know how little you (or I) feel like listening to someone that doesn’t like our work, and I absolutely don’t presume to be all-knowing or the final authority. It’s never a pleasant feeling when someone criticizes your book. Some people enjoy giving nasty reviews, and many people can’t resist filling theirs with juicy zingers, but I am definitely not one of them. Okay, I wield my wit and sarcasm, but I try to steer away from anything that doesn’t actually present a constructive thought; a jab for the sake of adding a witty jab doesn’t work for me. It gives me no joy to say I dislike someone’s work, especially if I’ve read it as an act of support for an author I like as a person. It is my sincere hope that at some point, my words are taken for what they’re worth, comments on what I enjoyed and what kept it from being the best book I thought or hoped it could be, at least for me.

For readers– Ultimately, why are books reviewed? To give opinions and help others decide if they want to read it too. Reviews may be an author’s friend in selling books, but that’s oscar wilde quote 2true because reviews help many readers decide what to choose next. To me, that alone is enough reason to write thoughtful, if occasionally negative, reviews. As a voracious reader, I’m still depressed by the unfortunate realization that I will never have the time to read (and write) all of the books I want in this lifetime; it’s just not humanly possible, no matter how hard I wish for it. So to me, a book review is incredibly important if the writer does their due diligence. If I’ve helped a reader save valuable time and money on a particular book, or helped show them why another is worth it, I’ve done my job and accomplished what I ultimately set out to do in a review, help the reader decide whether to read a book or not.

 

How I write reviews

What I do for a book I’ve decided I am likely to write a review about (I don’t review every book I read or I wouldn’t read as many book as I want) is have a notebook near me for notes. If I have a thought, question, or reflection, whether it’s good, bad or neutral, I write it down with the page number (okay, I actually do this for *any* book, but the rest is for the sake of reviews). For jots that I know are an overall issue or most likely to be a point I will highlight in a review, I make a note in the margin if it’s good or bad and add a word or two to describe the note; this is so that I can easily find examples for particular issues as I’m writing the review. Other details about how I do reviews:

Try to find the line between objective and subjective– At the end of the day, a review is going to be subjective because each readerno two person read same book goes in with a different perception, knowledge, strengths, weaknesses, etc.

I believe that both are important, but mostly subjective observations are best noted as such; I usually do this by mentioning something specifically as my personal preference or opinion. Objectivity is very important though, especially if it’s the book of an author you’re friends with or know, or a genre that may not be your typical cup of tea (keeping to your preferences is best, but I’m eclectic and occasionally enjoy trying something new or untypical if a description sounds worth it).

Always try to mention things I do and don’t like- If I end up writing a review for a book I enjoyed, I am sure to point out something that didn’t work or could have been stronger or made some aspect work better (if we’re talking about an instant love, this may be harder, but still I try; example, it took me years before I could separate my feelings for Harry Potter enough to do this). Same thing if I end up writing a review for a book I didn’t enjoy very much, I try point out at least one thing that I did enjoy because there usually is something if you’ve paid close enough attention.

Things I focus on and look for in a book and use to write a review:

  1. Characters– I look for a character to invest in, root for. I like to have some sense of who I’m dealing with in a novel. Characters that don’t feel fully developed are usually easy to spot but sometimes it takes reading the entire book to realize there are very few things you actually know about a character. That’s a problem for me and I make note of it when I see it. Even if what you learn turns out to be a lie later, I only feel betrayed or surprised if I’m invested, otherwise I just feel slightly annoyed, if also surprised.
  2. Connection– This goes along with characters especially, but I need to connect in some way with the book. Usually it’s through the character, but sometimes it’s just the voice or the writing style that resonates with me, or the story has be captivated. If there’s no sense of connection and I don’t in some way mourn the loss that comes with ending a book I’ve enjoyed, then it’s something I’m sure to point out.
  3. Story– Obviously the story is important. No matter how great a character is, part of what you invest in is the story, either the one being told in the book or the characters’ back stories, and hopefully both. In descriptions and blurb synopses, sometimes you get clichés that turn out fantastic books, and sometimes you get intriguing descriptions but a less than desirable book. How the story develops and ends is a big factor.
  4. Dialogue- This is one of the things I’m hardest on because characters that can’t talk to each other can really kill a story for me. Writing dialogue is one of the most difficult parts of writing (believe me, I know…) because it’s literally a reflection of different people’s thoughts. It’s also one of the things I appreciate most in a well written novel. I look for how believable or stilted a conversation feels and if it resonates with the character speaking or if it just makes the story the author is constructing, happen and move forward.
  5. Continuity- This is one aspect that I tend to be very critical of. Nothing makes me come crashing out of a novel quicker than a continuity issue that makes me want to go searching to verify it (which I’m often able to do through my notes). Continuity is a huge deal in a story, and this can be especially true depending on genres like mysteries, where a continuity error could mess up the big reveal at the end. Issues with consistency will absolutely kill a book for anyone paying attention. I’m harsh and exact when I write my own novels and hope to be sure every possible plot hole or continuity issue is attended to if not avoided, and I expect a certain level of that from other writers. If your story is littered with continuity issues, whether in story itself or through the characters, I have a hard time believing you have pride in or believe in your writing. But that’s me.

My prevailing thoughts when I finish a book and end up writing a negative review are often that I believe a book could have been stronger. Sometimes I feel like there is an obvious rush for publishing instead of taking the time to listen to a few more beta readers, or take another run through after a break away from the material.

I may change my mind in the future about writing negative review or reviews at all, and that’s okay, but I feel it’s important not to discriminate between reviews that are posted, as long as proper detail is given to them. I believe positive reviews need the same level of attention to detail. Bad reviews can serve a purpose just as much as good reviews, it just depends on your own reason for writing book reviews. I write a review because I want readers to know what they’re getting into and to know what my experience was like. Why else write a review?

Do you write book reviews? What are your thoughts on leaving negative reviews?

 

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