Writing: Helpful (and not) Review Ettiquette

So, have we established enough that I’m blunt when I review something? Because I’m blunt. If there is anything wrong, I am going to call you on it. If there’s anything amazing, I’m going to gush. They are two sides of the same coin, and both can tell the writers/creators (if they ever read this blog, which would mortify me) some of what they are doing right, and some of what they are doing wrong, and it would all be my opinion. But reviewing is hard, and nail-biting, and before you start, you just have to know what you are getting into.

Let’s start with that two sides of the coin thing. The negative is going to hurt. A lot. I don’t like hearing it either, and I had to defend my book to three different people as part of my masters program. How can you make it sting less? Make sure it doesn’t get personal. Even I struggle with that, mostly because insults are sometimes terms of affection with me but I know that doesn’t always translate well in a blogging format. But try not to insult the author when reviewing. If you must imply something is wrong creatively, whether the idea is overused or wasn’t explained well or whatever, make sure you state that’s the problem with it and offer ways to fix it.

This is especially difficult when you are passionate about something. I mean, you all have seen me. I get up in arms over female characters and other concepts that are near-and-dear to my heart. And I will lash out over them. But again, try to find a positive in there somewhere, because the positive gives the writer/person you are giving critique to something to build off of. If you give them that kernel, they can look at everything else you said to try and build around that positive. It also keeps them from completely skim reading the paragraph in question and ignoring the problem all together.

The good is the easy (and the hard) part. It’s both because sometimes finding the good is easy. You fall in love with the characters, or the concept, or the story itself and just need to gush. All that takes is pulling it in so you don’t oversell the subject to your readers. But sometimes a bad element is so overshadowing, you forget what you did like about the book/movie/whatever. Then you have to try and remember how you felt before the outrage, and that can be extremely difficult. This is partly why I don’t write a review the same day as I finished reading/watching the subject. If I’m in love, giving it a couple days helps me figure out the parts that did irk me so the review can be balanced. Similarly, it helps cool my frustration over the ick so that I will remember the elements I did like and the writer/creator can have something to expand on and take pride in.

Doing any sort of negative review, btw, is apparently odd or considered rude by members of the writing community. I learned this at a workshop I attended last week, and it just…boggled me. If you can’t find any positive whatsoever in the book, I agree, don’t review it. But otherwise, shouldn’t you be giving the readers a head’s up? I mean, there is so much literature out there now, most people read recommended titles from friends or reviewers. If I list here are the good, here are the bad, this is my opinion, well, that gives you something to base your decision off of. If you aren’t big on something that is my major hang up, you can go, “Okay, duly noted, the rest sounds great, let’s go!” But at least you know going into to it that the characters are flat or the plot doesn’t climax properly or whatever the problem may be.

Also, negative critiques are how we grow, provided they are done properly. I’m not saying rip people apart, or be trolls about it. I’m saying point out the weak parts of the book/movie/show, and offer suggestions on what could be done to help build them up without writing the story for them. So if the plot is weak, suggest showing more of this or that element that wasn’t completely explained. If a character is badly written and flat, ask questions about the character, likes and dislikes and history. And again, point out what is good about it.

And above all, remember that a review is just an opinion. What one person likes, another person could hate. I have a friggin’ masters in professional writing, loads of experience as a reader, and my opinion is still just an opinion. I just write things out in a way that pokes at the actual story elements instead of going, “I hate it,” or “I love it.” Ginny has more experience than me, less formal education, but her opinion is just as valuable for that reason. And we still don’t agree on things! (Most things, yes, but we have our points of difference.) Just if multiple people are telling you there’s a character problem, start digging for those kernels and look at what they are saying is wrong so you can examine your own writing and improve.


About Rebecca M. Horner

A spinner of yarns (of the story sort, though I do crochet...and sew, and learning to make armor...) View all posts by Rebecca M. Horner

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