16 March 2013

Reviewing reviewers reviews...

"This book is dumb. People can never seem to speak proper English. I wouldn't read this book again if I were dying of boredom"

"The book was o.k. It's not my type of story so I wasn't really interested. I guess it's because it's an old-fashioned book, I'm more into Harry Potter."

"It had no story, the charaters were lame, the plot was-yuck! and the way the talk was just difficult to understand.Seriously, if you are choosing something to read this is definitely NOT the book, unless your trying to find a book that you'll snooze all the way through it!"

Uh-oh, I've got some bad reviews!  Perhaps I need to go back and review my writing, re-work it somehow to cater to my readers and expand my readership.  Or... perhaps not.

Anyone who has ever been criticized (yes, I'm talking to you) knows the sting of truly insightful criticism.  It doesn't matter a whit if the criticism is "constructive" or not.  In the end, what matters is whether the criticism is relevant, warranted, and based in fact.  If it is, you've got some soul-searching to do.

On the other hand, our interconnected world is teeming with verbal litterbugs who wouldn't know an ampersand from a rack of lamb, and yet persist in showering us with pearls of vacuity.  As writers, much of the criticism we receive is quite simply not worth the electrons which were pressed into service to deliver it.  For example, take the three remarks above, which were each taken from one-star Amazon reviews of... Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain.  That's right.  Mark Twain.

If I may be so bold, I declare Twain's legacy intact.

I have received some profoundly muddleheaded criticism of my writing too.  One reader complained that the plot was "absurd" (it was intentionally so), but also found it "predictable."  Come again?  Another reader claimed he had given up after reading five pages, but then proceeded to describe the plot as "stagnant" and lacking "entrigue (sic)."

No, I haven't missed a minute of sleep.

The question is, how does one know the difference between useful criticism and illiterate kvetching?  It's not as easy as it might seem.  It's extraordinarily difficult if not impossible to be objective about one's own writing, and there are matters of taste, after all.  I can certainly understand why someone would simply not care for my subject matter or style of writing.  For the record, I'm fine with that.  I have no intention of changing, because it would annoy those readers who do care for my writing.

One professional reviewer might dismiss an immensely popular book as illiterate trash, whereas another might lament the lack of hot sex and bomb blasts in more cerebral works.  Half of your reviews bemoan your wordy descriptions, and the other half say you're not descriptive enough.  Some say your pacing is ponderous, and the rest say it flies by too fast.  What to do?

The answer is as always: Write what you like.  If you like it, others will too.  Consider thoughtful criticism from people you respect, and take the rest lightly.  If someone doesn't care for your subject matter, ignore their remarks.  They aren't your target audience, by definition.  If someone takes you to task for the mechanics of writing such as spelling, grammar, etc., get a good editor and get back to writing your next book.  If the majority of your reviews are negative, look for common complaints and try to address them.

Don't overlook the possibility that the primary source of your negative reviews might be off-target marketing.  If you're inadvertently appealing to the wrong target market, you'll disappoint over and over.

Negative reviews come with the territory, but in the end, the value of criticism is in whether it spurs improvement.  Solid feedback can help you hone your craft, but some feedback is just noise.  Learn the difference, and keep writing.  If you're ultimately successful, one day you'll have dozens of famous people saying truly awful things about you.  Then, you will have arrived.

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