Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Please welcome my fellow reviewer, Astilbe.
Though a skilled reviewer of books in all ratings, she has honed writing reviews of lower rated books into an art form. When asked how she did it so well and so consistently, and if she could share her insights with other reviewers, she responded with writing this post. I'm very grateful and honored to share this with you, with permission.
How to Write Lower-Rated Reviews
When I use the phrase “lower-rated reviews,” I’m talking about the books that land in the 2.5 to 3.5 star rating range.
Aside from technical criticisms about the use of inconsistent tenses or grammatical errors, writing reviews is a highly subjective experience. You and I could read the same story and come away with very different opinions of it based on just about anything: pet peeves, whether or not this is a genre you regularly read, your expertise on something the author might not know as much about, etc., etc. It’s important to keep this in mind as you’re writing because there’s no way to know if the people who read your review share your point of view. What I consider to be an overused trope in, say, the mystery genre might be something that you think is vital for a truly satisfying ending. (And vice versa!)
There are definitely still things to like about stories that earn lower ratings: descriptive settings, interesting characters, strong pacing, unique plot twists, etc. The list is endless, but these tend to be the types of potential compliments I look for first when I’m figuring out what to say about them. Feel free to pick out anything you enjoyed about it, though, as long as it’s an honest compliment.
I always jot down my impressions about a tale as I’m reading it. It’s especially easy to overlook the good stuff when you’re in the middle of something you don’t immediately love, so these phrases or very short sentences jog my memory later on when I’m writing the review.
Of course, there will also be issues that you as the reviewer feel compelled to bring up. This is where the sandwich rule comes in. (Link to Sandwich Rule) Here is the basic template I use for my reviews:
If I have a lot to say, I’ll repeat the positive and negative feedback as often as is necessary, but I always end with something positive.
Every one of us has strengths and weaknesses, and constructive criticism is much easier to swallow if you’re also told what you’re doing right. Helping authors get better at their craft is a huge part of why we write reviews after all!
On the very rare occasion that I can’t find enough positive things to say about a book, I’ll return it. About half of the time another reviewer has later requested those stories. It made me happy to see that someone else enjoyed them, and it’s never a good idea to force the issue if you truly don’t like a particular novel.
As an author I know how hard it is to hear that someone didn’t like your work. One of the reasons why I decided to volunteer at LASR is that I loved their strict “No Snark!” policy. Consider these two (completely hypothetical) criticisms: “This story sucks! How can something that’s only 60 pages long be so slow? And who the heck is Darren, again? What a waste of time.”
“The pacing was uneven from beginning to end. While I understand the author’s urge to include so much backstory in the first two chapters, it would have been helpful to jump into the action sooner given that this is a short story instead of a full-length novel. Anna’s blossoming relationship with Darren was fascinating, and I think that exploring that further while they were on the run would have provided more than enough clues about why she was so eager to protect him despite the horrible danger they were in. It also would have given the author more time to explain the ending in better detail.”
The first criticism is basically just a rant. We know the reviewer didn’t like this story, but we don’t know anything specific about why they feel that way. As a potential new fan, I wouldn’t put much stock into this review because it’s so vague and negative. It could have been written about just about any romantic mystery out there, and that doesn’t make it helpful for me while I’m deciding whether or not to find out what happens to these particular characters.
The second criticism explains why the reviewer felt this way in detail without cursing or insulting all of the author’s hard work. If the author writes a sequel to Anna and Darren’s adventures, he or she will know that this reviewer loved seeing these characters get to know each other but wishes the exciting stuff had started a few chapters sooner. This is specific information that can be used to make real adjustments in how he or she writes future stories.
(Or maybe the author will decide that they like this hypothetical series just the way it is! But at least now they know WHY their book only earned 2.5 stars in this particular review).
This brings me to the other reason why we write reviews: to help readers find great new books! As I mentioned earlier, there’s no possible way for me to know ahead of time if my audience will agree with my perspective.
Luckily, precognition isn’t a requirement for putting together a good review.
While I definitely keep the author in mind while I'm writing, I also think of the review as a conversation with a friend who wants to know what I’ve been reading. If he or she asked me what I really thought of book X, I’d be completely honest with him or her.
If I really loved Anna’s character development, I’m going to gush about it. This is something that’s extremely important to me when I’m deciding what to read next, so when I find a great protagonist I’ll tell everyone about him or her.
If the ending made me say, “Huh?” I’ll bring it up diplomatically (without giving away spoilers, of course). They might not agree with my dismay, but at least they’ll know ahead of time that the last 10% of the plot wasn’t as fun for me as the first 90%.
My final piece of advice might sound kind of silly at first, but it really helps me figure out where to go next when I’m stuck.
Read what you have so far out loud.
Pause for a moment.
What would you say next if you were talking about this story instead of writing about it?
This isn’t a foolproof trick, of course, but it has helped me figure out where to go next by getting my mind back into the tone of the story I’m thinking about. A lighthearted romance is going to require a completely different mindset than would a post-apocalyptic zombie thriller or a hard-boiled mystery, after all.