Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Power of Criticism

One of the most interesting things for me about writing this blog is the inside look I feel I’ve gotten into what life must be like as a writer. Granted, I’m not writing 100,000 words and putting myself out on bookshelves, but in writing the blog I have faced, like many writers, reviewers. I have regularly received criticism for my postings on my own blog, on message boards, and I can only imagine what the loops say. Most of the time I must say you are all very kind, but there has definitely been a post or two that for whatever reason resulted in an awful lot of backlash. What I have learned from most of these reviews is that it’s best to ignore them. Why? Because it amazes me how much one bad review or piece of criticism can get into my soul and really start to affect me. Not all the time, but once in a while. And for this very reason I often advise my authors not to read the reviews they receive on their own books. If you find that one bad comment or criticism starts to get you down, turn away and ignore them. Some of my authors do this, while others I know regularly keep tabs on their reviews.

But all of this criticism had me thinking . . . have you ever learned anything from a review? It’s interesting, because we encourage writers to take what they can from personalized rejection letters that include feedback, yet tell them to ignore reviews. I know that once in a while I have learned things from my detractors. I have been given new fodder for blog posts and I’ve occasionally even changed some of our policies. But what about writers? Do good reviews ever help you? What about bad reviews? Have you ever learned anything about your own writing from a review?

Jessica

26 comments:

linda hall said...

I rarely learn anything from a good review. Actually, I don't know if I'm in the minority here, but as a writer it's always been easier for me to believe the bad review over the good.

When I first started writing, I remember this one awful, absolutely terrible review. Yes, it was my first book and as first books go it was probably horrible, to this day I'm not sure how it managed to get published, but it did, anyway the reviewer suggested that I not only go back to school, but go back to school and get a degree in something other than writing. Spare the world my purple prose.

I was so heartsick I didn't write a thing for months. It absolutely made me sick. But in the end I did learn something valuable. I also didn't believe in that story. I sent it out because that's what I thought you were supposed to do when you finished a book, send it out to get pubbed. Now, I never send anything out I'm not one hundred percent behind. If I don't feel good about the end result it will not see the light of day. The reason why is because if anyone gives me an awful review I'm better able to shrug it off as it wasn't their thing, as opposed to yeah...they're right, it was that bad.

Also, I did go back to school. But I ignored her advice and took many English courses and learned, really learned how to write.

So yeah it was cruel, but in the end it gave me thicker skin and helped me learn how to write better. ;)

Anonymous said...

I'm still at the point where I think there must be something wrong with anyone who gives me raving reviews on my writing...

...is that normal?

Juliana Stone said...

Hey Jessica!
My book won't be released until summer 2010 so I have a ways to go before reviews on that. BUT, I did get an awful review of sorts from an agent I queried....she basically told me my writing was awful and would never grab the interest of NY publishers....I was more than a little put out by her words and did have a moment of, "who the heck am I kidding here? I can't write!" But, I got over it, and well I am happy to say she was wrongedy wrong wrong!

Annette Lyon said...

It's always easier to believe a bad review than a good one, but whether you learn something from it is a different story altogether.

I love getting feedback as much as the next thick-skinned writer--BEFORE the book goes to press--at that point, I can still make changes.

That's why it's so hard to get a bad review--you can't go back and fix it anymore. It's stuck in that bad form forever.

Sheila Connolly said...

I find it hurts more when a reviewer criticizes my characters, rather than the language I use or the plot structure. One reviewer said she thought my protagonists had been dropped from Mars--she just couldn't identify with them. Ouch!

It's a lot easier on the ego just to ignore the reviews, good or bad. However, there's a caveat: reviews, particularly in the group of premiere sites such as Publishers Weekly, are important to selling your books, notably to libraries. So you have to know what they're saying about you.

Jennifer McKenzie said...

I've learned from two reviews--one good, one bad.
Mrs. Giggles reviewed on of my books and questioned my plot. As a panster, I knew I needed to work on tightening my plot lines. She didn't flay me, but I nodded at her criticism of my story. It taught me to pay better attention to my plotting.
Another review raved about my book but in such a way that she revealed things I hadn't realized I'd done. All the layers were there, but they weren't something I thought about in great detail. That review taught me to respect my process and allow the story to unfold, not to push it.
I'd much prefer an honest review that really pin points what went wrong for the reader rather than a fluffy review that doesn't say anything.
Criticism is never easy to hear, but I've never had any that didn't further my writing in some way.

Laurel Corona said...

I have the same view of critiques of my writing that I have of any other criticism I receive in life. If one person says something that doesn't jibe with what I believe to be true, I brush it off. If I start hearing the same thing independently from several people, it's time to ask myself whether there's possibly some real merit in what people are saying. Good, substantive feedback is the best thing that can happen to me as a writer, since it can serve as a correction to my own view of my work and tell me how it may really be coming across to others. I wrote YA nonfiction for many years before debuting this year in non-fiction (UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH/ St. Martin's) and fiction (THE FOUR SEASONS: A NOVEL OF VIVALDI'S VENICE/Hyperion-VOICE) and in every case my work has improved in revision as a result of being open to the idea that I could do better. Forget ever getting unconditional love and concentrate on seeing thoughtful, unbiased critics as the best friends you might have.

ryan-field said...

I read them all, and most of the time I learn something. I believe that if you're going to put yourself out "there", you'd better be able to take the good with the bad.

JES said...

First book, mixed review: something about "patches of arty prose." That one phrase has stuck with me for 16 years (even though it was immediately offset by a compliment on the way I'd written the action scenes).

Second book (tech reference), email from a reader, three words: "Great, great book."

If I never receive another review of any book, I'll never forget those two quotes. The first one ramped up my sensitivity to self-indulgent overwriting (didn't cure it completely though :)... The second one landed in my Inbox at a really bad time, when I very much needed it.

Anonymous said...

One bad review I got confused two of my characters, using the wrong name for each of them. Made me wonder if the reviewer had even read the book. Unfortunately, it was a "big" reviewer, a review that pops up when you google the book. OUCH!

Another online reviewer who admitted she hated the topic of my book but then read it and reviewd it anyway gave it like 1 our of 5 stars -- if you are not a paid reviwer, but doing it in your spare time, why on earth would you read a book you already know you aren't interested in and then rip it to shreds on your peronal blog?

Good god, come on!

Both of these instances hurt, because it was my first book. If I can ever get another book published, I'll still read reviews. It's too hard not to.

Anonymous said...

I'm the Anon above -- excuse my typos. I can't get the new comment section to let me fix my post during the "preview." Anyone else having this issue?

David de Beer said...

Dean Wesley Smith has an interesting theory on critiques, one that made a lot of sense when I read it -- he says you ask for a critique, not in order to fix the current story, but rather to apply the lessons learned to the next story.
Same with reviews, really, judging from that pov they can be valuable.

But, it seems to me that some writers thrive on getting feedback (whether critiques, reviews good or bad, and even personalized feedback), whereas others don't. Quite the opposite.

The former group I think is more empowered by and thrives on the give and take of the writer/ reader dynamic whereas the latter group may know intellectually you cannot possibly please every reader all the time but have a streak of perfectionism as applied to their writing that makes it fundamentally impossible for them to accept it.
In other words, they brood overmuch on the negative and it can have a detrimental impact on their future writing as they start to second-guess everything. (strangely, this group appears to be very similar at face value to the huffy lunatic "I'm a genius and you all just don't get me! conspiracy! conspiracy" fringe groups, with the notable except of the second-guessing themselves trait).

No good or bad, either way, is just different personalities is all.

Vivi Anna said...

Bad reviews never teach me anything except to accept the fact that you can't please everyone all the time.

Good reviews let me know what I consistently do well in my writing over and over again.

Anita said...

I've read thousands of books in my life, and except for the reviews that appear on book jackets (all positive, of course), I've never read a book review. I'm thinking most readers are a lot like me---they get book recommendations from friends, family, etc., not book reviewers.

That said, I'd probably look more to sales figures than reviews for my "feedback." But maybe I'm missing part of the picture here---do reviews impact sales????

I'm still in the process of trying to get an agent, and as far as agent "reviews" go, I've found them very helpful. I've only sent out a few queries, but the agents that have responded have taken the time to give me concrete areas in which to improve my manuscript. I've been in journalism for awhile, though, and I've developed a thick skin about constructive criticism. (I've also developed the ability to perform a mental flip off---capable of traveling thousands of miles faster than the speed of sound---which is helpful.)

Anonymous said...

Yes, someone last friday gave me someone helpful feedback in my rejection letter. I took it with a grain of salt and rolled with it. I spent the whole weekend editing my manuscript.

Bill Peschel said...

I remember one review I did of a book -- not very good (the book I mean, not my review) -- and a fellow churchgoer told me after services that he couldn't wait to read the book to see if it was as bad as I had written. So you never know what the fallout will be!

As for reading the reviews, it depends on the writer. Some folks are tough enough to take it. I would suggest trying it once or twice and see if it helps build your confidence. But if you're constitutionally unable to look at someone else's (sometimes uninformed) opinion, then it may be best to avoid it.

Jessica Faust said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
BookEnds, LLC said...

I see that people are having problems commenting and have received a few emails to that effect. Unfortunately, as you might have noticed, Blogger has made some changes to their design and their comments section and this seems to be a problem with those changes and not anything we have done.

Hopefully it will be righted soon so we can hear from everyone.

--jhf

Dara said...

Reviews often help me to see the bigger picture. In my local critique group, I've learned so much about what needs to be done to make my writing polished and interesting to the reader. Even though I may go through a chapter with a fine-toothed comb, I inevitably miss something. Reviews/critiques help me to see what I've missed.

That being said though, I've also highly disagreed with some of the reviews/critiques, especially when they don't like the direction my story is going. I'm not going to change a facet of a character's personality because they don't necessarily like it :P

There are times when it's hard to listen to and I get discouraged, but that usually only lasts a day or so and then I realize the merit in what they've told me.

Mary Ellen Hughes said...

It's funny - just before reading this blog on criticism, I happened to go to Amazon to check my numbers (which were fine, but who knows where they'll be an hour from now :-) As Amazon likes to do, it tempted me to click over to other book pages, and I landed on that of a famous writer's first book. Publisher's Weekly's review of that book was there for all to see, and it started out by saying this writer's debut book was embarrassing - and went downhill from there. This writer has been selling very strongly ever since (6 years) so, devastating as it must have been, that opinion of a major reviewer didn't mean as much as the opinions of the many readers that bought her book. I can only hope Publishers Weekly gives me such a devastating review some day. :-)

Wordy Boy in a Floppy Hat. said...

If I get a review or comment that mentions something that has already been mentioned I begin to give that comment more weight.

Too many things (a bad mood, a bad day, a noisy environment) can make a difference in one person's perception.

So I tend to wait for things to be mentioned a couple of times. There have been times when someone's review further develops my own niggling problems/doubts about a passage or a sentence and I go ahead and make try to make a change.

I ~love~ comments of all kinds and while, of course, I love to hear good things I try to be as equally open to bad things. :).

Elissa M said...

I'm not published, so I can't comment on book reviews specifically. That said, I'm an artist, and I know how I feel about reviews of my artwork and prizes at shows.

Judges and professional reviewers are paid for their opinions. They may be educated opinions, but still opinions. Good reviews and awards are nice, I can't deny it. What really gives me a boost though, is when someone opens their wallet and spends their hard-earned cash on something I created.

Okay, a book is much cheaper than a piece of original art, but I still think sales will always mean more to me than reviews.

solv said...

I guess it helps to, as much as possible, discern between subjectivity and objectivity. I've never known a beginner writer thank me for pointing out that their pov was all over the place, or that they were using three adverbs in every sentence.
I've learned to offer advice only to trusted colleagues, and to ask for feedback only from those who have sold tanker-loads of novels.
Beyond that, I'd suggest that everyone needs to believe whatever they need to believe in order to keep at it.

terri said...

I haven't broken into book-land yet, but have pubbed a fair number of short stories and novellas.

As others have said, good reviews don't tell you much, but are good ego-candy and can help you keep writing. Bad reviews that are just ignorant or silly can be brushed off. A couple of bad reviews made me laugh because they were so silly, such as the one that said 'I can't believe that men would talk like that!" She was referring to the profanity.

However, a 'review' came in yesterday gave me pause. It was a nicely worded and encouraging rejection from an editor. He told me to check my facts on the suicide in the tale. Well, I had. It was actually based on a true story and the boy had killed himself exactly as I described in the story. However, instead of my original snarky reaction, it dawned on me that I hadn't used the correct words to get it across. It was a bizarre suicide and I didn't convey and communicate it well enough, so the editor was left unconvinced.

Best review/rejection I've ever gotten!

Anonymous said...

I'm unpublished but have passed my story to my friends and one pointed out some things that were difficult for her to read through and a part that was 'book believable' but not really 'real-life' so I changed it and I think it makes it better. Obviously these are friends I am dealing with so their phrasing is much better than some stranger reviewer but overall I find it helpful. Plus, I'm bright enough to know when a criticism is a good idea and what simply won't work [in my writing].
CK

Lindsay said...

I'd just assume anyone who left a bad review wasn't a part of my target audience. ;)