Saying Something Nice

Misty MasseyMisty Massey
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Last week I was talking about the importance of never giving up in the face of rejection.  It’s nearly impossible to reach publication without being told “No” a few dozen (hundred? million?) times.  But the vital lesson you learn from all that rejection is how to handle it after you’ve been published, and people all over the country are getting to read what you write.  You think agents and editors turning you down is painful?  Wait until you have to read those one-star reviews on Amazon!  Nowadays, there are lots of book review sites all over the internet, some highly regarded, some amateurish, but all taking a shot at telling everyone how they liked your book.  The tough-skinned author has learned how to handle praise and rejection, due to the practice before he ever scored a contract in the first place.

You know all about this, right?  Well, here’s a thought you might not have considered – published authors often write reviews of other authors’ work as well.  They may post their reviews on Amazon, or on their own blogs, or on shared sites.  I love to wax ecstatic about a book I’ve recently loved, and push others to read the treasure I’ve found.  The one thing I no longer do?  Write negative reviews.  Especially not of beginning authors.  Some of you may think I’m being too gentle, letting an author who couldn’t hack the job get away with putting poor work out there to punish the readers.  But I have reasons.

Many years ago, long before I’d even finished a novel, I used to review books for the local newspaper.  Back then, I believed that it was my duty to say what I felt, whether I loved it or not.  I wrote some scathing criticisms of books that didn’t please me.  Yeah, maybe I was harsh, but the readers had to be protected, and the writer should know that he’d taken a wrong turn.  I stopped reviewing when the book editor left the paper, and I didn’t think much about those reviews after that.  Until my book came out, and reviews started popping up.  Most of them were great, and that felt really nice.  But one day, a two-star showed up.  It wouldn’t have been so upsetting, being that I’d earned my thick skin through prepublication rejection, except that it was written by another writer, one who had her first book coming out a few months after mine.  She slapped my book hard, and it hurt.  I found that I couldn’t bear to even look at her book in the store, because when I did, I thought about how much I didn’t like her.  I’d never even met her, never read her book, but when her book showed up in my school library, I encouraged my kids to avoid it, because she’d been cruel.  Was my reaction fair?  Not even a little.  And it got me to thinking about all those authors I’d dissed all those years ago.  Now that I had a book out, were any of them recognizing my name, wondering if I was the same witch who’d said ugly things about their work?  Were they telling their friends to avoid reading what I wrote?

You’ve heard many times that you have to watch what you say, because publishing is such a small, tight community, and everyone knows everyone else.  Reviewing other peoples’ work falls into that category, too.  These days, I share my joy when I love a book, and keep my mouth shut when I don’t.  My silence is, I think, enough of a review.  I’ll leave the reviewing to the professionals, and stick to the writing.  If you plan to publish someday, but you’re reviewing books now, I can’t tell you not to write disparaging comments about books you don’t love.  What you put out there for people to read is entirely up to you.  I can recommend you be sure it means enough to you to do it, though.  Think about how you would feel if a professional colleague at your day job viciously criticized your work performance.  That thick skin we grow isn’t diamond-hard, and certain barbs can still get through.

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25 comments to Saying Something Nice

  • I write for a SF review site. Sometimes I review things I don’t like–it’s part of the job–but I try to be as informative as possible as to why I don’t like it, with examples, and I am always as professional as I can possibly be. I struggle over it, though.

  • I’ve mentioned many times before that I was a reviewer for a few venues over several years. Those venues asked its reviewers to simply not review books that were horrible. Ignore them. Most readers want to be pointed to what’s good and leave it at that. However, if you’re a reviewer, even a good book is not flawless, and I’ve had to write a few uncomplimentary things in my time. The big thing to remember in today’s world, though, is that the Internet is forever (well, almost). If you wrote a bad review in a paper magazine three decades ago, somebody has to really search hard to find it. If you write a bad review on an e-zine, somebody merely has to Google the book. Those things’ll follow you!

  • Chris Branch

    Good points Misty, and I’ve come to the same conclusion as you, although it still bothers me.

    Not that I write that many reviews, per se, but like many of us here, I love to discuss books, and I think discussions work best when all participants are honest and have something insightful to contribute to the discussion. When I have something negative to say about a book and I have to censor myself from saying it in an online forum, which I often do, I feel that even as I’m being nice to the author (who I might want to return the favor someday), I’m being dishonest with myself and with the group by withholding my comments. Maybe it’s just me.

  • Misty,

    Let’s just say “been there, done that”. I spent over a year reviewing books and being honest about them on my blog. Part of it was because I was trying to figure out why I liked something or why I didn’t. I wasn’t terribly negative about them, mostly, but then I received a comment from an author when I praised her work—and that was a wake-up call itself. What if other authors that I’d negatively reviewed also read my blog? So I took down the posts. I’ve had some realizations lately (in my personal life as well as in general) that I don’t like being negative. Negativity begets negativity. So I keep my reviews to one or two lines on my friends-only Facebook, and only to the ones I like. :)

  • I feel that most “reviewers” on the net actually try to be scathing and cruel just to be cute. IMO, a good review should touch on positive and negative points in a constructive manner. Nothing is wholly rotten and nothing out there is wholly golden. When I do review, I try to keep a balance of what I liked about it and what I didn’t, even if I disliked the book overall, but with a nod to YMMV, meaning that I keep it more clinical and fair-minded because what I like or dislike could be completely different from what someone else likes or dislikes. Saying that a work was a total turd and you want your money and time back (yeah, I’ve seen some Amazon reviews like that and I always click that I found it unhelpful) really doesn’t tell anyone else whether they might like the book or not.

    I recently picked up a title by John Ringo and my wife and I love it so far (thanks to Baen and their free library). I originally wasn’t going to pick up any of his works because of the negative reviews on Amazon, but I think now that that was a mistake. So far it’s right up my alley for what I like in sci-fi (well, technically it’s sci-fi/fantasy). I think I’ll be giving more of his works a shot.

    Another book I picked up a while ago I bought because of the negative reviews. It was The Faded Sun Trilogy by C.J. Cherryh. The negative comments, surprisingly, suggested that it was a series that meshed with what I like, so I gave it a shot. One of the few times where a negative review actually helped me decide to buy a book. ;)

    But again, that just goes to show what one person hates might just be a perfect fit for someone else and giving a nasty review really doesn’t inform anyone of anything useful. And as I’ve said before, a review is nothing more than one person’s opinion, and opinions are like A-holes. Everyone has one and thinks everyone else’s stinks. ;)

  • I often wonder what prompts a person to dump on a book they’ve read, particularly when it becomes clear that this person has taken the time to read the thing cover to cover. I once had an Amazon reviewer say that EAGLE-SAGE, the last LonTobyn book, was the worst ending to a series ever. I thought that was high praise, actually. I mean, it wasn’t just bad; it was THE worst ever. That’s saying something. And obviously he was pretty invested in the first two books to have hated that last one so much.

    This is why people who really can ignore Amazon reviews (and B&N reviews, etc.) are healthier and smarter than I am. I would love to be able to ignore them all. I can’t. It’s kind of pathetic, actually.

  • Good post. I also think there is a HUGE gap between “eh, I didn’t like it, not for me” and “ohmygod it will make your eyes bleed it is so bad!” reviews. If I don’t like a book, and people ask me about it, I tell them. Same with a movie or whatever. But, if I did like it, I can wax poetic for quite a while. :) I don’t, though, post these things on line in reviews. Then again, I don’t review stuff, books or otherwise.

    Taking criticism is hard. Taking scathing criticism that turns personal (a la “how stupid is this author”) is near impossible, and such criticism, as Daniel suggested, isn’t useful.

  • Great post Misty! I completely agree that you need to consider your influence on others, particularly as a writer or aspiring author, and you never know who’s going to end up being influential to the success or failure of your book. Every relationship, every connection we make, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, could end up being a big deal down the line. That guy that you gave the rave review to might return the favor, and vice versa. However, I also agree with Chris, that giving positive feedback when I didn’t like a book can feel like a lie, and I try really hard not to be dishonest.

    My personal method is that I’ll share positive feedback when I love a book, without anyone asking. However, if someone asks me to review a book for them, I warn them that I will be honest, and then if I don’t like the book, I try to temper my criticism with positive feedback as well. It’s the “compliment sandwich” idea, which I learned in my business soft-skills classes. Every criticism should be bounded on either side by positive feedback. It helps the recipient see that you’re not being mean, you’re trying to help, and that you recognize the good along with the bad. And then I try to follow-up with the author to explain my thoughts in more detail. I think it’s worked for the most part, and I’ve hopefully kept the reviews professional, honest, and constructive.

  • When you take it upon yourself to critique/review books, you have to keep in mind that there are people on the other side of that. If you are an apsiring author, then you have professional reasons to mind what you say in reviews. If you have a project come before an editor or publishing house, they will likely google your name and see what pops up. If they find you ripping on books in an unprofessional manner or unfair way, they will likely decide not to work with you. Heaven forbid if the book that you ripped a new one in was one of theirs or was a good friend of theirs! The publishing business is small and your reputation will get around. Something like acting unprofessional in your book reviews can do nothing but hurt that.

    Contrary to that is if you critique a book in a professional, honest, and thought provoking manner; it could look good on you. So if you must do book reviews for good or bad, then always keep your review professional. You want to be a professional writer, then you should start acting as one in all you do online (including Facebook, Myspace, Youtube, etc).

  • Razziecat

    I agree that some people post nasty things merely for the sake of being nasty. I guess they get their jollies that way. It’s interesting that you can find reviews on Amazon that are positively glowing and others that say things like “don’t waste your money”, and all for the same book. I try to keep in mind the rules of an online writing workshop I belong to: Find something good as well as something that needs improvement in every piece you critique. To me, this applies even when reviewing a professional’s work. I don’t actually choose what to read based on reviews, because there are some very shallow reviews out there: I’ve seen people give a book low marks based on the price of the book, and other reviews which were so shallow, it’s obvious the reviewer completely missed what the author was trying do.(BTW, Daniel, Cherryh’s Faded Sun trilogy is one of my favorites.)

  • Great post, Misty. I think your distinction between a published review and feedback is excellent. I thought I was ready for negative remarks on Amazon etc. but those 1 star reviews just make my blood boil. It’s all I can do not to post comments denouncing their taste, judment, intelligence and personal hygene. 5 years after my firstr book came out it sickens me to know that their are what I consider ignorant and mean-spirit reviews out there still. Those things are public and don’t go away. Which is a roundabout way of saying that you’re right: authors shouldn’t write them, and not only because they may come back to haunt you. Hmmm. I may have to write a post of my own on this one some time :)

  • Emily, I completely agree about the gap “I didn’t like it” and vile. At least I wasn’t scathing.

    I forgot to add: When I reviewed the books, this was all a few years ago, not recently. The other reason I did so was to help me identify writing techniques, and what I liked or didn’t. But when I took them down, the negativity, however mild, was one of the reasons I got scared and decided to take a pen name. And we all know how that worked out. :blush: No better lesson learned than how to grow up and act like an adult on the Internet.

  • Several of you have pointed out that there’s a difference between reviewing a book and criticizing it, and you’re absolutely correct. The great reviewers online (and off) are the ones who, like Phiala, take care to present their thoughts informatively and professionally. A review offers me, the reader, the good and the bad aspects, so I can make an informed purchasing decision. A criticism exists to let its writer feel powerful, and isn’t helpful to anyone. The ones I hate the most seem to always begin with, “I only read three pages, but I can tell this entire book sucks.” Excuse me? What are you, clairvoyant?

    And about trading one good review for another – if you give a book you didn’t like a great review in the hope that the author will do the same for you, you’re setting a precedent you can’t support. Eventually you’ll be drowning in books you hate, or your head will explode. :D

    If we’re in person, I’ll be happy to tell you if I didn’t like a book. When we’re face to face, we can offer each other points to consider about a book, and I might even change my mind a little if your argument is really good. Discussing books in person is fun!

    AJ, I would love to see a post on the same topic from you. Go for it!

  • I’m with Stuart on this one: from an editorial perspective, IGMS has a long-standing policy that when/if a reviewer feels that a book is awful, they should forget about it as quickly as possible and go read a new book. Readers want to be told where the worthwhile books are; why waste your time with the junk?

    Wearing my writer hat, I’ll say that I generally try to ignore reviews as much as possible. I have no problem with editorial rejection, but bad reviews are hard for me to stomach. As much as I rationalize and tell myself that most reviewers have zero qualifications to speak of, just a platform from which to pontificate, they still fill my heart with a desire to inflict pain. I think much of the reason for that desire is that most bad reviews don’t speak constructively, they tend to be written by small-minded people who are just trying to make themselves look clever by coming up with increasingly “witty” put-downs.

    My bottom line: If a friend sends a nice review, I read it, but I don’t seek them out.

  • Misty and I talked about this very subject (over some lovely sushi) and when I heard what she was going to write. I told her my latest and promised to share it with you.

    Until recently I had given up reviews totally. Why? because totally positive reviews teach me nothing and totally negative reviews burn my soul. Then with the publication of Mercy Blade, I started back reading them. No reason. I just suddenly felt strong enough. And I was curious. (This may not last, but it’s where I am right now.) I’ve learned some things reading reviews.

    1.Some Amazon reveiwers know one another and click the *helpful* bar on each other’s reviews, helping one another to gain popularity as reveiwers. (Cheating, but hey — I understand.)

    2. Some reviewers have no idea how to review. Few books out there are just horrid, and if I see a horrid review, I will now always assume it’s the reviewer’s bias or lack of skill and knowledge, not a bad book. For readers of a certain genre, that book will click. A smart reviewer knows this and tailors his review to a certain genre. Stupid (foolish, insert word of your choice) ones don’t.

    3. What goes around comes around. If you put cruelty into the world, the world eventually gives cruelty back. It’s karma or the *rule of three* or harvesting what you sow. But it’s real.

    Last week a friend sent me to an Amazon review of Mercy Blade that was a 2 star cut and slash job. (She thought I should know it was out there. She sends me great ones too, but this one bothered her.) It was so scathing and vitriolic it was funny. Really. It was like I had written the biggest piece of crap IN THE HISTORY of BOOKS! It was looooong and cruel and aw-ful!

    It was so bad it was funny, and I posted a link on FaceBook with a comment something like: “Hey ya’ll! Want to see a reeeeeally nasty review of Mercy Blade? LOL! Click here!” And people did. In droves! Suddenly, after 4 days, the review is gone. I don’t know why. I didn’t complain. But the entire page is missing. Of course there are moore downright cruel reviews about my books. A lot of them. There is a new 2 start cruel review at the top of my Amazon page right now. I won’t post a link to it. But it will come back and bust someone in the chops someday. That’s the way the world works.

  • Sarah

    I’ve only written two book reviews (one for MW and one for a critical medieval text), but I do act as a peer reviewer for a journal in my field. I’ve had to write review letters that said “don’t publish this” as well as reviews that said “the core of this is good, but it needs massive revision.” I’m still waiting for an article to arrive that I can pass with no critique at all. Early on, I decided I would write my review letters as if I was speaking face to face with the author herself. I have to be honest about what needs fixing – my professional reputation as well as the journal’s and the author’s are involved in this. But I also have to be compassionate. Recently, i became really, really glad I had pursued that approach for two reasons. 1. I got an article of my own back with revisions. Instead of summarizing the needed changes the editor just forwarded me what the reviewers said in their emails to him! I got their raw comments, including personal chit chat with the editor. It seems stupid, but I hadn’t really imagined the author getting my exact commentary as I wrote it. Now I’m glad I have nothing to be ashamed of if I meet my own reviewees face to face. 2. One of the articles I reviewed had promise, but was badly flawed on multiple points. I almost wrote “Who wrote this? An undergraduate?” and returned it with no further comment. As it turned out the article was from a very young scholar. If I had savaged his/her work then I might have unfairly crushed a beginning scholar for not yet being at the doctoral level. That would have been both cruel and unfair. His/her advisor should have told her the article wasn’t publication ready and the journal shouldn’t give people a pass just for being young. BUT, I do believe that it would have been wrong of me to call someone a bad scholar when in fact he/she was just an immature one who shows a lot of promise. So I’m glad I stayed away from any personal remarks and kept the tone of my critique encouraging, rather than dumping all over the article.

  • In terms of non-professional reviews (such as on Amazon), I find the negative reviews far more worthwhile and informative. People who liked the book usually write something along the lines of “Best awesomest story ever!!!” – but when someone doesn’t like a book and takes the time to tell you so, they more often tell you *why*.

    And I must say that I’ve found many good books this way, from reviewers describing what they disliked being just the sort of thing I do.

  • I generally find the 3 star reviews the most informative (not all the time, mind you). I see most often the 3 star reviews giving the good and bad and whenever possible, I look to those first.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I think this post has a lot of important things to say about negativity and the good reasons NOT to spread it around. That being said, I also like to read the bad reviews of things I’m looking at because if they’re intelligently written they can say a lot about what the content actually is. And in my opinion, there is one place for a 1 star review of a good book: (Not to say that it was too expensive or UPS didn’t deliver it properly.) If a book is good but has certain elements that could disturb certain fans of the genre in general, then a 1 star review is an easy way for people to be warned about that ahead of time. If it’s already been said, then there’s no reason for someone else to post the same way and drag down a book’s rating, but a posted warning can be really helpful for online shopping when you can’t actually flip through the book itself.

  • I agree with Wolf on this. When I’m searching for a book, I usually skip the 4 and 5 star reviews and go straight to the bottom of the pile. When I read a really nasty 1 star review, I then go look at that person’s other reviews where they’ve given high ratings. All the top reviews just gush about how wonderful the book is. The bad reviews often go into specifics which is what I need.

    I learnt early in my IT career that IT is a small industry and everyone talks. I learnt the hard way which resulted in losing a contract, so now I go by the rule: If you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all. Of course that would change if I thought it absolutely critical I warn someone, but that hasn’t come up yet.

  • I agree that negative reviews can be helpful with products. We’re shopping for some appliances right now — washer and dryer — and I want to know what kinds of problems people are having with the models we’re interested in. I skip over the positive reviews and only read the negative ones. But a front-loading washer is one thing; someone’s art is entirely another. I’ve been writing books for 15 years. I have a dozen published and more in the pipeline. I’ve read tons in and out of my genre, and I’ve studied literature. And I am in no way qualified to say that a book sucks. I can say that I didn’t enjoy it, and point out the reasons why. But that’s all. Judging other people’s creations is a dangerous enterprise; many works — across artistic disciplines and media — that are considered classics today were panned in their time. I would never argue that people should give 5 star reviews to everything. But I think it’s fair to say that measured criticism should be the norm. Cruel reviews serve no purpose that I can see.

  • Razziecat

    If I can throw one more comment into the mix….I think giving a book a one-star review only because of violence, graphic sex or what have you could do more harm than good. Those one-star reviews can affect the book’s ranking on the site. There is a subject line, and what I would do is use that to warn readers about things like the above. That way, if I think the book is very good but might be too much for some people’s sensibilities to handle, there would be a way to alert readers to this without giving the author a negative review for something that not everyone would consider a negative trait.

  • Young_Writer

    I’m part of a writing group, and I only say negative things about their novels and short stories when I need to. Otherwise I’ll feel too bad.

  • Sorry I’m late, been writing for a deadline. I’ve a question. What if you’re not slamming the entire book, as in an anthology?

    I wrote a review on Goodreads for Mean Streets that said nice things about three of the stories and then this:

    HOWEVER, if Simon R. Green’s story had been first, I wouldn’t have read any of the others. The writing is slow, starting with back-story and showing off his world-building of the Nightside. Then jumps into a cliche opening with a crying woman running up to a PI, has an MC who does little to help, and a sidekick who’s car does all the work. In addition, his writing is strewn with distracting tom swiftys and overuse of ad-verbs.
    “I sighed inwardly, and turned unhurriedly on the bar stool to nod politely to the woman as …” p.68
    This could have done with a good editing to strengthen both the story and the writing.


    As an aspiring writer, I wonder about critiquing other author’s works in this way. Will it prompt others to do the same to me? Should I even bother? I mean, the story was worse than many I’ve worked on for friends, but then none of us are perfect.

    –NGD

  • I’ve since edited my review on Goodreads to remove my critique of the writing. Can the MW site admin please delete my previous post on this thread.

    I’m going to go with saying nothing in this case, especially since I’m querying Mr. Green’s agent. *grin*