When I first started reviewing romance novels on bookstagram, there were lines in the sand about what not to do, but nearly all of them were invisible to the naked eye.
Well, to my eye.
On a post I wrote earlier this year, I held a conversation about negative reviews, which inspired me to pull together this guide to writing them in the hope that it might prove useful to someone in the same position as past-Esme.
I asked other readers and writers and reviewers for their input and I got so many great submissions.
Then came the heat
I had this whole blog written and ready to go. I was nursing a whiskey sour and scheduling things to go live one balmy January night when I got wind that one of my reviews had been misconstrued. It was a whole thing, and it was quite hurtful, and I won’t exhume all the details.
At the time, suffice to say, I spiraled.
I began to doubt my ability to articulate my view point clearly.
I questioned myself up, down and sideways. Diagonally, even.
For a minute there, I thought that I had no business compiling this blog. What the hell do you know about writing good critical reviews, the hateful voice in my head taunted (she’s always lurking there — like an understudy in the wings hoping the principal will break her fucking leg and she’ll get to go on). You’re clearly terrible at it.
But then my brain caught up to my heart.
My 20% Ravenclaw stuffed my 80% Hufflepuff back in its box.
If people are absolutely determined to grab the wrong end of the stick, they will. I can’t stop someone who is looking for a reason — confirmation bias is real and it’s a pain in the asshole. I just have to find ways of trying to put it from my mind.
(LOL, LIKE I CAN PUT SOMETHING OUT OF MY MIND THAT IS UPSETTING, LOL, LIKE THAT IS A THING THAT MY MIND CAN DO, LOLOLOLOLOL).
But I can try. And I can concentrate on making sure that I feel like I’ve done my best to express myself thoughtfully and honestly. I said at the time that I should have been more clear that the opinion I was expressing was my own, and not an indictment of anyone else’s predilections. And that’s still true.
But it’s kind of like when a man says ‘I didn’t like that’ he’s raising a valid counter opinion that justifies itself; when a woman says it, she’s being difficult, or nitpicking, or a bitch.
So it’s time to screw my courage to the sticking place and publish this blog.
Because some people outside the community think we romance readers and writers are pitiable idealists, incapable of intellectual thought. They’re wrong on both counts. It’s actually laughable how wrong they are.
The romance community is full of laser-fucking-sharp minds and I think we should all do each other the compliment of using those minds to their full abilities.
To that end:
Here are ten tips for writing critical reviews.
I’ve credited people for their submissions. If there’s no attribution, then it’s advice from me.
Again, let me be clear that I’m not saying you have to do all this, and I’m not saying I’m perfect, and I’m not judging you if you don’t like doing critical reviews. To each their own. But I hope this resource is useful to anyone looking for such a thing.
Thank you to the wonderful people who submitted their thoughts.
1) Explain yourself
‘It was bad’ or ‘it sucked’ or ‘I hated it’ are not reviews.
“Be honest, eloquent, and specific. Just being negative for negative sake is awful and I have no interest reading something that doesn’t tell me why. I want to know if it was the tone, the character’s lack of journey, straight up racist, etc. Then I can decide if it’s worth a shot anyway or not.”
Maezyreads advises people to “Explain why without being overly vicious.”
“I really like specifics on what a reviewer didn’t like and why. Was it the prose, plot, pacing, character development, themes, problematic elements? This helps me determine how seriously I should take the negative review. For example if the reviewer didn’t like the dark tone, but I happen to like darker sci-fi then I might still give the book a shot.”
I also asked Boyfriend and he said: “people reading movie reviews want less exposition more analysis,” which is actually really good advice so I guess he’s the resident review expert now.
2) Don’t be afraid to keep it short and sweet. — Sitathereader
“If there are numerous reasons why you didn’t like the book, give us your top 3 to 5 reasons. If you can’t say anything then don’t — reviews with few words are just as effective as ones that are fleshed out. But use your few words wisely and thoughtfully, saying “it sucked” isn’t helpful. Sometimes we just don’t like a book.”
And this from someone who wanted to stay anonymous:
“Don’t go on and on about the same point. When reviewers say really basic things at length it feels like they’re hoping if they pop off for long enough, other bookstagram people will share their post and they’ll get more followers.”
^ Which is savage but … I see their point.
3) Use trigger and content warnings! — lindsayfrischmuth
“Trigger warnings are necessary. Don’t come at me with the ‘snowflake’ mentality on this one. Trauma is real and affects more people than you realize. Trigger warnings can save a lot of folks unnecessary pain.”
I agree wholeheartedly.
I really don’t want to be surprised by a sexual assault plot point. Also, no one owes the internet their trauma in explaining why they wanted a trigger warning, or why they don’t like certain trope. Your and your feelings and your thoughts are fucking valid and you don’t owe them to anyone.
4) Your voice matters
A popular saying in romancelandia is reviews are for readers, not for writers. Sure, a review should be written with the reader in mind, and it should help a reader decide if a book is for them or not.
Reviews also influence market trends, and help publishers decide what’s hot and what’s not.
I think about this Smart Bitches review of Hello Stranger quite a lot.
As you probably know, Hello Stranger is my ALL TIME FAVE Kleypas. Dr Garret is the love of my life.
After reading this the first time, when I looked at the Goodreads, I couldn’t understand why some people were saying it was racist. I chalked it up to those ingrained white-lady-blinders I have to constantly do the work to take off, and went in for a re-read to identify the issue.
Reader, I read my e-book copy again and I still didn’t see the issue. At this point, I was ready to delete my whole Instagram — if multiple Goodreads reviewers were talking about racism that I couldn’t see after two whole reads then I didn’t deserve my IG handle.
But then I found the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books review. What happened was the reviewer, Elyse, pointed out racism in the text, and after this, the publisher released a new edition of the book with the problematic bit removed. So the version I read was actually a second edition. And Lisa Kleypas wrote to Smart Bitches about it. The whole thing was a really important moment.
Now, obviously, reviews shouldn’t be written with the endgame of having the bit you didn’t like changed. Sometimes it’s just a case of different strokes for different folks. And critique needs to be well reasoned and evidenced, etc etc etc.
But IMHO bad reviews are a key part of the publishing ecosystem. It’s market, it’s demand, it’s sell-ability, it’s …. part of the world.
5) consider when the text was published
I learned this lesson with the very first review I ever wrote on bookstagram, which was of Sarah MacLean’s Nine Rules to Break when Romancing a Rake. And it was a lesson Sarah herself taught me.
I wrote about how the book contained a forced kiss, which the male protagonist intended as a means of talking the fem protag into something. I said it was an issue of inexplicit non-consent.
I had zero followers. I wasn’t expecting anyone to respond, let alone Sarah herself.
Two fun facts: Sarah MacLean was my first ever follower, and now I put the date of publication on all my reviews. Lesson learned.
6) review the book, not the author
“Talk about books — what you felt wrong about the story, the characters, the writing. And explain why their actions or why a story didn’t make sense for you.”
“[it’s not okay to] bash the authors talent, ethos, or personal life unless it’s like aggressively sexist, racist, or otherwise deserves a call out.”
“Generally being disrespectful to the author or people who are fans of the book is not cool. I’m totally fine with a robust critique of a book but when it steps to critiquing the author as a person I would hesitate. Tho sometimes people be racist/sexist so???”
sewhiteauthor agrees that personal attacks on an author are a no-o.
I think ramblingoutloud sums it up well: “[Don’t] confuse your feelings for the book as dislike for the author.”
THIS IS SO KEY.
Authors work really, really hard. They bleed on pages and they lose sleep and they create these magnificent worlds and they they just … open everything up for critique? How brutal.
I totally understand why lots of writers don’t read their reviews.
I got my first taste of this exquisite torture when I released my novella, Eyes On.
Eyes On is a 16,000 word novella about a rich, reputation-is-everything socialite, and a sexy club owner who pretends to be a stripper when the socialite is spurned by the real deal. But faux turns to flame, and neither can fight the heat.
If I wasn’t self-published, and therefore marketing everything myself; I probably wouldn’t have read any of my reviews. Not because I don’t appreciate them!
Just because it was such a surreal experience, and I was never sure how much I ought to engage. Bookstagram-Esme was like: ‘yayyyy, engage with your fellow reviewer!’ Writer-Esme was like: ‘turn off your device, throw it off a cliff and crawl under your bed and stay there.’
Happily, the reviews were all pretty positive. People seemed to like Eyes On!
I’m grateful for every review I got. Every single one was a gift, and a humbling reminder that people had taken time out of their lives to read words from mine own head, and even more time to type their thoughts on it.
I tried to be as encouraging as possible for people to say whatever they wanted, they didn’t need to be fearful of leaving a critical review. As this blog indicates, I think bad reviews are really important. I welcomed bad reviews with open arms. I mean, I didn’t want to read them myself, but I wanted people to feel free to write and publish them, you know?
I learnt a lot putting Eyes On out into the world. The next one will be even better and I’ll do about one hundred things differently.
7) It’s possible to deliver criticism without being an ass. Try to do that — My Little Book Nook
That’s it, that’s the advice. It’s so good I’m making it its own section.
Sing it, Brit.
8) Consider the creator — lindsayfrischmuth
“Don’t attack them BUT always *consider* the creator of the media. Is this a new author who made a common/cringey mistake that could be fixed in future books? Or an established/veteran author who has a track record of issues? Approach accordingly.”
9) Don’t tag authors in negative review — says everyone
This makes complete sense to me.
At least it does now.
But before I knew better, I was definitely guilty of tagging authors in reviews that weren’t 100 percent positive.
In my mind, if something was less that 50 percent critique, I’d tag. So I wasn’t tagging writers in complete flames (that’s some fanfic terminology for ya, I never forget my roots), but I definitely wasn’t pulling punches with my opinions.
I was labouring under the misapprehension that authors all had social media people and wouldn’t see their tags, so tagging just made it easier for readers to find their pages and other books.
I WAS WRONG AND I SEE THAT NOW.
I don’t do that any more!
All of the people who answered my survey agreed that tagging authors in negative reviews/ragging on them was the number one cardinal sin.
Now I only ever tag if it’s an absolutely gushing positive review, and never anything less.
10) You can say nice things with the bad
Chlojoreads says: “Acknowled[e] the reasons others may like it.”
My.little.book.nook says: “I like always point out if there is anything I liked about the book, first. Then go into explaining why certain things didn’t appeal to me.”
“Just be honest. Remember that they can’t all be winners. It’s just a book. It doesn’t show all the author’s potential. There is probably someone out there that felt the same way you did. There is comfort in knowing it’s not just me.”
In conclusion folx:
Everyone has opinions, but not all opinions are equal. This is true for books, for life, for eeeeverything.
It’s like how dickish dudes on the internet like to say “just playing devil’s advocate” and think that their shit take is just as valid as someone making a measured and well explained argument. All opinions are not equal. Self analysis is one of the most useful forms of analysis.
But as long as your negative review is well written and well thought out, IMO it’s valuable and has an important place on bookstagram.
The bottom line is this: when you’re writing a negative review, be thoughtful, be on topic, and be sure you have your receipts.
ILYSM, thanks for reading.