Writing Wednesday (6) – To Review or Not to Review?

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Welcome to Writing Wednesday, my weekly feature where I discuss my works in progress, project ideas, editing struggles, or anything else related to the world of writing. Feel free to grab my button and post your own thoughts on writing! Leave a link to your post in the comments and I’ll stop by.

A big kerfuffle hit around the blogosphere the last couple of weeks after a #YALitChat on Twitter developed into some well-written blog posts about whether writers should be reviewing books. Stacia Kane and Susan Dennard put up some great posts about the matter. Stacia also wrote some great follow-up posts. Some bloggers defended the art of writing negative reviews. Tabitha at Writer Musings and Izzy at My Words Ate Me have particularly thoughtful posts.

All of this talk really got me thinking. As a writer, the last thing I want to do is jeopardize my future chances of getting published, but this idea that I shouldn’t post negative reviews is a tough pill to swallow. I’ve really enjoyed setting up this book review blog and sharing my opinions. I feel like I’m doing myself and my readers a disservice by ignoring any books I read that I don’t completely enjoy.

So what’s a girl to do?

Well, I did go through Goodreads and delete books that I hated. Because really, what is the point? If I really despise a book, does that need to be shared? Do I need to go into the reasons I didn’t like it? I mean, if it’s a one-star book for me, that means there are no redeeming factors. I decided that in the interest of respect, I should get rid of those books. I felt bad about those really negative opinions floating around.

The tough area for me is the in-between. What if overall I liked the book, but I had some issues with it (my three-star reviews)? I don’t want this to end up as a blog that only celebrates 4 and 5 star books, because that seems a bit one-sided. I also don’t want to offend authors, agents or editors. Three star books are still books I want to recommend, I just had some reservations about them.

This is the very crux of the debate. At some point, you have to decide if you want to be a reader or a writer. Reviews are for readers, not for writers. A great analogy that one of the above posts mentioned was that Roger Ebert reviews movies because he is a movie reviewer and consumer – it’s his job. Nicole Kidman does not review movies, she makes them. It’s not appropriate for her to publicly judge the quality of other films or performances because that is not professional. That argument really resonates with me.

At this point in my life, I’m more of a reader. I’m reading and reviewing books not just as a consumer, but as a tool to help me learn more about YA writing. I want to pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, so I can learn. So I’m considering changing my “negative impressions” section of my review template to focus more on learning opportunities or what things in the book worked for me as a writer.

But is that even more negative or pretentious? Do those thoughts even need to be shared?

If I can’t write reviews for fear of damaging my future career, I don’t know what to do with this blog. I’m still in the early stages of writing, I don’t have an agent, I’m not seeking an agent, and I don’t even have a finished manuscript close to being ready to query. Like I said, I’m still more of a reader at this point. I don’t have enough writer knowledge or tips to fill a blog right now.

For now, I’m going to continue reviewing. I’m going to be more cognizant of my tone and what I say. I’m going to try to lean as positive as I can. When I get to a place where I’m ready to even think about querying, I will address this issue again. Yes, the internet lives on forever, but I’m not likely to be the same person in a year or two as I am now, and at that point, I can change my perspective. I can stick to the positive recommendations and write more about the querying process.

The point of the whole debate, really, is to be professional. I can be a reviewer while I’m a reader and still be professional. When I’m ready to start moving forward as a writer, I can temper my online presence to suit the level of professionalism required then. And if I ever get so lucky as to get an agent and a published book, that online presence will have to adapt again.

Until then, I’m going to carry on and hope for the best. What do you think? Should aspiring authors avoid reviewing books? Does it matter if they are actively querying or submitting?

Weigh in with your thoughts!

23 thoughts on “Writing Wednesday (6) – To Review or Not to Review?

  1. Love your point about thinking about what is your role – are you a writer or a reader? Part of the reason I set up my blog was to document my thoughts on YA lit – I want to work in the industry so I viewed my blog as a sort of professional portfolio, a place to prove I was keeping up with the YA lit world even when I didn't have a job there. And to me, that meant I needed to include critical reviews to show I was aware of what did and didn't work (in my opinion, clearly). As I focus more and more on my own writing, that philosophy may change somewhat, but I'm also not a fan of someone else telling me what I should/shouldn't say on my blog, which is what some of the initial comments that sparked this conversation kind of felt like.

  2. If you are going to be a writer, then yes, I can see where you are coming from. However, I think if you are going to be a writer, and work with the book blogging community to get the word out about your book, you must be aware that it IS possible that there will be those who will not like your book. I think it's unfair of the person who started this whole book-bloggers-shouldn't-give-bad-reviews fiasco. She, and the commentators who followed likewise, made themselves out to be people who cannot handle criticism. If you are going to be a writer, you need to have a tough skin or not read the reviews. I don't like it when book bloggers write bash ops, rather than well-constructed reactions or reviews, but it's the internet, and you can say whatever you want about the products you buy. If it's an ARC, then I would encourage authors and publishers to seek out reviewers/bloggers who write well-written reviews that succinctly and fairly explain why they do not like a particular book, or why they do. We all have our different review styles. I just think the whole situation is unfortunate. I treat reading and blogging like it's my second job. The comments almost felt bullying in nature, and I don't like to feel compromised about doing something I love. -Linds, bibliophile brouhaha

  3. @Angela – That was part of the reason I set up my blog as well. I want to be a part of the YA community, both as a reader and a writer. I just happen to be doing more of the former right now. I thought blogging would be a great way to network with readers, authors, writers, publishers, and agents. Part of the reason this whole conversation filled me with dread is the realization that maybe that's not what this blog is actually accomplishing if it's mainly a book blog.I agree that it's never fun to have someone say what you should and shouldn't do with your own blog or writing. That's another reason this is so tough. Do I do what I want even though it may not work the way I think it will? I just don't want to be in the position where someday I can't find an agent because they don't like my blog. Then again, you can't please everyone!

  4. @Linds – Yes! Writers have to work with the book blogging community, which is why I came here in the first place. I think it's great that I can talk about something I love with people from all different backgrounds and perspectives. I want to know what people love to read and talk about!You are spot on about feeling compromised. That is exactly how I felt when I started reading the posts about this issue. I got the sickest feeling in the pit of my stomach and thought "But I love book blogging!" If I can't do this, and write, then I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. That was the worst feeling, and this post was really about me trying to come to terms with that and how to move forward without losing my love for what I do here.

  5. I wonder how much it would really matter. At the end of the day, don't publishers and agents pick up books because they think they'll make a bunch of money? Would a publisher or agent really turn down the next J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer because they wrote a negative review a few years back about one of the books the house published? I just really don't see a publisher passing up a money making opportunity because of a negative review, especially if that review wasn't a bash-fest. I am speaking from a complete outsider standpoint though. I know nothing about the inner workings of publishing or anything like that. I could be completely off base. I'm trying to think how I would feel if I were an author who received a negative review, and then found out that the author of the review was being considered by my publisher. I don't know how I would feel, probably a little hurt, but I can't imagine I would try to sabotage or hinder their career. So they didn't like my book? So what? Not everyone will, and there's nothing wrong with that. I don't think I would wish ill upon everyone who didn't happen to like my book. Isn't there enough room in a publishing house for authors with different tastes? As a reviewer, I don't really think it's my role to tell people what they should and shouldn't read, which is the impression I got from some of the posts surrounding this debate. I'm not endorsing or panning a product when I write a review. I'm explaining MY thoughts and MY reactions. I hope my readers can then take what I say as information and use it to make their own decisions on whether or not the book would work for them. If a book I didn't like sounds good to one of my readers, then all I feel is happiness for them and I hope they enjoy the book. I can't speak for anyone else and what they will or won't like, and I don't want to. I don't want to discourage someone from reading a book I didn't like. Just because I didn't like it doesn't mean they won't love it. My goal isn't to convince my readers that my opinion is right. My goal is to introduce them to books they may love, regardless of my own personal feelings about the book. I have a feeling this is really long now. Sorry! I'll stop here. 🙂

  6. Every writer should have beta readers giving them strong criticism. During the publishing process, the writer gets criticism from her agent to improve the ms. Then more criticism from her editor at the publishing house. Then from book reviewers. If your first book receives mostly negative reviews, then it will depend on how much your agent and your editor believe in you. (Though the editor at the publishing house may be constrained by the reality of the dollar signs.) BTW I worked in scholarly publishing for 30 years. Remember the difference between reviews offering constructive critiques and those that just bash. If a book is truly awful then the best criticism is to ignore it. Logan, publishers who sent their books to you for review LIKED the way you reviewed books. I applaud your decision to not review books you hate (why waste the time) but be honest with negative comments.

  7. PS: Choose agents to query who represent authors you like to read. If you like what the agent likes there's a better chance the agent will sign you. Stacia Kane says it's different after you are published. I agree you shouldn't write really nasty stuff ever. I still can't see why a well-thought out review is all that harmful.

  8. @Carissa – I think that's a good policy, particularly when approached by authors and publishers directly. I know some bloggers will only agree to do interviews and things like that after they've read it, so they can really get behind it if they liked it, or back out respectfully if they didn't.@Small Review – I agree, but reviews do still influence sales. If I see a book getting a lot of negative reviews, even if I thought it looked good, I probably won't read it. That assumption is what drives the authors and agents to say "Don't post negative reviews" because in essence, you are then decreasing the sales potential of your colleagues in the writing profession. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but those opinions still have consequences.@DebraZ – I definitely agree. If I didn't like a book, particularly if it's in a genre I don't write, then I'm not likely to get picked up by that agent anyway. Which is why I'm not backing off my reviews just quite yet.

  9. I am in the same boat as you Logan, to a T. However, as a writer, I feel compelled to give an honest (from a writer perspective) account of what I truly thought of a book. I don't think my reviews are a bash-fest, but maybe something closer to a critical critique that, if I would in a workshop with this author, these would be the things I pointed out. By no means can an author please every person in the gallery, so if he/she didn't please me, there are probably about 5 other readers that were pleased to take my place. I think as a writer, we are readers FIRST, because we learn our craft from reading other works. If we stray into the area of reviewing books, we should always remain professional in our assessment. And that's just it. Just like my the mommy mantra, "If you have nothing nice to say, don't say anything at all." But I usually have something nice to say at the end of the day ;)Great post by the way!

  10. One thing I really hate every time the subject of blog reviews is brought up by published writers is the strawman argument of the reviews that are nothing but bashing. I've never seen one of these reviews, and no other blogger I've spoken to has seen them, either. Which leads us to start second guessing ourselves – is it my negative review/critique that is being seen as a bash?I saw another post that described the attitude of those who don't like book bloggers as bullies, and the more I think about it the more it seems that way. When people continue to push the idea that there are mean, horrible book bloggers out there, a lot of us start questioning and second guessing and even backing off from our critiques – even if we feel we've done nothing wrong, we're afraid of offending the bullies who claim book bloggers are mean and are only in this for the free books.

  11. I think what you say about being professional is right on, Logan. I haven't been reading your blog for very long, but that is definitely something I have noticed: you are balanced and fair and you really think about the books you choose to review. You never bash. You are respectful.The idea that nothing negative at all should be said by anybody who wants to be a writer is, frankly, a little bit scary to me. I agree that once you are firmly on the 'writer' side of things you will have a different set of professional responsibilities to your colleagues, but until then I cannot see the harm in well-written, respectful and honest reviews. Otherwise you are not writing reviews at all, you are writing blurbs.There is a big difference between saying 'this book wasn't for me because of X, but you should give it a try for yourself' and saying 'don't waste your money on this garbage.' Unless you get a reputation for being a snarky reviewer who just trashes books I can't see how giving respectful opinions can do you irreparable harm.Keep up your reviews!

  12. This is just such a difficult topic to decide on. Like you, I'm interested in being a writer some day and am currently working on my first novel. Do I like the idea that a particular a negative review could cost me my chances at being published? No way. I feel that my reviews are well written–especially the negative ones because if I say that I didn't like so and so's book, I'd better be ready to put my money where my mouth is and back up my claims. I never, under any circumstances, attack an author under the guise of writing a negative review and I don't even bother to read blogs where such reviews are written.I agree that once you do become a published author your priorities must change as far as writing reviews goes. Knowing that, I've simply decided to switch my review policy to one where I will simply review only the books I feel passionate about and decline to review the ones that I don't. I'm not going to delete any negative reviews I have written in the past because I stand by them, but from now on, I'll just have to be much more observant of what I'm saying and who I'm saying it to.Great post, Logan! Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.This Week's Waiting on Wednesday: Burn Bright

  13. Logan,I have to completely agree with Linds on this one. I don't like the movie analogy. I honestly don't think it works in relations to writing, reading, reviewing. I'm not sure if you remember this or heard about it, but Stephan 'Freaking' King made some very public and nasty remarks discrediting Twilight. Yes, it was harsh, but hey, it was his option, and he still has his legion of fans as does Stephenie Meyer. I like the idea of refocusing your "negative impressions" to learning opportunities, but I wouldn't leave out your honest opinions. Believe me, I have ranted plenty about books. I get so emotional that I can't critically analyze, and at first, I thought people can take it or leave it, I don't care. But, I've learned that if you do want be taken seriously, you need to express well thought out opinions.Still, we all do this for fun, and for the love of books! If that stops, then what is the point. Sure, use the opportunity to learn, but don't stress yourself.I very much appreciate this post and the links, Logan. I caught a little bit about what was going on, but mostly avoided it because it is an age old argument, or at least that is what it seems to be.

  14. Wow, that gave me a lot to think about! I'm still a teenager myself but I hope to one day actually have a shot at being published. So, I guess that would make me an aspiring author. But the idea that I can't write my feelings on a novel because I want to…well, that just doesn't sit right with me. I don't want to have a book blog that only "celebrates" four or five star material either. It just seems all around wrong. But, then, as with you, that whole Nicole Kidman vs. Robert Egert argument and I have to consider others' points of view. I guess as you said, if and when we aspiring writers have our shot in the big, bad publishing world we'll have to adapt…and so will our blogs. I wouldn't want to be deemed unprofessional either. I guess we'll never know until we actually get there. So, for now, I'm going to enjoy my time as solely a book review, because after all, I am more a reader than a writer at this point.Asher K. (Paranormal Indulgence)

  15. @ Logan, I do agree with you but…I'm not sure how to say this or even if it will make sense. If a review is constructive and just talks about what the book is (slow paced, fast paced, insta love, etc) and then how the reviewer personally feels about that, then is it really the reviewer's fault if sales go down? If a bunch of reviewers say a book is very slow paced, I'm probably not going to buy the book. I really don't like slow paced books and I would have been frustrated if I had spent my money on a book that wasn't for me. I'd rather a review warn me off from a book I wouldn't like anyway than be "tricked" into reading a book I know I wouldn't like. It's like having a plot description. Some descriptions sound good to me and some turn me off from reading the book. I don't think it can really be argued that books shouldn't have plot blurbs on them because those blurbs sometimes turn off potential buyers.

  16. To be honest, I like checking out your negative impressions because 1) it's a learning opportunity for me as a writer, and 2) I like to see whether the parts you didn't love are the same as the ones I didn't, just out of curiosity. You could rephrase that section, if you want, to sound gentler, but don't feel bad about your opinions. I just saw a horrible review of a book I just read that I loved, and I thought it was fascinating how differently the person viewed the book. Authors just have to remember that people have wildly different tastes, and to take everything on the internet with a grain of salt.

  17. Good point, Smalls. On the other side of that, I feel that sometimes reviewer's opinions, even those fancy professional reviews, hardly even matter. If a book is marketed well, regardless if the book is completely 'crap' then the sales of it make it seem like a good book. I can think of a specific example of a book that I kept hearing negative things about. I read reviews for it, but the cover was so beautiful, that I bought it! I read it, and could have pulled my hair out. I don't understand it's 'popularity' at all, but just like there are a lot of reviews that rip the book apart, there are those that are glowing. But really all the hype for it was due to the marketing of the book which totally negated the reviews.

  18. I think you can both write and review, including negative reviews. That being said, you're not going to make any friends in the publishing world if you totally trash books. It's like any job – if I go tell my customers how awful our competitor is, it's going to make me look worse than the competitor. But I think it's reasonable to write well-thought-out reviews that both praise and criticize. I publish negative reviews. Some may get a little too snarky but I try hard to balance the bad with positive. If I have nothing good to say about a book, I probably won't publish a review because I usually don't finish those books.Look at the book reviews in the New York Times. Lots of them are written by published authors. And they still continue to write books.

  19. @BookGeek – I'm glad you liked the post. I love being able to have conversations instead of one-sided musings. :)@Angela – I've never seen anyone trash a book either. It seems to me that mostly happens on Amazon and less in a blog. Who would want to read that?@Carrie – Thanks for the feedback. I do try to be fair. I'm not a mean person, so I don't try to be a mean blogger either. You're right when you say that all positive, all the time is just a blurb. Hadn't thought of it that way.@Missie – Thanks for the link! I think the reason Stephen King can get away with saying whatever he wants is because he can sell a million books without batting an eye. That's a whole different ball game.Maybe a better analogy would be if Nicole Kidman did an interview and said something really well-intentioned but critical of another actress's performance. Probably wouldn't go over well in the acting community, and it wouldn't garner her any favors, but it wouldn't keep her from getting jobs either. But if someone starting out did that? Probably would have a tougher time. That's essentially the worst case scenario here. Maybe not bound to happen, but it does make me think.@Asher – Yes, ultimately it's just a personal decision we all have to make. I'm glad you're going to keep reviewing, though for purely selfish reasons (I like reading them!). :)@Small Review – Totally makes sense. I get what you're saying. It's the same reason I read movie reviews before I spend a small fortune on tickets and snacks. I want to know what I'm getting into! That's the same kind of service I think we provide, and when you look at it from that perspective, it doesn't seem like there's anything wrong with saying what didn't work for us. That's why I'm trying to link to other opinions on my reviews so people get a more balanced view, and why I like your comparison review feature. I love the point-counterpoint of opinions!@Rachel – I like that section because I can just get it out there and out of the way and people get a good snapshot. I try to limit my negative thoughts to just those couple sentences. I need help on the rephrasing, though! I can't think what else to call it.@Missie – Agreed! Marketing will trump reviews any day.@Alison – That's why it seems so harsh to me that people say you can't say any little thing bad. It's a totally different ball game to trash it than to just point out some things that didn't work. Good point about the NYT.

  20. I was writing a paper tonight, so sorry I didn't get back earlier to join in the debate. Feel free to jump in again tomorrow! I'll be checking back.

  21. This might fit under 'spontaneous babble', after all, it is by me! I think that's why I love Goodreads so much. I am not a published author, therefore I am a reader. I can see what my friends (yes, even my fellow writers) thought about a book before I buy or read it. I've also read books I normally would not have picked up based on reviews from people I trust. I like how you have dealt with negative reviews… "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." My mom would be so proud! Write (and read) on!Carolyn

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