Critiquing Critiques: How To Leave A Review

As I’ve mentioned here on several occasions, reader reviews are a critical (ha, see what I did there) element of an independent author’s formula for success. As positive reviews pile up, they act as a bit of friendly, low-key peer pressure to potential new readers wondering whether an unfamiliar book from an unfamiliar author is worth their money.

The problem with getting reviews is that few people want to give them. They might absolutely love a book, but they won’t take that extra little step to leave a good review for it, and from what I’ve heard from some of my readers, the most common reason for this is, “I don’t know how to write a review.”

I understand the problem, but Christ, is it frustrating to know that more than 1,000 people have bought my books (and another 850 or so downloaded Action Figures – Issue One: Secret Origins during a free promo period back in March), and yet I have a grand total of 50 reviews.

I repeat: out of approximately 1,900 readers, 50 have left reviews. That’s a three percent rate of return.

In the hopes of getting some people motivated, I present here a brief tutorial for how to leave a review on Amazon — although, this process is easily transferable to writing reviews for other things on other websites, from a toaster you bought on Target to a Yelp review for a hotel. Take a look, and then consider leaving a few reviews for me, or for any other indie author you’ve discovered.

1 – Leave a rating

This is the easy part. Amazon uses a star-based system for rating products, and that’s the standard for many review systems. Simply, five stars equals “This was awesome!”, three equals, “It was okay, nothing special,” and one equals, “What a godawful piece of crap.” Pick the rating that fits your opinion of the work in question and move on.

2 – Open with a simple statement reflecting your rating

This is also fairly easy. Write a sentence, just one sentence, that reflects your rating and encapsulates your feelings toward the book. “I had so much fun reading this book!” “I enjoyed this book very much and would recommend it highly.” “This was a fun, engaging story.” (Or, if your rating isn’t terribly favorable, “This book was decent, but disappointing.” “What a waste of my time.” Et cetera.)

If you’re not feeling terribly ambitious, you can call it quits here. Really, it’s okay. A rating and a sentence is enough, but if you want to leave a little more…

3 – Pick something about the book you loved/hated, say what that something was, and why

You do NOT have to write some grand epic poem about the book you’re reviewing. Seriously. Get that thought out of your head right now, because that may be why you find the idea of leaving a review so intimidating. Instead of trying to hit multiple points of interest, pick one thing about the book you loved (or hated) — the plot, the dialog, the prose, the characters, whatever — say what that one thing is, and say why it made such an impression. That’s enough to give potential readers a sense of what to expect, and since different reviewers will extol different virtues, Amazon customers will get a nice, well-rounded picture of their prospective purchase (because they will read more than one review, you know. It’s not all about you, ya narcissist).

Guess what? You’re done. You just wrote a review.

Now, you may have noticed I worded my advice to cover bad reviews as well as good. If you’re considering leaving a bad review for someone’s book, here’s a fourth point to ponder:

4 – Ask yourself if you really need to leave a negative review

I’m not saying you should never leave bad reviews. Some books warrant them. What I’m saying is that you should take an extra minute and ask yourself why you want to leave a bad review — and please be aware that “I didn’t like the book” is not a good answer.

A teacher of mine from many years ago, Benito Ruiz, gave me perhaps the best advice I’ve ever received about giving constructive criticism. He told me that I had to learn how to distinguish my personal, subjective feelings toward a work of art from my objective critical assessment of the work’s technical competence. When I say something is “good” or “bad,” am I making a call on its substantive qualities, or am I really saying “I like this” or “I don’t like this”?

That’s what I mean when I say think before leaving a negative review, and ask yourself why you think a book is “bad.” Is the plot dull, predictable, and/or nonsensical or riddled with holes? Are the characters flat and boring, or a bunch of stereotypes? Is the dialog unrealistic? Is the book itself rife with misspellings, bad grammar, incorrect punctuation, etc.? These are signs of a book that is actually bad. A well-written story that for whatever reason did not speak to you is NOT a BAD book; it is a book you did not care for.

And you know what? There’s nothing wrong at all with leaving a three-star rating and a review that simply reads, “This was a well-written book, but it wasn’t my cup of tea.” If the book was truly terrible, then speak your mind, but a mediocre book or a book that just didn’t speak to you personally isn’t necessarily deserving of harsh criticism.

One final piece of advice, and this is for the authors in the event they receive a bad review: DO NOT RESPOND TO IT. Nothing will make you look more unprofessional, petty, and insecure than trying to justify your work, criticizing the critic, or asking the review to take down or change the review to salve your bruised ego.

Besides, if you can’t deal with criticism, you probably shouldn’t be a writer.

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