Reviews: Tips for Writers Reviewed

This week, an on-line review of an e-published novel and the comments that followed went viral. Why? The review mixed positive and negative, commenting on the story, structure, diction, and grammar. The novelist responded as though personally attacked and in turn, attacked the reviewer (f* bombs exploding through the thread of comments). Rather than point fingers to the book and reviewer, let me generalize with some lessons learned from this example and 20+ years of experience.

All writers get reviewed in some way or another—whether they are writing their 1st or 15th novel, an article, a poem, a manual, or the 5th collaborative draft for documentation for installing widget code number z19-J90. The only exceptions are writers who file their finished manuscripts in a drawer, trash, or shredder. Reviews can be wonderful, glowing, 100% positive but more often they mix positive with negative. This positive-negative mix is true no matter the quality of the writing and the credentials of the writer. Reviews all but require this mix; a simple “I love it!” is not a review.

How a writer handles a review is up to him or her. However, as both a writer and editor, I highly recommend that writers receive each review gracefully and learn from them. Here are some tips:

  1. Remind yourself of the basics for your writing—the questions to What? Who? Why? How? and Where? For example, is your writing a published novel intended for a general adult readership that likes adventure and romance with a dash of suspense? Is this a draft of an article to be reviewed internally before submitting to a trade magazine about your company’s specialty? Is your writing the first draft of a proposal to Head Office for creating a new position to manage online communications?
  2. Remind yourself about the purpose of the review.
    a) The reviewer for an already published novel (or anything already published) is writing to evaluate the writing for readers who might consider buying it. The reviewer should be reviewing a complete, error-free publication. The reviewer’s duty is to the potential readers/buyers, not to the writer.
    b) A review prior to publication is done in order to help the writer reach the stated goals, to help the writing become the best it can be. Such reviews can be targeted—e.g., a novelist might ask a specific reviewer to focus on structure or characterization (and a hired a copy editor later addresses mechanical errors), a subject expert would review for any errors or omissions in the installation of widget code number: z19-J90, a Dene expert would review for accuracy and sensitivity in representing Dene culture, an in-class teacher would review for how effective the writing will be with students, VP of sales at XYZ Corp will review to see that marketing copy matches the latest feedback about what customers want.
  3. Breathe deeply. Reviews are not personal—or should not be—and should not be taken as such. Reviewing, like writing, is a skill developed over time. The reviewer may still be learning his or her role. (See upcoming Tips for Reviewers.) Always take the high road: that is, even if you feel attacked, don’t take attack back.
  4. Breathe deeply again.
    a) If your work is already published and you have the opportunity, thank the reviewer for taking the time to review your work but keep any objections or corrections or whimpers to yourself. (E.g., Thanks for taking the time to read and review my novel. I’m very pleased that you enjoyed the story.) Share your objections, corrections, or whimpers only with your trusted family, friends, or writing group members. If you want, write down your objections and corrections then review them at a later date; in hindsight, you might read them with less passion and be able to make use of the comments in your next work or in discussions with your editor or agent or publisher.
    If a reprint, online update, or new edition is intended, make notes about what action needs to be taken and when.
    If any comment from the reviewer raises questions about libel or errors in fact, address them immediately with your publisher.
    b) If your work is not yet published, use the comments to review your writing and re-draft, revise, finetune, correct, and query as necessary. Consider why this particular person is reviewing, what role he or she is playing—for example, if the reviewer’s expertise is medieval weaponry, her comments on historical accuracy in the siege scene should be weighed heavily. If a reviewer matches the profile for the targeted customer, but he doesn’t see what the product or service offers him, listen to that message. If the company president says that the web home page you wrote doesn’t match the brand well enough, listen up. Check to see if your understanding and the reviewer’s understanding of the basics (answers to What? Who? Why? How? and Where?) are the same.
  5. At all costs, avoid rude, angry, or otherwise unprofessional responses. Sometimes this seems impossible. (E.g., You think: The review seems to come from another planet; did she even read the same manuscript? How dare he say that about my prose sweated out over one solid year, damn it! She says it’s long but she doesn’t even know what I cut from that already! Last time, they asked for X; I give them X and now they want Y! This is clear; it IS clear because I understand it….) It seems particularly difficult to feel “professional” when one has lost sleep, stressed, soldiered on with little or no pay, and nurtured something that feels very personal. Some authors liken writing a manuscript to pregnancy and giving birth; an editor is the midwife. Whatever the case, when you publish writing or participate in a review process before publication, you are asking for comment. Receive each review gracefully. Keep each in perspective. Weigh them. (If you have the luxury, choose which reviews to read.) And learn from the process.

Everyone loves to hear, “Yes, this is great! Wonderful! I love it. Awesome book! You are so amazing…” However, authors and editors tend to grow in their appreciation of careful, considered, thorough reviews that mix positive and negative and that show that the reviewer cares about the project, understands its goals, and advocates for the reader. These reviews are the gold in a career with words. If you’re in it for the long haul, look out for those reviews and learn from every one of them.

© Laura Edlund 2010