On Wednesday evening, I joined @StorySocialChat’s weekly chat about writing on Twitter. The weekly event, co-hosted by Kristen Kleffer (@shesnovel) and Jenny Bravo (@jennybravobooks) known by the hashtag #StorySocial. If you’ve never gone to #StorySocial I highly recommend it for the chance to meet other authors in real time and share insights with each other. This week’s topic was how we authors deal with setbacks, frustration, and fears that make writing difficult. The typical format is @StorySocialChat asks questions and we respond to the questions with the hashtag that I’ve already mentioned twice. Anyway, the last question of the night was “What’s the one thing that we—the writing community—can do to help support + encourage you in your writing?” (@StorySocialChat, 2016, July 27). This was my two-part answer: 1.) “Besides telling me I’m a Goddess? Just tell me to quit doubting. Better to write something than nothing” 2.) “One thing that I think we could all do for each other is remember to review our fellow authors’ work” (@VLCookeAuthor, 2016, July 27). Yeah, now you all know that when I’m at StorySocialChat, I suffer from drunken delusions of grandeur. The thought of reviewing fellow authors’ work got me to wondering about the ethics of it all. I have lots of friends who write, including those I beta read for, should I write a review about their work on sites like Amazon? I also believe that if I spend my money to buy a book and read it, I should be allowed to share my opinion of my purchase. So how do I combine these two into an effective review strategy?
After careful consideration, I have come up with a plan, which I’d like your input on. If I buy a book, I am not an author at that point, I am a reader. So how do I draw a figurative line in the sand between critiquing as a writer or reader? This is what I came up with:
- I never review anything that I haven’t read completely – While this may seem like a no-brainer, I spent several hours today on Amazon and you’d be surprised at the number of reviews saying how the reader couldn’t get past the first chapter. I’ve found several books started really slow in the first 1 – 5 chapters that turned out to be amazing. Therefore, I do not review a book I give up on (George R. R. Martin, you’re lucky I feel this way, because I still haven’t finished A Storm of Swords. Although, it’s the best sleeping pill I’ve ever had). Before, if I had a book that was a one-star review, I wouldn’t post a review at all out of fear for hurting someone’s feelings. I decided my past rule is no longer valid. As an author I would take bad reviews as a learning opportunity, as I feel all authors should, therefore I will no longer refuse to leave a one-star review if the work is only deserving of a one-star review.
- All my reviews begin at three stars – Yes, I know everyone wants to be a five-star author, but hear me out. I pick the middle of the road for a reason, if your writing isn’t superlative, or your characters are just meh, why would I give you more than three stars? If your book is abysmal, full of grammar, syntax, spelling, punctuation, and continuity errors then it’s not a three-star book and I will deduct based on my perception. The reverse is also true, if you amaze me I’m going to tell the world or the buyers at Amazon that you are the most creative highly skilled author ever put on the planet. This rule hasn’t changed today, I still start at three stars and work my way up or down depending on the work.
- I don’t do spoilers – Again this should be a no-brainer, yet everyone does it. If the story is amazing, why ruin it for others who are going to buy it or considering buying it? I will talk about the descriptions, the pacing, the character development, etc., but I do it without ruining the book for everyone else. My reviews always have been, and always will be, spoiler free.
- I don’t “trade” reviews to pad a rating – Don’t believe me? Go check out my short story, it has NO REVIEWS. I refuse to trade reviews with my fellow authors, I refuse to ask my betas to review, and I refuse pay for reviews, it destroys the process in my opinion. In fact, I believe that any of the previously mentioned items should be avoided by all authors at all costs. I won’t allow my close friends or family to review my work either. I feel it is dishonest. In theory, I can’t really stop them, but I ask them politely not to review my work.
- If I leave a “bad” review, I do everything I can to point out what works – New rule for me, before I would never leave a one-star review, it was a very difficult decision to change my policy. I finally based it on how I would feel. We’ve all read books that are awful, as many a self-published author can attest, it damages the industry as a whole when a book is not edited, not proofread, etc., I hate it. I’m sure I am not alone feeling this way. The only way an author can learn from their errors is to know what works and what doesn’t for the reader. If you don’t tell us, we can’t work to improve, leaving us to make the same mistakes over and over and over.
- I refuse to leave a bad review just because the writer may be my competitor, just like I refuse to leave a good review because the author may be my friend – I’ve heard the story of the authors who were caught sockpuppeting on Amazon and other sites. While I don’t know if any were permanently banned from reviewing on Amazon, rumor is that Amazon won’t let authors review within their genre(s). If anyone knows whether or not this is true, please let me know.
I guess it all boils down to what we as authors and readers feel comfortable doing to benefit our fellow authors and readers. If we feel that any review is a learning experience for both the creator and the reader of a work, then we should leave a honest, heart-felt review. If, however, you feel that the only reviews you should leave are the glowing four and five-star reviews then I ask you to take a step back to consider what you are doing before you hit send. If the book isn’t worthy of four or five stars, yet you give them a high review anyway, you’re lying to the potential audience. If you refuse to give a review because it will be a bad one, then you’re lying to a fellow author. Which type of person do you want to be? One who’s honest, or one who wants to be everyone’s friend by giving them reviews they don’t deserve? I would prefer honesty myself, even if it hurts, that’s why I created my plan. Please don’t think I’m saying you should go out and destroy a fellow author’s ego by posting rant-filled diatribes on why their characters are juvenile, why they will never be better than (put your favorite author’s name here), etc. I’m just asking you to treat authors with respect, treat readers with respect, and treat yourself with respect. Review those books you’ve purchased and read, share your love of the written word through a well-written, insightful review, just don’t forget that at some point you will be on the receiving end of a critical review so try to write the review you would want someone to write for you (yes, even the bad ones).
There is one step I forgot to mention above and I think it will fit nicely here. Help each other by building a relationship not only with your fellow authors, but your readers. Writing can be a singularly solitary process and we need these relationships to thrive. Try to be open to criticism, both positive and negative. Don’t argue with someone when you don’t like their review, accept it as a differing opinion. Don’t get butt hurt because people don’t understand your book, instead listen to what they are saying then strive to improve the next one you release. If you are unwilling to accept not every person will like your work, believing everything should be beautiful all the time, then perhaps you should reconsider writing as a vocation. Try interior decorating or floral arranging instead. Please remember that everything written here is just my opinion, and you are free to disagree with everything. Feel free to leave comments, I love them and I will respond as quickly as possible.
V. L. Cooke