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Random Thoughts: The Negative Review

There comes a point – sometimes sooner, sometimes later – when we as bloggers read a book we just don’t like and have to write a review that is somewhat less than positive. For reviewers, such as myself, who prefer to read books we enjoy, the negative review isn’t something we have to encounter often, but when we do, it can be even more difficult for us to write than a glowing review.

When we don’t enjoy a book – not every book is for everyone – we sometimes opt to set it aside as a “did not finish” book rather than trying to press onward. As I’ve already rambled about DNF books last month (here), I won’t be redundant. But sometimes we feel we have to finish a book even if we know we aren’t going to enjoy it – whether it’s because we received it for review, whether we’re on a book tour, or if we just feel like we owe it to our readers to give our honest thoughts about a particular book we’ve read.

Whatever the reason we feel we must write the review, we’re then faced with composing our ideas and organizing our thoughts in a way that is informative, critical and helpful about this book we’ve read but did not enjoy.

Again, there is no right way or wrong way to write a review. It’s our blog, our thoughts and we should write them in any way we feel like doing. But there is a professional way, a courteous way, to be critical, fair and honest if that’s how we choose to review. There is also a brutal but honest way to write our reviews. And then there is simply just bashing a book or an author.

If we’ve received the book for review from the author or publisher and choose to write a review on that book, it is in our best interest to write that review honestly but fairly. A review that bashes the author or book will likely not keep us on the list to get any future books for review, whereas an honest review that points out its flaws may not harm our standing with the publisher.

While an author may be disappointed that a reader didn’t enjoy their book, they know that their book can’t possibly be loved by every reader. And a review that points out the likes and dislikes of the reviewer or the positives and negatives to the story, characters, plot, et cetera, doesn’t necessarily cast the book in such a negative light as to turn off every reader of that review or potential reader of that book.

As reviewers, it is our opinion that we’re putting out there. And while our opinions can be grounded in fact – major loopholes in plot, poorly developed characters – what we see as a weak story or an unlikable character may not be seen that way by all readers.

And so a negative review that makes it clear that it is our opinion and one that may not be shared by everyone can be much more helpful than a review claiming that certain elements are indisputable facts. For example saying something has “too much” violence/sex/language is an opinion. And while it may be the very reason we didn’t enjoy the book, those elements might not be turn-offs for everyone who reads that book.

When we feel so strongly about our opinions, we tend to want to go over the top – whether it’s to gush or to bash. But if we want to remain professional in what we do, we have to rein ourselves in, take a step back and think through the emotion to form opinions that can be insightful, helpful, even critical.

Writing a negative review when we don’t have any contact with the author or publisher is always easier to do. It’s why there aren’t many professional, paid, reviewers chatting with authors on Twitter. It’s much harder to be brutally honest with someone you “know” rather than a complete stranger. And while most bloggers aren’t paid for what we do, if we want our readers to trust our opinions we have to be honest. Even if it’s difficult or uncomfortable. And even if it feels like we may be hurting the feelings of someone we feel we know.

Saying a book is amazing or brilliant when we don’t really feel that way is dishonest. Giving something five stars when we really feel it should be two is also not fair. If we find it too difficult to be honest about a book or are concerned with backlash from a negative review, then we have to decide whether or not to review the book at all. No review is still better than a dishonest one. We’re not misleading our readers into buying a book if we say nothing at all.

Most books we read cover-to-cover will have both positives and negatives. And if we choose to review a book, it’s always better to point out some of both. Even if the negatives outweigh the positives, chances are there is something positive to say. It can also be helpful to point out things that someone else might enjoy, even if we didn’t.

I’m not sure it ever gets easier to write a negative review, unless we feel so strongly about a book that we have almost too much to say about it. There have been books I’ve read that have made me want to toss them across the room or rip the pages from the spine. Where I’ve voiced my negative opinions out loud while reading, page after page. Where it seems I can’t find a single nugget of goodness. And if I had been a reviewer at the time, I would have probably wanted to rant forever.

But if I wanted to be professional, I would have had to take a step back, think logically about it, and look past my frustrations and dislikes to what would be a critical analysis that would help readers make an informed decision and not simply be the rantings and ravings of a lunatic.

While I haven’t written many negative reviews on the blog, I have written a few. I try to seek out books to read that I think I will enjoy, but not all of them I do. As I have so many books on the pile these days, I often set aside books “for later” if I can’t immediately get pulled into the story, but earlier in my blogging days I was less discriminate about what I read or accepted for review and so the chances were higher that I’d come across a book I didn’t enjoy.

When I’ve been faced with writing a negative review, I’ve found it helpful to me to write down all my negative thoughts about the book, the author’s writing, the characters… everything. Once that was out of the way, it was much easier for me to formulate coherent thoughts that weren’t overly opinionated, mean-spirited or unhelpful. Taking the emotion out of it – which is something I never do for books I love – is the best way for me to write things critically, even when they’re still my opinions.

One of my very first negative reviews was one I scaled back. I did share my thoughts with friends and family before posting – giving them both versions of my review – and they all agreed that the scaled-back version was more appropriate. And while I didn’t know the author, so I wasn’t afraid to voice my honest – and possibly slightly brutal – opinion, I agreed that it was best to be more professional.

I was glad I did because I was contacted by the author about my review. The author inquired as to why I had the opinion I did about the book. I was horrified. Even my scaled-back version felt vicious to me. And I had included both positives and negatives in my review. I wrote back to the author very professionally and in much more detail about my likes and dislikes and why I felt the way I did and have had no further issues because of my review. I can only imagine the scenario playing out in a much different way had I chosen to take the low road instead of the high road.

Again, however you choose to write your reviews – or if you choose to not write one at all – is up to you. If you are interested in keeping things professional, then bashing a book or an author is not the route to take. But it might be if you’re looking for a high follow count of like-minded reviewers and readers who enjoy reading those types of reviews.

If you prefer to take the “brutal honesty” approach to your reviews then just be aware that not every author or publisher will be knocking at your door to have their book read. But there will be some that very much appreciate that approach. Brutal honesty might seem harsh, but it’s not a personal attack and can be very helpful for a potential reader who is on the fence about a book.

And if you want to keep it very professional then your negative (as well as your positive) reviews will be thoughtful, insightful and critical. They will give readers your opinions in a way that will allow them to form their own based on those opinions. Your review will allow them to agree or disagree with what you’ve said and not feel as if they’re in the wrong for disagreeing with you – most readers don’t want to be made to feel stupid if they disagree. They might not visit your blog again if they feel that way.

I enjoy reading negative reviews. Not of the bashing variety – those I avoid at all costs because they just make me angry. But I like to see other’s thoughts about books especially if they disagree with my own. When a negative review is well-written, it can point out things I might have missed, but not make me feel as if I’m in the wrong for not having seen them. It can show me another side to a story, it can tell me more about the reviewer’s likes and dislikes, it can help me discuss the book with readers on my blog, and it can show me whether I’m in the majority or minority opinion about the book.

It can also possibly be helpful for authors or publishers to see negative reviews that have a common issue with a book so that any future books can address that problem and improve upon it. Constructive criticism may suck to receive, but in the long run it can be very valuable.

Parting Thoughts….

Don’t be afraid of writing a negative review. Don’t be afraid to be honest with your opinions. Just be aware that as with any action there may be a reaction. If you are professional with your review, you should hope that any response will be professional. If it’s not, then just know that you’ve taken the high road. If you choose not to be professional then you should be prepared for a less than professional response.

Parajunkee’s View had a great Book Blogging 101 topic just a few days ago talking about negative reviews, HERE, if you’d like to check it out and read some of the comments.

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