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Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Reviewer's Commandments

I so rarely write reviews anymore. To do them right takes time and a lot of thought. But I've written hundreds of reviews and critiques, so I feel qualified to review professionally.

This month, I reviewed a nonfiction book called Writer's Companion. For the full review, you can check out the OWW newsletter. But the short and sweet version is this: No matter what your writing proficiency, Writer's Companion is a handy book to have in your library. The first third is thick with examples and explanations. But the deeper I delved into the book the more I found gems of writing wisdom I'd forgotten or plain never considered.

I preferred the print version because the digital version messed with some of the graphics, but only on my e-reader. If you read off your computer, everything comes out beautifully. One last note. Writer's Companion is very current on the changing tides of publishing. This would make a nice gift for writer friends, especially those unfamiliar with the volatile landscape.

Having been the recipient as well as the deliverer of many reviews, I thought I would list my Reviewer Commandments.

• NEVER attack the author. Even if you don't like what he wrote, it doesn't make you the all-knowing authority and dictator of taste. Suggest what didn't work for you. Leave personal judgements to a higher authority--like the author's spouse.

• Give it time to steep. Sometimes, something I thought I didn't like sticks with me long after I've read it. More often than not, it's because I wasn't smart enough to recognize a gem--perhaps in wrapping I didn't appreciate, but a gem nonetheless. If a story is powerful enough to move me a week after I've read it, it deserves a second look.

• A review is an opinion, not a ruling. Lately, I've been noticing some book bloggers getting a little catty when they dislike a book. I realize it's because they're mostly talking to their "posse" but other people are reading this too and it makes them come off as malicious.

• Put something of yourself into your review. Last year, I wrote a review on Heather Moore's novel, Alma, the Younger. I know nothing about the Mormon religion, but I really liked this book and my opinion was based from an outsider's perspective.

• If you truly liked a book, write the author a short note and tell him so. Authors are terribly under-appreciated and usually isolated from the world at large. It means the world to them to know someone thought enough to write them. That's the highest praise of all.

In the end, never forget there's a real person behind every story. A review should inform the reader, but not at the expense of the author's dignity.

Are there any reviewer commandments you'd like to add?


Sarita said...

I'm going to check out the Writer's Companion. Thanks, Maria.

I could use a nice writing refresher.

Hope you have a peaceful day!

Angelina Rain said...

I'm going to need to check out Writer's Companion. That sounds like the kind of book I would need.

I write reviews and I agree with your list. Another thing I could point out: Even if you absolutely hate the book, find something good about it and put it in the review. A book can't be 100% horrible. There has to be something good about it.

Mike Keyton said...

It is a good book, and you're right about 'posse junkies'.

Kim Van Sickler said...

Great Commandments!

Anonymous said...

Love your commandments Maria. I'll definitely check the book out!

Maria Zannini said...

Sarita: Writer's Companion has something in it for everyone.

Angelina: Good point. If there was a reason to pick up a book, there was probably something in it that you liked.

Mike: For some reason, the mob mentality gets worse around the holiday season. Maybe their crabbiness bleeds into their reviews.

Glad you liked them. :)

Krista D. Ball said...

May I add one? If you didn't like the book but it was a personal preference issue as opposed to a fault in the book, make note of that.

There are books that I don't enjoy simply because they don't work for my tastes. Here is an example of a book review I did:

There was nothing wrong with that book. Nothing at all. I just didn't like it. I actually think that book will appeal to a lot of people; just not me. In fact, I recommend the types of readers that the book would appeal to - and not in a snitty manner (the way I sometimes do ;) ).

And yes - if that review appeals to you, please buy her book :) I actually want that author to be successful. I didn't like her story, but I liked her writing.

Krista D. Ball said...

Angelina - I have to disagree. I have read some "books" (I use this term lightly) where the only good thing about them was the copyright page and "the end."


Interesting enough, it was also the authors of those books who caused me to stop reviewing. Not because of their work but because of their behaviour.

Maria Zannini said...

Ref: personal preference
This is what I discovered too when I reviewed Alma, the Younger. In this case, I liked the book, but I wanted to make it clear that I was not the target audience (which I think speaks even more highly for the storytelling ability of the author).

Ref: bad books
I tend to investigate books thoroughly before I buy. If I know it's not the kind of book I'd enjoy, I skip it.

If it's a free book and I don't like it, I neither finish it or review it.

Myne Whitman said...

Lovely tips! Thanks for sharing.

KarenG said...

Well-spoken Maria, and I agree with your points. Cattiness has no place in book reviews, and if the book was a horrible experience all around, why finish it? Why review it? It's not like we're professional reviewers who are getting paid to do this and absolutely MUST post our review no matter what.

Annalise Green said...

Great list! I wish Goodreads reviewers would utilize this sometimes. In particular, I think it's important to emphasize the issue of taste - there are tons of books that I think are probably good books overall, but that aren't to my taste.

L.G.Smith said...

Oh, I so agree with your points about posting malicious reviews. So often it really is a matter of personal taste why we don't like something. There's no need to tear an author down because we read something that isn't our cup of tea.

Krista D. Ball said...

Re: bad books

I ran into a huge issue when reviewing where I was damned-if-I-did and damned-if-didn't. I'd get a lot of books where the first 3 chapter samples were good (because they'd be polishing those for submissions). Then, they just let the rest of the book fall apart.

I would post reviews of these works. Wow. That was a mistake. The hate mail detailing how they'd like to rape me to "teach me a lesson" was enough to make me stop that.

So, I stopped. I'd email the authors and say I couldn't post a positive review. Again, the details about raping, killing, etc.

So, I stopped emailed authors. Again with the raping, killing, etc.

Eventually, I stopped reviewing.

I even have had it easy. Julie Ann Dawson, god bless her soul, was getting death threats, stalkers, retaliatory reviews on Amazon, etc. She stopped reviewing, too.

This gives me an idea..."how authors should act to reviewers" LOL

Jacqueline Howett said...

Thanks for the link, I'll check it out!

Have a great week!

Barbara Ann Wright said...

Nope, since I've only done a couple of reviews in my life, but if I ever do another, I'll remember your rules.

Maria Zannini said...

Myne: Thanks for popping in.

KarenG: I suppose some people feel they have to warn people about bad reads, but I'm not one of them.

Annalise: Exactly. There have been highly-touted books I just flat out didn't like. There are other books I loved that didn't get near that adulation. Different strokes for different folks.

LG: And therein lies the great evil of the internet. It's too easy for people to tear someone down. I'm willing to bet money a good 80% would never say in person what they so casually spew through the ether.

Krista: Responsibility goes both ways. The internet makes it too easy to flame and stalk. And you never know if someone is dangerous or bluffing.

Jacqueline: I can recommend this book. But beware. It is BIG.

Barbara: I love doing reviews because it gives me a chance to analyze and digest what I read. It makes me wish I belonged to a book club.

Angela Brown said...

Ref: In the end, never forget there's a real person behind every story. A review should inform the reader, but not at the expense of the author's dignity.

That right there about sums it up for me. This was such an awesome post.

Jenny Schwartz said...

Remembering a real person (who probably can't resist reading reviews) wrote the book does change my reviewing style. I was never nasty -- too scared of karma for that -- but now I realise a review is like a snatch of conversation, which means negative crit (even the constructive kind) must be balanced with positive.

Good points all, Maria. And you shamed me on the Writers Companion review. I did a very, very quick one on Goodreads and I know that was skimping on a good book.

Maria Zannini said...

Angela: Common courtesy is all it takes. :)

Jenny: The main review is more thorough, but it hasn't been uploaded to the site yet.

Dee said...

It's important to me that reviews are honest. I often base my kindle purchases on reviews, and I hate to put out money for a book with 5-star reviews only to find that I've wasted my hard-earned money because the reviews were all written by the author's friends.

Maria Zannini said...

Dee: I think reviews can be honest without being degrading to the author. A good reviewer knows how to write a balanced review without the drama.

I never buy without checking out the reviews. After a while I can tell who's on the level and who has an agenda.

Charlie said...

Great post! I especially like the part about remembering the author is a real person out there. I heard an interview today with a long-time sports writer and he was complaining that sport bloggers and radio talk hosts were a problem because they never had to face the athlete. Just imagine if all reviewers had to face the authors!

Maria Zannini said...

Charlie: It's a whole other ball of wax if you get to know people before you judge them.

Of course, it can backfire too. I've met a couple of authors (in the flesh) whom I'll never read because they turned out to be so insincere and manipulative.

Stacy said...

You're so good! I so admire the way you see things so clearly and you do everything with such integrity. Yay Maria! If I ever have a chance to write a review, I will absolutely use your commandments. Now can you please write some commandments for dealing with all of the other difficult life situations? You know, like pushy sister-in-laws and cranky neighbors? Please?

Maria Zannini said...

Stacy: LOL. For neighbors, I use rottweilers. For family...I move away.

If I ever head down in your direction, I'll let you borrow Tank. He's a big sweetie, but your neighbors don't have to know that. :)

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

well, you definitely gave me one of the best crits ever, back in the day. And that book sounds great! I'll have to check it out. Also, thanks for the heads up on the OWW newsletter. I checked yesterday, but forgot to check today

Maria Zannini said...

Sarah: It's easy to analyze a story with good bones. I have high hopes for your writing career. I intend to be able to say, I knew you when. :)

Cate Masters said...

Thanks for the book recommendation - always on the lookout for books on craft.
Sometimes, rather than pointing out strengths and weaknesses, reviewers spend too much time rehashing the story, and in rare instances include spoilers. I'd rather hear what they thought of plot and character development, etc.

Maria Zannini said...

Cate: This book is very inclusive. If it's not in there, it doesn't exist. LOL.

LD Masterson said...

Playing catch but wanted to say I think your commandments are spot on.

Jennifer Oberth said...

For reviews, it's great to put what you don't like and why and leave the review-reader to make up their mind if that'd bother them. I've read reviews that say, "I didn't like this book because..." and the because is something I adore in books.

A review is always your opinion, and expressing it in a way that'll help a fellow reader is the best (dare I say 'only') way to go.

Speaking of which, I finished 'The Devil to Pay' and will be reviewing it soon!