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Reviews are important to writers. An obvious point, but one that a surprisingly large number of people are wholly unaware of. Reviews (good and bad alike) make a book visible on online sites, enable authors/publishers to have their books qualify for certain promotions, and also serve as a signpost to readers.

So why write ‘poor’ (1* or 2*) book reviews? The review system is on a spectrum. And, while I don’t necessarily like it, it’s there for a reason. A brilliant, life-changing book (in my opinion, 5*) should be distinguished from a great book (4*), a good/average book (3*), an average/poor book (2*) and a terrible book (1*). And given the advent of indie- and self-publishing, the idea that a good book can be differentiated from a not-so-good book based on the number of reviews is blatantly untrue: authors that don’t have a major publishing house’s PR money behind them will not necessarily be as visible, even if their book is highly superior. Which is why the review system is so useful for readers.

As a reader, I enjoy writing reviews. I love to shout about books I’ve loved or thoroughly enjoyed, and genuinely feel trepidation when I have to write an average or poor review because, as a writer myself, I know how much criticism can hurt. Therefore, I aim (as all reviewers should) to be polite, pick out the good parts as well as the areas that did not work for me, and, above all, be constructive. Trolling or rudeness is unhelpful to writers and readers alike. But even poor reviews are helpful, and here’s why:

Readers – A book with plenty of reviews, all of which are 5*, is either a myth or a lie. Even the undisputed classics or bestsellers have some poor reviews. This is normal. Not everyone enjoys the same thing, which is the main reason why bad reviews can be good for readers. Before I buy, I always scout the 1* or 2* reviews. If they are rude, poorly written or unhelpful (eg “I didn’t like the cover so I didn’t read this book”), I ignore them. If they are well-written and have a point, I think about them. A poor review that points out that a book has foul language and lots of sex is a perfectly valid review, as there are some readers that would wish to be informed of this. Given that neither bother me, I nod and buy anyway. But some readers would (and should) take heed, as if a book features something that bothers them or makes them uncomfortable, then they will probably not enjoy the book.

For writers, this means that the right readers pick up your book. Readers that will enjoy it and shout about it. In my mind, and assuming that the reviews are tactful (this is someone’s pride and joy you’re criticising), this is a Good Thing.

Writers – Constructive criticism is useful. It tells you what hasn’t worked for readers and, as writing is an evolving process, this can only be helpful in future writing. Things that tend to feature in multiple reviews or feedback is probably something to consider, even if it is ‘why aren’t the readers seeing it in the same way I am?’.

Before it gets you down, though, remember this: reader feedback is only an opinion. Which means it’s perfectly valid to disagree with the point, although you should certainly recognise it. For example, I was told by a literary agent that the first chapter of Lost in Static included some ‘repetition’ which, in their opinion, should be cut out. I disagreed, because the whole point of my novel is to see the same events from four different points of view and, if there isn’t some signposting of the style ‘we are still in this situation/ setting’, then that could not be conveyed to readers. My novel is not an ‘every paragraph should move the action forward’ story, it’s an ‘every paragraph tells us something new that helps us piece together what actually happened’ story. But here’s the thing: the feedback was helpful because it made me realise that my blurb didn’t convey this properly. So instead of changing the story, I changed how I summarised it for readers.

And that’s the thing about constructive criticism: it provides clarity on your project from a third party, even if it’s misplaced or misunderstood. Embrace it.

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