Reviews and Critiques. Different or the Same?
I joined an online critique group about a month ago. I won’t lie, sometimes it’s been brutal, but it got me thinking about the differences and similarities between reviews and critiques, as well as what makes a good review or critique.
I’d thought I’d explore it a little through this blog.
Let’s start with reviews. Just as you would suspect, a review is something that is designed to provide information to another potential customer. Just like reviews for any other product, a book review will tell a potential reader if the reviewer liked or disliked the book. Amazon and other online book sellers utilize a star system for rating. I think most people understand the concept of a scale of one to five (one indicating the lowest rating and five indicating the highest).
Book Reviews are not for the author. That doesn’t mean the author doesn’t read them, often we do. We don’t write in a vacuum or just for ourselves. If we did, we would never publish. It gives us joy to see others enjoying what we’ve written. But the essence of the book review is for potential readers, to help them decide whether or not to purchase a book.
So, what makes a good book review? Well, think about what you look for when you’re browsing for your next read. Do you simply buy something because someone has rated it five stars without any comments, or has said simply “I loved it”? Probably not. You want to know why. Did they love the characters, the story, the author’s style? Did they find the story so engaging they couldn’t put it down? We can go even deeper, why did they love the characters? Did they find them funny, could they relate to them? Did they root for them to overcome whatever obstacle was blocking them from their goal?
I’ve focused on the aspects of a positive review, but the same is true for a negative review. A potential reader wants to know why someone didn’t like a book. Did they find it boring, with slow pacing or a dragging plot? Was there too much description, or too little description? Did they find the characters bland with no depth? You get the picture. This type of information allows potential readers to decide if a particular book is for them.
Here’s an example based on my own personal preference. I’ve read four out of five of the Song of Fire and Ice series by George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones if you’re not familiar). I just couldn’t plow through the last book Dance With Dragons. I probably will someday, but every time I picked it up, I put it back down. Why? I loved the story, but Martin’s style is way too wordy for me. Again, my personal preference. Others may love his pages and pages of descriptions that immerse them in his world. Me, I want action. I didn’t care about all the details of someone’s doublet or every item of food that was on a table. (I think he wrote those pages when he was hungry). So, if I was writing a review, I would mention this, but I would clearly state it was my preference. Not simply, it dragged, but “I struggled to stay focused reading the detailed descriptions.” This does two things. It keeps the review focused on my perceptions as a reader, not attacking Martin’s writing style, and it provides information to someone who may share my opinion.
As a reviewer, you don’t need to provide a Martin sized commentary. A short paragraph with a few well-chosen words is sufficient. Keep it focused on what you liked or didn’t like and provide the “why.”
I will admit there are times you may read something and not care for it, but can’t put your finger on the why. It’s okay to say that, too. I read a best-seller recently that just wasn’t for me. At the time, I couldn’t put into words why, but the more I thought about it, I realized it was because it depressed me. The book was well-written, but I didn’t like the way it made me feel.
We’ve talked about why reviews are important to other readers, but why are they important to authors? Well, it’s simple. Would you be willing to try a new “untested” product? Perhaps, but more than likely, you’ll want to know what others thought. New authors especially rely on reviews to help spread the word and build their audience. If my name were Nora Roberts, I probably wouldn’t care a fig about reviews, good, bad, or indifferent. Her name alone sells books. But I’m sure it wasn’t always like that for her. She had to start somewhere. So, even though the review is not for the author, if you’ve finished reading a book by a newer author, consider leaving a review and help them out.
So, what is a critique and how is it different or the same as a review? Good questions. This is the definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary: Noun: careful judgment in which you give your opinion about the good and bad parts of something (such as a piece of writing or work of art).
Sounds a lot like a review, right? Well, kind of. A review could certainly contain a critique of the book and/or writer’s style, but critiques in writing are used to guide a writer to improve his or her work. So typically, critiques usually occur prior to publication and reviews occur after. In short, critiques are for the author, not the reader.
What makes a good critique? This blog is already lengthy, so I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice it to say, it’s similar to a review in that it points out spots where the plot may slow, where characters aren’t believable, where sentences don’t make sense or read awkwardly. Some critiques also include correction to spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Regardless of what is included, the goal, or purpose should be to encourage the author to examine the feedback to determine if the work can be improved.
Like reviews, critiques can be (and often are) subjective. In my online critique group, there are authors of many different genres. Each genre can have its own unique style and expectations. The person providing the critique should keep this in mind. If I’m critiquing a piece from a genre I’m not particularly familiar with, I may provide some feedback with the caveat that I may be out in left field with my comment. What applies to my particular genre may be irrelevant in theirs. I don’t expect a happily ever after ending in a Horror story, nor should I.
Critiques should be constructive, not destructive.
Having a background in psychology and working with people diagnosed with severe mental illness, I’ve learned there are ways to phrase things that make my words more palatable. It’s a bit like Mary Poppins, but a spoonful of sugar really does make the medicine go down easier. Using words like “suggest” or “consider” allows the author to look at the feedback as less of a demand to change something and more of a gentle nudge. Sometimes it’s not so much what you say but how you say it. Like a review, I’ll also keep the focus on my perception. Using words or phrases like I instead of you, or “to me” keeps the focus on the perception of the person providing the critique rather than as an attack on the author.
There is a certain critter (that’s what they are called in my group), who is very blunt. Perhaps that’s their personality, I don’t know. I’ve found them very off-putting. The very nature of how they say things makes me throw up a wall and shut them out. It’s a shame, as I want to believe they’re trying to help, but the message isn’t getting through because of how it’s being delivered. I’ve walked away and come back and re-read it. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it doesn’t.
Another thing that helps authors be more open to criticism is providing positive feedback or comments. I’ve had a few critiques (several from the above critter), that don’t have anything good to say about what I’ve written. This makes me think they hated the whole thing. That may not be true, but if they’re not letting me know what they did like, I don’t know. I almost want to reply and tell them if they hate it that much, why don’t they stop reading my submissions. Again, this throws those walls up and prevents, what might be helpful, useful feedback, from being accepted by the author.
I’m sure there are some authors who would “suggest” I’m being too soft. Well, actually those authors would say, “you need to have a thick skin.” One person on Twitter told me that if I couldn’t take criticism I wasn’t cut out to be a writer. I cried for a day. That person didn’t know what kind of a day I had or what my emotional state was. I found their comment cruel and insulting when he knew nothing about me. We should never stifle someone simply because they are a sensitive human being. Thick skin isn’t something we’re all born with, but we can develop it. Like a callus, building it through a steady, slow exposure to constructive criticism is the best way. Much better than developing a blister that pops and deters us from trying again.
As stated before, authors don’t live in a vacuum. We’re real people, with real feelings. Our books are like our children. They come from deep within us, and we’ve poured ourselves into those pages. I can accept that what I write isn’t for everyone. That’s okay. I love that our world is filled with a large variety of people who have different personalities and interests. If you don’t like what I write, cool. I hope you find another author you love.
There’s an old saying, “If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.” I’m not suggesting you should always follow that, but what I am suggesting is whatever you have to say, say it with kindness.