Interpreting Reviews – A Writer’s Guide

Rows of star ratings, from 5 to 1.I got my first reader review on Goodreads about a week ago *cue the champagne*. Overall, it was positive, with a couple areas of critique that got me thinking about the eternal question for writers and other artists: how do you deal with critical interpretations of your work?

Before we begin, it’s important to note that criticism doesn’t imply a negative evaluation. Criticism as I’m discussing it here is the art of analyzing and interpreting a cultural object (in the case of fiction writers, a book or story) for its craft, artistry, and impact or relevance to the larger cultural landscape. Scholarly analysis of literature is a form of criticism, as are newspaper staples like the New York Times Review of Books, all the way down to user-generated reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. All participate in a rich tradition of reading, interpreting, and sharing views on books.

By adopting a zoomed-out perspective, it’s possible to see the benefit of garnering reviews, favorable or otherwise, for your work: it’s a sign your book is being read, and even more importantly, considered. Another person has taken the time not only to read your words but to construct a personal interpretation of them. They have contributed in some small way to the critical body of work about your work. To me, that’s pretty humbling in itself.

Of course, even after keeping this in mind, there’s still the dilemma of what you should do when you get a negative review, or one that contains negatives as well as positives. My two cents are below.

What to do:

Have perspective. Are the opinions expressed limited to one review, or are they part of a trend of negative feedback? Did the reader expect one thing from your book and get another? That’s an issue of marketing, not necessarily the writing.

Focus on the good. Print out or save the parts of the review you like. We tend to remember the bad, so it can help to reinforce the good.

Look at how the review ends. This can say a lot about the reader’s overall impression. For instance, did the reviewer express interest in your future books?

Consider the negative without dwelling on it. Thoughtful critique in a review can be hard to take, but it can also help you improve as a writer.

What not to do:

Argue with a negative review. Just don’t do it. The reviewer has a right to their opinion, and arguing with it makes you look childish and petty. In the long run, that loses way more readers than a bad review.

Brood. Consider criticisms but don’t obsess about them. Use that mental energy to keep writing and improving.

Revise the book based on negative feedback*. When making changes is as simple as revising and reuploading an ebook, it can be tempting to make changes based on negative feedback. I added the asterisk because, on occasion, withdrawing and revising a book based on negative reviews can be the right decision. Sometimes a book just isn’t finished “cooking”, whether it’s the premise, story, or execution, and consistently negative reviews can act as a signal for that. In this case, it may be worthwhile to withdraw the book and release a revised edition later.

However, if the reviews on your book are a mix of positive and negative, that’s the business. It’s not a sign your book isn’t ready, and you waste time trying to be all things to all people. The same thing one reviewer disliked, another may love; don’t cheat them out of the story they liked by trying to please everyone.

Now I want to hear from you: if you’re a writer, how do you cope with criticism of your work? If you’re a book blogger or other reader-reviewer, what do you take into consideration when reviewing a book? What’s most important that the story get right, and what’s less so?


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