Don't Be Dispirited By A Bad Review by Robert Fanshaw

Don’t be dispirited by a bad review – use it to help you write a better book

When Sarah, a writing colleague of mine, received a bad review of her newly published book, she was deeply upset. The reviewer said some unpleasant stuff in the first part of the review, but ended by saying the book was quite well written. Sarah could not see past the nasty stuff and was convinced her book had been killed stone dead. She felt she couldn’t tell anyone about it because they would look the book up on Goodreads and Amazon and see the horrible review. She asked her writing friends what she should do about it, because it seemed so unfair.

Guess what the friends said? They said, every one, that bad reviews come with the territory; that something similar had happened to them; and that the review in question was not as bad as some they had seen. To summarize they said, ‘Forget it and move on.’ Good advice, but is there something more to be gained from a review, whether it is good, bad, or just indifferent?

Every writer wants their next book to be better than the last one. We want our writing style to be more accurate, our dialogue to be more natural, our plots to be more gripping, and our characters to be more loveable (or hateable). But getting better is not simply a matter of experience. Yes, a craft skill gets better with repeated practice, but it is also possible to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, especially if we’re not even aware of the mistake we are making.

We are writing in the modern age; the age of Amazon, ebooks, customer feedback, and ratings for everything. There’s no hiding place from the sales rankings. It’s an unforgiving world, where poor customer service on one occasion can be broadcasted across the globe, and where a reviewer can stick a knife into a fellow writer’s cherished book with a few lines of faint praise or a hostile misrepresentation. We can’t change this state of affairs so how can we use it our advantage?

STEP ONE. Leave it a week or so, but look again at the contents of the bad review; it may contain valuable insights. The fact is that ‘good reviews’, especially those provided by kind people wanting to support our work, are not much help towards writing a better next book. I admit this is not easy. When someone criticizes something we’ve produced, we tend to explain it away. We think the reviewer must be an embittered writer who is angry that someone else’s work has been published. But we do not usually know their motives, and it does not matter anyway why they wrote the review.

STEP TWO. Unpick the message. Here are five questions to tease out valuable feedback:

1.      Did the reviewer understand what I was trying to communicate in the book?

2.      What aspect of my book did the reviewer pick out for particular criticism?

3.      Was the reviewer bored because the story was predictable or angry because it did not conform to the expectations of the genre?

4.      Did the characters come across the way I intended?

5.      Did the reviewer follow the plot, or does their review show that they missed a key passage or incident that was essential to a character’s motivation?

Try to look beyond the bare words of the reviewer and divine their emotional reaction. Which aspects of the book produced a strong reaction? Positive or negative, these clues can point the direction towards writing compelling fiction, the books that everyone MUST READ.

STEP THREE. Buy a book in a similar genre to your own, read it for enjoyment, then go through it again with a view to finding four or five things you would want to say to a prospective reader. Write your review, and then consider what you will do with it. The fact is, even very good books have faults and bad books have some good things which can be said about them. If the book is just not your cup of tea, then why upset the author? But if you want to help them get better, start with the good points and let them know honestly what worked or didn’t work for you. Analyzing other people’s books is the key to becoming a better writer.

Guest Blogger Bio  

I am still married, despite everything, to my beautiful wife Caroline. Writing is more than a hobby; it’s what keeps me sane because my job is not as glamorous as people think. Commercial law is like being in the army; there are long periods where nothing happens then suddenly all hell is let loose. Rather like my marriage.

I had a book about the law published years ago, but my first novel, Shameless Ambition, was much more fun to write. I can’t really claim credit for the concept. Life provided me with Caroline, my wife. The banking crisis provided the plot. All I had to do was use my imagination for the parts where Caroline refused to go into details. The first two books in the Shameless series push the boundaries of memoir and I suspect that fiction will eventually take over completely. I’m working on the third novel now. Caroline gets the bug for gambling and infiltrates a match-fixing betting syndicate. It will be ready in time for the football World Cup. The title? Shameless Corruption

Robert Fanshaw’s blog:

Twitter:  @RobertFanshaw


  1. Hi, Robert,

    My last try to leave a comment didn't take, but I will try again. I believe you've offered excellent advice, helpful to all of us who write. Congrats on your new novel.

  2. Thanks, Jacqueline. The internet has changed reviews as well as books, and we are all getting used to a new world.

  3. Great advice Robert. Well done.

  4. A wise person said on one of the Forums, re bad reviews - "Think of your favourite book of all time and then look it up on the net. It WILL have at least one bad review!" I did that - Wind in the Willows is, in my opinion, the greatest classic of all time - and yes, it had bad reviews! That helped me put my - blesssedly few - bad reviews into perspective :) Thank you for your advice in this blog. It's a good reminder for all authors, including myself :)

  5. It is always a pleasure to have Robert on the blog! :)


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