What You Can Learn from Reading Your Book Reviews by Nancy Christie

What You Can Learn from Reading Your Book Reviews

by Nancy Christie

Some authors have a policy of never reading reviews about their books. Maybe they fear that bad reviews might depress them to the point of not being able to write again or good reviews might inflate their ego to a level where they believe they are too good to need improvement.

But as Thomas Taylor wrote in his post, "Should authors read reviews of their own books?", “why wouldn’t authors want to know what people are saying about their books? Surely there’s a lot to be learnt from how readers are reacting to our work.”

Granted, there’s a risk that we might not like what readers are saying about our “baby”—What do you mean the plot was overly convoluted? How can you say the characters weren’t drawn from real life?—but at the same time, there is the possibility that you might find others have understood and appreciated the point you were trying to make or enjoyed the humorous aspects that you slipped in the narrative.

So should you read your reviews or leave that to your publisher or agent? 

While it might be easier, and potentially less traumatic, to let someone else digest the comments for you, I think you ought to “chew” them yourself. Here are two ways I suggest you evaluate the reviews your book receives, based on my experience both as an author (The Gifts of Change and Traveling Left of Center and Other Stories) and as someone who reads reviews when choosing what books to buy.

You can learn what worked.

As writers, we have techniques we tend to employ (for example, I like to open my fiction with dialogue) as well as a voice that is, or should be, distinctively ours. And nothing is more rewarding than reading a review that shows the reader enjoyed or appreciated those aspects. 

Many of the reviews I received for my short fiction collection, Traveling Left of Center and Other Stories, praised the “lyrical quality of the writing” while Terri LeBlanc of Second Run Reviews noted that some of the stories reminded her of “some of the episodes of The Twilight Zone.” (High praise indeed!) 

Admittedly, I was a little concerned about how the book would be received, since the tales involve people who are finding it difficult, if not impossible, to handle what life has thrown at them or the challenges of the path they have chosen to traverse. (As Ioana Julia wrote in her review: “You soon learn there is no turn for the best; it’s either downhill from where the story begins or a perpetual state of painful stagnation.”) 

But on the whole, the reviewers recognized “and they lived happily ever after” isn’t the message of the collection and appreciated that I was able to take “that dark desperation of the human condition and [gave] it vibrant life and energy,” as one Goodreads reviewer put it.

As you read your reviews, look for comments that, in one fashion or another, praise specific aspects of your writing. Do you create well-drawn characters? Are your plots tightly woven? Are your descriptive passages done with such detail that readers say, “I could almost taste the food/smell the fragrance, and feel the ocean breeze”? Those are clearly areas where you are already doing well as a writer.

You can learn what needs to be improved

And now we move onto what we don’t like reading: the criticism, the critiques, the “this really should have been done better.” (In the interest of full disclosure, one reviewer, while loving the work as a whole, wasn’t a big fan of two of the pieces and another thought the longest story in the piece, “Annabelle,” would have benefited from shortening!) 

What kind of negative comments has your book received? 

Some might be about the creative aspect—the reviewer didn’t care for the theme, felt the characters lacked substance, or the plot was either too tortuous to follow or so clear that the ending was apparent from the beginning. 

Others might be more technical in nature. Are you consistently reading that your work has factual errors, spelling or grammar mistakes, story line blunders—for example, changes in a character’s age or location that don’t make sense? 

In either case, these are problems that can be fixed. If the issues are on the creative or “writing” side, work at improving your ability. (As Traveling Left of Center and Other Stories was being prepared for publication—and undergoing numerous rewrites!—my editor regularly recommended that I be more precise and specific in my descriptions. As a result, for one story I spent several hours researching types of roses to find those that fit the color and fragrance of the one my character received from a suitor.)

If the mistakes are technical, please, please, please use an editor before sending your baby off to be printed. I can’t tell you how distracting it is as a reader to find errors that should have been caught early in the process. It disrupts the flow and makes me start looking for other mistakes instead of concentrating on the work. (Self-published authors: hiring an editor is a cost that should be in your author budget. It’s very difficult to edit your own work. I speak from years of experience as a writer—and someone who transposes letters more than she cares to admit!)

One more bonus to be gained from reviews

You can learn something new about your own work. We think, because we created it, that we know all there is to know about what we wrote and why we wrote it. But it wasn’t until Mike Wever, reviewer and former editor of Wanderings, pointed out that in “Annabelle,” my central character chose “a psychologist who demonstrates the same detached attention she craved from her father [exemplifying] how hard that pattern can be to break” that I realized I had created that type of therapist. 

And more than one reviewer noted that my stories explored the mother-daughter dynamic—something I wasn’t consciously aware of when I chose the individual pieces but in retrospect, is quite accurate.

In summary, reviews can provide valuable pieces of information about your work that can not only encourage you but also help you become a better writer. And isn’t that what we strive for?

Some fascinating points here, Nancy! Thank you for stopping by with these words of wisdom. :)

Guest Blogger Bio  
Nancy Christie is a professional writer, whose credits include both fiction and non-fiction. In addition to her fiction collection, TRAVELING LEFT OF CENTER, and two short story e-books, ANNABELLE and ALICE IN WONDERLAND (all published by Pixel Hall Press), her short stories can be found in literary publications such as Wild Violet, EWR: Short Stories, Hypertext, Full of Crow, Fiction365, Red Fez, Wanderings, The Chaffin Journal and Xtreme.

A member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and Short Fiction Writers Guild (SFWG) and creator of “Celebrate Short Fiction” Day, Christie hosts the monthly Monday Night Writers group in Canfield, Ohio.
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