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    Writing "Negative" Reviews


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    Writing "Negative" Reviews

    Post  jorowi on July 1st 2014, 8:27 am

    I'm part of the Christian Sci-Fi/Fantasy Literary Community on Facebook where a lot of Christian speculative fiction authors can share their books, etc.. Many of the authors appear to be self-published but a few are with legit publishers.

    I've started reviewing some of the books by various authors. A couple I've come across are stinkers. I want to post an honest review on my blog and even submit some to the SBU podcast but I don't want to sound like a total jerk when writing these reviews. Christians can be very sensitive and I don't want to be "that guy" who criticizes Christian publishing.

    When I was writing app reviews for The Wired Homeschool I stuck to a "What I Liked" and "What Could Be Improved" model. This worked out well because with apps there are bugs and functions that could be improved upon and it's not as personal.

    With writing it's different. Many authors take your criticism of their craft personally. When there's more in the "What Could Be Improved" column I'm hesitant to follow through on my original intention to provide a review. I'm not a writer by trade but I know what I like to read. I also don't like sugar-coating my criticism because that makes it seem like I'm giving it a pass because it's "Christian".


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    Re: Writing "Negative" Reviews

    Post  WhiteBoy on July 1st 2014, 3:34 pm

    I say be honest. I know writers have to develop thick skin so they are probably used to criticism. Their English classes in college should have taught this to them and taught them how to take criticism. If they have not developed thick skin yet, they are probably just not very experienced.

    Of course you want to be careful not to criticize them personally, but rather stick to the work that is being reviewed. As long as that is followed, I figure it's pretty much open season and criticize away (constructively). Don't lighten up just because it is Christian.


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    Re: Writing "Negative" Reviews

    Post  Paeter on July 1st 2014, 4:51 pm

    I personally struggle with knowing how to handle this. I'm both a reviewer seeking to provide entertaining reviews and a content creator putting my creations out there for inevitable evaluation. So objectivity will not be my strong point here. That said, some quick(not really) thoughts:

    No matter what we're talking about, our speech is to be favorable even when favor isn't deserved (Col. 4:6), but nailing down exactly what that looks like in a given situation is tough for me.

    As an entertainment reviewer, I probably lean toward being more sensitive with my wording the fewer people involved in the work I'm criticizing. (Though I'm sure I'm guilty of exceptions.) With lots of people involved, they can hear the criticism and shift the blame if they need to in order to feel better. For this reason I usually cut loose on big Hollywood movies, though I'm trying more and more to use subjective language even then. (Example to follow below.)

    If it's one person behind it all, and they are a creative type, I'd lean toward sticking to the facts with language that is as dry as possible when discussing perceived flaws, using subjective rather than objective language.

    Here's what I mean.

    Subjective, dry, "just the facts" language: "I didn't notice much character development, which was frustrating to me".

    Objective, colorful language: "the novel was woefully and sorely lacking character development".

    As an additional note, I don't notice that Christians are especially sensitive, though some may wrongly and subconsciously appeal to "Christian love" as a reason their work should not be criticized negatively by another Christian. Rather, I think creative types (regardless of their beliefs) are those who will likely be most sensitive toward the criticism of their efforts.

    I find that those who are very creative also feel very deeply, which is part of what makes their work engaging. But since they also invest personal emotion and their sense of identity in their work, it's very difficult for them to take criticism without feeling as though their worth has been reduced. Even if they know with their mind that their worth is based in Yahweh's love for them and not their creative work, the heart has trouble remembering that.

    The dry, gracious language will still be tough for the creative type to hear, but will be less painful and therefore more likely to give them some things to think about that may help them. Colorful objective language will lead the creative type to mentally recoil in defense and think of the critic as a prideful "know-it-all" that can go $#@%^ themselves. In this case the criticism may never even be given any weight by the creative type.

    Of course, I have absolutely no personal experience with this whatsoever... ;-)

    Both sides of this equation, the critic and the creative type, have responsibilities. Neither should count on the other to take the high ground, but both should aim for it themselves regardless.

    I'd welcome other thoughts on this as its something I think about and wrestle with on a recurring basis.

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    Re: Writing "Negative" Reviews

    Post  Rohelf on July 1st 2014, 5:28 pm

    I agree with both WhiteBoy's suggestion that you should stick to criticizing the work and not the author- that alone will help immensely. Paeter's subjective vs. objective language recommendation is another good way to help soften the sting of criticism without compromising the honesty of your opinion.

    I'd add that the more specific you can be about what you feel is wrong with a book without giving spoilers, the better. I've seen a lot of reviews that called out works as "trite" or "childish" or "dull," but neglected to cite any concrete examples of these problems. As a reader, I'd want those specifics not only for the sake of a more thorough and fair review, but also because you and I may not agree on how "dull" that scene is. As a writer, I feel like specific criticism is something I can respond to at least mentally, something I can analyze and do something with, as opposed to more nebulous unfavorable words which just fester in my brain. If part of your goal in writing these reviews is to encourage Christian authors to do better, telling them exactly what you feel they're getting wrong is going to be more likely to achieve that.

    Also, even if you can't think of anything you personally liked about a book, you can try to gauge the sort of reader that might like it. "If you like x, there's plenty for you to enjoy here..." because somewhere on this planet, there's somebody who likes x. Wink That can be one way to extend a little extra "undeserved favor" to an author without being patronizing or dishonest.

    Hope that helps.

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    Re: Writing "Negative" Reviews

    Post  mindspike on July 1st 2014, 9:07 pm

    There's a big difference between criticism for education and improvement and criticism for the purpose of consumption. With your audience being the consumer, I would worry less about the feelings of the creator and more about the utility to the consumer.

    I agree there is a place for speaking graciously. I trust that your intent is not to belittle or insult the creators. Having said that, objective evaluations of the work will only get you so far.

    I have a real love-hate relationship with the SyFy channel. I love shows like Eureka and Warehouse 13. I think they are some of the best television ever produced. On the other hand, I consider a great many of their other programs utter crap - sometimes a bit too enthusiastically. Shows like "new" Battlestar Galactica, Defiance, and Dominion have dedicated followings and their success can be judged by the only criteria that really matter - dollars generated.

    Would I give them a positive review? Not likely. Is that going to be helpful to a potential consumer? Even less likely.

    As a consumer, the kinds of reviews I find the most useful are those that tell me about construction of a product rather than its quality, though some evaluation is inevitable. You're talking book reviews? Okay. What kind of book is it? Is it grammatically and technically well done? Is the story effective? Are there loose plot threads? Does it follow a logical construction? Are the characters relateable and consistent? From what school of literature does the author draw? Is the product original and engaging? To what does it compare? And most important of all, did you enjoy it and why or why not?

    If you've got some real stinkers, be honest about it and tell us why they're stinkers - that may be the thing that draws others to them.

    And remember that consumers are going to make their own decisions with your input, not let you make it for them. Previous experience is also a factor, as is personal taste. For example, as much as I enjoy Kerry Nietz's other works and despite all the praise, I have no intention of ever reading "Amish Vampires in Space."

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    Re: Writing "Negative" Reviews

    Post  UKSteve on July 2nd 2014, 4:51 pm

    I've been pondering this since it was posted, being an indie author of Christian speculative fiction and all - but not a member of the aforementioned facebook group, so at least I'm safe for now...

    I think the original post answered itself to a degree:

    jorowi wrote:I'm not a writer by trade but I know what I like to read.

    A review is, after all, just one reader's opinion. I know my writing won't appeal to everyone; it's not supposed to. But if someone dislikes my book because 'it has too much sex and violence for a Christian novel' or 'Bible re-tellings are too predictable', I hope those things might appeal to someone else. That would be a constructive, if not entirely positive, review.

    On the other hand, if a reviewer dislikes my book because I totally suck at writing, I'd sort of like to know that too, because otherwise I've been wasting a lot of time...

    Bottom line, I think, is that as a writer, I want people to read my stuff. I hope they like it, of course; but even I know it's not perfect, so if they put enough time into it to write a review, I'm happy. No such thing as bad publicity, after all.

    And as an aside, I don't think this applies as much for indie authors, but I've heard a lot of professional authors say they ignore reviews anyway, especially those posted on amazon etc.

    (I've just opened myself up for a world of bad reviews haven't I....?)

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