Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Learning from 1-Star Reviews

While I'm not a published author, I like to read advice given to published authors while dreaming that it will someday apply to me. One piece of advice that I've always thought sounded good is Don't Read Your Reviews. That seems like a good way to stay sane.

Randy Ingermanson, who sends out the Advanced Fiction Writing e-zine every month, offers up some advice on how to learn from 1-star reviews that I thought was valuable. Even better, you don't have to read your own reviews to do it! Here's how:

Yes, 1-Star Reviews Can Be Useful

The answer is “Yes, if.”
Yes, a truly bad author’s 1-star reviews could contain valuable information that would point the author in the direction of improving his or her work. If …
If the author doesn’t freak out and go into a deep depression after reading a toxic, cruel, slashing review.
If the reviewer is able to explain what’s wrong AND how to fix it, in a way that an author can easily put into practice.
If the author doesn’t just dismiss the review out of hand with the easy phrase, “haters gonna hate.”

But Here’s the Problem

The problem is that those three ifs are hard to meet.
Not going to admit anything here myself, so I’ll take the usual dodge that “I have a friend” who has failed to benefit from 1-star reviews for all three of these reasons. And this “friend” has had a few toxic reviews. Ahem.
It’s just hard to read your own 1-star reviews objectively. But that suggests an idea …

How To Benefit From 1-Star Reviews

It occurred to me that an author can still benefit from 1-star reviews. In fact, even if you’ve never been published, and therefore you have no 1-star reviews of your own, you can still benefit from 1-star reviews.
The trick is to benefit from the 1-star reviews of OTHER WRITERS.
Here’s a simple exercise you can do:
  1. Go to the Amazon page for the last really excellent book you read. It should be one that you consider a no-brainer to get 5 stars. 
  2. Read all the 1-star reviews (or if there are more than ten, read only the first ten 1-star reviews, because they start repeating pretty quickly). 
Did you learn something? I bet you did. So that’s a win. That’s something you can use in your own writing, and it cost you nothing.

Did you find any toxic, cruel, slashing reviews? I bet you did. But you didn’t go into a deep depression because it’s not your book, so all that rat poison had no effect on you.

Were any of the reviewers able to explain enough about the craft so you could see how to improve the book? I’m taking no bets on this. The reviewers undoubtedly exposed some flaws in the book you liked so much. Unfortunately, most reviewers don’t know enough about the actual craft of writing to explain how to fix the problem. Most reviewers are readers, not writers, and so they know what they like, but they don’t necessarily know the mechanics of fiction. But if you believe they’ve exposed some real flaws in the novel, you could always go find a good book on craft that would explain how to fix those flaws.

Did you dismiss any of the reviews with the phrase “haters gonna hate?” I bet you did. Because there are some truly angry, hateful, vindictive people out there so some of the bad reviews are just people being spiteful. But I also bet you didn’t dismiss them all with that phrase. Because some of the haters had REASON to hate the book you liked so much. Since you have no vested interest in the book, you can be objective in classifying some reviewers as merely hateful and some of them as reasonable. 

So this exercise has value for you, because IT’S NOT YOUR BOOK, so you aren’t going to take the 1-stars personally.

That’s the danger of reading your own 1-star reviews. You can’t help taking it personally.

But What About Your Own 1-Star Reviews?

Now there is a way for you to benefit from your own 1-star reviews, but you can’t do it on your own.

Here’s what you do: Find a writer friend and agree to eat each other’s rat poison. You read her 1-star reviews and have her read yours. Then each write up some helpful advice for the other, writer-to-writer. Maybe some hateful reviewer said that your friend’s characters are so 1-dimensional, you could floss your teeth with them. That’s pretty cruel, but if it’s a valid concern, you could rephrase it by suggesting ways for your friend to deepen her characters. 

That’s constructive advice. That’s turning rat poison into gold.

And that avoids ever having to eat your own rat poison.

This article is reprinted by permission of the author.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 17,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.

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