Monday, January 6, 2014

Editor's Notes #3: Don't Take it Personally

I read a book because I hope to enjoy it. I usually don't know the author personally, even if he is a familiar name. The author doesn't know me, either. 

When I leave a 4- or 5-star review, does he send me flowers? No. Chocolate? No. A colorful handmade card? No.

Why? Because he doesn't know me. My review is simply one more affirmation that a book has been written well, with good editing and an interesting story. It tells others that, in my opinion, they might also enjoy that same book.

But what if I leave a 1-star review? Does the author send me a condolence card? No. Does he or she promise to do better next time? No. And no, still no chocolates.

Why no chocolates? Why no wooing with wine or aged Scotch?

I'll tell you why: because the author doesn't know me. 

Let's recap for a moment. 
  • I don't know the author, so I don't assume a decently written book was penned with me, specifically, in mind. 
  • I don't know the author, so I don't take offense if a book is written poorly, because I don't think it was written that way to spite me.
  • The author doesn't know me, so she doesn't assume I've given a good review because she's pretty, or because we support the same charity, or because I am flattering her into watching my chickens for me while I take a weekend trip.
  • The author doesn't know me, so he doesn't take offense if I give his book a bad review because—
Oh, wait. The author did take offense. 

Good review = my book is spectacular.
Bad review = the reviewer is an idiot.

This is a disturbing trend. Without doing a lick of in-depth research, I will hazard a guess that most, if not all, writers who bash reviewers are newer authors. Certainly they're emotionally immature, but I'll assume they are immature writers, a.k.a. new to the business of publishing. Perhaps no one has told them their behavior is likely to cost them the very people they're trying to attract.

A long-ago Goodreads thread addressed this very topic. The group was talking about feeling guilty for a DNF (Did Not Finish), and whether to leave a review or not, depending on whether the DNF status was due to personal taste or a badly written book. This brought on several differences in opinion—and along with it, a perfect example for my post.

Author "A": as a writer, she prefers an honest review; as a reader, she hesitates to leave an unfavorable review because someone may retaliate and slam her work.

Author "B": says a review isn't even needed in all cases; stating a strong opinion on one of the boards was enough to get his own books slammed with one-star ratings by people who had never read them.

B's comment prompted author "C" to tell about a recent book review in which she gave a two-star rating and was verbally attacked by the book's author ("X") on Goodreads and other places across the internet.  

[I don't know any of these authors personally, so my post is based on reading the original review and author's reply, with no previous bias.]

In C's opinion, the book deserved a one-star rating, but she tried to be diplomatic since it was obvious to her that a lot of work had been put into the book. However, it had a lot of problems, and C outlined those problems in her review, apologizing more than once as she clarified exactly what was wrong. Author X replied with a tantrum worthy of any three-year-old. Her post was toxic, vicious and personal.

She started off saying that C’s review should not have been "allowed," because C did not finish the book. X felt that C could not possibly have understood the book after reading "only a quarter of it"—a confusing statement because C's review mentioned quitting at the 60% mark. X then went on at length about her book, her ideas, characters, personal beliefs, and life as we know it in her universe. Her response was so "out there" and rambling that it made her look and sound like a crazed child—the whole thing reeked of, "I know you are, but what am I?" and "You're stupid," "No, you're stupid," "Your face is stupid." Picture that . . . one-sided only.

Author X may never learn that not everyone who disagrees with her is evil, or even wrong. There are guaranteed to be many who don’t like her book, as with any author and any book—but not every person is a moron who "doesn't get it."

I sent the link to the whole tantrum to an author friend so she could read it for herself. She made an astute observation about X's 1075-word essay reply:
If she had written the book properly to begin with, she wouldn't have had to explain so much in her rebuttal to the other person's review.

Author C's review was not personal. Had she given a four- or five-star review, I doubt that X would have attacked her for showing favoritism. Would she have scuffed her shoe on the ground and said, "Aw, shucks, I know you're only saying that because we both love garden gnomes"? Not a chance. She would have assumed she earned the stars because her book was good. So why is it that a bad review gets blamed on the reader/reviewer rather than the writer?

I once read a blog post with an open letter to indie authors. The link no longer exists, but there was one section that specifically dealt with bad reviews and how to deal with them, and I’ve never forgotten the title (paraphrased): "Not everyone will like your book. Down a shot. Accept it. Move on."

This same advice applies when working with an editor. An editor doesn't have to "like" your book to edit it. It helps, because it makes the work more enjoyable. But each time the red pen comes out and I say, "This could be changed up a bit," I'm not secretly thinking, "You're so stupid. I hate you. I hate every word you've written."

It's my job to note when something needs strengthened, removed, or spelled correctly. It's not an emotionally charged moment for me to use the Red Pen of Doom. It's just the tool I use for my job. If I hire someone to clean my house, I'm not going to accuse her of calling me a slob because she mopped. I hired that person. She did her job. My floor was in need of a good mopping. What does that mean? Um . . . it means my floor had dirt on it. It doesn't mean I'm evil. It doesn't mean she thinks I'm evil.

Similarly, if an editor is hired, it's that person's job to know more about editing than a writer may know. If a cover artist is hired, it's his job to know more about drawing and colors than a writer knows. If a live band is hired, they should play better music than Uncle Fritz, who's had six months of tuba lessons. It's nothing personal.

Putting your work out there (whether pre-publication or as a finished work) invites praise or criticism, sometimes both. If you're prepared to accept praise, you should be equally prepared to accept criticism. Unless the review clearly states, "I would have given five stars, except my daughter wrote this, and she never cleaned her room when I told her to, so I'm withholding my love," then you should assume the reviewer has something valid to say.

I occasionally turn to my own editing guru—my personal Obi-Wan—for advice when I'm stuck. The door to her email inbox is always open if I need the answer to a tough or obscure question, and I've sent her passages of my work to critique, knowing she'll never give me a trophy just for working hard. Her evaluation has nothing to do with Lynda, the person, or even Lynda, the editor. It only deals with the WORK of Lynda, the editor.

Writers, it's no different for you when a reviewer points out errors or inconsistencies. It's your WORK, not your SELF. Read the review, grit your teeth, swear under your breath, draw a stick figure of the reviewer and scribble a mustache on it. Whatever it takes to get the knee-jerk reaction out of your system. Then walk away from it, give it some time, and come back to it later to see if it has any value. More often than not, it will.

Whatever you do, don't take it personally. It's not about you. Really.


  1. This is the sad, sad truth.
    No one sends us praises or chocolates or other goodies for leaving a fantastic review, so why should we be attacked if we leave an honest one that the author doesn't agree with? That author's reaction and behavior is completely unprofessional. As a reader, if I see an author attacking a reviewer, I will definitely not read any of her work.

    Taking it personal, I suppose its difficult not to—even if the author knows better, but vent to your friends and keep it out of the public's eye. I mean, this does seem quite accurate after all: ***Good review = my book is spectacular...Bad review = the reviewer is an idiot.*** Hahaha, gotta love it!

    It really isn't personal (unless an immature person is retaliating like author A pointed out) so it's best to keep your head high, read, and learn from it.

    1. It *is* sad, because that author (and others like her) will learn the hard way that the internet has a long, long memory. People always remember a tantrum-thrower.

      Getting angry or frustrated is a valid thing, but throwing a fit in public? Bad form, especially for someone whose business relies on that same public for his or her bread and butter.

  2. All feedback is a chance to grow as an artist, take it. If something bugs you, or you feel like it was unwarranted, go find a friend talk crap for a bit and move on. Our public image as authors and especially as SP authors, is very important. The problem is people assume they can change someone's mind or maybe the minds of people reading the review. What actually happens is you make yourself look like a unreasonable person, lacking in basic social skills.

    1. One thing I know is this: nobody has ever changed ANYONE's mind in an internet argument. I guess basic social skills aren't so basic for some people.

  3. Great post. I believe rule #1 for everyone who works with creativity in any way is to learn to take–and give–criticism well. Emphasis on the 'well'.

    1. As hard as it is to think we haven't done everything perfectly, if someone points out obvious flaws, we should listen to see if there's any takeaway. And if they're truly morons, then shrugging it off is more often the best recourse.

      I've found myself being a lot more constructive in my negative reviews over the years, rather than just criticizing, mostly because I want the person (or company) to take my concerns seriously, rather than view me as yet another invalid viewpoint. I'm also quick to give good reviews when they're earned. I don't like when people only have something to say if it's bad.


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