Cracking the Bad Review Code

bad review codeReading is very personal. Like music, it’s subjective. One person might love a novel so much they re-read it every year. Another person might hate the same novel so much they can’t finish it. And readers are nothing if not vocal, especially those who leave negative reviews.  I’ve been asked by a couple of my fans to share how I deal with bad reviews. It’s an interesting question, so here goes.

Like all writers, I get bad reviews. I’ve learned to deal with them like one would a scar… they’re a permanent badge of having survived in this cut-throat, sometimes troll-infested world. But I wasn’t always like that.

In the beginning every less than glowing review (why do we remember the bad ones more than the good ones?) sent me over the edge, and I was quick to look for bias in the reviewer. And yes, reviewers have biases. Over the years, though, I’ve learned to distinguish between reviewers who leave thoughtful responses and those who just like to post venom. The first tells me about my work; the second tells me more about the reviewer.

What do long reviews mean?

Good or bad, a longish review in which someone has taken the time to talk about my books, and can recite specific events or characters that disappointed them, is worth paying attention to. For example, I received a two-star review of Havana Lost that went something like this (btw, I can’t believe I’m actually quoting a bad review in public… ):

I didn’t feel a connection with the characters or the writing itself…. The characters felt stereotypical to me. Francesca seemed like the typical rich man’s spoiled daughter. Sure, she dreams of having a life of her own, but in the crucial opening chapters, we don’t see her doing anything except shopping and chasing men. By the time she grows up a little, it’s too late…I’ve already started to dislike her…The writing didn’t engage me, either. Large parts of the story seemed to be “told” instead of “shown.” There was a lot of rushed explanation and glossing over of events to cover large blocks of time.


The reviewer picked out other perceived flaws as well, but because she was so specific, it was difficult to dismiss her points. What’s more, I understood what she was saying.  And, in some cases, particularly the “telling” critique, I would have to agree.

I could defend myself by saying the story would have been a lot longer had I not “told” some parts of it, and that I was very conscious of pacing, but—you know what? She was right, and I learned from this review. In the future, I will try like hell NOT to tell but to show, even if it lengthens the story. I can always edit it afterwards.

As for the stereotyped characters, I’m sorry she felt that way. They weren’t stereotypes to me, but if they were to her, it means I have to dig a little deeper next time. Define them more sharply.

So, while it was hard to swallow, this review told me how one person reacted to my story-telling ability.

bad reviewWhat about the others?

On the other hand, a short or particularly inflammatory review says more about the reviewer than the book they are reviewing. Perhaps they have an agenda beyond simply reviewing: they’re angry, provocative, or just plain nasty—something we see more and more today, especially on the internet.

For example,

“What a stupid, unbelievable plot with characters that I never cared about. No character development at all. Plot was ridiculous… Need to stick to my favorite authors, and stop falling for Amazon’s bargain books.”

The anger behind this person’s comments is evident, but I’m not sure what set them off, since it’s not specific. There was one comment that alluded to specific plot developments, but it was wrong, which made it clear that the reviewer didn’t read the book, or at least, the part of it they were discussing.

So what did I learn from this review? Not much, except that I must have had the book on sale to elicit the final comment. Just to satisfy my own interest, I checked on the number of reviews this person has written in the past. Guess what? Mine is the only book they’ve reviewed.


is it possible some people don’t wish me well? After ten books and twelve years of hanging around this business, it could be. Did I brush someone off (unintentionally), or did they just catch me when I was exhausted? Possibly.


So, what have I concluded that might help you going forward?

Snarky language: Readers who are serious about their well-considered opinions are rarely snarky. They are logical, polite, and considered, even if the review is a bad one. On the other hand, if a review contains rude and inflammatory language, it isn’t usually worth getting wound up about it.

A one-off: When you get a lousy review, check how many reviews the person has written. If your book is the only one they’ve reviewed, take that review with a pinch of salt.  If they review frequently, however, read the others. Do they slam books regularly? If so, is it a particular genre they seem to hate? Or do their reviews range between one-star and five across the board? If that’s the case—and I know this is hard—try to see if there’s anything of practical value.

Spelling and grammar: What if someone has written a review full of spelling and grammatical mistakes? That’s a hard one. It would be easy to say the reviewer has little respect for the written word since theirs are so careless. On the other hand, perhaps the reviewer never learned how to write a proper sentence. Or maybe they’re dyslexic. Or maybe part of their agenda is to become a better writer. I try not to automatically judge comments because of faulty grammar or punctuation. Lord knows I make mistakes.

Code words: On the other hand, some reviewers, especially PW and Library Journal, use a kind of code, with words like “engaging” or “diverting” which can be a polite way of saying they liked it but didn’t love it. But damning me with faint praise is almost worse than an out-and-out nasty review.  In those cases, there’s not much to do but suck it up.

Your turn now.  If you regularly review books on sites like Amazon or Goodreads, what approach do you take, and why?


PS Just saw this — it’s about reviewers’ etiquette on Twitter. Looks interesting! Click  here.