Sunday, April 20, 2014

Why Not to Take Writing Advice from One-Star Reviews

The other day I watched a cute video of a child arguing with his mother. She was angry (but not enough to put the camera down) because he tried to grab a cupcake when she explicitly told him not to.

“Linda, Linda, Linda,” the three-year-old said, interrupting her.

Well, after watching the video I couldn’t help myself, but went down to read some of the comments. This never ends well for me emotionally, so I don’t know why I bother. No self-control, I imagine. In any case, there was a lot of disagreeing posts about the “cuteness” of the child and more statements about parenting advice—what the mother should have done, shouldn’t have done, what’s wrong with kids in the world, etc.

I like parenting advice because, unlike writing advice, the objective viewer doesn’t necessarily assume the critic is always right. It was immediately apparent why the mother should ignore most of the naysayers. Not necessarily because she unequivocally did the right thing, but because it was a lot of people with different priorities, talking on impulse, or talking out their ass.

A lot of Amazon reviewers say they try to form their reviews to give the author’s advice on how to improve their craft. Okay. Fine. That’s not really what it’s for, and I find the people who don’t are much better reads than the people who do, but there is something nice about being a writer and having a clear place to read about people’s reactions. And it would be stupid not to take those reactions into consideration.

That being said…

I read a lot of one-star reviews in my free time.  Most books I decide to pick-up are from the one-stars (not the fives), and so it’s rare for me to go into a story not knowing how I possibly will react. It’s also easy for me to see the effects that bad reviews have on sequels, and I have to say that when I read a book that addresses the problems discussed in these one-star reviews, it ends most often in disappointment.

One of my favorite books is not a very well written one. It’s supposed to be a historical paranormal, meaning set in Victorian England, but where magic exists. The characters act modern, the magical aspects aren’t well developed or unique. The female protagonist has the personality of a bucket, and the only real reason I loved it was for one character.

The male love-interest had exactly the problems you would expect. He was cocky, sarcastic, and callous at times. That’s why I liked him. But of course people complained, which they have every right to do. I can see why that’s unappealing to some, why they see sarcasm and cynicism as undesirable and mean traits. Being sarcastic and cynical, however, I enjoy it, don’t you dare take that away.

In any case the sequel comes up, and low and behold, the book suddenly explains that he’s not really this mean or callous, he just has to push people away because of mumble mumble mumble.

Okay, wait. You’re telling me that the one thing I like about this story, the one person I love so much he compensates for everything else, isn’t really how he is? That he’s actually a different person? This is his fake persona?

Then why do I care?

Now, of course part of the issue is that this was a poor solution in general. It didn’t address people’s actual concerns—Why are girls so attracted to assholes? And yes, it’s a disturbing question… At least when you take it in that respect. Changing the fact that he’s not really an ass doesn’t alter that people like him as an ass. And really, some people just don’t find that charming, and so dislike the character. Faking it doesn’t solve the problem. So now the author didn’t prevent the naysayers and ruined it for the loyalists. Good job.

But what can you expect from taking advice from one-star reviews?

While some of the one-star reviews shared my complaints about the characters constantly breaking society’s rules or the storyline not being that unique or interesting, they tended to gloss over it. Their focus was on the author’s propensity to keep writing in the same universe over and over, the male character’s attitude, and how stupid the protagonist was. (Okay, the last one I agree with.) They didn’t really discuss nuance or execution—save for generally complaining about it—yet focused on the author’s choices (I don’t like that kind of person! What? Love triangle?!), and where she got her ideas from (This was originally a fan fiction!) The three-stars were much more useful—If I was looking at them as an editing tool—the reviewers trying to be objective, and far more talking about actual continuity errors, or what prevented them from loving it other than “This has been done before! Here, here, and here!” The reads weren’t as interesting, but they were far less biased, and, in a way, less stupid, focusing on more important things. And, more importantly, while I didn’t agree with all of the changes or complaints, they didn’t ask to change the few things that made the book successful.

I see authors pander to the one-star reviews in later work, and it rarely works out. The thought process is, if something’s giving me bad reviews, I should change it. Except there is such a thing as "you either love it or hate it." And the mentality of the layman reviewer is complicated and takes far more unpredictable elements into consideration than just, “This choice had these effects.” There’s a reason why every book online has an average of four-stars. It can’t be that they’re all of the same quality (unless you believe there’s no such thing as quality, in which case, I don’t know why you’re worried about ratings). It’s not that there isn’t viable advice in there, it’s that the reason they’re giving you a one-star is more about subjectivity and reputation than it is that a book was that bad.

For someone to give the lowest rating, they have to hate a book. In order to really hate a book, it has to be really bad, or gone in a weird direction, or you want to hate it that much. If it was just about issues of the first, than very few one-stars would be given, and probably reserved for the typo-ridden, five paged, child-erotica “novellas” written by someone who clearly doesn’t speak English. The most likely reason someone felt passionately about a work was because it did something that they don’t like, such as have another arrogant asshole illustrated as sexy, or has swear words, or incest, or big words, or even focuses on elements that they just don’t care about, like too much description, or (and yes, I’ve seen this) too much tension. If it’s just boring with poor pacing or two-dimensional characters, but nothing really angers you then people are likely to give you the benefit of the doubt and you’ll probably end up with three-stars (or more likely, no review at all). There has to be a bad choice made, a bad direction, for someone to really hate it. And one man’s bad choice is the other’s niche, meaning that you can’t be certain what they’re complaining about isn’t why other people like it.

One-stars are not your audience. They may have complaints that are congruent with the fans (or possible fans), but they will also focus on the things that are important to them, which might not be important to the author. And it’s very hard to tell the difference between “just them,” and “everyone ever,” (as they imply.)

So, I’m not saying that one-stars don’t have viable advice, but it’s hard to separate out the bias. People judge books in hindsight (This is how I feel, so now I will find evidence that I should feel that way), and they often discussing convincing confirmation over effective. If we were to all listen to the one-star reviews (metaphorically) in our lives, we’d be changing who we are in hopes to make everyone like us. There would be no niche books to read, no reprieve for the “outsiders” of the world to read what they like. This would only lead to homogenized, safe crap being produced over and over.


If you’re going to look for advice in reviews, you want to pay attention to the complaints in the five-stars, the three stars, maybe even the two sometimes. Those are the people who are giving you the benefit of the doubt, who are trying to be kind and support you, and who you owe it to—if you owe anyone—to hear them out. If you start focusing on the bitchy wheels, you have a good chance of changing what the quiet ones enjoyed most.