You’ve read a book and want to write a review, but the book was mediocre and you are frightened of offending the author. What do you do?
For almost a year now, I have written reviews for Reedsy Discovery, Amazon Vine and in support of indie authors. In this time, I have read brilliant books, discovered an appetite for memoirs I never thought I would have, and also forced myself to finish books that at best, were mediocre. The two- and three-star reviews are the hardest to write. Often, we feel obliged to support authors no matter what, especially self-published indie authors, but, if their work isn’t up to scratch, you owe it to the literary world and the author to be honest about what you have read.
So, how do you go about writing a review which is honest, yet fair and balanced? In my opinion, this process begins when reading. If I know I am reading to review, I will often have a pack of post-it notes beside me to jot down any lines which resonate with me or the titles of the pieces I think showcase the author’s talent. Even if you deem most of the work ‘average’, consider the pieces which will resonate with a wider audience. Remember, this book was created for more than just you to read. Take a few steps back and ask yourself – is this cliché? Yes. Will it still find a place in the minds and hearts of many? Probably, yes. Pinpoint these pieces for the positive half of your review.
That is where you begin – with the positives. Paragraph one should outline what you interpret the author as attempting to do through publishing their book (use the blurb to help you if their intentions are truly lost on you). Follow this by exploring where the author truly shines in this publication. Is it their use of imagery in a few pieces? Is it their ability to sum up feelings intrinsic to being human? Have they used illustrations or a particular design you can comment upon and applaud? Celebrate the things they have done well – no matter how few or minor these may appear.
Now, you may highlight what it is which makes the book, in your eyes, mediocre. Ironically, my first piece of advice is to refrain from using the word ‘mediocre’ as it is like a red flag to a bull. You want the author to appreciate your honesty rather than crumble in the wake of your criticism. In my experience, I will use what I have already said to plant the seed the writer certainly has potential (after all, no one wants to single-handedly end the career of a writer, just because the book wasn’t for you). I will always specify that any criticism is my personal opinion, and still suggest who might enjoy reading the book even if I didn’t. Then, I will be specific; criticism should be constructive. In past reviews I have commented on a poet’s penchant for rhyme preventing their work from blossoming beyond metre constraints, I have shared my concerns that another’s work attempts to imitate famous ‘Instagram’ poetry and thus loses any originality and substance, and I have commented on a writer’s overuse of abstractions within their narrative – causing the plot to become obtuse.
The above may seem somewhat ‘cutting’ but it is both honest and specific. It allows the author to either disagree, comment that as a reviewer you missed the point entirely (which is certainly possible), or to thank the reviewer and grow from what has been said. Too often, negative reviews are seen as such because, at times, they are vitriolic and proceed to put down the author’s efforts. Two- to three-star reviews cannot deny the work has issues but it can remain fair in the way it is expressed. To invoke a cliché – if you have nothing kind to say, do not say anything at all.
Therefore, to sum up: start positive, acknowledge the author’s intentions, acknowledge the vast pool of readers who will still undoubtedly pick this book up to read, and then be honest and specific about why you did not enjoy it – remembering to always clarify that this is your response, you are not able to speak on behalf of a collective and should never try to.
Criticising another writer’s work will always be difficult and should always be done with care but I believe it is necessary. I am tired of reading sycophantic reviews which seem written as an obligation. Be fair, be balanced, but most importantly, be honest.
I write about love, lust, struggle, survival, fickle things, dreams and the stars. And anything in between. You can read more of my writing at My Screaming Twenties
I released my debut collection of poetry and prose in May 2019, Between the Trees which is available to buy, below. I am currently working on my second collection.