In the indie community, writing reviews isn't a courtesy -- it's pretty much expected. Indies know how hard it is for other indies to get reviews (or readers at all), and there are lots of different groups, review swaps and deals happening all over the indie book community at any given time. Because of the helpful spirit, the tit-for-tat review deals and the strong desire among indies to get more and more reviews, writing reviews is something a great many indie writers have to face. So if you're going to do it, make sure you know what the hell you're doing. How much do you know about writing reviews?
Many writers are also readers, because to practice the craft you've got to love it. Reading someone else's work is the only thing that keeps me sane at times...and other times, it's enough to drive me insane. That's because reading within the indie community isn't the same as dipping into the mainstream fiction pool. There are a lot of undiscovered gems to be found in the indie book community, but there are a lot of duds, too.
When one of those duds happens to be a book that you're committed to reviewing, things can get a little dicey. What if your review is part of a swap arrangement, and contingent upon getting a review for your own book? What if your review is for a friend's book? What if you've got to review it, and the book sucks?
It's enough to make anyone panic, but you don't have to. If you have a formula to follow and a certain set of reviewer morals to stick with, you will never go wrong. You may get sassed by an indie writer or two, but you won't be wrong -- and at the end of the review, you can smile to yourself and know you've done the right thing.
- Read the book.
If you're committed to doing the review, you've got to finish it no matter how bad it is. And we've all been there. At some point, every voracious reader has pushed themselves to finish a book they didn't really want to finish. It's like exercising, or cleaning the house -- just get it done, and then it's done. But while you're reading, make sure you look for any and all strong points the author has displayed. This can be a real challenge, but if you read hard enough you're sure to find something likable in the work -- strong imagery, creative plot lines, interesting characters, setting. You may even find merit in an author's research skills alone. The worse a book is, the harder you have to look to find something redeeming. Trust me, you'll need it later.
- Decide objectively.
Once you've gotten all the way to "The End," sit back and be objective. Forget about the fact that you've got to write a review for your blog, or Amazon, or wherever. Forget about the indie author behind the book you've just read. Think like a reader, be honest with yourself, and ask yourself how high you would honestly rate this book if no one else ever has to know. You can hardly tell other people what you think about a book if you haven't got it sorted in your own mind.
You cannot, under any circumstances (swap or no swap) write a false review publicly for any book for any reason -- not even if you do it under a fictitious name that has nothing to do with your pen name -- and I'm going to tell you why: integrity. Even if you are writing those reviews under a false name, the person you're review-swapping with knows who you are. Other indies and other readers could easily begin to recognize the review name you use, and they're going to peg you for a liar the first time they read a book with very few redeeming qualities that you've rated at 4 or 5 stars. And what happens then?
Then, they sure as heck won't want to read the book you've written. If you're posting false or overly embellished reviews on your blog, the more discerning readers aren't going to be interested in any other post on your blog.
What I'm taking a long time to write is that you've got to be honest -- both for your sake and for the sake of the author you are reviewing. Negative feedback is infinitely more helpful than positive reinforcement in the writing world. No writer can ever improve without knowing where they are weak, and a brave reviewer with an unvarnished, honest opinion is an incredibly powerful and useful motivational tool. I talked at length about the merits to be found in bad reviews in a previous post, and I'll stand by my opinions.
But at the same time, there's a right way and a wrong way to offer criticism to an indie writer. If you know that you have many negative things to say about a book, and you honestly can't give it a four-star or five-star rating, the kindest course of action is to contact the author and tell them that.
Was the work lacking in description? Did you feel that you had no idea who the characters were? Was the book filled with inaccuracies and/or errors? It should be very easy for you to explain flaws like these to the author gently. Remember how hard you looked for strengths in the book? Mention those first! Always preface negative comments by telling the author what you did like about the book. It is also a kindness to offer not to post any reviews of the book publicly, but if you do go forward with the review always stress those strong points in the writer's work and always keep the review honest -- honest, but not necessarily harsh. As a reviewer, your biggest asset is the kind euphemism and a diplomatic attitude. Remember how hard it is to write a book, how boring it is to edit, and keep your comments as kind as you can.
Writing a Review
When you go to write a review, it pays to be succinct. It's not always easy to know how to start, what to say and how to finish a review. You can always come up with your own formula and review style, but you can always borrow mine, too, if you need it:
- How'd you get the book? Many reviewers like to mention how they found the book, by way of introducing it and the review. It's a good place to start, especially if you don't know where to start in a review.
- What's it about? Is the book a romance, a mystery, a thriller? Give the readers a few basic lines about the book in general, so they have a context for all your comments.
- What'd you think? Now's the time to mention the good and the bad, the things you liked and didn't like. What stuck out the most to you? Write the review the way you'd tell it to a friend. Be casual, be approachable, and use plain, forthright language that I can understand.
- No spoilers! Don't spoil a book for another reader, or make an author grimace with pain at your words. Always re-read your review to make sure you're not giving away the book's ending or any surprise plot twists. You can always touch on these elements of a story without giving too much away (example: "The twist in the middle with Girl's backpack caught me completely off guard;" "When everything came together at the end, I felt very satisfied").
- In summation. Close the review neatly by re-stating your overall opinion of the work ("I loved it!" "I enjoyed the plot, but the characters could use a little more development;" "I enjoyed it despite all the errors") and, if applicable, stating who you'd recommend the book to and/or if you will be reading more from this author. Remember to keep your comments constructive, kind and honest.
Reviews should be written in the first person and in a casual tone, but you should also conduct yourself professionally with every single review you write. If you plan to do a lot of reviewing, you will begin to gain a reputation. Make sure it's a good one. Yes, some indie authors will take exception to your opinions of their work, but you will find that most of them are open to comments and criticism and truly want to improve upon their craft. Once readers know that you are an honest and thoughtful reviewer, you will attract more authors with open minds who truly want to improve.