Writing to the Review is like Teaching to the Test

Working in the education field, I sometimes hear teachers lamenting about how the Federal regulations have them teaching to the tests, rather than teaching children the love of learning. They say this is taking much of the joy out of their job, since they aren’t free to be creative, spontaneous and remain true to their gifts as educators.

For writers, there is a temptation to remodel our writing style to fit the comments of reviewers, in essence, to write to the review.

While we certainly need to pay attention to constructive criticism, using reader feedback to improve our craft, if we try to please every reviewer there is a risk of losing the joy of writing and of transforming our unique voice into a counterfeit, or even losing our passion for writing.

When the criticism is about the quality of my writing, I try to take it to heart and keep honing my craft.  But, when a reviewer comments on the content of the story or the personalities of the characters, I try to remember they are simply expressing a personal preference.

I recently began reading a book by a new author, planning to provide a review, but the author’s style and subject matter were so personally off-putting, I couldn’t finish reading the book. Since I was not the person this author was writing for, I chose not to post any review. I didn’t think it would be fair.

Rather than removing the essence of who I am, in an attempt to please everyone who picks up one of my books, I’m going to try to target readers who will appreciate my style by being as clear as possible about that style in every book’s description.

Someone once told me, “Follow your passion, whether anyone follows you, or not.”  If you are one who writes from the love of writing, that sounds like good advice.

Reader Reviews: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Since setting the digital edition of Hollow, the first book in my first series, as free, it has had a gratifying number of daily downloads. I’ve noticed during previous free promos of my books that readers tend to be harsher critics of books they’ve downloaded for free. This phenomenon was brought to mind this week when the first freebie reviews of Hollow were posted on Amazon.

I think my fellow writers will agree that receiving a negative review of their work is as painful to us as it is for a mother to be told she has an ugly baby. So, why do we continue to offer our precious creations up to the two-edged sword of public opinion?

I remember the elation I felt upon reading my first good review from a stranger. What validation! What joy! …and what a let-down when the first critical comments were posted.

Some writers avoid this emotional roller coaster by refusing to read their reviews. They only want to know how many reviews and how many stars. Others, like me, cannot resist the temptation to read every new word, in the hope of once again experiencing the affirmation of a rave review.

With Hollow I was lucky to receive only good reviews in the early days after publication. I was well into my second book before the first negative review arrived. That reader complained because I had not listed the book as a Christian Mystery. She felt I’d tricked her into reading it by calling it a Mystery/Thriller. Shortly after that, a reader took the book to task for “too much religious content,” although the book description clearly states the lead character is a pastor’s wife. Taking these comments to heart, and following marketing advice to narrow my metadata to improve my sales rank, I changed the category for my books to Christian Suspense.

In the years since Hollow was published, I’ve received numbers of good reviews from Christians, pastors’ wives and others, appreciating the book’s portrayal of a flesh and blood, flawed, though sincere, Christian woman.

The first negative comment in the latest batch of reviews complained about aspects of the plot which weren’t actually in the plot…that’s the sort of critique I consider a “bad” review. There’s nothing helpful when the comments seem to be about a different book. I was surprised later in the week by this terse one-star review: “Trash. NOT a Christian book.”

That grim denouncement was followed this morning with five stars from an obviously discerning and thoroughly admirable reader, “Loved this book— kept me in suspense the whole time, I could not put it down!!! I bought the rest of the series, can’t wait to read them!”

Go figure.