Between the Lines: On Reviewing Writing

March 27, 2017

between-the-lines

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

is a series of posts focused on better understanding books, trends in writing, and the labels associated with these.


 

One of the best parts about reading communities are the connections you make. Over the last year, I have made a ton of new friends all over the world. While we all share a love for books, we don’t all share the same perspective, which I adore. Similarly, I have started to make more connections with writers. Working with an author is an incredibly rewarding experience. When someone asks you for your personal opinion on their works, their written baby, they are putting a lot of trust in you. It’s your responsibility to help them nurture and develop that baby. Your feedback could be the tipping point for that acceptance letter. I love working with writers and I always jump at the chance to help out when I can fit it in my schedule. 

At the beginning of the year, one of my friends reached out to me and asked if I’d be willing to be an impartial judge in a writing contest. The Empty Pages Writing Club needed motivation to “actually put pen to paper”. A friendly competition where everyone writes and puts some money into the pot for a victor. The problem was how to determine said victor. That’s where I was brought in. My job is to read their submissions and provide feedback. That’s it. I obviously jumped at the opportunity! After all, that’s what I do, right? Whichever story I deem as the best will be considered the winner. No pressure. For me or them.

This is an honor I am taking seriously. It takes quite an act of bravery for an author to request feedback. Let alone a series of budding authors who are all friends and all have hopes and dreams in writing.

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.     – Ernest Hemmingway

When I read literature, I almost exclusively read for my own personal pleasure. I have a wide variety of genres I read. I read for book clubs, based on recommendations, and just because I want to. I might not have a dissertation in mind, but when I read, I am always thinking about what I’m reading. This includes some of the basic elements of fiction, but also how I feel. The emotional investment is important to my reaction to a story. Sometimes, I will be indifferent about a great work of literary art because it just doesn’t catch me emotionally. Or, I’ll fall in love with a novel very few others enjoy because I connected. My current state of mind is critical to my enjoyment.

For this writing critique, I’m getting a bit more formal in my review. I am going to focus on the basic elements of fiction while I read:

  • Plot/Conflict
  • Setting
  • Character
  • Symbolism/Structure
  • Point of View

I have a brief rubric I am using to define and categorize all these terms. But, I will still be reviewing these short stories more-or-less as I would any other book I read. I am providing structure so I can compare apples to apples, as they say. I will rate each book on those basic elements of fiction and provide some feedback for my rating. But I will also identify how emotionally invested I was in this story. The personal connection is key to developing readership, and therefore cannot be ignored when compared to the traditional elements.

In the end, the story with the highest score wins.

Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible, and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing they evidently prefer.     – J.R.R. Tolkien, forward to the second edition Lord of the Rings trilogy

When writers ask for feedback, they are exposing part of their soul to the world. They want to grow and improve, but it involves vulnerability on their part. When we, book review bloggers, write a review we are sharing our experience with that vulnerability. I won’t always enjoy a book, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile.

Literature reviews are important not only to help the authors grow as writers but also to provide them exposure. Even a negative review is still publicity and exposure for the author. Critical reviews set expectations for readers. You cannot possibly like every book you ever read. Heck, I look forward to negative reviews from some of my blogger friends because I know our taste in books differ so much that I will really enjoy the books they dislike.

Something worth noting: all the bloggers I call my friends make it a priority to never personally attack an author. It’s hard enough for someone to hear that you don’t like their magnum opus; we don’t need to hurt them as a person too. Authors are people, and it’s important we treat them that way. They have trusted their baby in your waiting arms. Be kind.

In the end, I couldn’t be more honored or excited to participate in this competition. I will be posting my reviews here, but I won’t be including author names. This is meant to be a fun exercise among friends and (to my knowledge) none of these authors are published yet. I will be sending the authors a detailed breakdown of my rubrics so they can get feedback.

Let’s do this.


What do you think?

  • Do you have specific criteria you consider when reading?
  • Do you provide feedback to writers? If so, how do you provide that feedback?
  • Have you ever participated in a writing contest as an author or reviewer? Share your experience!

32 Comments

  • Lost In A Good Book March 27, 2017 at 6:04 pm

    Sounds like a really fun project to be involved in! I like your criteria and wish I would be more structured about my reviews. I’ve learned a lot about myself since I started blogging and I do notice that I tend to lead with my emotions. How I about a book (or not) determines a lot about my review.

    • Jackie B March 28, 2017 at 5:55 pm

      Thanks, Crystal! I like reading structured reviews, but I know I’m bad at writing them. To each their own, eh?
      I’m glad that I’m not the only one who leads reviews with emotional reactions! Sometimes it feels unfair, but I think that’s all part of the experience. For example, I am in love with What is a Soulmate? but I don’t know if I would have loved it as much if I had been in a different emotional state when reading. Does that make sense?

  • Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel March 27, 2017 at 9:22 pm

    How wonderful. I hope the new writers benefit alot from your feedback

    • Jackie B March 28, 2017 at 6:10 pm

      Thanks! Me too. I’m a bit anxious about it, honestly. I hope I don’t disappoint!

  • Books, Vertigo and Tea March 27, 2017 at 10:05 pm

    Very exciting! But almost sounds daunting too haha. How many submissions do you think you will be providing feedback on? I cannot even imagine how you find all of the time you do and maintain such a stellar blog that actually provides consistent, diversified and high quality posts. You amaze me <3

    • Jackie B March 29, 2017 at 9:56 am

      It’s intimidating, that’s for sure! I have 5 submissions to review. Each is no longer than 30 pages, but one of them is only 10. I’ll take it.

      D’aw. Thank you so much, Danielle! That’s just the boost I needed. Lately, I’ve been feeling really down about my blog and my contribution to the community. March was a hard month to prioritize blogging, but it means so much to me. Thank you for the kind words. I needed that motivation!

  • theorangutanlibrarian March 28, 2017 at 7:17 pm

    That’s really true about looking forward to negative reviews from some bloggers who you know have different tastes to you!! In a way I sometimes hear their criticisms and think that the book will actually be for me. Great post!

    • Jackie B March 29, 2017 at 12:49 pm

      Thanks! I’m glad I’m not alone on that concept. I’ve definitely had people question who I am following since our reading tastes were so dissimilar. I imagine it’s like being friends with people who have different political views or world views from you. Different bookish tastes helps expand my mind. 🙂

      • theorangutanlibrarian March 30, 2017 at 3:54 pm

        You’re welcome! Yes absolutely!! I also find it encourages me to step outside my comfort zone a little

  • MyBookJacket March 29, 2017 at 3:17 am

    I haven’t, I’d probably be too intimidated though! But it sounds amazing!

    • Jackie B April 3, 2017 at 1:41 pm

      Yeah– it is a bit intimidating, but I also like that. Sometimes it’s important to feel uncomfortable! Besides, the risk to myself is fairly limited which I appreciate. 🙂

  • AvalinahsBooks March 29, 2017 at 11:36 am

    Ooh, that’s such an interesting chance for you! Getting serious about reading, hehe 🙂 actually, I’ve been to several blogs where they have a rating system! Like, they will break their rating and rate particular points separately (like your list) and then make an average. I think that’s so cool!! I was thinking of starting to rate like this myself, but I need to come up with a system, so lo and behold how lazy I am :p

    • Jackie B April 3, 2017 at 2:12 pm

      Haha. I don’t want to create something so strict for my review writing, so I can completely understand why you don’t have a system. I don’t attribute it to laziness. Just having different priorities! I love some blogs with these point systems. However, I find that sometimes they have to shoehorn or ignore a section because the book doesn’t quite fit the structure of their rating system.

      If you ever come up with one, I’d love to learn more about how you go to it. It sounds like a good thought exercise!

      • AvalinahsBooks April 9, 2017 at 2:18 pm

        Mm, good point. You’re right, it might not really work, cause I too rate by emotion, mostly. So it might have a crap story (sometimes) and nothing too good in the character department, but I’ll still give it a 5 cause ALL THE FEELS. Or something like that. I didn’t even think of it that way. Good job pointing that out!

        • Jackie B April 10, 2017 at 9:10 am

          Thanks! It’s something I am certainly struggling with. I was just pondering my rating system recently, too. I want to convey things like, “Even though I have 1984 3 stars, that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. I appreciate it, I got a lot out of it, but I just won’t ever re-read it.” That’s hard to convey with only a picture or a system or something. Words, man. They are so important.

  • Shouni March 30, 2017 at 11:19 pm

    This sounds like a really cool experience! I hope you enjoy it! I love character driven stories too and books with good writing. Sometimes, I will put a book down if the writing is too simple or too heavy, I like a perfect in between.

    I’ve never directly provided feedback to writers unless you count close friends. And usually if I don’t like something, I’ll give them the reason and suggest ways they can improve. I’ve never participated in a writing contest though I would love to some day. It’s kind of terrifying though.

    • Jackie B April 3, 2017 at 2:10 pm

      I wish there was an easy way to identify that “perfect in between” before we even picked up a book. But, I guess that would make reviewing books less fun if we knew in advance we’d love them all. When you puts books down do you ever come back to them later? How do you decide what to come back to?

      That’s cool that you even have the experience of providing feedback to writers! Friends or not, it’s the same experience. Are any of your friends aspiring to be published authors?

      While this contest is a bit terrifying, I hope it will be a lot of fun. Sometimes, it’s important to set out of your comfort zone. I don’t have a lot of person risk in this, however, so that helps reassure me!

      • Shouni April 5, 2017 at 8:09 pm

        I don’t usually come back to books I put down mostly because I just have so many books to read and see no point in it. Sometimes I put books down because I know I’d enjoy it more in a few years (like Game of Thrones) but those don’t really count since I put them down with the intention of going back to them. One of my best friends is aspiring to be a published author and I love providing feedback to her. I don’t know if I could do the same with people I don’t know though. Have you started working with The Empty Pages Writing Club yet?

        • Jackie B April 7, 2017 at 5:22 pm

          Yeah– I get it: So many books, so little time. I’m similar. There are books I’ve put down with the intention of going back to them, yet I haven’t gone back to any of them yet. O_o Most of them are classics, like Tender is the Night by Fitzgerald. Oops.

          I love that you have an aspiring writer friend! That’s great. Keep encouraging them. 🙂 I just started working with Empty Pages. I hope that things going well and they are interested in something in the future. Perhaps other bloggers might be interested in helping out, too? Who knows! I’ll definitely provide updates.

  • Amanda @Cover2CoverMom April 1, 2017 at 1:31 pm

    How fun Jackie! I am not surprised they asked to bring you on as a “judge” in this contest. I’m sure they feel validated in their decision after seeing how seriously you are taking it (as you should)

    “Authors are people, and it’s important we treat them that way. They have trusted their baby in your waiting arms. Be kind.”

    This!!! Yes! This is actually why I DREAD writing a negative review for a book. The last thing I would ever want to do it to pick apart something that an author has poured their blood, sweat, and tears into. I do my best to handle critical reviews with the utmost respect, and I always try to see the positive in every book.

    Can’t wait to see updates for this project 🙂

    • Jackie B April 3, 2017 at 2:02 pm

      D’aw, thanks Amanda! That means a lot to me.

      I also struggle with negative reviews. I don’t want to avoid them completely because I think it’s our job as reviewers to call the bad and the good. While I don’t review every DNF or 1 star read I have, I do review many of them. I know this is something I can work on personally. It makes me feel good knowing I’m not alone in that.

      I look forward to updates, and feedback from you all on how you think I’m handling it!

  • morethangeekylove April 1, 2017 at 6:49 pm

    This is really an interesting post and I totally agree with you here. I never attack or say negative commentaries about an author when I did not like the book he or she wrote.

    As you said we all have different preferences and not every book we read will always be our favourite piece of cake to say. But still this does not diminish the book nor the author in any way just because we did not like it, a book should not be condemned to not be given the chance to be read.

    I personally will never understand people that say that they will not read a book because of too many negative reviews or because it does not have a 4 or 5 start rating. I think that before judging a book by its reviews or rating, in this case, you should give it a try, I found so many books this way that I ended up loving.

    In conclusion I see a book as the author’s universe, and this little world of his will not always be something we will understand and we will like being inside, however every piece of universe will leave its mark in one way or another inside of us. In other words even if you did not like the book as whole it still got that something or that segment that really touched you and you will remember.

    I am sorry for the long comment, but these are things that I felt like sharing 🙂

    Cheers!

    • Jackie B April 3, 2017 at 2:05 pm

      Thanks, Lin!

      I am a bit ashamed to admit that I shy away from books with fewer than 3-star ratings. That said, if I’m looking at Goodreads or Amazon and they have fewer than 500 reviews logged, I’ll take that with a grain of salt. There are just so many books I want to read which I already don’t have time for! I will read books based on author requests, however. It’s always fun to try a new author and give them a shot.

      This is a great comment! I’m so glad you took the time to share your opinion. Do you post reviews for books you disliked? How do you handle those posts?

  • morethangeekylove April 4, 2017 at 10:34 am

    Well, everyone has his own opinions at the end 🙂

    And yes I do post reviews of books I did not like, actually my first ever review on my blog was about a book that just did not work out for me. In no way I bash the author or something like that, I just write honestly what I did not like and why and of course I share some of the positive aspects that I liked even if it was just one thing I will mention it. Additionally I do recommend the book regardless of my own opinion, because definitely there will be people that will appreciate it and enjoy it much more than I did.

    This is the beauty of books there are different ones for each taste just like there are different types of chocolate I don’t like dark choco, but I might want to try it from time to time same logic goes for the books genres as well ^.^ haha (I know I am weird just go along with it xD)

    • Jackie B April 7, 2017 at 5:27 pm

      I’m so glad that I’m not the only one posting review for books I don’t enjoy that much. Sometimes, I worry that I’m a surly mean-butt. 😉 Often, when I don’t enjoy a book, I know there are redeeming values for others. So that’s pretty cool that we do the same. I’m so glad Marie paired us together! 🙂

  • morethangeekylove April 8, 2017 at 4:53 am

    Yessss soo true!!

    I feel the same way, however I would have to be a hypocrite to write something I do not mean even when it comes to book reviews. Even if it is hard to accept by those people that enjoyed the book I did not I will still be telling my opinions and thoughts on it. Of course with no means to be rude or disrespectful towards the author what so ever.

    Totally agreed I think Marie did an awesome and job in pairing the people for that event and I am really glad that I had to opportunity to meet you (even though not in real life but still ) 🙂 I love your way of thinking and find it similar to mine so cheers to that, also we have similar taste in books so I took a lot of book references from your Goodreads haha

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