Sunday, September 13, 2015

How Reviews Can Improve Your Writing

Some writers claim that they never look at reviews. Others, like me, read them obsessively, whether they are professional reviews in a magazine, reader reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, or even feedback from friends and acquaintances on Facebook or in emails.

I don’t know if this is true for all or even most writers, but my writing is very much tied in with my ego. When a book I have written (or helped to write) is praised, I feel validated. When it is panned, I feel personally judged. I can’t NOT take reviews seriously, and I continue to ask for them and to read them. I have come to believe from years of leading writing groups that we can grow as writers by understanding how our work is received by the outside world.

For example, once when I was leading a fiction writing group at NYU, I gave the group a section from a story in progress. I was stunned that four of the six group members thought my main character was a self-centered, immature twit, when I’d pictured him in my mind as a free spirit who marched to a different drummer. I swallowed my anger and hurt, thanked everyone for the feedback, and after the group meeting gave it some thought. I eventually realized that those who didn’t like the character had been right, which brought to mind a maxim from my old friend, the late novelist Richard Brickner: “When three people tell you you’re drunk, lie down.” I ultimately abandoned that project, but I had learned a bit about creating character along the way, and I do believe that no writing is ever wasted, whether it sees print or not.

Those of us writing in the brave new world of indy (independent) self-publishing are fortunate that we have the opportunity to take reader feedback to a new level, and make changes in work that has already been published. My current consuming project is my Pandora’s Trilogy, which consists of two books traditionally published in the 1980’s, and Pandora’s Promise, the third book in the series. The first two were digitized several years ago, while the third was finished and published online a few months ago, with a more recent paperback version now available.

While I was deeply involved with finishing the book I re-read some negative reviews of the first two books, which had otherwise received glowing notices. A few readers had been deeply offended by the behavior of one of the three main characters, and I could see now that his behavior was beyond the pale when seen in the light of a 21st century sensibility. I could not go back and change books that had been published thirty years prior, but what I could and did do was change my originally-conceived ending so that the character was punished in a way that guaranteed he would never achieve the goals that meant the most to him. I considered, and tried writing, some scenes in which he was killed, but none of them worked so well as the solution I had come up with.

The bottom line:
  • Keep in mind that it is after all YOUR book
  • Appreciate good reviews
  • Don’t automatically dismiss bad reviews
  • If more than one reader has similar objections to a character or a section of your book, consider revising it even after it’s been published. It’s easy enough and not expensive to make the changes that will make your book the best it can be.

I’d like to end by quoting a new review of Pandora’s Promise by someone I do not know personally He not only enjoyed the book, he GOT the story, and by extension, he GOT me. This is the sort of feedback authors dream of, and that makes all the work worthwhile  

Just finished reading the Pandora books and enjoyed them very much. I enjoyed your take on football with the Pros; very inventive. However, I think the Dream Taster section is absolutely brilliant!! That section deserves some sort of award on its own. Thank you for writing it.


  1. Excellent advice. Same with poetry workshops I participated in and led: if what you are trying to convey gets repeatedly misconstrued, it ain't sayin' what you thought it did. Make it so.

    1. Yep. It's hard to accept sometimes, but learning to do so can only improve our work.