No Three Star Rule or Why I Write Negative Reviews

Have you seen the blog articles that encourage reviewers to never give lower than three stars? Some of them even urge not writing a review lower than four stars. For the most part these bloggers (at least some of whom are also authors) firmly believe in the old adage “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.” Others suggest that negative reviews shouldn’t be given due to the fact it pulls a book’s overall rating, which is unfair to the author. I can understand those arguments. However, I don’t necessarily agree with them.

As anyone who has read my past reviews can tell, I do not hold to a three star review rule. Yet, I have only reviewed three books that earned below three stars on my review grading scale. I firmly believe that it is important for reviewers to be honest. Now, I try not to get the genres I don’t enjoy or books that have warnings about mature or edgy content both because I don’t want to read those particular books and because I know I’m not the author’s target audience. And I also believe that negative reviews do not always equal spiteful reader. Nor do I believe that negative reviews primarily come from a jealous competitor. Negative reviews can sometimes be more helpful than the positive reviews because they glean out the readers who do not fall under the targeted audience who would probably leave more negative reviews in their wake.

No one wants to hear that their book fell apart in one area or just didn’t work for a reader. Not one writer wants to hear that and it’s a lot easier to assume the negativity is spouting from jealousy or spite than to admit the reviewer might be right about something not working. Our books are our babies. Getting a negative review can be like having some stranger come up to you and say “That is the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen and I don’t mean in an ‘it’s so ugly, it’s cute’ way either.” Ouch! But, as painful as it is, negative reviews can be helpful once you get past the initial sting . . . or crushing blow.

Negative reviews can have several long-term benefits.

  • They can point out plot holes or character flaws that deserve a second look.
  • They can identify weaknesses in our writing style.
  • They can divert potential future negative reviews from occurring by (a) alerting other readers who aren’t in our target audience that this isn’t the book for them and (b) letting potential readers who do fall in our target audience know this book is something they might want to check out.

It’s never fun to get a negative review but every book has its niche audience and not everyone fits into that audience. Everyone has different levels of what they like or don’t like in a book. POV, characters, storyline, plot, description, dialogue, pretty much anything can be a hit or a miss for readers. For example, I don’t particularly care for love triangles but sometimes an author convinces me that the triangle works for the storyline and the characters. It’s still not my favorite romance arc but it doesn’t “ruin” a book. Like any reader, I have my particular genres and subgenres I enjoy reading more than others and I always try to take a genre mismatch into account when I’m reviewing a book that is more miss than hit for me. A stale plot or less than perfect editing can be rescued by characters and the heart of the story. I’ve read some stories I consider diamonds in the rough because they need more editing rounds.

For the three stories I gave less than three stars to, the key factor I looked at was the content and whether or not I thought it really fit the stated goal audience. I always try to take into account whether the book is written for a secular or Christian audience because different audiences lead to different expectations and I do hold books written for Christian audiences at a higher standard. I also hold books for YA and children to a higher standard for content. I firmly believe writers can address tough topics and include violence and romance without being gratuitous so when I read a book where the content seems to be hugging the gratuity factor a little too much for my taste I ask “Is it necessary?” Is it essential to the plot for this character or scene to be there? Does it add to the story or distract from it? Should I recommend it to people who have different reading tastes than I do? I also admit that I can be really thrown off when anachronistic words show up in medieval/early history settings especially in fantasies because they yank me out of the story mood. Lots of other readers won’t even bat an eye at these things. But I mention these instances in my reviews because I know there are other readers who don’t like anachronistic moments/words to be a surprise and are more tolerant of them if they go into the book knowing they are going to show up or they pass and another negative review is avoided. I also mention them for the authors since many a time it is extremely easy to accidentally use  period/setting-inappropriate words, phrases, and terms because we use them all the time in everyday life. Like I said before, what is a complete miss for me can be or is a hit with a lot of other readers based on other reviews simply because we all have different tastes.

Honest reviews can hurt at times. Especially if they’re not positive. I debated a long time over what the overall grade for the books should be because I didn’t like giving low stars but I also didn’t feel I could just inflate the score or not review at all. But I also tried to recommend possible fixes for the authors to take to help avoid negative reviews in the future. One of the books was by a Christian author who went very gritty and edgy. Just a brief head’s up in the product description would have been enough for me to know I should probably pass because it doesn’t fit my reading tastes. I respect authors for writing the stories they want to write even when it’s not necessarily a story I want to read. It takes courage to put your book out there for the world to see, especially when you know what is sweet or compelling for one reader might be sour candy for another. And of course, one person may love the sour candy and dislike the sweet candy. It all depends on one’s outlook. For example, I’ve discovered I’m not really a steampunk girl so I’m less likely to pick up steampunk for review anymore. But, if someone asks me about Christian steampunk writers, I know what names to give them.

Not every writer or every book is for every reader but for every book and writer there is going to be an audience. I like happier, more hopeful stories. I have friends who like grim, dark stories. I like romance with comedy over outright horror or techy sci-fi. I have friends who like horror, techy sci-fi, and thrillers over any hint of romance or fantasies with humor. I like arranged marriages and friends falling in love over a period of time over love triangles and insta-love. I have friends whose likes are the exact opposites. But we have different options because there are so many books available. I also have taken to reading negative reviews first to see what people are saying and if there are any specific mentions of content or plot twists that would lessen my enjoyment of a book. I don’t want to read a book I don’t enjoy or at least like a lot. Who does? Reviews are naturally biased to your own preferences even though I do try to take these into account and be as fair as possible. Every person’s measure of content, editing, plot, and characters is subjective. This is what writers need to keep in mind when the negative review shows up. Take negative reviews with a grain of salt, this reviewer was not your intended audience, but also keep in mind that negative reviews with solid reasoning can help attract your intended audience, cut down on the future negative reviews, and also give you things to consider with your writing style.

Negative reviews are unpleasant and can be devastating to a writer’s feelings but they are not always bad news.



One thought on “No Three Star Rule or Why I Write Negative Reviews

  1. Medieval Girl

    As a book blogger, reviewer and fellow Medieval enthusiast I agree very much with the views expressed here. I think negative reviews can be helpful, not just in highlighting the shortcomings of a work, but also by enabling readers to see the whole picture and make an informed choice.
    I once had a reader thank me for thanking me for drawing attention to a rape scene in my review of one particular title, as nobody else had, as she would have found it upsetting.

    For instance, I don’t like it when historical fiction is riddled with anachronisms, modern speech and values, or is hideously politically correct. I also don’t like novels which are historically dishonest of vilify the English- as that would just annoy me. So I appreciate it when reviewers mention these things, so that I can make my own decision about getting them to avoid disappointment .
    Is there anything more annoying than shelling out for a book because all the reviews say it was wonderful, but you end up really disliking it?

    At the end of the day, I am not going to say I like a book when I don’t, and I think we do in a sense owe it to ourselves and others to he honest. The truth can hurt, but we should not force others to shut up and say nothing.


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