Rant: Totally positive reviews don't help a writer grow.
|Recently I discovered the "Top 100 Most Credited Reviewers" page. Curious to know what kind of reviews they were delivering, I picked three reviewers at random from the top 10 and skimmed the first three or four reviews from each.
Here's what I found: Every last review was a gush.
Know what I mean by that? Everything's incredible, awesome, poignant, beautifully crafted, and wonderfully written. Totally positive. Nary a weakness in sight. Four and five ratings galore.
Amazed that these reviewers should have consistently found such marvelous examples of perfect writing, I checked out some of the items they reviewed. There was some good stuff, but there were a lot of—to put it charitably—semi-literate efforts.
I don't want to quote any of the reviews because I don't want to "out" any individual reviewers, who are no doubt sincere in what they do. So I'll paraphrase. I'm talking about things like "This was the most beautiful poem I have ever read, which I think about every one of your poems I've read and I don't know how you keep coming up with such wonderful ideas." or "Every word of your story was just absolutely perfect from the title right through to the incredible ending."
Why would I object to such glowing reviews?
* First, they're not discriminatory. They could be written for any poem or story in the world (in fact, one reviewer seemed to use the same paragraph in various reviews). Does a cookie-cutter review help anyone?
* Second, such reviews may build the writer's self-esteem but they don't build the writer's craft. Are the reviewers afraid of "hurting the writer's feelings"? Any writers with skin so thin that they will be hurt by anything other than a positive review should not be writing for public consumption.
* Third, without a focus on specifics of word use, sentence structure, sensory imagery, figurative language, plot development and the like, vague positive comments (gushes) do not develop the writer's strengths.
* Fourth, every writer has weaknesses; if those weaknesses aren't identified (with helpful suggestions for improvement, of course) how can a writer grow or develop?
* Fifth, gush reviews don't reflect the real world of publication. Usually, an editor sends a form rejection letter (Heaven knows, I've had enough of those over the past 40 years!) and if the writer is lucky there'll be a brief note about why the piece was rejected or a tip for improvement. But most editors are far too busy for that. An aphorism I wrote and hold as a motto is: "Rejection is the whetstone on which writers hone their craft." A corollary is "Persistence is the oil for the stone."
Please note that I am not recommending negative reviews. While the totally positive review is unhelpful, the totally negative review can be damaging, especially to new writers or to those who are unsure of their ability. Weaknesses can be identified indirectly, via suggestions for improvement, and this is what I always try to do with my own reviews. But if I do see a weak area that could be improved, I am surely going to include it in the review, as tactfully as I can.
The most helpful reviews I have received so far on this site have pointed out what the reviewers perceived as flaws in the items reviewed. Oh, those reviewers gave me a balanced view with some strong sections identified, but they weren't afraid to point out weak areas or offer suggestions for making the item stronger or better written. Reviews like those make me take another look at my work, make me consider, make me revise, and, I hope, will help me to improve.
I don't need positive reviews to build my self-esteem (editors who send checks* do that), though positive comments are always welcome. But please don't hold back if there's something you think could be better written, something that misses the mark, something that spoils the mood or is inconsistent or out of place. You won't hurt my feelings. I'll pay close attention to what you say and use your comments to review my past writing and build for the future.
If you review my work, please don't gush.
UPDATE 2021-07-29: J.B. Ezar wrote a personal rant in reaction to this piece. He has another slant with some strong points. With his permission, I share his comments here.
This won’t be a real review, only a reaction to your rant. Personal, ranty reaction.
There are two aspects to “Top 100 Most Credited Reviewers” that I think you haven’t considered. The first is technical. To be included in the list or reach the top, all you need to do is receive GP credits through the Public Reviewers page. There is no judging behind it other than the mindless algorithms following the voice of the masses. Some reviewing groups encourage all participants to go through the list and credit the reviews of their fellow group members. Some groups are so large, even 25 GPs from each participant can significantly promote the reviewer. Some reviewers are so productive that they manage tens of reviews a day, flooding the list and gathering more accidental credits. Some people are so popular, their fans just keep sending them reviewing credits regardless of the content.
If you want to see quality reviewers on top, you need to cast your vote. Don’t leave the decision to people who don’t care about quality. Your vote counts more than you think. I rarely do more than a review a week, which often only gets a single credit of about 1K, yet it consistently puts me somewhere in the last third of the list.
The second aspect concerns individual goals. Not all people who post their work here want to improve their craft. Many people don’t care about the quality of their writing. They are here to socialize, share their experience, play a game, be with pleasant people, and indulge in their innocent quirks. They write and love receiving fluff and gush reviews because it’s a polite thing to do. Because they want to exchange attention. They don’t need to come up with something original; they don’t expect to receive something unique. It’s a “how are you?” that doesn’t require an answer. It’s the “I’ve been to your page and I like you” stamp. It’s old girlfriends complementing each other because that’s how they express their mutual affection.
I wish there was a section for every new item to leave a note for the reviewers, ask them some questions, specify what kind of feedback you want (although I imagine half of those fluff lovers would tell you they want honest reviews). You can do that in the body of your item, of course, in a drop note or a footnote. Personally, I love reviews that summarize the gist of the story so I can check if I’ve written what I intended to write. I love insights into what was going on in the reader’s head when they were reading. I love comments and analysis. I am grateful for every spotted mistype. As a non-native speaker, I appreciate all help with grammar. Before I joined "WYRM" , such reviews were rare. Now, I know where to find them. I try not to give unsolicited reviews because I don’t know the writer’s goals, and my brutal honesty isn’t always appreciated, but I love getting review requests.
Not all people who want to grow and improve their craft have publication as their goal. To write for publication means to write to the demand. I wrote a ridiculously long story, and if I wanted to seek publication, that story wouldn’t exist. I wouldn’t write what I want, only what I could sell, and this—for me—spoils the entire point of writing.
Receiving a review—even templated gush, even when the reviewer reads only the first paragraph—is still receiving a gift. A gift of time, a gift of attention. Besides, an occasional gush is a good background for quality reviews to stand out and really shine, don’t you think? [Ah, JB, how I wish it were only the occasional gush. But the overall site average rating is between 4.25 and 4.48. Gush ratings abound-TG]
Thanks for listening,
For another point of view, please read
*For more info about writing for pay, check out