Rant: Totally positive reviews don't help a writer grow (I'm being a curmudgeon today).
|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 30 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.
(End of rant. Thanks for listening.)
For another point of view, please read
*For more info about writing for pay, check out