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Thursday, April 17, 2014

On Reading Your One-Star Reviews...and Eating Rat Poison

By Randy Ingermanson 

(This is a two-part series of posts arguing why authors SHOULD versus SHOULD NOT read their one-star reviews. I knew Randy had strong feelings on this, and I think he nearly has me convinced I shouldn't read mine. Check in next month for the pros of reading low reviews with Julie Cantrell. I respect both authors so much and don't wish a one-star on either of them.--Heather Day Gilbert

Randy Ingermanson is the award-winning author of six novels and the best-selling book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES.  He holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from UC Berkeley and is the creator of the wildly popular Snowflake Method of writing a novel.  He edits the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine and gets ridiculous amounts of traffic on his web site at AdvancedFictionWriting.com.  Randy sits on the Executive Board of American Christian Fiction Writers and lives at an undisclosed location in the Pacific Northwest where he attends to the needs of three surly cats.


Don't Eat the Rat Poison
by: Randy Ingermanson



I was visiting my friend JimBob last month and we were having breakfast.

JimBob was reading the newspaper, doing the crossword, and I had my iPad out, reading reviews of my latest book on Amazon.

I slapped my hand down on the table hard. “Idiot!”

JimBob gave me a strange look. “I was just about to ask you for a five-letter synonym for ‘moron’ that ends with a T. You must be clairvoyant.”

“No, I’m furious.” I shoved my iPad over to JimBob. “Take a look at what this reviewer wrote about me.”

JimBob scanned the review. “Hmmm, what does ‘soporific’ mean?”

“Sleep-inducing. Which is ridiculous.”

JimBob kept reading. “What about ‘tepid dialogue?’ Dialogue doesn’t have a temperature. How can it be tepid?”

I just stared at him. “Do you think my books are sleep-inducing?”

“Why would you say that?” JimBob asked.

“Well, you didn’t say anything when I said it was ridiculous that this guy said it was sleep-inducing.”

“Because it was ridiculous.” JimBob shook his head. “This guy doesn’t like your writing. So what?”

“He’s an idiot!”

“So why do you care what an idiot thinks?”

I began spluttering. “Because … this review is out there in public.”

JimBob pointed at the screen. “He misspelled ‘boring’ right there. He spelled it ‘borring.’ And his grammar is horrible. I bet he’s 15 years old.”

Acid welled up in my stomach. “Is my writing really boring?”

“No.”

“Are you just saying that to make me feel better?”

“Yes.”

I stared at JimBob.

He punched me. “Teasing.”

I wanted to go punch a wall or something. I knew I was going to have another crappy day. This review was going to stick in my mind all week. I’d be thinking of all the horrible things this guy said about my book, and there was nothing I could do about it. I’d be so mad, I wouldn’t be able to write. And it was all his fault.

“Why do you do that?” JimBob said.

“Do what?”

“Read your 1-star reviews.”

“Because they’re there.”

“That’s not a reason. These people aren’t in your target audience. You don’t owe them anything. Nothing you do will make them happy. Why should you care what they think?”

“Because … I might find ways that I can improve my writing.”

JimBob shoved the iPad back toward me. “This guy wants you to have zombies in your novel.”

“I don’t write zombie fiction.”

“And cussing.”

“I don’t need cussing to get my point across.”

 "And graphic sex scenes.”

“That’s not what I write.”

“So how is reading a review by a guy like this going to improve your writing? You don’t write the kind of things he wants, and you’re never going to write the kind of things he wants.”

“What, I should just bury my head in the sand and only read my 5-star reviews?”

“Who writes 5-star reviews?” JimBob asked.

“Well … that’s obvious. The people who really like my stuff. My biggest fans.”

“So if you read their reviews, will it tell you the things they like best, and remind you to do those more often and better?”

“Sure.”

“And if you read reviews by people who hate your writing, are you ever remotely likely to take their advice? Have you ever found any useful advice in a 1-star review?”

“It’s just something I have to do.”

The doorbell rang. A thunderstorm of footsteps clattered outside on the porch and down the steps.

JimBob went to answer the door.

I kept trying to think if I’d ever found even one helpful piece of advice in a 1-star review.

“Idiots.” JimBob slouched back into the room carrying a bowl. He went to the fridge, poured some milk in the bowl, grabbed a spoon and sat down at the table.

“What have you got there?” I asked.

JimBob put a spoonful in his mouth and began chewing. His face twisted into a horrible grimace, and then he began gagging. Suddenly, he couldn’t breathe.

I pounded him on the back.

He retched up something and spit it out on the table.

I stared at it. “What is that stuff?”

“Gift from the neighbor kids.” JimBob took another bite.

I looked at it closely. “It looks like rat poison.”

His face twisted again and he chewed furiously, then took a big swallow of orange juice and forced it down. His face had turned a sickly shade of pale green. “It is rat poison. The neighbor kids hate me.”

“Why?”

“Last month I called the cops on them because they were having a huge party with giant speakers out in the streets at 3 AM. They’ve had it in for me ever since.”

I stared at him. “So they bring you rat poison?”

JimBob nodded. “They leave a bowl of it on my doorstep every day.”

“And you eat it?”

“Yeah.”

“Why in the world would you eat rat poison?”

“Because it’s there.”

“That’s not a reason. Those kids hate you. You don’t have to eat what they give you.”

“Well, I might figure out what they don’t like about me so I can be a better person.”

“JimBob, that’s nuts! You already know why they hate you, and that’s not going to change. You’re not going to become a better person by eating rat poison.”

“What, I should just bury my head in the sand and only eat things made by people who like me?”

“That’s a whole lot better for you than eating rat poison from your enemies.”

JimBob put another spoonful in his mouth. “It’s just something I have to do.”

“Well, you’re crazy if you eat rat poison.”

He chewed and chewed and chewed and finally gagged down the mouthful. A terrible look crossed his face. He went running into the bathroom and I heard the sound of vomiting. JimBob was moaning. “I’m gonna be sick all day. And it’s all those kids’ fault.”

I shook my head. That was the weirdest thing I’d ever heard of.

I drank the rest of my orange juice and scrolled down to the next 1-star review of my book.

My face started getting hot. Here was another guy who didn’t get my writing. Didn’t like the kind of books I wrote. Wanted something completely different. And insisted on telling me all about it.

Idiot.

***Thank you for that well-written and very convincing post, Randy! Authors, I'd love it if you'd share your thoughts on reading low reviews--do you or don't you, and why or why not? Watch for next month's follow-up post!***


26 comments:

Jill said...

I've only had one, and it was bizarre--as in, did this person read the book? I read it, and it haunted me because I couldn't find an explanation for it. Why would a random stranger decide my self-pubbed book was the only book in the world he needed to review? That's why, I guess, they shouldn't be read. There's no point, no explanation. But then I hear about readers who always and only read 1-star reviews to determine whether they should buy a book. Might somebody read that one review and choose against my book? It's frustrating, but I can't do anything about it.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Thanks so much for sharing your reasoning on this, Randy...yes, you almost have me convinced. My first one star was well worded but she didn't finish the book. I can definitely see how reading those 1-stars, no matter how cavalier we are about them, gets to us as ARTISTS on some deeper level. We begin to believe them, no matter how unfounded, and it can stifle our creativity. I really do want to develop some kind of personal policy on this that I just stick with, like my policy not to respond to any reviews.

Connie Almony said...

Oh! My! Point taken!!!

Angie Grigaliunas said...

Ha, I love it! Though, I must admit, I do often read 1-star reviews of books. A lot of times, it gives me ideas of what people don't like. Of course, I will never please everyone. But when someone gets stuck on dry dialogue, or things being rushed, it reminds me to not do that in my own stories.

Or something like that.

Rebecca Taylor said...

Love it. Reading 1 star reviews is right up there with self-flagellation.

V. B. Tenery said...

Randy is right. I hate to read my 4-star reviews. No way would I read a 1-star. You may think I'm a little insecure and you'd be right. :)

Heather Marsten said...

LOL - wonderful article. If I really hate a book, I don't review it. Why waste my time? I've only written one one-star review and it was on a Christian book that seemed to imply it was a story of the author's trip to Heaven, but it became a hate-filled Bible bashing book that did not give what the title promised. The reason I wrote the review was to warn someone who might be seeking God not to read the book for fear that they might run, not walk away from God based on the contents of this book. If I can't give a book at least a three-star review, I don't bother. And, if I give less than four stars, I try to point out not only what I didn't like, but what I liked about the book. Note to self - don't eat the rat poison.

LadySaotome said...

lol - after this I'd almost be tempted to have a spouse or dear friend read those reviews and pass on what little may be worth noting and not sharing the rest.

Coming from the readers perspective, I don't tend to trust reviews if they are all 5-star and nothing below a 3. While 1 star reviews may not be pleasant, they provide a good counter-point for the 5-star reviews that are equally unhelpful. I always read a handful of the 5-stars, filtering out the ones that are empty praise. Then I do the same with the 1-stars (it's incredibly easy to pick out the trolls and haters from sincere 1-stars). Then I mostly read the 4 & 3 star reviews and see if the things they say line up with the criticisms in the 1-stars or praises of the 5-stars. And then it's easy to decide whether or not the critiques are something I even care about (and also easy to have all the praises outweigh them!).

Lynnette Bonner said...

Ha! Loved the post! I've actually talked to Randy a little about this over on Facebook. For me, NOT reading the 1 star reviews can almost be worse rat poison than reading them. My imagination takes over and the weaknesses in my writing that I can come up with are infinitely more damaging than reading someone's frustration with my books' spiritual messages. I honestly think each writer's personality plays a big role in whether they can handle reading them, or not. I have one friend who doesn't read ANY of her reviews. Again, for me, I would go nuts, but for her, it makes her feel better. I'll look forward to the next post. Thanks for sharing this!

Randy Ingermanson said...

Randy sez: I think it makes sense to have a trusted friend read your 1-star reviews and then let you know if there's anything useful in there that can help you improve your writing. There is certainly helpful information in the negative reviews and we all want to improve our writing. Nobody is a perfect writer. But the problem is that there's also rat poison that can ruin your day, and it really doesn't take much. It's much better to hear what you're doing wrong from a friend.

Susan Meissner said...

That was most enjoyable, Randy. I used to be you, Not a brilliant mastermind or a theoretical physicist (someday soon I need to know what that is in case I am ever in need of one( but a reader of my one-star reviews. Gave it up and have never looked back.

Amy Nowak said...

Not just for writers, this parable fits many occupations.

Christina Tarabochia said...

Goodreads was pretty new when my first book released, so the other day I ended up looking at reviews I had never seen. Ugh. Yes, there were some glowing with praise that really understood the book, but there were some awful ones that just cut right to my heart. I thought it would be okay to read them as they were years old, but ... nope, the words will still fresh and completely deflated me. Not good for me! As Elsa of Frozen wisely says, "The past is in the past!" ;)

Ron Estrada said...

Good stuff, Randy. I read a review on Goodreads that was just vulgar. A kid going on about the "Christian" undertone of the novel. Maybe he didn't expect that from a novel cearly labeled as Christian Fiction. I've also advised my partner, who has published her first novel, to check the number of one-star reviews for Moby Dick. 43 the last time I looked.

Maryann Miller said...

What a terrific way to get the message across. Thanks for entertaining while teaching. :-) I don't get upset over the one or two start reviews as most of them come from folks who are not in my target audience anyway. It is amazing to see some of those reviews and how poorly written they are.

Maryann Miller said...

I did mean "star" not "start." LOL

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Wondering if reviews like that can be flagged somehow on Goodreads like on Amazon, Randy? Basically bullying.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

And I meant Ron...but maybe Randy knows that answer too! :)

Terri Main said...

I guess I'm weird. I can read one star reviews with as much detachment as I can five-star. Probably more because I tend to get puffed up at my five stars and think I'm the greatest mystery writer since Agatha Christie. One stars are just interesting from the standpoint of either wondering if these guys really have that much time on their hands or how we have perverted the term review to mean any reaction someone has with or without any reasons given for that reaction. But to pay any attention to them is ridicoulous. In fact, it's kind of ridiculous to pay much attention to any one review and just look for trends.

But it did get me thinking. I'm going to write a blog post on why you Shouldn't read your FIVE STAR reviews.

Richard Mabry said...

Randy,
I have to confess that I read reviews (although never when I'm already even slightly depressed), but sometimes I have to interrupt my reading by chanting the mantra that was given me years ago: "I cannot expect to be universally loved and respected." Thanks for the reminder.

Kassandra Lamb said...

All of my one and two-star reviews (and I don't have a lot of them, thank God) start with "I didn't finish the book." While not being to able to hold a reader's interest enough to get them to finish the story is certainly a negative, if you didn't finish the DAMN BOOK how can you review it?

I don't give negative reviews. If I can't give at least 3 stars, I don't review it. Because there is the possibility that it just wasn't my cup of tea.

Bethany Macmanus said...

I agree wholeheartedly with what Randy sez, but I'm just wondering as you're scrolling down, how do you just skip over the One Stars? I mean, isn't it psychologically akin to having a big red button in front of you with a sign, "DON'T PUSH!"?
Thanks for sharing Randy's wisdom, Heather. :)

LadySaotome said...

Most sites, you can sort the reviews. So just click to only see the level of stars you want.

Bethany Macmanus said...

oh, right! I forgot about the bar graph at the top of the screen. Thanks. :) I still probably wouldn't have the "will power" to avoid them once I saw they were there...lol

Heather Day Gilbert said...

I agree, Bethany. Insatiable curiosity can indeed hurt the intrepid author...

Debra Ullrick said...

Well, I guess I've been eating rat poison for a long time. I am the same way you are... Or were? The negative reviews make me angry and get me so down sometimes, even to the point of wanting to quit. I’m tired of being insulted and put down. It's just another form of abuse and bullying as far as I'm concerned. What bothers me most is, they act like we don't have any feelings. Would they like it if someone criticized what they put their heart and soul into? Are they so beaten down themselves that they have to tear others down to make them feel better about themselves? Are they saying...see what "I" know? Just what is their motive, I wonder. Sometimes I want to blast them and tell them just what I think about their hateful, hurtful reviews. Then I remember how Jesus was insulted and criticized all the time and He let them insult him. Now, I'm thinking...hmmm why? Probably because He knew he'd never change their minds. He knew Who He was and Who He belonged to and that was enough for Him. Maybe I need to listen to my own words, huh? Anyway, thanks for the great post, Randy. I can't say I feel any better, but you've given me something to think about. Am I going to continue to eat rat poison by reading the negative reviews or am I going to avoid the poison at all costs no matter how hard it is to resist the temptation?