Review. Criticism. Feedback. Three words that scare many writers. It’s arguably human nature to feel alarmed when someone points out mistakes and shortcomings. Most of us learn to cope with criticism.
But how many authors realize that writing a review can actually help their own writing?
I have worked with countless reviews as a writer-reader—the two are a bit like the concept of space-time; two facets of the same underlying reality. In other words, I have written reviews for others, and I have read reviews written by other authors.
As a result, I have realized that writing reviews can be an enlightening experience.
Leaving an objective review for another writer on Amazon or Goodreads can be a great way to learn how to assess your own text. The exercise may help you discover aspects of writing an author normally does not investigate while writing.
I emphasized the term “objective” right above, because it is critical. In the context of improving your own writing through reviewing the work of others, writing objective reviews is the only way to learn.
For our purposes, an objective review is one written from the perspective of the intended audience. In other words, to write an objective review is to write while letting go of personal preferences for the duration of the process.
There is a sad realization in regard to the vast majority of casual literary criticism out there. In this context, I use the term “casual” to refer to nonacademic criticism, such as the one seen on sites like Amazon, Goodreads, or literary blogs.
The problem with such casual criticism is that it can be described as too personal. All too often I see critical reviews predicated on the “I didn’t like it” argument. This affects fiction in particular, though nonfiction is not immune from it.
But whether or not one liked a certain text can hardly be a justification for a review. Let me explain this with a personal example.
Once I was asked to review a romance novel. To say that it’s not my favorite genre is an understatement. I’d rather read the Terms of Service of a website or the ingredient list of a painkiller than a romance novel.
But I agreed, because I knew I could separate my personal preferences from reading and review the novel objectively.
The novel was awful in terms of what I like to read but highly successful as a romance novel. It contained all the tropes, all the narrative checkpoints one expects from such works. I gave it 4/5 stars.
Had I reviewed that novel from a personal-preference perspective, a person reading the review would have learned nothing. How unhelpful, to discover that someone who doesn’t like romance novels didn’t like that given one either!
Conversely, reading a review that focuses on the technical aspects, the reader of the review can draw more objective and hence useful conclusions.
When writers are forced to approach a text leaving their personal preferences aside, they need to focus on certain aspects of writing that are objective in nature.
To name just a few examples, a reviewer needs to establish whether the language of the text is elaborate or simplistic, the sections extensive or short, and the style original/unorthodox or predictable/relatable.
The presence of these latter dual elements perhaps can offer a hint: There is no qualitative assessment involved, only the detection of a certain element.
In other words, whether a text is written in a style similar to other texts or displays something unique is not enough by itself for a reviewer to reach a qualitative conclusion. It all depends on the context, that is, the genre of the text, the medium, and the scope.
For instance, an article on a blog dealing with financing needs to be mostly relatable: The reader should be able to “navigate” through the arguments in a recognizable way, one familiar from other similar texts.
Conversely, a science-fiction short story would require some originality. If the text were too similar to other such narratives, we would be talking of a “predictable” text—and it probably wouldn’t be good news.
The reviewer who develops this kind of objectivity learns to focus on the detection of such elements, leaving what I coined as the “I didn’t like it” aspect aside.
Consequently, learning to detect such elements in other people’s texts can help authors recognize them in their own writing as well.
As I mentioned in my article about writing quotas, “a good writer must experience the world, reflect on their experiences, and only then attempt to ‘translate’ them into words.”
That is to say, emotion and personal input are absolutely integral for a text of any kind. Be it a novel, an op-ed, or an online article on corporate practices, personal voice is a crucial part of a successful outcome.
The thing is, this process, necessary though it may be, does not favor the detection of the more technical aspects of writing, as I described in the previous section. The average writer doesn’t usually focus on things such as the length of paragraphs or the connection between the given text and others.
Probably Ernest Hemingway never actually said “write drunk; edit sober,” as it is attributed to him, but the lesson is clear nonetheless: There is something inherently chaotic and rebellious about successful writing—that is, allowing one’s inner voice to emerge.
Yet this can also interfere with the more prosaic aspects of producing a text, such as the technical aspects mentioned above.
However, being able to detect them in other writers’ texts—where you don’t have an emotional connection—can indeed teach you how to do it with your own text.
If you’ve praised other writers’ ability to formulate coherent prologues, or criticized their efficiency in wrapping up the argument in their epilogue, it’s highly likely you will notice these details in your own text.
The question that perhaps remains is whether one can learn how to do that more efficiently. Sneak preview: yes, keep reading!
As Giselle Sproule aptly said in her article “What I Learned About Writing From Reading Margaret Atwood”:
Reviewing another writer’s book takes this a step further. In a sense, it forces you to make it specific, to ask yourself (and answer), in which way does this book work so well?
Let’s think of a short example. One of my favorite authors—and a source of inspiration—is Franz Kafka. Let’s assume I’m communicating this to someone. This person might ask: “Well, why do you like Kafka?”
To simply say “I just like him” or “I just like his style” is entirely unsatisfactory. I would have to make it specific and say that I like his focusing on meaninglessness and urban alienation; his disregard of established norms of writing that required fantasy and realism to be strictly separate; his ability to invade the minds of his characters.
Being forced to specify such elements also forces a writer to consider them in their own writing. Perhaps we could speak of a building where the foundation is reading another author’s work, the ground floor is reviewing it, and the second floor is writing your own text. Each stage makes the one above it stronger.
Sometimes people ask me whether anyone can be a good writer. I tell them that anyone can be a better writer. And here are some tips that can make you a better writer by making you a better reviewer.
As I already mentioned further above, the best way to write objective reviews (and thus improve your own writing) is to review not as yourself but as the intended audience of the work in question.
To an extent this might require some guessing. It can also be a genre you are not very familiar with. But it can still work, provided you know at least something about the intended audience and the genre.
(If I were asked to review a book on knitting, I would politely decline. To me, knitting is something between witchcraft and quantum mechanics!)
Still, as the earlier example of my reviewing a romance novel demonstrated, this is not only feasible but also very educational. Reviewing a book in an unfamiliar and unfavorite genre can be great for understanding the technical aspects of writing.
An author wouldn’t write an article starting with the conclusion, nor a book without paragraphs. A review should be treated with the same respect.
In other words, a review should be a coherent, sensical text. It should have a structure, even abstractly so, with a introduction, a main analysis, and a conclusion. Each part of the analysis should be naturally connected to its adjacent ones.
Too often I see reviews consisting of a single paragraph where the reviewer basically offers a two-sentence synopsis, subsequently mentioning that they liked the book (or didn’t). This is not a review.
A review, just like any text, should offer an introduction where the reviewer can offer a rationale for reading the book, why it is an important book, or any other such context.
It should of course also offer the main analysis, itself structured in a sensical way. Believe it or not, I have seen reviews analyzing the ending of a book first and then the beginning—laced with some random comments on other issues in-between.
Naturally, a review should also have a conclusion where more general comments on the text or its connection with other texts can be offered.
To learn how to structure a review means to learn the importance of structuring a text in general. Understanding the effect ordering has on a review helps the author realize its importance when writing other texts, too.
Well, maybe this is a bit misleading; you should focus on the what as well, but never without including why.
That is, a good reviewer should not only explain that a certain aspect of the text doesn’t work but also clarify why this happens.
For example, to say in a review “the argument on X was bad” is quite useless. To say “the argument on X was unconvincing, as it was offered without any supporting evidence and occupied a very small portion of the text,” is much better.
Learning to review focusing on the why something works (or doesn’t) not only makes you a better reviewer, but it immensely helps your writing. As it becomes obvious, learning why something works or not is a necessary prerequisite for applying it to your own writing.
A text never exists in a vacuum. Whether it’s a fantasy novel, a political essay, or an online article on artificial intelligence, there are other similar texts out there. Countless such texts. Reviewing one should always be about recognizing its connection with the rest.
Think of the text you’re reviewing as a tree. You pay attention to the leaves, the trunk, the roots. All this is good and nice, but you also need to realize that there is a forest around that single tree; indeed, an ecosystem. You should consider how the single tree relates to the ecosystem.
In particular, when reviewing a given text, the reviewer should always understand the relation between this text and the rest of its kind and offer a comparative analysis. Does the text feature something unique in comparison to other similar texts? Does it follow certain generic conventions? And how successfully?
Recognizing the place occupied by others’ texts helps the author discover the place of their own text in this literary ecosystem. Perhaps it’s similar to other texts, or perhaps it’s more original.
Remember, this by itself is not a qualitative assessment. But it can help authors understand their texts in a better, different way, which can help them highlight their advantages and improve or mask any possible disadvantages.
When Pablo Casals, once the world’s most respected cellist, was asked why he continued to practice for hours each day at the age of 81, he answered: “Because I think I am making progress.”
Reviewing and writing are arts that can be practiced and improved. They are both journeys, not destinations. Perhaps not all of us can become the most objective and knowledgeable literary critic, or the world’s best author. But we can all become at least better.
Reviewing other people’s texts is sometimes a misunderstood process. The word “criticism” itself has often negative associations.
It originates from the ancient Greek word “crisis,” which means not only “emergency” or “calamity,” as the modern meaning connotes, but also “the noetic process leading to a decision” or “a trial of valor.”
Perhaps authors should focus on these latter meanings. Both when reviewing others’ texts and when we see our own texts reviewed, we should strive to understand that every review of a text hides the opportunity for making something better.
Chris Angelis has a PhD in English literature from the University of Tampere. Besides his academic research in Gothic/horror & science fiction literature, he is also a writer of literary fiction, and the owner of a literature blog, Home For Fiction. Furthermore, he develops programs focusing on literature, writing, and texts in general. Chris is a senior content editor for Craft Your Content.