One of the many things I’m behind on, especially in regard to this site, is my pile of review to-dos. That doesn’t mean manuscripts; it means books I’ve read (or listened to, in the case of audiobooks) and think are worth talking about.

But a review is actually a delicate sort of art, and — as readers here well know! — I tend to be more on the verbose side. That actually isn’t the way I should be doing it, and as I get back into the swing of things I need to watch that. Part of it is that because this site exists to focus on writing advice, I like pulling out lessons; but that isn’t always the best use of a review even for here, even if the only people reading the reviews are authors looking for tips and tricks.

So what does go into a good review? And what’s the difference between a review and a critique? The first thing to remember is that writing is an art, not a science. Just as different people will write differently, different reviewers will see different things. So it’s important, whether you’re giving a basic Amazon review or a detailed critique of a manuscript, to take your own tastes out of the equation.


That doesn’t mean you need to ignore your own preferences; just be aware that they’ll shape how you see the story in question. Did you go in with the expectations that the author, publisher, director expected you to have? Did you misunderstand anything through your own interpretation? If you had gone in expecting something, would you have liked it better?

One example for this is Dan Wells’ I Am Not a Serial Killer. This is a supernatural horror YA (and an excellent one) starring a teen sociopath who realizes that there’s a literal monster in his small town, and he’s the only one who can stop it. The vast majority of the negative reviews, however, focus on how the supernatural part wasn’t telegraphed properly. They went in expecting straight drama, and wound up in paranormal territory. That’s a failure on the part of the packaging, not on the part of the reviewer. If you find yourself in that sort of situation, then you should try to point out that you liked it, but it should have been marketed better; or that you didn’t like it, but that’s because you thought it was something else to start with.

When doing a critique, on the other hand, that is definitely something you’re trying to push as “wrong.” A review is done when a book is already published; a critique is performed on a manuscript that is still being worked on. The latter requires you to point out anything wrong, anything at all, including your own personal taste. That’s important, because the author, editor, and publisher are using you to gauge the response of the intended audience, even if you’re not part of that same group. Critiques are generally something alpha and beta readers do, and they’re an important part of the process.

This changes subtly yet profoundly when you loop in professionals. Non-pro reviewers and critiquers will tend to see things through the lenses of their own experiences and tastes. A good editor learns to see things through many different styles. One of the things I keep stressing with my interns is that their job is to work with the author, and not make the author sound like them.

The trick with good feedback is always to consider “How could the story be better?” rather than “What would make *me* like the story better?” Most non-pro reviewers only review things they think they’d be interested in in the first place, but there’s still a lot of room out there.

Let’s step outside the specific topic of books and go to the most recent video game everyone loves to dump on without having played it, namely Mass Effect: Andromeda. Most reviews mention the horrible animations (which aren’t truly *horrible,* just obviously subpar for today’s tech). Very few mention the story. No negative review mentions mechanics, unless it’s to cover item crafting (in which case it’s usually to complain about the concept, not the execution in the game itself).

Most of the negative reviews are people jumping on the bandwagon of why *they* don’t want to play, not “What this game is lacking that would make it better.” The first is nonconstructive criticism. It’s useless except in market research (finding out who your audience is and how to relate to their expectations). The latter is constructive, because it tells the creator where he or she screwed up and how to fix it next time.


Not actually a realistic depiction of a Novel Ninja intern in training. Results may vary. Professional driver, closed course, do not attempt.

The biggest problem with constructive criticism is actually not that most people aren’t accepting it; it’s that most people aren’t writing it. The small bits here and there get lost in tiny little reviews and rants and memes. Creators miss them because they’re avoiding the genuine attacks and nonconstructive feedback.

When writing a review or a critique, pause to ask: “I know this is always my personal opinion, but is my opinion based on my emotional response, or based instead on my careful consideration of what this story lacks?”