The Troll Under the Bridge: How to Write a Good Bad Book Review

A TrollFor the last few months I have been happily on top of my bridge.

My new book A Jane Austen Daydream had been out for a while, and to my relief it was getting great reviews, even from the Jane Austen Center and AustenProse (two reviews I was scared about). And on GoodReads I was averaging above 4.25 with a majority of my reviews being 5-stars. Happily, the responses there seemed to be between loving it and simply enjoying it. Yes, there were one or two that didn’t enjoy it, but that is fine. That’s life! Suffice to say, I had let my guard down and that is when trolls like to jump and grab you. And one finally did on Amazon:

When will I learn not to trust a book’s 5-star ratings? If they aren’t written by Momma, then they’re paid for.

If you prefer low-level reads (around  4th or 5th grade in reading difficulty), and poor writing, you might be able to  slog your way through this. For me, not even Jane Austen could force me to finish it.

Glad I borrowed this and kept my money. Then again, Amazon makes it easy to return garbage books.

After reading that review I was understandably angry, which was exactly what the troll wanted to have happen (kudos to him, he succeeded). I think what bothered me  the most is that it crossed a line by attacking the other 37 reviewers of my book (at the time of this writing), claiming that they were paid for and shouldn’t be taken seriously by readers. Of course, this is not true, and I have even written a post on this site (here) discussing my disgust with that practice.

Whatever the case, I kind of feel sorry for the reviewer because, frankly, he doesn’t know how to write a bad book review and in the end the review makes him look worse than me or my book… he just doesn’t realize that yet. See, like most things in writing there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. Here are some things to remember when you have to create the dreaded bad book review.

Finish the damn book!

I am the book reviewer for my local NPR station, WKAR, and I appear on their show Current State every other week to review a book and possibly promote a local event or signing (You can find links to my reviews via this page). Sometimes the books I read are good, sometimes mediocre, and sometimes bad… and sometimes very, very bad.

Recently, I had to read a book by a very popular author that started off okay. Three-hundred pages in it had its moments, but was feeling like a lukewarm experience. Then… Then…

Then the author added a character and a twist that was not even hinted at in the book description. This new character was disgusting, demented, and disturbing and if I didn’t promise to do the book review, I probably would have put the book down and walked away; possibly even dramatically thrown it away.

But I couldn’t do that. Nope! Because as a reviewer I needed to experience the complete project. It’s a form of honesty.

To judge something based on only the first taste is not fair to the dish or the cook, something we have all seen tantrum-prone toddlers do. And as a reviewer you have to be fair to the full meal. Yes, this can be difficult to do, especially if you didn’t like the bits you read so far, but who said writing a bad book review was easy?

No, writing a bad book review is actually much more difficult than a good one since you have to get through it all the way first. Unlike the toddler with broccoli, you need to eat everything on the plate. This is part of the job! Only then do you have the right to dish out your judgment.

Is there anything redeeming?

This is probably the most difficult part about writing a bad book review, because sometimes when confronting a book we did not like we want to lash out (like my reviewer). It takes a lot of maturity to take a breath and give another thought to a book you want to forget.

Current StateLet me return to my example I gave about the book I am reviewing for WKAR’s Current State that I don’t like. Yes, I would not want to read it again, but there is a chance some might want to read it no matter what I say. So I need to think about that readership, For example, one of the positives I point to is the writer’s skill in characterization.

One of the great things about doing this is that it also helps you look non-bias as a reviewer and gives you a leg to stand on when you begin to discuss what you don’t like.

We are all different

Sometimes I am shocked when someone says they like a book or author I don’t. For example, the author of that bad book review seems to be into pulp fantasy work, giving many five-stars. Now, I have no idea if those books or good or not, because  I have not read them. But if you look over my reviews from other readers it is obvious that some like what I do.

So what do you do as a reviewer? Well, one thing I like to do is focus on the readers that may enjoy that style of book. Don’t be subtle, name the kind of readers that might like a certain book. For example, a few months ago I reviewed a mystery I thought was poorly written, but I focused in on the kind of reader that might enjoy it, giving them an insight into what they will find between the covers.

Remember, just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean everyone will react the same way. Part of the job of being a good reviewer is finding the audience for a book. Wonderfully, we are not all the same.

No expectations

We are a society run by commercials. For example, a bad trailer can destroy a film’s chance in the movie theaters no matter how good or bad.

There are many ways a reader (and reviewer) can have their expectations set before beginning a novel. Book descriptions, online trailers, commercials, other reviewers, etc.  And then there are the books written by authors we know. And sometimes those past relations with the author can play a major part in whether a reader likes or dislikes a work, because we are judging the work not by other books and authors, but by other works by that specific individual.

As reviewers we need to turn this off, forget everything we have heard or read about a work and experience it as the author wanted us too. Again, it is a matter of fairness.

It’s not personal

Reading is probably the most personal artform because it exists solely in our imagination. We trust the author to come in, as it were, and play in the recesses, give us a story. Our imaginations are the canvas, they have the brushes. Our emotions are the colors to be painted with.

It is so easy to get angry or to fall in love with a work, almost too easy. Just scroll through reviews on Amazon someday and you’ll see what I mean. Those that thought a book was merely okay don’t bother to review it. It is the books they feel strongly about that get the attention. The two four-lettered words you see the most in all reviews are “love” and “hate.”

A good book review does its best to avoid those powerful four-letter words.

You need to step back and look at a book almost coldly. Sometimes I take notes while I am reading a book I plan to review. This I find helps me keep centered and leave the emotions at bay.

Remember, every reader can tell a review written by emotions, and they are rarely taken as seriously as one written through a carefully planned argument.

The author is not the book

Recently, there was a horrendous news story that made its way around our country. A man in Florida killed his wife and then shared the picture on Facebook for all his friends (and his wife’s friends) to see. One of the odd little footnotes to the story is the murderer self-published novels, including one that was a guide to a successful marriage.

Out of a dark curiosity I looked up the author’s work on Amazon. There were a lot of warning signs that this author was not right in the head, heck the titles were incomprehensible. How these works did not flash red lights for the people who knew him I have no idea. But what startled me at that moment is that under the book there were already a series of reviews from people linking to the news story shouting “Don’t buy this book!”

Naked LunchIn 1951, William Burroughs (author of The Naked Lunch) shot and killed his wife while drunk, playing a twisted version of William Tell. It can also be argued that Ernest Hemingway killed one of the most important writers of the last century (himself). Then there is in the art world where Jackson Pollack died in a car accident, he was drinking and driving and this led to the death as well of one of the innocent passengers. I could go on and on and we all have dark examples.

You may hate an author, you may find them disgusting, you might hate their politics… whatever the case, as a book reviewer you need to forget it if you want to give a legitimate review. Look at the book as its own entity. If your review attacks the author, even in the back of your mind while you are writing it, your review is not fair.

Remember no one says you have to read and review everything (for example, I plan to avoid the movie of Ender’s Game because of the comments of Orson Scott Card). It can be a struggle to make this separation, I know, but again, this is part of the job of being a good reviewer. You need to focus solely on the product, or you are doing something entirely different.  And if you can’t make the separation know when to back away.

About ten years ago, I was attacked by someone I know via Amazon reviews.  My personal secret troll.

This person wrote about two dozen bad reviews of one of my old books, all pretty much copied and pasted from the same source material. Amazon’s customer service was very kind working with me, being obvious to them as well that something different was going on here. Working together, those reviews disappeared.

Of course, sadly, with how the internet works today, some of those reviews still exist out there.  And that is the problem with the social media we all have to navigate through; the internet is forever, and there are always people out there waiting to bring you down a notch, take something you do personally.

One of my writing friends recommended never to read reviews, saying that it is not worth it. I understand this perspective, and I definitely think I could spend a lot less time Googling my book and looking it up on GoodReads. But to be honest, I like social media the good and the bad. Twitter is fun, and Facebook used to be fun. And frankly, there will always be trolls in our world, just like there will always be a bully on a playground.

The trick, I think is to learn how to spot the trolls and keep them in check.  And if you follow these rules for writing your own bad book review someday, you don’t have to be one as well.

Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, CoverIf you liked reading this post, why not check out one of my books? (they are good, I swear!) I’ve had four novels published in the last few years, A Jane Austen DaydreamMaximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous DareMy Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here, or as an eBook on Google eBooks here.  Thanks for reading!

Need an editor? Dream of finishing that book but need some help? Learn about my editing services by visiting this page on my site. Or you can contact Rebecca T. Dickson and request to work with me by clicking the image below.

Rebecca T. Dickson, Editor

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15 responses

  1. I have heard about trolls from other authors (it also happens with Spanish authors) and I think it is terrible.
    Anyway, in my opinion you should read reviews of your work, but only the ones that respect the author and give a well based criticism. As a reader, sometimes I feel difficult to write a bad review (and also the super good ones) but I try just to explain why I didn’t like the book. I think it is the most fair way to review a book you didn’t like.

  2. Until recently, I would never review a book that I did not like. I just felt terrible giving it two stars. But I realised that there were other people like me who would just not review and this would result in a book having only four or five stars but this would only reflect the opinion of readers who liked the book. Not a good balance. So, since then, I have started to review books I did not find good and I have found it extremely difficult to do it in a nice way. But no matter what, even if one finds a book badly written, this book is still someone’s ”baby” and no one likes to be told their baby is ugly. Keeping this in mind and that the review is only my opinion, I seldom discourage anyone to read a book I did not like. I always try to find some redeeming qualities and I try to explain, why, as a reader and being me, I did not like it.
    As a reader, when I want a new book, I usually read all the reviews, good and bad. And some are bad bad. But I think that most readers can discern a good bad review from a bad bad review. For me, a bad bad review is a non review. If I read a review like ” don’t read this book, it is crap” I just feel like answering ”hey, who are you to tell me what I should read or not?”. Of course, I do not answer but my rebellious streak most probably makes me want to read that book. I do like like good bad reviews though. As with the good reviews, they help me to make a decision if I want to read this book or not, or if indeed, I need a new book, since my to be read list is longer than a novel.
    But reading many reviews on Amazon, I do feel some people have forgotten that at the other end of the screen, there are real people, with feelings too. Maybe some writers should not give up the day job yet, but I believe writing is like singing. One can improve by practising (now you know why I am a reader and not a writer). If one believes in one’s dreams, then one should go after them. And If one gets good bad reviews, then do not shoot the reviewer, like some authors do, but take them as what they are, advices and pointers.as what to avoid.
    As for bad bad reviews because the reviewer was in a bad mood, or got stuck in the tram, got soaked or whatever and want to vent their frustration on someone they do not know, just put them where they belong: in the dustbin and put the lid firmly back on…

    • Sometimes I feel guilty about writing a bad book review too. One focus I keep (which I did not bring up in my post) is the idea of helping the author for the next book. Granted, this does not work for my NPR book reviews (many times those are older writers who know better!), but if I am reading something by a new author it is hard for me to turn off the teacher in me.

      You are right about forgetting about the other people on the other side of the screen. Because the thing is everyone sees everything. A writer sees every reviewer, as does an actor, or a director. We like to believe they don’t, but they do.

      Honestly, I could practice everyday but I would still not be a good singer. Trust me! LOL.

  3. Sorry about your troll experience.

    Slightly off topic, but I’m interested in your opinion, as an author, about the Goodreads star system. I would think very few books I read would be “amazing.” Left to my own devices, I’d give 5 stars to a book I “really like,” but according to Goodreads, that should be 4 stars, not 5.

    Maybe I’m just a little OCD, but this has actually prevented me from rating books on Goodreads. Do you, as an author, feel I should go ahead and give 5 stars to a book I “really like” but don’t find “amazing”?

    As an author myself, I feel I should, since people tend to be a lot more likely to read a book with more 5 star reviews, and I do like the book enough to recommend others read it. But….maybe I should follow the rules.

    Interested in others’ thoughts.

    • You can give 5 stars to my books if you want? LOL

      Honestly, the star review bothers me too. The whole thumbs down or up does as well. I just don’t think art can be graded like a math test or logic or comparison. It just is.

      When I review on good reads I focus on my experience, not whether I discovered a new classic.

      For me, the last 5 stars I gave was The Ocean at The End of the Lane. Good book.

  4. I know you say you have to give the whole book a chance before you review a book, but what if the case is that the book is just poorly written? And by poorly written, I mean, broken and damn-near unreadable. Is it still worthy of being read? And if not, does that directly reflect on the author? I think it is still a viable issue in the modern world, where things can be published as long as they are funded. Any book, no matter how poorly written, will get press and become popular as long as it is raunchy or controversial.

    • Then I guess the question is what would be the message of your review? Stay away! run away! Don’t read this book at all!

      To be honest I don’t think that kind of a review is necessary. The market is so congested a book that badly done will just get lost in the mix. And in the long run all you’re probably doing is hurting the person who wrote the book. A newbie, maybe a kid. A dreamer.

      Not to make an excuse for bad writing remember without the Dictionary at the back of Clockwork Orange, it is almost unreadable and don’t give me started on Finnigan’s Wake by James Joyce. LOL!

  5. The end of your post is a cliff-hanger. How does one keep said trolls in check?
    I do apologize, but I have to say that I don’t agree that making bad reviews disappear is the proper way to deal with a troll. As mentioned in the post, there will always be trolls: people who wish you say terrible things just because they have the ability to do so. Unless the bad review personally attacks the author and is completely unrelated to being an actual book review, then what is the purpose of disallowing a bad review to become buried among good reviews?

    I do agree with the majority of this post though. Simply getting mad and defensive over someone’s spite isn’t truly worth it. Good read. Thank you for posting.

    • The internet is a freedom at its most free, I can’t imagine any rules really stopping the practice. One option is to maybe have a test proving the reviewer read the entire manuscript. Or maybe someone could review it before it is accepted for the page? I would choose the later. But what a frustrating job that would be!

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