Saturday, August 18, 2012

Critique vs. Review

A few days ago, I wrote a review for a novelette I read. I generally don’t do that, but since I won the ebook for free, I felt it was proper. It took two drafts and between the two, my awareness of the difference between how I critique and how I review, and sometimes how I cross the two, increased. Mainly, with a review I’m addressing another reader, and not a fellow author. Here are some other things I learned.

An inordinate amount of technical jargon means I’ve written a critique. POV, formulaic, characters, passive vs. active, showing vs. telling, protagonists, plot, cliché, etc, etc—an author can recognize these shorthand terms and know what to do with them. That’s not necessarily true for readers. Too much of that means I’m analyzing the story as a writer instead of as a reader. It’s a sign I’m more hung up on style versus substance, which, if the style isn’t an utterly distracting disaster, shouldn’t be the main focus.

A lack of ‘story’ means I’ve written a critique. A critique assumes the reader (who is usually the author) knows the story. A review doesn’t. There should be a sense of progression, if possible, in explaining to the reader what the book is about and how I experienced it from beginning to end. All with a minimal amount of spoilers.

Too much objectivity means I’ve written a critique. Objectivity is good for critiques. A review is inherently subjective. I’m writing about my unique reading experience, so the piece should convey my personal impressions and not generalized observations. It’s okay to use ‘I’ and ‘me’ because that’s who I’m speaking for. It helps punctuate the elements in the story that affected me most.

A lack of proportionality means I’ve written a critique. My first draft focused only on the things I didn’t like, because those were freshest in my mind. With a critique partner, I can do that and the author will know I still like the overall story and writing. Not so with a reader browsing through reviews. The balance between positive and negative in my review should be a fair representation of my reading experience. By the second draft, I recalled several highlights I had overlooked—not things I had to hunt for, but things that buoyed above and made the read enjoyable for the moment. It wasn’t fifty-fifty, but there was a lot more to appreciate than I had originally stated.

In the end, I wrote the kind of review I wanted to read, the kind that could help me decide whether to take a chance on a book. For me, that review is comprehensive but concise, and, yes, in the age of e-publishing, it lets me know how the writing and editing stacks up. So, I felt it was okay to include a brief paragraph about technical issues—not a detailed list, but a general take on whether it was clean or problematic.

Also? Don’t publish your first draft cold. Let it simmer or write another. It just might be the difference between an unhelpful critique and a fair, honest review.

Photo: Copyright 2012 Gina Fairchild


  1. Very good advice, Gina. Writing the kind of review that would help a reader decide whether to take a chance on a book is the best kind of review, I think. I never review unless I enjoyed the book. My reasoning is this. Just because I didn't get anything out of the book doesn't mean someone else won't. And not publishing your first draft cold is excellent advice as well. I know from experience, because I've had to go back and edit more than once when I didn't.

    1. Hi Su! I also don't write many reviews, precisely because of the subjectivity. If I enjoyed it, I enjoyed it, and if not, it's not a huge deal. But I felt obliged to give an up-and-coming author an honest review in return for generously offering the book in a giveaway.


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