Every so often, I will review a book I coached or edited (particularly if the author asks it of me). This may sound tremendously biased—who can evaluate a book they were involved with—but hear me out.
First, I don’t publish my reviews on Amazon. Their policy would see me as biased, to where I would want to write a good review for writers because I work for them, and they have a right to police their review policy however they want.
But here, on my website, I get to police my own reviews, and the thing is, my ability to find errors and generate ideas on how to fix them is why authors hire me, not so I say nice things. So it actually is in my favor to write an honest review, to where authors know “these problems, though we worked around them, are still the main flaws I see when I look at your book.” To know that my honest appraisal doesn’t change just because I love their book, or because I worked on it for months matters.
Here are four other reasons why I feel I can still review a book, in an unbiased way:
- I use a rubric for my reviews. A rubric is a grading scale that says you lose this many points for not having X, or for missing Y, or overlooking Z. This means even my favorite books don’t always measure up to that, no matter how much I enjoy them. Tolkien has his poetic narration that, at times, can be beautiful, but other times, he can get downright wordy as he revels in the world building and history at the expense of getting on with the story. Jane Austen doesn’t give us any description of what people wore or looked like, what her world felt like to live in. And don’t get me started with my frustrations with Charles Dickens (mostly stylistic, as he prefers artistry over clarity for the reader).
- Not everyone values the same thing. Though I use the same overall rubric when editing—as what I think measures up as a good book doesn’t change—the book’s goals and the author’s personal artistic choices may not match my rubric, so my having edited a book in no way guarantees a perfect score (though it does mean your score should improve, obviously).
- My reading tastes and those of others won’t always match. When I edit and coach, I work to the genre expectations and the author’s vision, so it is possible for one to make a story that, personally, I don’t enjoy.
- I don’t write my reviews for the benefit of the authors. They’re geared for readers, and while authors can enjoy them and learn from them, what I mention in a review will be something I already mentioned to the authors while working with them, so I have no reason not to share it. It’s not going to be a surprise that “X was problematic” because “X” already came up in coaching and editing.
- Everyone has a bias. I know this is going to sound odd, as surely the random person who picks up a book will have less reasons to be favorable to a certain book than me, who actually know and work with the author. But the thing is, every reader is still going to prefer certain things over others. Some want romance in their stories and won’t value a book without it. Others like action and adventure and a fast-paced plot. Some are more sensitive to having a multi-racial cast while others don’t notice or care. We all approach books with expectations and preferences, so that, alone, can’t be a reason to not write a review.
- I’m trained to identify and set my bias aside, as much as possible. This is part of what makes me a good editor. If I can’t set aside my personal preference for romance or my lack of fondness for gore and recognize good writing when I see it, then my services are pretty much worthless beyond catching commas. I’m trained to know what makes readers dislike books and what readers look for within their genre and why, even if that’s not something I look for when I read, personally. When I review a book, I review it that way…not just as a “did I enjoy it” but in the vein of “is it an effective book, artistically.”
Having said all that, I think there is one bias you can’t really overcome: that of being the author. As an author, you can’t always see the grammar problems, the character shortcomings, the places where the plot goes places the characters wouldn’t have picked, etc., because you can never, ever approach it as a reader. It’s an experience we, as authors, just don’t get. Believe me, I’ve tried, and every time, I start wondering about the wording of dialogue—would she say that? would she say it that way?—or description—too much, too little, and did I even capture the mood right?—and I miss basic things like words I forgot to type, but which my mind fills in, time and again.
This is why I advocate using beta readers and editors so you can get outside input, because reviewing your story is kind of like analyzing part of you, and it’s so very, very hard to see yourself accurately.
Copyright 2018 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by MIPhoto, Creative Commons