Musing By Moonlight: 3 Ways To Write a Better Review

musing by moonlight

Welcome to my new series of posts Musing by Moonlight, where I take the opportunity to get off my chest anything and everything to do with books.
Or maybe not.
Depends how I feel.

Be Careful With Your Critique

This is going to be an unpopular post today but as usual I need to rant. Today I’m talking about people who aren’t careful with their critiques and without meaning to actually report something incorrect about a book in a review without backing it up.

I don’t mean to say that reviewers reporting that no vampires show up in Twilight (because they’re sparkling fairies who live in the woods) or that Fifty Shades of Grey is a great romance are wrong, because that’s their opinion (which they are entitled to and which I will defend to the death). What I want to talk about is people needing to choose their critiques more carefully rather than flinging phrases about because it sounds cool, pretentious, or like they know what they’re talking about.

The three things that bother me the most in reviews are careless remarks in the following form:

  • Nothing happens.
  • The character is a Mary Sue.
  • The author does too much telling/showing.

I’ll explain why these drive me nuts. More often than not these phrases are knocked around when the reviewer simply can’t elucidate what the actual problem is:

  • ‘Nothing happens’ is code for ‘I’m bored/the pacing is slow.’
  • Accusing a character of being a Mary Sue is actually code for ‘I don’t like this character’ (even when she passes the Litmus test).
  • Saying an author does too much or telling or showing is code for ‘I can’t tell the difference and feel like everything is telling or showing.’

That’s not to say that these three things don’t happen at all. I know they do. But I am seeing these three critiques crop up more and more frequently in book reviews where they simply do not belong.

  • Often something does happen in the first 100 pages of a book, even if it’s just building a romance.
  • Mary Sues actually have to pass a test, not just be a character that’s good at stuff or you don’t like. Also, you don’t have to hate her just because she’s a Sue.
  • Kat Zhang writes a lovely blog post about the difference between telling and showing and when it’s appropriate. Telling/showing authors are often accused of this writing technique when they’ve skilfully blended the two together because the reader just can’t tell the difference.

Rather than falling back on industry jargon, I want reviewers to please learn to clarify in reviews. I’d love it if reviewers learned to:

  • Not claim ‘nothing happens’ if the blurb-promised action has not started but you’re swooning/raging about the romance, sub-plot, or otherwise action that is not mentioned in the blurb.
  • Not claim a character is a Mary Sue if she’s actually not (hint: Katniss and Hermione are not, Bella is) or you don’t like the character (hint: Twilight and Harry Potter are still some of the most popular books around. Having a Mary Sue/Gary Stu character does not automatically make it a ‘bad’ book).
  • Not throw around critique terms you haven’t wrapped your head around.

I fully expect that this post will anger some people, but I’m not trying to tell people how to review, only to watch their words. If you report something in a book I’m going to take it at face value and trust you.


About Nemo

A lover of kittens and all things sparkly, Nemo has a degree in English Literature and specialises in reviewing contemporary, paranormal, mystery/thriller, historical, sci-fi and fantasy Young Adult fiction. She is especially drawn to novels about princesses, strong female friendships, magical powers, and assassins.

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5 thoughts on “Musing By Moonlight: 3 Ways To Write a Better Review

  1. Anya

    Hmm, yeah I can’t say that this post was full of happy feelings ;-). Despite your sentiment at the end that you’re not trying to tell people how to review, it kind of feels like that :-/. While I agree that there are generally agreed upon definitions for these three things you listed, I’m fine with a reviewer using these words even if they don’t mean it by the strict definition. Sometimes you just have a feeling about the writing/pacing/characters and while it isn’t spot on to call the character a Mary Sue, I think it’s all right to say that that was kind of how it felt to you. That still helps me as a reader understand how the reviewer’s experience with the book was ya know?

  2. Miranda @ Tempest Books

    This is a great post! I feel like I don’t come across these problems TOO much, but that’s probably just because I don’t read a lot of book reviews (I only read the ones for the books I’ve already read). But I agree with you that people shouldn’t say things that aren’t really true about books. I like it when reviewers back up their problems with the book…either by using quotes, or explaining in detail why they didn’t like a specific thing that the author chose to do/not do.

    1. Nemo

      I like to read non-spoiler reviews for books I haven’t yet read, but I’m finding some reviewers are really careless or aren’t quite sure what the problem is so they fall back on things they’ve seen other reviewers critique.

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