SYWTWAB 7: Reviewers, And How Not to Kill Them


March 21, 2007

This is the seventh of a series of personal notes to people who may be thinking of writing (or who have embarked upon writing) a book. You’ll be able to find them all (eventually) by selecting the tag Writing A Book.

Writing a book is an intensely personal thing. You spend hour after hour nurturing it, turning raw words into something you can be proud of. You’ve done your best to convey your message, and to make a book that’s both accurate and entertaining. It’s gorgeous.

It’s really quite a shame that you have to show it to other people.

But you do.

And those other people don’t realize how much work you’ve put in, and how subtly you’ve plotted it, and how many ideas you researched. They just want to tell you what’s wrong. That’s their job—they’re reviewers.

Your publisher will have their own policies when it comes to reviewing. Some have a book reviewed chapter by chapter (which seems strange, as good books are not written chapter by chapter). Some review content in chunks. Some wait until the end. And some use a beta-book process, where the general public can subscribe to the book as it is being developed.

Whatever the process, you’ll get reviews. And these can be tough to read. Let’s see how to handle them.

Start by remembering that every review comment is there because someone took the time to write it. The writer hoped to help make your book better. It may be painful, but take every review as something positive.

Each reviewer will have his or her own style, interests, level of experience, and so on. This is just what you want—if your publisher has done its job correctly, your reviewers will be representative of your target audience (with a couple of world experts thrown in to keep your content honest).

Some reviewers may seem to be terribly naive (or even just plain stupid). You’ll find yourself thinking “this guy just doesn’t get it.” And that’s the point. If a reviewer doesn’t get some point, or doesn’t understand something that you feel should be blindingly obvious, that’s an indication that you may have a problem with the book. After all, it’s your job as the author to make that technical detail obvious. So look hard at the reviewer’s comment and see where they’re coming from. Maybe you assumed that the world would interpret some phase or explanation one way, but the reviewer took it another way. Maybe changing one or two words would clear it up; maybe an extra paragraph of introduction; maybe a sidebar. Or maybe the section could be lost altogether or moved later in the book; it’s easy to introduce advanced material too early.

Other reviewers can came across as being incredibly arrogant. They seem to take almost vicious pleasure in finding fault. Their tone suggests that only an idiot could have made this kind of mistake. These reviewers suffer from what experts call penicranial inversion.

This type of reviewer is hard to deal with. You’ll feel defensive—after all, this person is apparently attacking you. Your natural reaction will be to dismiss what they say. But if you look past the aggressive wording, you may well find that the reviewer has a point. You shouldn’t have to take abuse from reviewers, but if you can rise above it, you may find gems buried in the crap.

Other reviewers like to copy edit. They find every little typo, complain about every breach of the punctuation rules, and note bad line breaks and other layout issues. Be careful when reacting to these reviewers. Obviously you can fix spelling issues, but you might want to chat with your publisher about punctuation—every publisher has a house style. And don’t sweat the layout stuff: your publisher should handle it for you (but you might want to double check the final proofs to double check that layout issues reported by reviewers have been fixed).

However, all these strange characters are extremes. You’ll probably find the majority of reviewers are supportive and helpful. Cherish these folks. If you have the opportunity to interact with them, do so. And be sure to thank particularly helpful reviewers somewhere in your book’s front matter.

Handling reviews can be tough. Try to remember as you grind your teeth that it is better to find these issues now, rather than after the ink has dried on the paper.

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