How to Become a Better Writer (By Reading One-Star Reviews of Your Favorite Books)

I’m obsessed with reading negative reviews of books I love. It’s a guilty pleasure right up there with looking at stock images of humans biting their laptops.

When I say negative reviews, I’m speaking specifically of the one-starred reviews found on Amazon. I’ll search for my favorite books and click to the one-stars, make some popcorn, and relish the bliss delivered from dozens or hundreds of maniacs with Internet access. Also, I do apologize for using the words “popcorn” and “relish” in the same sentence. That was not nice of me.

As a writer, I feel it's important to read the negative reviews of books I cherish. It’s vital to realize that even the authors who have affected me since childhood are despised by many. The books that inspired me to become a writer are considered, by some, worse than cancer. You can learn a lot from reading these one-star reviews. You adapt a sturdier shell and keep better maintenance on the fallout shelter of your self-esteem.

The life of a writer is a series of punches to the genitals. Perhaps one of the more painful punches is the first one-star review you receive on something you’ve written. It doesn’t matter if the one-star review is the first review of any sort you ever receive or if it arrives after a storm of praise, it will be just as painful from whichever angle it strikes.

However, by reading these one-star reviews of books you already know are brilliant, you are preparing yourself for the inevitable hate on your own writing.

But be careful. There are some things you must know about one-star Amazon reviewers. During my rigorous research (collected over at Slush Pile Heroes!), I’ve discovered these mythical creatures all share some similar traits.

For one thing, reviewers do not know how to spell, and oh boy is it frustrating to resist degrading them about it. They do not care about spelling. Even if they are pointing out typos in your own writing, they will point them out while creating their own strange and unintentionally hilarious  typos. You, on the other hand, hopefully know how to spell. This automatoically makes u a butter persn.

Also, you will definitely be compared to an author you hate. The reviewer might mention how the other author is so much better at what you’re trying to accomplish. There is always an author who sucks way more than you who others will prefer. Go on Amazon and look at the negative reviews for your all-time favorite novel. Click on one of the reviewer’s profiles, then view their review archive and weep for what meets their standards of quality fiction.

It’s even more painful when you receive a positive review that compares you to someone you despise. No author wants to hear, “Wow, this guy is almost as good as James Patterson!”

And when you aren’t being compared to the Pattersons and Meyers, your prose will undoubtedly confuse your readers. It does not matter what kind of book you’ve written. It could be the simplest story in the world—there will be someone left scratching their head in puzzlement. So don’t worry about being too complicated, because even when you are writing for a dumber audience, it will not be simple enough. Take some risks and make the other readers work for their entertainment. Those who won’t understand what you’re going for aren’t going to suddenly get smarter, but those who are willing to dig will eventually strike gold—gold, or a corpse, whichever comes first.

Readers do not know what they want, even though they think they do. Let’s say you wrote a horror book, maybe a novel about a dachshund zombie apocalypse (Wieners of the Dead? Oh god, dibs! I’m so writing this book) and slapped it on Amazon, then someone reads the description and genre classification and thinks, “Okay, yeah, this sounds good,” and buys a copy. The person reads the book and immediately becomes disgusted with the fact that the book contains graphic descriptions of zombie wiener dogs being shot in their adorable little heads. How could you write about killing a wiener dog? You monster!

Readers will never be able to dissociate you from your writing. If you write a novel from the point-of-view of a killer or someone equally disturbed, readers will assume that you share the same thoughts as your narrator. I remember back in grade school, I was writing this truly awful horror story during my lunch hour, and some teacher snatched the notebook from me in mid-sentence. She read my story right there as she stood above me in the cafeteria, frowning as she made it to the gorier bits, then sent me to the office for inappropriate behavior. I sat in front of my principal as he discussed how it wasn’t normal for a child to be writing about such horrific subjects, then called my parents to give them the bad news. Of course, they just laughed it off, because why would anyone sane take this kind of incident seriously? Not to claim my parents are sane or anything, but on this particular issue they were pretty laid back. Still, my principal wasn’t satisfied. He recommended counseling, suggested I needed to be put on medication. He was convinced something was wrong with me. Nobody normal would write about monsters and massacres. Kids who shot up schools wrote about stuff like this. He was afraid of me. Afraid of an alien brain he could not understand. He refused to even try.

Readers make these kind of assumptions about writers all the time. Take Jack Ketchum, for example. Back in 1989, he wrote perhaps one of the best horror novels you will ever read: The Girl Next Door. The novel is inspired by the true story of fifteen year-old Sylvia Likens, who was tortured to death in 1965 by a monster named Gertrude Baniszewksi with the assistance of neighborhood children. The novel is narrated from the point-of-view of one of the neighbor boys who witnesses the horrors happening to Meg, the fictionalized version of Likens. But if you read some of the reviews of The Girl Next Door, you would think Ketchum was personally responsible for the death of this girl.

With the horror genre especially, readers tend to forget what genre they are reading once things become too horrific. They blame the author for shattering their good time, for filling their souls with sadness. Some readers will sincerely believe the author should be locked-up for writing something so disturbing. Readers forget horror is not meant to make you feel happy. It’s here to remind you that there are monsters in this world, whether you want to believe they exist or not.

It’s important to understand that you will not be liked by everybody, but those who do become fans of your work will be fans for the right reasons. Read one-star reviews of Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor and understand this: the universe will not constantly praise you. Face it. You are going to be shit on—a lot. It’s useless to equip an umbrella. Instead, embrace the downpour.

Use hate as fuel, but never as spite. Do not allow it to affect the direction of your writing. But do allow it to motivate you. Example, let’s bring back the infamous Wieners of the Dead mentioned earlier. Maybe it receives a one-star review, something along the lines of: “two much sex, not enuff wiener dog action”. Now, your first reaction might be to write a sequel with even more sex and even less undead wiener dog scenes, just to show the reviewer that you don’t give a shit what they think. But you’re falling right into the negativity trap. You’re derailing from your vision. You’re a writer who enjoys writing about zombie wiener dogs, and sometimes sex. But now you’re changing what you enjoy just to stick it to some anonymous asshole with an Amazon account.

But what you can do with this negative review of Wieners of the Dead is use it as a reminder of all the other negative reviews you previously read of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Haunted Vagina (among many other classic works of literature). Think of the review as an acknowledgment of your status as a writer. As strange and sadistic as this may sound, consider the one-star review as an achievement you’ve unlocked. Kurt Vonnegut has them, Ray Bradbury has them, Shirley Jackson has them. All writers receive negative reviews, and now so have you. You’ve made it as a writer. Now you have a choice: you can let the reviewer win by giving up, or you can get back behind your word processor and write the next best damn thing anxious to burst out of you.

Or, I guess you could just track down the reviewers and kidnap them.

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Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb August 7, 2015 - 2:34pm

One star for this column. So awful I just have to share it on social media to let people know about it.

And that story with the horrified teacher and the principle recommending therapy? Damnit, I wanted that to happen to me all through my entire school life! I guess the only next best thing is getting my work banned by a school library.

Readers do not know what they want, even though they think they do.

There are so many writers out there who I WISH would just listen to comments like this!

Josh Zancan's picture
Josh Zancan from Crofton, MD is reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck August 7, 2015 - 7:35pm

I'm glad I'm not the only one to do this! I thought it was just a weird thing, but whenever I get down about writing, I go to the one-stars. That, or read quotes from successful writers venting their frustrations with themselves and/or the process.

Robert Shane Wilson's picture
Robert Shane Wilson August 7, 2015 - 10:54pm

Nice try, Max! Everybody knows that one star review for The Stand was written by Dean Koontz!

Marša's picture
Marša from Wrocław (Poland) August 9, 2015 - 11:44pm

I've read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy one-star reviews on a website you've linked. I really enjoy whole series and of course my first reaction was: how could someone rate it so low. But after some thought I get to the point: ok, someone could see it like these, I am not the one to judge and well, maybe someone was looking for something else. So my final reflection was close to main idea of your article - yeah, one could learn from negative reviews. Guilty pleasure as it is reading them gives different point of view and it is useful to know it. Up to now I was not reading them often but I will from now on. I will squeeze reading them between reading bad books (because I think you can learn something from them too, just don’t read too many at once, they tend to poison readers brain :/)

And your story from school made me remember when during writing paper when I was like fourteen. We had to write some s-f story during class because last book we analysed was s-f and I decided to write from male point of view even if I am a female, because why not? Friend who was sitting next to me started to read my paper and at one moment she loudly enough for all class to hear exclaimed that "Marta is writing as a male!!11!1". All eyes on me, and I was like: what is the deal o.O? But for her it was totally off and wrong. Fortunately teacher was not amused and on my side. ;) Still yes, some people are unable to separate writer from his characters.

"dachshund zombie apocalypse" that made my day. I'm not into zombie fiction but this I would read if someone will decide to write it.