Blogging Discussion: Writing Positive vs. Negative Reviews

Here’s a topic that’s been simmering in my mind since October. I started to contemplate this after posting reviews of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and The Haunting of Hill House. One book I loved and one book I did not love. My personal opinion aside, the two reviews are vastly different in terms of writing style. You might think two different people wrote those reviews! One review I am proud of, one review I am disappointed with. These two reviews stand in stark contrast to one another. I’ve written good positive reviews and bad negative reviews before, but I didn’t really notice the difference between them until I wrote two in such a close time frame.

I’d like to unpack why one review is so articulated and thoughtful, while the other is something of a mushy mess. My writing style seems to match how I feel about each book. If you look at the positive review, you’ll see it’s much longer, more analytical and better written. This sort of review takes a bit of time for me to write because I have many comments to make. I ramble on, then take some time to whittle down and polish my thoughts. The negative review is shorter and less defined. I find it difficult to write anything more concrete than ‘meh’. This sort of review takes ages to write because I don’t know what to say. I have an easier time pinpointing what resonates than what doesn’t resonate. My writing rises and falls to match my opinion of the book I’m writing about. I couldn’t bear to write a lacklustre review of a book I adore as much as The Haunting of Hill House – people must know just how much and why I love it! Whereas, I could care less what people think about my views on Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore because it wasn’t a book I cared about.

I’ve been using the term review, but I want to clarify that’s only a part of what I write when I post here about a book. My format tends towards review-style thoughts (commenting on what appeals or doesn’t appeal to me), followed by more contemplative comments on greater issues in the book and beyond (useful only for those who have read the book and want to think deeper on it), concluding with more personal or random comments (stuff that wouldn’t be helpful to someone deciding if they want to read the book). The first bit is what I’m referring to when I say review here. I want to write a good review even if I didn’t like a book. What’s a ‘good’ review? That’s another subjective question! For me, it’s a review that helps me form an opinion of whether I want to read a book or not. This means I know what the reviewer liked or didn’t like and why (without giving way the whole story), and I can judge for myself if those are things I’ll like or not. I’m not sure I did a great job of this in my Penumbra review. I find it harder to be objective and make useful comments when I don’t like something about a book (ooh, and maybe I’m not being objective when I say that – maybe I just want to think I’m objective in my positive reviews because I want the book to be objectively good! Ouch, my head.)  How can I improve my writing about a book I didn’t enjoy? I think the key is being more specific…but I’m not too certain what I mean by that, haha. Perhaps a better question is, how can I write consistently ‘good’ reviews about books I can’t get in to? The Haunting of Hill House review is better, I think, mostly because I put more thought into it. How can I think just as well about a book I didn’t like as a book I did like?

Questions to ponder: While this could easily become a discussion about positive vs. negative reviews, I’m more interested in how you approach writing those types of reviews. Do you write differently depending on whether your review is positive or negative? What sort of books do you find you give better written (not necessarily positive) reviews? What do you think of my Penumbra review? Would it be helpful if you were deciding whether to read the book? Another question related to all this is, what makes a ‘good review’ for you? Please leave a comment if you have any thoughts on this subject! I’m still pondering it out myself.

  • This is a very good question. When starting my blog, I actually decided that I would only write about books that I could be positive about, because as you felt with your "Penumbra" review, I don't want to spend more of my valuable time thinking about books I didn't like…I just want to move on. However, that is not to say that negative reviews are not valuable! I definitely appreciate it when a review includes specific thoughts about why a book didn't work for a reader, and not because I will necessarily feel the same way. But these are not easy to write, I agree.

  • The hardest reviews to write, I think, are the ones for books that just didn't move me in any way at all. Books that I actively dislike are kind of fun to review because I get to explain why I think they are bad, but books that are just kind of "there" with nothing to really distinguish them aren't very fun to write about (like your problem with Mr. P's). That said, if I really like a book I often struggle with putting things into complete sentences instead of just fangirl flailing with lots of exclamation points, so man of my "worst" reviews are actually for my fav books.

  • Thanks for commenting! I think you've hit the issue right on, with the hardest reviews being "for books that just didn't move me in any way at all." I've gotten better at dropping books I actively dislike, so I don't often review them. It's the ones that are 'meh' that I finish and struggle to review. I also understand how it's easy to slip into fangirl mode for books you love. That's part of why it takes me a bit longer to write a review for a great book – I have to edit and 'calm down' my reviews a bit.

  • I always find it interesting to read about how other people deal with this, since I think it's something we all run into. I totally agree with Louise on those middle of the road reviews being some of the toughest to write…so hard, in fact, that most of the time I don't write them. Like you said, you want to be able to explain why a book made you fall in love or completely turned you off when writing a review. I find I read a book or two a month that are just okay…and can be best explained by a simple tweet or star review on Goodreads. I've found it better to save my time and space on my blog for books that give me some kind of notable reaction, either good or bad.

  • Good points! Maybe I should consider relegating any 'meh' books to my short reviews. I like to take note of everything I read, so that might be the best option. The next time I read a blah book I'll have to keep this discussion in mind and see if I tackle it differently.

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