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One of the biggest mistakes I made as a young writer, upon the publication of my first (and only, so far) novel, was to try to read reviews as though they were critiques. This messed up my head and made me hate reviewers. I was, after all, used to the nurturing environment of the Creative Writing Workshop, so anything anybody said about my writing was an opportunity for me to improve it. Right?

Wrong. Reviews are not meant for writers, and they are definitely not meant to help a writer improve. They are meant for readers. Their only function is to report on the reviewer’s response to the work as a consumer — fair or unfair, insightful or not. There are cars I’ve owned that I’ve liked more than others, and I’ll be happy to tell you about it. My thoughts will probably not be useful to the designers and engineers who worked on the car, except maybe by accident. That’s because I’m a consumer, not a creator. Consumers like what they like. They contradict each other, and they struggle to make their pronouncements seem authoritatively objective — but they are not. They are just statements of preference. Trying to understand their complaints (or even their praise) as though they were rigorously-crafted, objective, helpful feedback, is the way to madness and hatred of reviewers! They’re not even trying to offer you that — why would you try to take it in that way?

Here’s a less direct way of putting it that is maybe more clear:

When somebody says, in a critique, “It needs more action sequences,” what they mean is: “I, as a peer of yours, have looked over the structure of your story, and, taking into consideration the goals that you seem to have set for yourself, I am telling you that adding more action sequences will help you achieve those goals.”

When somebody says, in a review, “It needs more action sequences,” what they mean is: “I like action sequences.”

Neither is wrong. They’re just serving their audiences. The critique’s audience is you, the writer. The review’s audience is decidedly not.

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