Wednesday, October 21

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, October 21, 2015 12 comments
Photo credit: JulesInKY from
I have a somewhat embarrassing habit when it comes to using Goodreads. I really love to read negative reviews of books that are extremely popular. At first I focused on classics, because their haters are quite hilarious. Then I began branching out to books others raved about that just didn't do it for me. It was gratifying to hear others describe problem after problem.

It's also a bit small minded to be wasting time hunting for another dose of schadenfreude. So I've been looking for ways to reform this vice into something more constructive.

One thing that's pretty clear--you can learn quite a lot about what story elements drive readers batty by listening to their harsher critiques. Some comments will, of course, tell you a lot more about an individual reviewer's biases and hobby horses than about general reader expectations, but others can be quite educational. If you write genre fiction, it can be especially helpful to know what elements readers are sick to death of, or feel cheated if they aren't there.

Here are some writing tips I've gleaned from insightful "mean" readers of popular young adult books:

Characterization no-nos

Protagonist who is

  • Whiny 
  • Self-serving
  • Mean-spirited
  • Indecisive and dithering
  • Thoughtless
  • Foolhardy
  • Bland
  • Flawless
  • Skilled only at being attractive
  • Instantly in love after one smoldering glance
  • Unchanged by the story events

Sidekick who is

  • Only comic relief
  • Hateful
  • Jealous
  • Clone of protagonist
  • An ethnic or racial "type"
  • Deeply stupid
  • Foolhardy
  • Disloyal

Love interest who is

  • Instantly in love after one smoldering glance
  • Narcissistic
  • Abusive
  • Stalker-ish
  • Controlling
  • Prone to jealous rages
  • Boring
  • Too dependent
  • Lacking personal goals
  • Lacking outside interests
  • Flawless
  • Constantly pursued by rivals

Other hated character tropes

  • Cheerleader mean girls
  • Athlete bullies
  • Self-absorbed, uninvolved or dead parents
  • Love triangles with bland, flat love interests
  • Romance based only on physical attraction

Plot no-nos

  • Pacing that drags
  • Pacing that races
  • Abruptly dropped subplots
  • Actions aren't motivated
  • Actions aren't realistic
  • Episodic plots
  • Repetitious actions
  • Melodramatic responses

World building no-nos

  • Bland small towns with no character
  • Cookie-cutter suburban settings with no diversity
  • Unrealistic, movie-set settings
  • No clear origins for a society
  • No sense of how society is organized
  • Unclear social strata 
  • Unclear economic system
  • Unclear food sources
  • No one seems to do essential jobs
  • Unexplained divisions among groups
  • Lack of age diversity

Look at another genre, you'd likely gather a different list. But there's no doubt that you can learn a lot about reader expectation by taking a gander at some less than glowing reviews. Just resist the urge to gloat. Instead, use the information to grow.

 What writerly foibles drive you batty? Have you even gleaned writing lessons from online reviews?


  1. And that right there is why I read my negative reviews. They hurt, they really do, and some reviewers are just haters by nature. What can you do? Still, there's something to be gained even by them. How else can we avoid past mistakes?

    1. I find it less harmful to my creative mojo to learn what readers think of books similar to mine. But if you can compartmentalize well, indeed, there can be help in reading your negative reviews, pointing out where you can improve.

  2. Those pretty much for for adult books too!

    1. Not too many readers seemed to mind that Christian Grey for example has lots of these negative traits (or so I read in the reviews). I get the impression there are subgenres of romance where abusive guys are pretty much the norm, and any non-abusive guy would be considered a dull milquetoast. With teens, though, everyone wants more healthy relationship modeling. Go figure.

  3. I haven't read too many negative reviews of popular books (though I might now because you're right--they can be instructive), but I do love reading the negative reviews of my favorite classics--they make me laugh.

    I really appreciate your list of no-nos. I'd add "insta-love" to your list.

    1. Ooh, good one, Connie, with insta-love! How could I forget? That could go on a couple lists. I'll update the post!

      I think it's really helpful if you plan to change genres, to get acquainted with what readers hate (and love) by reading lots of reviews of works you wish to emulate.

  4. Wow, what a great way to use negative reviews as a positive tool!

    1. Yeah, schadenfreude isn't the most positive feeling to be seeking after all, though it is a fun word to trot out at parties. LOL. Better to use the slams to avoid personal pitfalls.

  5. hehe, well, I happen to write some reviews with many of those NoNo's; and not all are for YA. Although those complete lists are the reasons I don't read YA. But, as a reviewer, I do try to be "informative" as opposed to mean spirited. And I only publish a review if I give the author a 3. Still, a prudent author can learn from bad reviews, as you say, because they do list what doesn't work. Sometimes the author just needs to tell the difference in whats not to a single reader taste, and what most readers are complaining about. Only fix what is consistently a complaint, otherwise the author can be forever trying to please everyone, which is just ridiculous.

    I'm always grateful to know authors are not completely offended by constructive feedback :)

    1. It's in the 3-star reviews that most writers find the best critiques, but the 1 and 2 star "meanies" are usually a lot funnier. :-) Yeah, some character traits might work for antagonists, but not love interests, whether it's a 16-yo hockey star in YA, 29-yo firefighter in a romance or a 50-yo surgeon in a thriller.

  6. OOH, these are great lists. All distilled and oh-so-true. I too get a twisted kick out of reading bad reviews, since they're so over-the-top! Creative writing for sure. ;o)

    1. I find it puts into perspective any negative feedback I get on my work. Even some award-winning and critically acclaimed books will have detractors.

      But it is helpful to hear what readers find annoying and off-putting.