Thursday, 9 June 2011

Can a writer trust peer reviews?

As part of an earlier post I recommended a couple of writing and peer review sites that can be useful as a testing-ground for manuscripts. While my advice holds good (and I am going on to describe a recent personal experience) I want to repeat my caveat that you need to develop a thick skin to submit your work to scrutiny in such a public way, but I also want to add that not all advice is good advice (including mine, I daresay).

I have been looking deeper into a couple of sites, reading peer reviews of other people’s writings, and one thing I have noticed is the wide range of critical standards applied. Not to put too fine a point on it, some peer criticism sucks. More than a few times this week, I have shaken my head over rank bad reviewing. In certain cases, if the writer was to follow the guidance given they would be heading in entirely the wrong direction – despoiling, not improving their work.

As well as specifically bad advice, there is reviewing of a non-specific negative sort which must surely knock a writer’s self-confidence, perhaps persuade them to give up altogether. (Hey, I’ve written negative reviews too, but I try hard to be specific, and for an inexperienced writer always aim to find something constructive and encouraging to say). One contributor to a writing forum I subscribe to has suggested that some negative reviewing is driven by jealousy. Perhaps in other cases there is a factor of territorial supremacy; as Gore Vial has said, It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.

The opposite problem to the negative review is what I would call the non-critical gush (Brilliant... They’d be mad not to publish... I gave it five stars...) and I have discovered this to be more prevalent than the negative stuff. It seems to me there are three possible sources of non-critical gush:

1.    The indiscriminate. Some readers cannot really tell the difference between good writing and bad, so they gush to be on the safe side.

2.    Family and friends. They stand by their man, or woman. Such puffery is even more common for reviews of published work (most notoriously, customer reviews on Amazon) than for unpublished material.

3.    Scratch-my-backers. I have witnessed this happening openly on forums set up around the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and on other competition sites that rely partly on peer voting. Even where it is not openly stated that one person’s good review will be reciprocated, there hangs an unspoken threat that if you are perceived to be trashing someone’s work you are likely to get trashed in return.  

It seems to me that the most sensible way to deal with the vagaries of peer review is to take everything in the round. Try not to be carried away by a couple of great responses to your work, or cast down by a couple of negative ones. Rather, what is the aggregate? Also, while everyone’s opinion counts (we may not all be critics, but most of us are readers/potential customers) look very carefully at the quality of these reviews and, frankly, take more notice of those reviewers who seem to know how to string some words together themselves, and who have something detailed and specific to say. Also, when submitting parts of your work for peer review, choose something that you have specific issues with, some hypothesis that you want to test out.

Which brings me to my personal example. As regular readers of this blog may know, I have been working for a while on a historical novel, Mr Stephenson’s Regret. I submitted the third draft of the novel to this year’s Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and managed to get to the semi-final, which I was pleased about, but privately I have not been entirely happy with this version of the novel, and even during the judging process have been working on a revision. Specifically, it has been my feeling that the reader does not get close enough to my central character, Robert Stephenson. For the new version I switched to first person, making Robert not just the central character but the narrator of the story. This device has helped me bring Robert much closer, more intimate, but the downside has been losing some flexibility in point of view, and some logistic problems in telling necessary parts of the story where Robert was either not present or too young to be a credible narrator.

A week or three ago I decided to put the opening chapters of the new version to the test of a peer review with the specific objective of checking these factors out. I uploaded the opening chapters to a site called YouWriteOn.comThe way this site works is that you accept a reading assignment for someone else’s work, sent to you randomly, and receive a reading credit when you have written a review, so that your work is then sent randomly to another member for review. I like the ‘blind’ nature of this system, and think it’s fair that you should have to put some work in to get your own work reviewed.

I have been delighted by the reviews of the sample, not just because they were generally favourable, but because a couple of them specifically picked up on the points I was trying to test around the strength of the central character and the POV logistics. As a result of the experiment, I have decided to return to the original third person structure of the novel, but to apply what I have learned in writing the first person version to my revision of the work. Without constructive peer review I might never have got to that point, and might not have been re-energised to take the task on, as I’ve just given myself a few more months’ hard labour.


  1. I find the site you mentioned to be driven more by the rating numbers than by helpful critique comments. The anonymity between the comment and the mark does lead to deliberate down-marking, especially should a sub of a non-clique member get anywhere near their top ten.

    I had hoped this site had managed to grow up since I last stuck my head around the door, about two years ago. Not so. Points are not really very helpful in comparison to skilled reviews. I suggest you give OWW a try with their free month offer. That is the site for serious adult writers, and by that I don't mean sleazy subject matter, I mean people who all behave in a mature and professional manner.

  2. Thanks. I'm not sure what OWW stands for, but I'll find out.

  3. I've just discovered that my excerpt from Mr Stephenson's Regret has entered the Top Ten chart, based on peer reviews. I'm glad to say that I did not buy votes FIFA-style nor ask my friends to review. I don't know anything about the reviewers except, of course, they have the most extraordinarily good taste :-))

    The good thing is that the top-rated excerpts are also agent-reviewed , so that could be a useful opening for the book.

  4. This is a very interesting article. I found you on Absolute Write and I was going to comment there until I read you had already posted the piece on your blog. This topic is a minefield wherever you go. I think you just have to trust your gut instinct when you purchase a book. Read the reviews by all means, but take them with a pinch of salt. Consider the blurb, the title, the price and the length of the book. People need to think about those factors when they are looking to buy something new.

  5. Thanks for taking the time to post such a considered comment, Ikwatts.