As a writer, a crafter of plots using those nuanced and sometimes-loaded things called words, I know many of the rules of good writing. It’s one thing, though, to know them academically, theoretically, but quite another to see them in action. And it’s another still to see them executed wonderfully, as in Brigid Kemmerer’s A Curse So Dark and Lonely, yet another to see those rules broken, but with great effect, as in Marie Lu’s Young Elites. And, of course, another thing entirely to see them play out poorly, which is usually the basis of my two- or one-star ratings. As we all know, books with those low ratings can be seen as a curse.
But seeing rules like “show don’t tell” played out poorly can help me almost as much as, if not more so than, seeing them done well. In other words, it can often be hard to know which details in a story to “show” instead of “tell.” For instance, when should a writer “show” a character’s facial expression by saying they raised an eyebrow and frowned, and when should they simply “tell,” or just describe said expression as “disappointed” or “perplexed?” Showing every single facial expression could slow down a plot significantly. Reading two- and one-star books helps me see examples of “telling” I want to avoid, pitfalls that are only too easy to fall into.
But what if you’re not a writer like me? What if you’re a reader who just doesn’t have enough time to read, let alone read bad books? If you only like a book enough to give it two stars, does it still have value for you? Yes!
Value #1: Waste Less Time
Knowing what you don’t like can help you hone in on books and authors you do like. That means less wasted time wading through the millions of books out there.
Value #2: Hone in on Books Better Suited to You
That may seem obvious, but the more you hone in on what you don’t like, and the more you’re able to articulate what you didn’t like specifically about a book and why, the more you’ll be able to find books that best meet your needs. If you felt like Book A’s plot didn’t really kick in until a third of the way in, for example, and you find yourself often putting down books that don’t get started fast enough, you know to look for more fast-paced books.
Value #3: Really Look for the Positive…Not Just in Books
That being said, I don’t recommend rushing over to Amazon or your nearest library to grab the first book you see just so you can pick it apart and give it a two-star rating on GoodReads, unless you also review it and articulate the specific things about the books you didn’t like and also spell out the things you did like, maybe like this one I did of Fredrik Backman’s Us Against You. Two-star, “I-just-didn’t-like-it” reviews are a dime a dozen and not helpful to anyone.
You may say a book was too slow, for instance, or there was too much info-dumping, flat or unlikable characters, a hard-to-picture setting, or unrealistic emotions, etc. But if you really look, I’ll bet you’re still able to find something you did like, which means the book wasn’t a total waste. The plot might have moved too slow, for example, but the love interest was probably awesomely hot.
Also, being constructive about the things you didn’t like (e.g., “The main character’s excessive crying in the latter half of the book would have seemed less excessive if she’d experienced more trauma in the first half.”) might have other advantages. I dare say that learning how to critique books in this way will help you not only hone in on better books for yourself, it may also help you express yourself better online in general.
Value #4: Search Smarter
Speaking of online, I’ve found that the more you review books–even with only a few sentences–the more likely you are to be able to find truly wonderful reads if you can then search for books that are the opposite of what you don’t like. Google “fast-paced books,” for instance. That’s where sites like BookRiot, GoodReads, the bevy of book review blogs out there (like mine), and #bookstagram on Instagram come in very handy (more about that below.
Value #5: Rank?
Speaking of online, if you post your two-star review anywhere online, you know the author’s going to eventually find it, right? Most authors I’ve talked to that take the time to read all their reviews will tell you that they tend to dismiss the more poorly written one- and two-star reviews as just being hateful. The better expressed your reviews are, the more likely they are to actually be read, not only by the author but by others as well. Who knows…get enough reviews voted as “helpful” on Amazon or “liked” on Goodreads and you could start ranking. In all honesty, I’m not sure if ranking on either of those platforms does you any material good, but you get bragging rights, which is something, right?
Value #6: Find Community!
Lastly, did you know that reviewing books on Instagram–especially if you do it articulately, add a well-staged photo, and use the hashtag #bookstagram–brings the best benefit of all? It’s community! People love talking about books on social media…if you know the right place to look.