Top 7 Book Reviewer Complaints

writer mistakesReviewers are presented with the same situation, over and over again. Beginning writers – and some not so beginning – insist on making the same mistakes. Either they don’t know any better, or they don’t care, or it’s their God-given right to write any way they like, and who are you to tell them different? But it’s a competitive world out there, and fixing basic problems is a good way of improving your chances. It’s also a good way of showing your professionalism.

Please don’t be offended at these. Reviewers have no personal grudge against you or your masterwork. It’s just that if we didn’t have to keep commenting on the same errors over and over, we would have room to say something more important about your work.

Opinion or Fact?

You may argue that most of these are a matter of opinion, but when they become the opinion of a lot of people (i.e. readers), that opinion becomes meaningful. Saying “It will only bother a few of my readers,” is a slippery slope. Those it bothers will soon become NOT your readers. So if you find one of these elements in your story, then perhaps you should fix it. If you find yourself saying, “Yes, but I can…” then save us all the trouble; throw your laptop in the nearest pond and go get a job in the real world. Literature will be forever grateful.

My List of Pet Peeves

1. “…he woke up and it was all a dream.”

I know of Grade 5 teachers who will not allow their students to use that ending for their Creative Writing assignments. Of course, there’s always someone with a perfect twist on an old ending, but boy, it better be good.

BTW, having an element from the dream turn up in reality has gone stale, too. As in, “…but then he felt in his pocket. And there was the ring!” Forget it. It’s been done to death. By the fifth grade.

2. “She could see the insanity creeping into his eyes.”

“He went crazy,” is author talk for, “The plot requires him to do something completely out of character.” Sure, crazy is fun. Have crazy people all over the place. But if you want to keep our respect don’t have your plot hinge on a formerly sane somebody doing something completely off the wall. If you really want to do crazy, do your research. A real mental disease with realistic symptoms can be a great source for ideas.

3. “He asked…” “…she answered.”

Dialog tags have been used in different eras and different genres for many things, but nowadays they are usually there for one purpose only: to tell the reader who is speaking. That’s all. If you want to clutter up your story with “he said,” and “she said,” go ahead, but only where they are absolutely needed. They are not there as an easy substitute for poor dialogue. They are not there to allow you to tell us how people feel, instead of showing it. And they are especially not there for you to get cutesy. Examples, in increasing order of ludicrocity:

“Help!” she screamed. – Okayfine. Normal usage.

“I don’t wanna,” he whined.  – Colourful, but not necessary.

“I don’t think so,” he opined. – Definitely not necessary, though it does show his style of address.

“That’s not true,” he disagreed. – Completely redundant.

“I’m Jack,” said Jack. – Yes, people really do that without humorous intent.

“Where’s the pencil sharpener?” Jack asked bluntly. – Okay, that’s a Tom Swiftie, it is done on purpose with the understanding that it will throw the reader completely out of contact with the story until he stops laughing.

And as far as “He asked…” “…she answered,” if it’s got a question mark, you don’t need to tell us that he’s asking. If she has the next line, it’s going to be pretty obvious whether it’s an answer or not. Give the reader credit for a little intelligence.

4. Lack of Dialog

Good dialog reveals character and setting, shows action and emotion, and furthers the plot. Not writing the dialog is one of the worst aspects of “telling, not showing.” It is so much easier to say, “She told him to get out,” than to actually have to think up the words she would use, and create lines that show how she is feeling at the time.

And because you ducked the responsibility of writing those feelings, your story comes out flat. Don’t miss opportunities.

5. Too Much Dialog

I only include this fault because I am morally obliged to provide a balanced philosophy. I was trained as a playwright, and I have always felt that if the reader is given the dialog and left to imagine what is going on, he will buy into the story more firmly than if he is spoon-fed every movement. However, it seems most readers do not have degrees in dramatic analysis, so it’s nice to give them hints once in a while as to what people are doing, what the setting looks like, and other warm fuzzies that add richness to the reading experience. The description/action/dialogue balance is a matter of genre, author opinion, and reader interest. Figure out your own style, then listen to your editor and beta readers. And now I’ll go out and drown my laptop. You’re welcome.

6. Too Much Description.

In the days before television and travel brought the world into our living rooms and us into the rest of the world, the novel fulfilled the needs of humans to see other places and experience that world. Nowadays, we’ve seen everywhere a thousand times, either first person or on TV. Modern readers are there for the people, the relationships, and the story. We’re used to catching the setting at a glance. We live much more hurried lives than those olden-days readers. We don’t have the time or the inclination to plow through hours of description of the minutest detail of every scene.

To be fair, different genres require different levels of detail. Hard Sci-Fi fans dote on future-tech creativity. Just don’t forget to tell a story about people in there somewhere.

If you want to be really subtle, slip the information in when it’s important to the character or the plot.

“I hate that damn chime.” Guy Fawkes stabbed a finger up at the tower where it loomed over them, the ornate clock face grinning down. “If I had a couple of barrels of gunpowder, I’d know where to put them.”

7. Too Much Background.

All right, you historical novel writers. We realize that you have done all your research into the time and place where your story is set. And you had so much fun finding out all that neat stuff, you’re sure your readers want to know it as well.

No they don’t.

The reason the “Plains of Passage” books are each 700 pages long is that Jean Auel can afford researchers working full-time to provide her with the minutest details of Neolithic life and setting. Then she dumps them all on us in pages-long avalanches of flora and fauna, complete with their nutritional, medicinal, metaphysical and aesthetic purposes. The reason that Auel is so popular is that the stories and characters in her books bring the era to life. Not the medicinal properties of the tundra cranberry.

And Others

Notice that so far I have bitten my tongue and said nothing about point-of-view switches, which need a complete seminar enforced with a bullwhip, because I consider them to be the bane of modern writing, and…Ouch! I will thay no more on thith topic.

The Bottom Line

When it comes right down to it, the most important reason to follow the guidelines is your pride in your craft. The acme of professional pride comes when you choke down that pride, admit you’ve made a mistake, correct it and become a better writer.

Depending on reader response, I may continue this diatribe in a future post. What are your pet peeves? I’d go out on a limb and invite authors to suggest their pet peeves about reviewers, but I don’t think there’s room on the Indies Unlimited servers.

Author: Gordon Long

Gordon A. Long is a writer, editor, publisher, playwright, director and teacher. 
Learn more about Gordon and his writing from his blog and his Author Central page.

65 thoughts on “Top 7 Book Reviewer Complaints”

  1. Great list, Gordon, and well balanced. My pet peeve is too much description. I don’t want to know exactly where every one of a character’s twenty-three weapons are placed on her body. It’s enough to know she has them and knows how to use them. or do I need to see every piece of furniture in a room unless it is crucial to the plot. Leave something to the imagination so that I can be engaged, not feel lectured to.

    1. Your “weapons” comment leads us to genre differences. In certain of the more juvenile action stories, the weapons are half the fun. It that’s your genre, describe away!

  2. Most excellent, Sir!
    I don’t review books, but I have a couple of pet peeves as a reader (in addition to the ones you’ve mentioned.)

    Using the phrase *he thought to himself* – who else is he thinking to? Unless it’s a sci-fi story where empaths are thinking to each other, don’t use this.

    Repeating stuff in Chapters 8 and 14 that I already read back in Chapter 3 – does the author assume I’m plagued with senior moments, or is he using these repetitions as filler to up the word count?

    1. One thing editors and beta readers are really good for is picking up places where you gave information too many times. Sometimes readers need to be reminded. Gently. Subtly.
      Sometimes unedited writers just forgot that they said that before.

    2. I DO have characters who think to one another by telepathy. They use many different kinds of thought-streams, visual, musical, mathematical and conversational. In fact they never speak with any spoken language. But sometimes they screen their thoughts from others. I try to make it very plain when this happens. ‘He thought to himself’ wouldn’t cut it. I’d be more likely to have dialogue like –
      ‘Why couldn’t they have sent us one of their famous fighters?’
      I wouldn’t mind taking a jab at you right now, thought Cosmo privately.

      The privacy is reinforced by the absence of speech marks. Would this annoy a reviewer?

      1. I think the problem is that “thought to himself”is redundant. Usually “thought” is enough
        I always try to tell the reader what’s going on without putting anything too distracting. Unmarked speech of any kind can be mixed up with narration, and is thus just as distracting as huge dialogue tags.
        The most common way of indicating inner thoughts or telepathy is to use italics. For your example, I would write it,
        Cosmo glared at his enemy. (italics) I wouldn’t mind taking a jab at you right now.(end italics)
        Once you have set the practice of italics as telepathy for your story, the reader accepts it and it becomes integral to the experience.

      2. the absence of speech marks is now the accepted convention (I too have weaned myself off speech marks around thoughts). The ‘privately’, however: uh-oh.

  3. Thank you, Gordon. I call these “stops,” because if I see many of them, I stop reading. In an era when my Kindle is already stuffed with more books than I can read, I have no patience for bad writing. I would estimate I finish less than half the books I start these days.

    Recently, I picked up a book in one of my favorite genres. It was even a favorite sub-niche of that favorite genre. On the first three pages, the author managed to use more than a dozen exclamation points, and most of them weren’t in dialogue. They also weren’t necessary. I was on to the next book on the Kindle immediately.

  4. My pet peeve is Continuity (lack of). Including (but not limited to):
    * forgetting that a character was called Tom in the first three chapters and calling him Pete thereafter;
    * getting to the same plot point two different ways because author forgot s/he’d already dealt with that particular plotting problem, rewrote it the next day *and never did another draft* nope, not an edit, not a beta read by a friend, nada;
    * repetition which is not reinforcing which carries the poor reader round in a circle and stops her dead. Pace, what pace?

    All these good points made in the article and comments above scream at reviewers and readers – so how do they get into books? Even mainstream publishing is not immune to them nowadays. Despite being urged to reread, edit, redraft (3 is a good number of drafts) and getting at least one person (not your mum) to read your work critically at second draft stage these errors keep creeping back in. They let down good, robust work and they fatally undermine work that is not robust.

    (I love them all, really 🙂 )

      1. I’ve been known to write a scene several times in rough draft but I choose only ONE for the final. I’ve also changed character names and descriptions several times especially when I stop and restart the story…again in FIRST draft. It’s sadly obvious some of these authors are rushing to publish, and can’t be bothered to read through themselves much less have someone read for them.

  5. My pet peeves besides all the above are head-hopping; using ‘get’ and ‘got’; saying characters’ names all the time, even if it’s obvious who is being referred to; repetition; wrong tense, to name just a few. Lol

  6. A great list. My pet peeves:

    “At that moment …”
    “When suddenly …”
    “and then …”
    Infodumps
    “Dialogue tag descriptors,” he said acidly.
    In addition, I second Shawn: “Too many exclamation marks used, usually in dialogue!!!!!” 🙂

      1. No, but seriously, I edited a book recently where the author wanted to use “!?” for excited questions. I’d never heard of it, so I suggested he tone it down a bit. Anyone ever seen this punctuation used!?”

  7. The book I happen to be reading right now, the author is having a love affair with exclamation points! I am only at 36% and they are making me laugh, however, I am sure I will be fit to be tied by the end of the book.

    One of my biggest pet peeves though is the repetition of the words *had had and *that that. They literally makes me cringe when I read them.

    Over description makes me want to skim and bores me to tears. Which is why I try to stay away from most Women’s Lit., Historical Romance, and Contemporary Literature. I don’t feel like I have the choice to set a book aside when reading for a review. But it has been done.

    When I read repetition I always assume the author is just trying to up their word count. It’s aggravating and makes me cranky. Please believe me when I say you don’t want a cranky reviewer reviewing your book. Honestly, I wish more authors employed more beta readers.

    Great post, Mr. Long.

    1. There are all sorts of situations that result in perfectly acceptable grammar (such as had had) that just don’t belong in fiction.
      Likewise, there are all sorts of conventions in, for example, scientific writing that drive fiction readers bonkers.
      Understanding what is going on in the mind (and emotions) of your reader is a key talent for writers. Not making the reviewer cranky would be at the top of the “to do” list in that respect.
      ( For the record, ?wazithinkin is never cranky. Not in her reviews, anyway.)

  8. Much of what I read and review is science fiction, and an all-too-common problem for neophyte SF novelists is the need to provide the fictional-world context for their story. They either infodump it as a Chapter One or Prologue narrative, or have a main character describe it huge dialog clumps to an ignorant witness-character. Recently I encountered a third novice approach to this issue (just as big a fail, though): Assume your reader shares your world-view and just skip the context-sharing.

    1. I note that Hard SF writers do put in more hardware descriptions. (As I suppose Historical Fiction writers put in more costume and architecture, Erotic Romance writers put in more physiological stuff, etc.) However, the technique we all need to develop is to put in those details when they mean something to the characters (and thus the reader).
      So if the new cadet is allowed on the spaceship bridge for the first time and he sees it all and reacts emotionally to what he sees, the author can put in a lot more information and we’ll enjoy it, rather than gagging 🙂

  9. I see #4 conspicuously at the end of books or scattered throughout. I have a feeling the problem at the end is that the writer is just too durn sick of the book and wants it done, so they take a short cut. When it’s throughout the book, it could be that it’s at the end of a writing day and again the writer is just too tired to make the effort. It’s a glaring problem, though, very apparent.
    #6 and #7 are a major concern, especially for newbies. They want all that back story in there so we, the readers, understand where the story is coming from. Too much too soon (maybe too much ever). It’s so much better if the background is woven into the action of the story. Excellent points, Gordon. You tell ’em!

  10. My pet peeve is lack of story. The same old stories get re-phrased over and over. Don’t write it unless it’s new and worth writing. Otherwise the most perfectly crafted work on the planet is a waste of time. For example, Avatar was a beautiful re-crafting of a too-tired storyline.
    Charlotte’s Web was something new for its time.

    1. That’s a problem for every writer. Theorists have proposed that there are only 13 plots in all of literature. Or 9, or 3. Who knows? Who listens to theorists, anyway?
      It all depends on your readers. Romance readers want the same old thing. “Modern Novel” (whatever that is) writers are expected to be more creative. I suppose in general the more reading we do, the more stories we’ve read, so the more difficult it is to surprise us.
      I’m a fan of Charlotte’s Web, too.

  11. As a reader I’m not fond of long descriptions (although I agree some genres require it more, and readers would expect it, and some people are masterful at it, and I would read some writers even if they writing the yellow pages, but that’s a different matter), I don’t like tricks (when for instance, in a thriller somebody who’s not a part of the story is brought in at the end and it’s the guilty one. Oh, the dream one…), or bizarre dialogue tags (or unnecessary ones, although I’ve read books where I had no idea who was talking). I’m with you on the fact that I prefer a good dialogue but not everybody is the same. I am a psychiatrist so the issue of going crazy and characters that don’t make sense psychologically also bothers me a lot. Great post. Thanks!

  12. I’m not a reviewer, but I cannot stand stories where authors stretches a scene just to delay resolution. Doing that authors only manage to make the scene at hand weaker. Besides, as a reader, I might decide it’s time to go find some other author.

    1. If you read books, Peter, and discard those that don’t satisfy your taste you are by definition a Reviewer. You may not publish your review, but the discard discloses what you think if the book.

  13. I agree. But what about if you turn this around… what do you think are the essential features of a good book? What makes the difference between a book you think is just ‘ok’ and one that you love?

  14. My pet peeves :
    1. Authors who rave about how beautiful their main characters are in the first chapter. When I see that I figure that it isn’t a book about real people, and I put it down.
    2. Authors who have characters do something incredibly stupid because the plot needs it. I know people do stupid things, but I don’t want to read about anyone who’s that stupid.
    3. Authors who don’t do their research, who insist that their historical characters have modern opinions despite how completely unlikely it is, or who make fundamental errors about common things. I read one novel where author completely screwed up a scene where things were falling, apparently because of a lack of understanding of the law of gravity. He should have learned about gravity in junior high, and if he wasn’t sure, he should have looked it up.

  15. As a creative writing teacher, line editor for a couple major publishers, TV/Radio writer and long-time author myself…I LOVE 99% of your points. I, personally, have always used 3rd person shifting POV…I don’t ‘shift’ into everyones head…just the ones that make the story rich for the reader. My Pet Peeves: tags: said (it’s not invisible) and asked when there’s a question mark. Dumping…especially in the beginning of the book…feed it to the reader when it’s necessary.

  16. Great post, Mr Long. You had me hooting with laughter because I have made all these errors. Hopefully I have learned along the way and don’t make them so often.

    One peeve that you didn’t mention is the frequent use of brackets to contain informative (or explanatory) notes (as if the readers have no intelligence and can’t figure out simple things for themselves) to fill out the text and avoid some vital (to the author at least) point being missed (or overlooked).
    You can see from this example how excruciatingly irritating this habit can be. This technique is generally caused by trying to include too much, thereby overloading the reader. It is also used by authors who include foreign words in their text when a glossary at the end overcomes this need, and the context alone gives the word’s meaning.

    1. I treat foreign words the same way I do difficult vocabulary for YA books. It’s fine to put them in to give a flavour to the writing, but only use them in places where the context is clear, or where missing that word doesn’t mean missing the meaning of the sentence. In my historical fiction “Storm over Savournon,” I used french phrases only to show emotion, as in “Merde!” or “La Vache!” (And yes, folks, I did use exclamation points. I mean, you can’t say “Merde” without one, can you?)

      1. I went one step further and used French sentences, phonetically spelt. Readers who weren’t sure at the start ended up liking it by the end. It was a gamble that I believe was worth taking for the tone of the story but I’m quite sure it would give many editors nightmares.

  17. One pet peeve, excuse the pun, is writers of stories with dogs/cats who use the word pet for the past tense verb petted. Also, the ongoing its/it’s, their/there/they’re types of errors are inexcusable. I’ve wondered and even questioned some authors whether some of these errors are due to books being put into Kindle format, but no one seems to know. It’s suspicious to me, though, that some writers manage to have perfectly edited books on Kindle.

  18. Usually I hate these lists for the simple reason that the expert in question has basically cobbled it together from other nonsense lists readily found in the hall of “Half-baked rules for Writers from Someone who has never Written a Book Before” but, this one ain’t that bad, so, well played, Sir.

      1. Indeed. I particularly liked your No.2, the sudden onset of crazy. Very good point and rarely addressed. Of course there’s nothing better than a complete lunatic but “give him a mental disease”. 🙂
        Not so P.C. but spot on and I got a laugh out of it, thanks.

  19. Donning the reader hat, I believe there exists gray in absolutes. No argument there’s an undercurrent as we morph into a culture hard-wired by tech apps, the new black is less (followed by faster and cheaper). Yet truly, I’m no more busy than I was twenty years ago. It only seems that way. Unknowingly, we’re being shuttled into a chute to admire speed demons. When a writer is a master storyteller, sometimes the details are delicious. Tiny gems that stay with me long after the story has ended. Absolutely, there must be a balance, syntax, plots, POV, etc. I refuse to give up on wanting well-written details like the color of a sunset or the texture of rain, because a majority of readers do so via a cellphone. I iPad it, iPhone it, Kindle Fire (as in I own five), tablet, laptop, and hard copy it like a boss when it comes to reading (more like consuming) books. If a writer can write, I want the power of their punch. Sock it to me! I’m tougher than I look.
    Nice post and I look forward to your next.

    1. I think we all agree that properly-placed, beautifully-worded description is a plus. Like everything else, moderation is the key.
      But there definitely has been a move towards quicker action and less retrospective writing.

  20. My list is long as a reader, but I did write a similar blog post to help writers to avoid what I felt were some common mistakes.

    One of my biggest pet-peeves is the first half of a novel that is mostly filled with introspection or backstory. Which means: pages upon pages of internal yakking without any action or dialogue. BORRRRING!

  21. It’s very fashionable to hate exclamation marks. I think its something we’ve caught from journalists who call them “screamers.”
    My critique group (the ones with a background in journalism) are always telling me I over use them. But screamers have a place.
    I enjoy pointing out to my journalist friends the spots in their own work where they really should have used one, even if there is already one somewhere else on the page. They take it well.
    I do have a pet peeve which is a fiction book written in that obvious style of the writer who was once a journalist. Think Dragon tattoo.
    But all is not lost! My ex-journalist author friends have all painstakingly unlearned their journalism foibles to the stage where they can now write better than most real writers.
    Tolkien uses heaps of screamers and give me his writing over most things written by an ex-journalist who has not bothered to do what my friends have done.

    1. I think people get the two regular uses of exclamation marks mixed together. In dialogue, the ! shows that the person is upset, excited, or otherwise emotionally charged. Properly used, I think that’s fine.
      The other use is in the narrative, where the writer uses the ! to try to add excitement to writing that is otherwise flat, and should be pepped up by better technique. As in, “And then he sat down!”
      I can’t think of a place where the exclamation point should be used in the writer’s narrative.

  22. OK, “he asked” followed by “she answered” is unnecessary, but I’m not sure that a question mark alone always does the trick. As you say, sometimes you need to indicate who is speaking. In such a case, I think it’s OK to use “asked” rather than “said” following a question mark. To me, “said” by nature denotes a statement, rather than a question. So you have, “What’s that coming out of the cave?” asked Bob. “It’s a dragon. Run!” Pete raced down the hill, failing to notice that the dragon was an inflatable.”
    I don’t think substituting “said” for “asked” here would make any difference.

    1. But in your example, the asking is the least part of it. You could identify Bob and add more tension to the story at the same time with, “Bob stared over Pete’s shoulder. ‘What’s that coming out of the cave?'”
      “Asked” isn’t wrong; it’s using a boring device and missing out on a chance for an exciting one.

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