Writing, rankings, and ratings: The problem with keeping score

award-ribbon4When I was a kid, my parents were pretty strict about acceptable additions to the decor in my room. While I was eventually allowed to get a cork board where I pinned pictures of crush objects and party invitations, the bulk of the wall space in my room was taken up by two things — books and awards.

The awards ranged from quite respectable medals in the National French and Latin examinations, to pathetic fare such as Most Improved in Physical Education, to the downright weird — after all, I’d been a participant in the Miss New York National Teen-Ager 1987 pageant. Needless to say, I did not win. Who spells teenager like that anyway?

For the years that I slept under those awards my feelings about them were mixed.  Yes, they proclaimed me clever or accomplished or worthwhile or seen, but they also proclaimed me someone who wasn’t — or didn’t think she was — any of those things without them. The awards, in short, were nice when they meant something, but lonely even when they didn’t. I had more of them than party invitations or crush objects on my cork board.  I didn’t get many of the first, and my parents judged me a lot for the second. I learned to keep what I loved secret, and that included loving myself.

Three decades later as a professional writer and awkward human being on the Internet, I’m still learning the lessons of those awards, consigned now to a scrapbook living in a closet.

Awards and rankings can seem like a big part of life for an author. There are Amazon rankings to check (except you don’t need to), Goodreads star ratings to keep tabs on (you don’t need to do that either), contests to enter (totally optional, by the way), and awards to win (completely not live or die).

Let’s face it, awards are fun. They make us feel special, offer a marketing boost, or just give us a sense of hope.  Sometimes they provide us an excuse to dress up. Often, they provide us a list of great books to add to our To Be Read piles.

But awards (and ratings and rankings) can also make us crazy.  I’ve been upfront about my own obsessive and unhelpful interest Amazon rankings in the past. But I have to say, it doesn’t stop there — for me or lots of other people in the genres in which I play. And the reality is, we’re all being ridiculous.

Yes, more reviews on Amazon on super helpful (please, honestly review the books you read, it does help authors!). But our belief that it somehow actually matters if our reviews average out to a 3.82 or a 3.92 probably isn’t, because it probably doesn’t. A 5* review isn’t going to suddenly make me a best-seller; a 1* review isn’t going to tank my book.

More and more, as I recognize my own review obsession, which I see mirrored by tons of other authors, as unhealthy and unnecessary, I also see it as the result (at least in my case) of gendered training to seek approval; I find it hard to believe I’m the only one.

But the people this does the biggest disservice to isn’t ourselves (that’s between us and our therapists), but readers and potential/aspiring writers.

First, the readers. Because, let’s say it again, reviews are for readers. And when we obsess over reviews, we get in the way of people who might leave reviews — often entirely by accident. And if we get in the way of reviewers, we make it harder for readers to find the right books for them. We have to accept, not only that reviews are for readers, but that readers are extremely savvy and take reviews on both positive and negative extremes with the appropriate amount of salt.

Secondly, our scorecard obsession does real harm to new and aspiring writers.  Who on earth wants to come into this game facing the message that their book will fail if they have less than 100 reviews on the day they launch? Or that if they don’t have an average of at least 4* they are doomed? Or that if another writer they know has a 3.92 to their own 3.87 on Goodreads it means they and they work are less worthy of existence?

Do I post great reviews when I get ’em in social media? You bet. Do I privately grouse about some of the less enthusiastic ones? Sure. But when I do either, am I being anything other than a girl who slept under a bunch of silly school awards for years and years in hopes that would make her a real person?  Not so much.

And that sucks.  I don’t want to be that girl any more.  She was lovely and interesting despite not knowing it, and her wounds have helped me find the types of stories I want and love to write. But being her is tiring, and lonely, and weird, and annoying.  And it’s okay for me to be done with her now.

It’s also okay for you to be done with your personal version of her too.

Writing is not a race. It is not a test. And it is most emphatically not a competition. It is not about quantitative measuring (ratings and rankings) of other people’s qualitative opinions (reviews).

Tell your story. Engage with the ratings and rankings and awards to the extent that data helps you and that you find it enjoyable. As soon as it stops helping, the second your words feel paler without it, go make some more words, or take a break. Or realize you’re not alone in this form of self-torture.  And then move on.

As writers, the problem is never awards, reviews, and rankings, but how we treat them. They’re fun. They’re a nice to have. They are designed, largely, to promote genres and industries and sales. But no author actually lives and dies by them. And as writers, we need to start believing that and acting like that.

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1 Response to Writing, rankings, and ratings: The problem with keeping score

  1. lisekim says:

    A truly important essay, Racheline, and one that every writer should print out and re-read on a regular basis. With publishers turning down an author’s work if her books do not meet a sales standard (some don’t say it up front, but will be one of the behind-the-scenes reasons for a decision; others actually do say it), it can be very demoralizing and one begins to feel the desperate need to please those publishers in order to stay with them. But bottom line, you can’t sweat the trolls, you can’t measure yourself against another or many others, and all that energy that is siphoned off for the fretting steals from the penning of exquisite stories. A wonderful argument to stay the course!

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