Friday, October 23, 2015

What Makes for a Helpful Review?

As I've watched the reviews start to trickle in for my alter ego, Bliss Bennet's, first foray into fiction-writing, I've been thinking a lot about reviews, and their usefulness (or lack thereof). As a reviewer, I hope my reviews convey both a clear sense of the book under discussion—is it well-written? Are the protagonists place-holders for the reader or individualized, developed characters? Does the storyline conform to, or challenge, the tropes of its genre and sub-genre?— as well as my opinions of its strengths and weaknesses. And I try to always include passages from the book itself, which help show why I've come to opinions I have about it. I don't know that I'm always successful—not everything whirring around in my brain always makes it down to the page/screen—but those are the goals I work toward.

I thought that, as an author reading other people's reviews of my book, I might want something very different. But, to my surprise, I've discovered that I am looking for exactly the same thing in others' reviews that I try to put in my own: a clear sense of the book, a reviewer's opinion about it, and some reasons or textual evidence to support said opinion.

Surprisingly, these can come not only from "good" reviews, but also from "bad" ones.

Let me give you some examples. As a prize for winning the Georgian-Regency-Victorian category in the RWA Hearts Through History chapter, I was given the opportunity to list my book, A Rebel without a Rogue, on NetGalley for a month. Earlier this week, I received a report from the publicity agency through which my book was placed (Barclay Publicity), giving me not only the numerical details on its NetGalley performance, but also the actual words that NetGalley readers who had submitted reviews wrote about the book. Here are some excerpts from some of the 12 readers who submitted reviews.

An example of an unhelpful bad review:

1 star. Completely awful. I didn't like the characters or the plot.

This reviewer's judgment is completely based on his/her own "liking," with little to no thought of whether other people may share his/her tastes. No examples are provided from the book itself about why the characters were unlikable, or why the plot was, either. Unless you know and trust this reviewer already, neither a reader nor the author will find this review of any help.

Examples of unhelpful good reviews:

4 stars. Terrific! I highly recommend this book.
3.5 stars. (no commentary)

As a writer, I'm always happy to receive 4 star reviews, and words of praise too. But as a reader, I'd have to rely solely on the judgment of these reviewers, something I'm not likely to do unless I'm already familiar with him/her and know that I share his/her tastes.

An example of a slightly more helpful though slightly negative review:

4 stars. This was a good romance but I felt it was very predictable.

Here the reader gives the general overview "a good romance," but also adds a reason for why it wasn't a complete win for her/him. After reading this, though, as both a potential reader and as an author of the book, I want to know what exactly about the story felt predictable? Then I could guess whether or not I, or another reader, would also find it predictable. Helpful again for the reviewers' friends, but not so much for those unfamiliar with him/her.

An example of a somewhat negative, but very helpful, review:

5 stars. I was given this book in return for an honest review. Normally, I would put this sentence last, however this book gave me some trouble. It was a passionate, emotional, historical, heartrending story. It was beautifully written as well as attention holding. The characters and the depths of the story were magnificent. Okay, I would say because it was a little too much for me as a romance. I am certain that many would give this one a 5. However the depths were disturbing when I wanted a historical that would make me laugh instead of one that tore at my heart and my emotions. It has all the makings of an absolutely fantastic story. So being honest I give it 5 Stars for all of that and 4 stars from me personally.

This reviewer responds to the book based on her personal preferences ("I wanted a historical that would make me laugh"), but recognizes that her preference may not be shared by everyone else. She gives a strong sense of just what the book feels like, though, even if it is a feeling that made her personally uncomfortable. Now, people like the reviewer, who are looking for light, funny historicals will know not to pick up this book. But those who read for the emotions, who like a book with more depth, can also benefit from this review; even if they don't share the reviewer's taste, s/he has given them enough information to know whether the tone of the book is likely to be their cup of tea. And as a writer, I feel validated; I was trying to write a book that fell more towards the "heartrending" than towards the humorous end of the scale, and this reader felt I achieved it.

So, what are your thoughts about what makes for a good review? If you're a reviewer (Goodreads, amazon, LibraryThing, your own blog, etc.), what do you try to accomplish in your reviews? When you're a reader, what do you look for in a review? And finally, if you're an author, does what you're looking for in a review change from when you're reading a review as a potential reader?

Photo credits:
The worst: Above the Law
5 stars: 5 Star Auto Care


  1. I definitely see what you're saying, but my "reviews" on Goodreads are really mostly for myself and my friends. I'm just tracking how I felt about aa particular book rather than trying to help anyone else. When I wrote reviews for my blog I definitely tried harder to explain why and how a book didn't work for me.

    1. Kellie; Yes, what makes for a good review does vary, depending on who you think your audience is. If it is just your friends and yourself, the shorthand Goodreads review can definitely work, because your audience already knows and trusts you. With its wider audience, a blog requires more explanation.

  2. I agree with a lot of what you're saying here. Like Kellie above, some of my Goodreads reviews are just basically reminders to myself about what I liked/didn't like, but in longer reviews, I try to lead with a baseline of what I want to see in this genre of book, and then go from there. Like you, it is helpful to me when reading reviews to have a sense of what the reviewer's platonic ideal for this type of book is. Eg, I quite like dark, emotional plots in romance, so if the reviewer says "This was too grim for me, I want something lighter, one star!" I'm actually more likely to check the book out. I am pretty sure that particularly in contemporary romance I have tastes relatively few people share, so I try to lead with a little bit about what I'd ideally like (complex, real-feeling characters, believable emotional insights, no cardboard, people with flaws like real humans always have) and then explain if the book hit those points or not. I think for many readers, they want something very different than I want, so I try to acknowledge up front that my view is probably not useful for all readers. I mean, some people love the things I hate, like the scenes where characters from other books in the series all get together to talk about how amazing and hot their now-married romance is. (I always feel like an alien, reading those.) So more "meta-information" is always better!

    1. Anonymous: Love the idea of a reviewer's "platonic ideal" for a particular type of book! The more reviews you read from a particular reviewer, the clearer that reviewer's platonic ideal becomes for you. Have you been able to find other reviewers who share your ideals, reviewers whose opinions you can trust to match yours to a certain degree?

  3. Reviews are not for authors.

    1. Interesting claim, Anonymous. As a writer, I always value informed feedback from reviews. But I get that may authors don't, and that many take offense at even the most mild criticism. The idea that such authors might be reading my reviews here, or on Goodreads, always makes me a little uncomfortable. But that's part of being a reviewer, I think--being willing to put one's ideas out there for public consumption, no matter who they might piss off.

      But maybe I'm not getting at the heart of your comment. Are there other reasons why you think reviews are not for authors?

    2. Reviews are for readers. Period. Full Stop. A review is written about a product for other consumers/readers so they may have more information in order to make an informed purchase. Authors may get some benefit, but that is a side effect, not the point, or purpose, of a review.

    3. Cat G, I agree that the primary purpose of a book review is to inform a potential reader/purchaser. But can a review have a secondary purpose, even one that isn't intended by its creator? To help an author improve his/her craft? Or is considering an author as a potential member of a reviewer's audience limiting in some way to a reviewer?

    4. "[i]But can a review have a secondary purpose, even one that isn't intended by its creator?[/i]" I think the word Purpose implies intent, therefore if it was not intended by the reviewer there is no purpose. Certainly some reviewers may take into account an author's perspective on a review, but I think this does a huge disservice to readers as it tends to have a chilling effect on bluntness and/or honesty in favor of being nice or not wishing to offend the author.

      "[i]Or is considering an author as a potential member of a reviewer's audience limiting in some way to a reviewer?[/i]" Definitely, just take a look at any review where an author shows up in the comments. Crickets.

  4. First of all, congratulations for being a published author, I hope everything goes fine with your book.
    Secondly, I'm going to try to be helpful.
    1.- I'm a reader. So a good review -for me- is one that gives me a general idea of what the book is about, what genre it belongs to, what story is being told and how it is told (angsty or funny, slow-paced or a fast reading...).
    2.- I'm a reviewer in my own blog, and I've got a very strong opinion about what I write my reviews for. They are for other readers, never for an author or a publishing company. That's why I don't accept free books.
    My blog is (I hope, at least that's what I try to do) a little bit different. I do not review each book I read, but only those that I think are special or classics. Or my favourite romance writers books, of course, but then I say so, that I love that author and perhaps the book is not good enough.
    Following the Sturgeon's Law, I try to identify that 10% that is not crap. There are many blogs and webpages that talk about novelties, and everything that can be considered a romance novel. I'm not one of those. What I want is to give a glimpse of the best books the genre can offer.
    When I write a review, I usually say what the book is about and then I talk about the characters, the plot, the setting and the style. But yes, I do it from my personal experience as a reader, not as a kind of literary critic. And I usually add what kind of reader -I think- would like that book.
    If I were an author I wouldn't like negative reviews, I know. But not all of them are as useless as 'I didn't like it'. Some of them are very insightful because they try to point out the problematic aspects of a novel. If several negative reviews say the same about one aspect of the book, perhaps that's something really problematic in that book and can be improved in the next books that author writes.

    1. Bona:
      Why did I not know that you have your own blog?? Am rushing over to check it out immediately after posting here!

      What do you think is the difference between writing "for a reader" rather than "as a kind of literary critic"? One focuses on the audience, one focuses on the writer. Can a reviewer do both/be both in the same review?

    2. I see readers that write about a book as consumers talking about a product they have used, and a literary critic who reviews in a magazine is like a professional tester who talks about the technical aspects of that product. In order to be a literary critic you need -I think- an academic background, and those are more helpful to authors and publishing houses.
      I don't usually talk about my blog when I visit the Romantic blogosphere in English because it's written -mainly- in Spanish, so it has no use to those who don't speak the language, although it's got this translation tool that can give you a general idea of what I write.

  5. For myself, as a reviewer, I have some difficulty putting myself into other people's perspectives enough to even begin to guess at what they might or might not like, and why. While I do try to make an effort, I feel like I often miss the mark.

    I think reading is such an immediate and sense filled personal thing that I do a much better job sticking with how it affects me personally.

    1. Interesting comments, Erin. It makes me wonder: why do you write reviews? Do you have your audience at all in mind when you write? What do you hope to communicate to your reader?

  6. I agree with Anonymous that reviews are not for authors. However, when readers and some bloggers who were not solicited write a heartfelt review that is praising your work, it sure feels good and makes a writer feel fulfilled. I have gotten a number of very hostile reviews. Most were displeased with my point of view. I have been a political activist since my late teens, so I am used to that kind of criticism. I did lose it in the beginning because the self-appointed premier bloggers of my genre (Jane Austen Fan Fiction) disapproved almost to the point of advocating not reading my first self-published 'Goodly Creatures' because it started with the rape of Elizabeth Bennet. As a survivor of rape, some of the words that were said to justify their opinion were personally very painful. I had combined elements of the plots of 'Sense and Sensibility' and 'Pride and Prejudice' and had a 15 year-old Lizzy trapped in a violation and left pregnant much like what happened to Colonel Brandon's ward Eliza. The pundits of the JAFF world felt my plot to be a desecration of Ms Austen. I am listening in the background to talk on book TV about YA novel banning and trash talking about books that do not go where a faction of readers want to go. It obviously is not only present in the Austenesque world. I have come to terms with those kind of reviews. And yet to be told: "No other book has EVER made me cry with both joy and sorrow. So much more that a P&P Deviation from a stranger encouraged me to continue to write. With my second novel, I attempted erotica. 'Mr Darcy's Cottage of Earthly Delights, Shades of Pride and Prejudice' was my best seller despite receiving the greatest number of 1 star reviews. The clean crowd's animosity got others to take a chance. It worked for me.

    1. Reviews may not BE FOR authors, but your words, enrage_femme, surely show that reviews AFFECT authors, both in good and bad ways.