Monday, 20 January 2014

What Makes a Good Book Review?

By Iola Goulton

Reviews are for readers.

The objective of a review is to help a potential reader decide whether or not they will like a particular book. Should they spend their hard-earned money buying this book? Is it worth their time to read? My time is valuable. I don’t want to waste hours reading a bad book, even a free book, when I could have been doing something more enjoyable (like scrubbing the toilet, or better still, reading a good book).

Over the years I have come to the conclusion that there are five main aspects that contribute to my enjoyment of a book, and these are the questions I try to address when I write a review:
  • Plot: Does the plot make sense? Do the sub-plots add to the overall story? Is it believable? Is it original, or do I feel I’ve read it before?
  • Characters: Do I like the characters? Are they people I’d want to know and spend time with in real life? Or are they too-stupid-to-live clichés?
  • Genre: Does the book conform to the expectations of the genre? If it’s Christian fiction, does the protagonist show clear progression in their Christian walk? If it’s romance, is there an emotionally satisfying ending? If it’s fantasy or science fiction, has the author succeeded in convincing me the world they have created is real?
  • Writing and editing: With many books, especially those from small publishers or self-published authors problems with the writing or editing take me out of the story (like a heroin wearing a high-wasted dress). Bad writing or insufficient editing makes a book memorable for all the wrong reasons.
  • The Wow! Factor: Some books, very few, have that extra something that makes them memorable for the right reasons. The Wow! factor is usually a combination of a unique plot and setting, likeable and intelligent characters (I loathe stupid characters), and a distinct and readable writing style, or ‘voice’. This is highly subjective and other readers might not agree with my taste. And that’s okay.

Some reviewers, especially Christian reviewers, are of the view that “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”, or that a positive review is building up God’s Kingdom.

I disagree.

I don’t believe God’s Kingdom is built on second-rate work. Praising books with basic writing faults encourages mediocrity, and we should be aiming to give God our best. This takes a combination of (God-given) talent and (our) hard work.

Readers deserve to know whether a book is worth their time and money. Even a free book takes several hours to read, hours the reader can never get back, so the book needs to be good enough to justify that time. I try not to be a basher, but I believe I have a responsibility to be truthful, and sometimes that means being critical. If I really don’t like a book, I need to say so (although I fully understand why authors can’t always take this approach, as Narelle Atkins discussed last week).

It's hard to write a less-than-glowing review. Really hard. Even harder if I'm the first reviewer who didn't love the book (or, worse, the first person to review the book).

It’s much easier to write a four-star ‘I liked it’ review (and even easier to write a five-star ‘I loved it’ rave). I wish I could write more five-star raves, but a lot of books are missing that Wow! factor, that originality that takes them from a four-star like to a five-star rave.

Critical reviews are especially hard to write if the book is from a lesser-known author with fewer reviews. I don’t enjoy writing a review saying a book was full of cliché characters, a predictable plot and editing errors. It’s not my fault I'm the first person to notice a book refers to Barnaby's Star when it's actually Barnard's Star. (That's a true story, and one that shows my inner geek. The author said even his NASA beta-reader didn’t pick that up. But he has now had the book completely re-edited and it will soon be relaunched. He’s even asked me to review it again.)  

That’s a nice story, but the purpose of reviews isn’t for authors to get free feedback on their writing. If you are an author and want feedback on your writing, ask a beta reader, find a critique partner, get a free critique through a writing organisation, or get a paid critique from an editor who specialises in your genre. Just please don't expect constructive feedback from reviewers. 

Because reviews are for readers.

By Iola Goulton. I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website (www.christianediting.co.nz), or follow me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/christianediting), Twitter (@IolaGoulton) or Pinterest (http://pinterest.com/iolasreads).

I love reading, and read and review around 150 Christian books each year on my blog (www.christianreads.blogspot.com). I'm a Top 25 Reviewer at Christian Book, in the Top 1% of reviewers at Goodreads, and have an Amazon Reviewer Rank that floats around 2600.

37 comments:

  1. Iola, excellent post! Reviews that praise books that are not ready for market (basic writing and editing faults) are not building up God's Kingdom. Readers deserve to hear the reviewer's honest opinion. Authors can always choose to not read them because reviews are for the pleasure of readers, not authors.

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    1. I agree, Narelle. I think of any review as a blessing. Though personally I like to read my reviews as I consider the majority to be helpful as feedback.

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    2. When I write a review, I'm always conscious that the author might read it so I try not to say anything in a written review that I wouldn't be prepared to discuss face-to-face. Having said that, I understand why some authors choose not to read reviews, and that's fine. They are written for readers, after all!

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    3. Absolutely! I think that encapsulates almost the perfect definition of an honest, gracious review: something you would be prepared to discuss face-to-face without defensiveness or feeling the need to back down.

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  2. Great outline as to what makes a good review, Iola.

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    1. Of course, the challenge is actually getting that across in a review without it starting to sound like a formula!

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  3. I'm fairly passionate about reviews, both as an author and a reader. As an author, I believe in the old adage: "All publicity is good publicity." So, as a reader, I try to review honestly and constructively what I, as an author, would have liked to have known, had I written the book. So, while I agree with your statement, Iola, about a review not being the place to get feedback, I also disagree to a certain extent. I reviewed a book not long ago - and disagreed with the librarians who praised it. I was careful to give my reasons. The interesting thing was this - they all turned around and agreed with me! They had been unable to articulate what they disliked about the ending, so fell in with the general praises around about them. (Peer pressure exists even for librarians! If the author is a big name, they feel they have to like the work.) This highlighted to me the importance of being truthful - we create a culture of silence otherwise. And a culture of silence is just another form of subtle bullying and mind control. Sorry for the harsh words there but a good review, either positive or negative, is the most valuable gift an author can ever receive.

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    1. I'll sometimes read a critical review of a book I've enjoyed (or vice versa) and find that I can agree with every point the other reviewer has made, but we've just had a different personal reaction as to whether or not we liked the book. After all, ratings are subjective.

      There is a lot of online discussion about 'bully' reviews, but that's usually in relation to authors, not librarians! There is a small subsection of the author population who appear to think anyone who doesn't think their book is the best ever (and who dares to give them less than five stars) is a bully.

      This means some reviewers are understandably nervous about giving less than five stars or confronting what they see as bad author behaviour (which will be the topic of another post in this series). This isn't helped by the fact that there are some readers and reviewers who are a little over-zealous in chasing down bad author behaviour (possible understatement there).

      But it's a sad state of affairs when reviewers feel they can't leave honest reviews for fear of being harassed by authors - or being looked down on by their peers (well, she's not clever enough to understand literary fiction. Look at what she reviews. Romance).

      I agree there is a need for reviews that are honest and truthful. You are right - that's not bullying. It's a gift.

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    2. The librarians were not on Goodreads - I should clarify that. They work in real brick and mortar libraries... and I didn't happen to like a particular fantasy they'd all raved about. I found the subsequent discussion really enlightening - and eventually concluded that, when we don't feel we have the right to our own opinion, we become sheep.

      In respect to bad author behaviour - I agree with the new Goodreads guidelines that allow people to report abusive reviews that attack the person directly and do not stick to the book itself. I've had abusive comments for not liking a book as much as I should. And I don't respond to them - after all, I think the comment says more about the person making it than it says about me.

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    3. “Fools have a habit of believing that everything written by a famous author is admirable. For my part I read only to please myself and like only what suits my taste.”
      ― Voltaire

      I agree with Voltaire.

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  4. What a fantastic post! Thank you so much Iola this will give me a reference of how to write a good review. I agree with what you are saying here - honesty is important, but for myself I don't want to slap out a review that reflects badly on my writing skills. Reviewing is a skill. I need to learn how to review and do it effectively for readers, for as you have said, reviews are for readers. I agree, if an author wants feedback, use a Beta reader or critique partner.
    In saying all this, I am of the mind that if a writer so chooses not to do reviews, I respect that. We have books to write, edit, and market. That takes a huge amount of time and energy and I feel we should be allowed to choose not to review. There are so many ways to support one another as writers - as I have found on the ACW facebook page. Prayer, critiquing, being a Beta reader, helping with a synopsis, recommending another author's books - the list goes on.

    I will be saving this post for future reference.

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    1. Hi Catherine
      I disagree just a little with one statement here. I don't respect writers who choose not to do reviews. I know I will tread on toes with that statement. We should never expect to receive from someone else what we are not prepared to give: if an author wants honest reviews, they should expect to give honest reviews. Not as 'quid pro quo', not as 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours' but as part of God's command to mutually uplift each other. I don't see 'uplift' as meaning 'give a five-star review' but as 'give honest opinion' so that a potential reader is informed and the author receives something constructive - either advice or my testimony of to what degree I liked the book.

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    2. And can I add this to my previous comment: a three-star review is vastly better than no review at all. If we think five-star is the be-all and end-all, then we virtually force those readers who liked it but feel they couldn't give it five stars into silence. Five-stars or zero stars? I'd rather give three stars any day than give nothing.

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    3. Annie, you're not treading on my toes personally as I write reviews. BUT a book review is a genre and not everyone is skilled at performing in this area (I'm no good at writing murder mysteries). I'm not saying we shouldn't try, either, by the way. However, I find there is a lot of pressure in writing a review, to 'get it right' have the 'right balance of this and that' and not every writer (fledgling or otherwise) is up to it.

      God commanded us to love one another, and maybe that means not making a rule that all writers must write reviews, rather, accepting others where they are. I choose to uplift authors by many means - prayer, Facebook messages, emails, Skype, a phone call, reviews ... lots of ways. While reviews are important and necessary, I don't feel disrespected if an author doesn't write a review for me.

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    4. I perhaps should clarify that, by review, I mean "50 characters", the lower limit of what constitutes a review on Goodreads. I struggle - a lot - with the idea that an author encourages reviews from others in various places like Goodreads, Amazon, Koorong but has never personally troubled to put one up for anyone in such a place. It's not about a review for me personally; it's about not giving to the community as a whole.

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    5. Annie, I agree that it's selfish for authors to expect others to review their books if they are not prepared to reciprocate in some manner and give back to the writing community. For published authors that may mean writing an endorsement rather than a review. I have bought a number of books because an author I love has endorsed it.

      There is a difference between authors who have a heart for writing reviews and recommending books but struggle to articulate their thoughts, and authors who stubbornly refuse to review, endorse or recommend any books.

      There are a number of legitimate reasons for why authors may only occasionally write reviews. Many authors have day jobs, family commitments etc. on top of their deadlines and reviewing may not be at the top of their priority list. They shouldn't feel guilty that they can't do all things for everyone all the time.

      It's likely that the authors who have no desire to write reviews, endorsements or book recommendations are also the authors who never volunteer to help out in their writing organisations in any capacity. Their lack of reviews may be a symptom of a deeper heart problem. I can say this here because no one in this group does this, but this can be also be the author who belongs to a group blog and never replies to comments on their posts or supports other blog members by commenting on their posts. They expect everyone to help them promote their book but they aren't prepared to give back to the writing community in any significant or meaningful way.

      The upshot: We each need to prayerfully consider how we can all work together as the body of Christ to help uplift and support each other. And, if we have no desire to support other authors but expect everyone else to support us, we need to repent and pray about how we can contribute to the writing community.

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    6. Narelle, couldn't agree more on working together more and uplifting each other more as well as understanding each other's reasoning more. While it's true that there are legitimate reasons for not reviewing - being busy with day jobs and family commitments etc - I also think that 50-characters is not a big or even sacrificial ask. It's more like a comment or endorsement than review.

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    7. Annie, I agree that writing a one sentence endorsement or a two sentence book recommendation is not a big ask for authors. I'd be concerned if authors weren't prepared to ever do this, especially for books they love.

      But, I wouldn't necessarily define one or two sentences as a review, using the definitions Iola has provided today on what constitututes a good review.

      I'll ask Iola's opinion, and everyone else can feel free to chime in. How many words would you consider is the minimum word count for an effective review? By effective, I mean a review that is balanced and covers all or most of the elements Iola has mentioned in her post today.

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    8. Amazon have a twenty-word minimum; Goodreads ask for 50 characters. That's only a couple of sentences which is more than enough to give an opinion on a book, especially a book you liked. No, it's not the standalone review I write, but then I'm not good at brevity!

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    9. One of the great things about Goodreads is that it's so easy to edit a review. (Especially if, like me, spelling mistakes only leap out at you once it's published.) This also means that you can add a few extra sentences later. This is one of the reasons I like it so much - I started out without much confidence there but found it was an ideal way to get into it. I could add more to any review later as I thought of more to say.

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    10. Isn't an endorsement what you find in a book from other authors and reviewers who read the book before its out. Normally at the front or back of the book. This isn't a review as its someone endorsing the product its not a star rating and its to make you buy the book. Often by others from the same publishing company.

      Where as a review is after the books been released and will have a rating to the book.

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    11. You're absolutely right, Jenny.

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  5. I have to say a lot of us reader reviewers write what we like or dislike in a review. We often do it to let people know what we thought of the book but we don't think about any interaction with others.
    I write them on Goodreads because its easy to do after you finish a book and keep track of what I have read this year. I will also add them to my blog and sometimes Amazon and other places. On places like Amazon and Goodreads I am not looking for interaction with an author or to even have it liked. (I find it weird to have people like a review there). Actually if I know an author is going to respond to a review or be critical or try to explain what is wrong with me not liking a book I am less likely to ever review one of their books again.

    I rarely read reviews to decide if I want to buy a book unless its non fiction. If I do read them it will be the 3 stars as I figure most 5 star reviews are friends or bought unless I trust the reviewer. Just like I take notice of star reviews as anyone who rates a book one star had to much time on there hand to read a book they think is that bad. The reason I dont have 1 and 2 star reviews. I have to many books to waste my time reading a book I dont like and if I cant get into it within about 2 or 3 chapters I don't read it. I haven't been reviewing as much lately as it takes to much time to concentrate and I am struggling health wise and just want to read for pleasure not for the pressure of writing a review.

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    1. Hi Jenny
      This is interesting - because, as a reader and an author, I know I'm impressed when an author says "thank you" for a review to me. It's only happened a couple of times (and I didn't give five stars in either case) but the appreciation made me decide to get the author's next book (which is not what I'd intended). I love to "like" reviews! I like them all, regardless. Sorry, but I've pretty sure I've even liked some of yours! The reason I "like" them is because I think we should be encouraged to bless others with the gift of a review. I "like" the fact you've gifted someone with the time and thought put into the review. Besides, when I "like" someone else's review it appears on my timeline and in my feed - letting others know about the existence of a book they might otherwise have overlooked. I've actually bought books I've discovered through someone else "liking" a review which I thought sounded interesting. It's a way of getting the news out to a wider circle.

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    2. "If I know an author is going to respond to a review or be critical or try to explain what is wrong with me not liking a book I am less likely to ever review one of their books again"

      I agree, and I know this is a common view. It goes one step further - if I see an author try and explain what's 'wrong' with your review, it's likely I'll steer away from that author as well, so you're not the only potential reader they've lost.

      I'm another person who reviews on Goodreads as a way of keeping track of my reading. I also have the Goodreads app, which enables me to check if I've read a book when I'm browsing in the library or in a real bookshop. All I have to do is scan the barcode, and Goodreads brings up my review or the reviews of my friends.

      One of my faults is that I find it hard not to finish a book, even if I'm not enjoying it. Those books do end up being rated on Goodreads (even if they are not reviewed). But I'll often review them - I think a review of a low-star book is more helpful to readers than simply a rating.

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    3. I agree, Iola. I review on Goodreads as a way of keeping track of my reading. I've also discovered you can leave invisible notes. Which is a cool feature since there are often things I wanted to record about the book or information in a fiction novel which is inappropriate in a review but can be put in, for my own reference. My personal belief is that a low rating has to be justified, both for the readers' and author's sakes - and my reviews for books with low ratings are often massively long compared to those I've given higher ratings.

      I agree with you about finding it hard not to finish a book. I reviewed one in the last few days that I realised had been a mistake to buy after the first page. Fortunately it was a very short book because it broke every rule of good writing there is.

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    4. Iola I am afraid if I dont like a book I cant keep reading fortunately most have been review books that I have then let the tour operator know I just can't read this book, I can't get into it or under stand it or I just don't like it. Normally if you are on a blog tour they do not want you to put up a review it if it will below 3 stars as that is not the purpose of the tour and as long as you let them know they are ok with that.

      I don't think I have bought any I haven't liked. I dont mind talking with an author via email as I will normally let them know if I really like a book but to have them comment on a review isn't something most reader only reviewers like. I think there is a huge difference from reviewers who have no interest in writing or editing and readers who understand the craft as they are writers or aspiring writers. I also think its different if an author comments on a blog review that is more acceptable than it is at a review site. I am happy to have comments at the blog cos its expected.

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  6. Iola, I want to thank you for an informative and wise post. It's my turn to review here on Thursday and your outline has given me the confidence which can sometimes be wiped away when there's various opinions on the 'hows and whys' of reviewing. Thank you. :)

    Cat and Narelle, I'm with you on respecting an author who chooses not to review. We are not all called to serve God the same way, but we are called to serve Him and one another. I really liked Andrea's broader description of how we hold each other up, "...prayer, Facebook messages, emails, Skype, a phone call, reviews ... lots of ways. While reviews are important and necessary, I don't feel disrespected if an author doesn't write a review for me."

    Lot of measured encouragement here today. A blessing to ponder the heart of so many writers and readers.

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    1. Hi Dotti - I think there is a difference between holding people up as individuals and holding them up as authors. To hold an author up as an author, rather than as a friend, the "...prayer, Facebook messages, emails, Skype, a phone call, reviews" and lots of other ways has to be specifically focussed towards the writing front. So, I would differentiate here between more general support and the specific support provided by reviews. If an author has a "no review" policy, I actually think that should be made clear because it looks incredibly self-centred when you see someone who has made the effort to get reviews but isn't giving any.

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    2. Thank you, Dotti. I've enjoyed the reviews you've written so far, so you've got nothing to worry about.

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  7. Actually, Anne, I did mean as authors. Some of the deepest and God driven support I've received as an author has come from people in this group (ACW) who've prayed FOR me and WITH me regarding my writing, messaged me, called me at a cost to them... some international calls, and critiqued my work. God is good to have placed me in a group where these people minister to me and play a part in my shaping as a writer.

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    1. Wow! That is incredible. You should be even more immensely thankful than you are - because I can assure you it is amazingly rare.

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    2. Many authors have a no review policy for reasons I discussed in my post last Monday. I think it is dangerous territory to make judgments regarding an author's integrity without first investigating their bio and seeing what else they do in the writing community.

      Interestingly, the level of support Dotti has mentioned from other writers is not unusual in the romance writing community, among both Christian romance writers and the broader romance community. ACFW is also known for fostering a community that encourages members to uphold these values. You can see this in action when you attend the conferences.

      One of the goals at ACW is to promote an online community that is encouraging and supportive through both the blog and the Facebook Group. I'm encouraged to hear that Dotti has found this level of support here.

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    3. I wasn't referring to people who make their policy clear. Some people don't. I should have realised Dotti was talking about the romance writing community - which, indeed, is different to the general writing community.

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  8. I've been wrestling with this exact issue for the last couple of weeks. In the past there have been books that I wasn't all that thrilled with and I wanted to rate them 2 stars, but I felt like that would be "mean", and so unfortunately I ended up bumping the stars up to 3. Recently though, I've come to understand that this is actually being dishonest, and I've resolved to aim for complete honesty in my future ratings.

    I'm comfortable giving 3, 4, or 5 stars, but 2 stars....I feel like that's a pretty bad rating, which is why I've been so hesitant to give 2 stars in the past. And it didn't help that one of the few books that I did rate 2 stars, the author actually contacted me defending her position against all my critiques. I never did reply because I was honestly quite stunned, and I could see that the situation had potential to turn bad. I don't regret any part of my original review though, because I feel it's very relevant for potential readers.

    It's hard because (especially now) I always feel like the author will undoubtedly see my review of their book, and being a sensitive person myself, I always think about their feelings, etc. But I really want to be honest, because I know readers depend on reviews. I know I sure depend on them when I'm browsing for books.

    Ultimately, I'm trying to shoot for kind-hearted honesty (no bashing!) while relaying the things that I personally would have liked to know before picking up the book. It's a tough balance to master, because I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. Argh!!

    I'm going to be following these posts. I'm very anxious to see what else will be discussed.

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