Monday 27 July 2015

Reviewing Like A Reader

By Iola Goulton

In an interesting twist of fate/circumstance/coincidence, I was recently sent a book to review the day after I’d read a blog post by the author giving pointers on how to write reviews that make you sound like a reader (and not sound like a writer. As though being a writer is a bad thing).

Apparently I’ve been reviewing all wrong. I learned:

  • I’m not supposed to give you a plot summary (after all, you can read that on Amazon. No matter that I’m reviewing on my blog).
  • I’m not supposed to use writer jargon, like saying it’s a debut novel or mentioning the awards it’s won.
  • I’m not supposed to say what I thought was wrong with the book, like inconsistent characterisation or slow pacing, because those are craft issues not story issues (never mind that bad craft gets in the way of story, even good story).
  • I’m not supposed to tell you it’s the third book in a series, even if it is, and I’m especially not supposed to tell you whether it works as a standalone novel, because that’s talking about the book when I should be talking about something far more important: ME. Yes, really. The review should be entirely self-centred, focusing on what I liked about the book, not what I think you might find helpful (yes, please remind me why Amazon have those silly helpful/not helpful voting buttons if the review is supposed to be all about ME).
  • The review should be no longer than two paragraphs, which makes for long paragraphs because most blogger programmes I’m a member of want reviews at least 200 words long excluding the book description, yet 100-word paragraphs can be hard to read on screen … where most people read book reviews.

Anyway, in the spirit of cooperation (or something), I thought I’d give the author the benefit of writing the kind of review she believes readers want, one that doesn’t make me sound like an author:
I wasn’t sure what to think about this novel. Oops. Can’t say what I was going to say next. Can’t comment on the writing (solid but not outstanding) or the editing (less solid). Best not to comment on what I thought of the opening (might be considered craft talk, even if I avoid saying “opening hook”), or the story. The heroine seems likeable enough if a bit shallow. It’s like she’s been dumped there because it’s a Christian romance which means there has to be a heroine. She’s twenty-five, single, a teacher, and a bit quirky, which makes her no different to the heroine in dozens of other romances I’ve read with this time setting (tempting to use words like “cliché” and “prairie fiction”, but those are writer words). The hero is older than then heroine and a farmer from the back end of nowhere. I can’t tell you anything else because that would use craft talk like “point of view”. Then there’s the bad guy, but I can’t talk about him either, because that might use inappropriate words like “antagonist” and “cliché”, not to mention “undeveloped”. The only character I’m really interested in is a minor character—the young black maid in the boardinghouse, because she’s the only character who’s different (by which I mean “not a cookie-cutter cliché character”).

My opinion of that review: 200+ words of useless. 

It's almost unreadable due to the lack of paragraph breaks (my eyes like paragraphs of five lines or less on screen). And it's too critical (apparently I’m supposed to use snarky animated gifs to say anything less-than-glowing. I thought that sounded like a way to waste a lot of time on the interwebz).

Let’s try again.

This novel is a Christian romance set in a small town in the US, not far from some big horrible city. It’s got a plot, parts of which I enjoyed and parts I thought were too far-fetched. It’s got characters, some of which I liked and some of which I didn’t, and some of which were so frustrating I just wanted them to get over themselves. Some were convincing, some weren’t. Overall, I’m indifferent. It was good enough, but I expect better than “good enough” from this author and this publisher. But telling you why I think that would apparently make this review less reader-friendly.

My opinion of that review: honest, but still useless. 

As a reader, I’d want specifics. And it’s too short to be accepted by some blogger programmes.

Another attempt:

I LOVE books set in the American West, and I love books with quirky heroines, and I love books with evil villains and I love books with humour. This book has it all, and if you love Christian romance as much as I do, you’ll love this!
It fulfils all the “reader review” criteria, but it fails in one vital area: it’s not honest. It’s not untruthful—I do enjoy books set in the American West, books with humour, books with quirky heroines—but it’s not the whole story, and it’s got no ‘why’. It’s the kind of review I ignore—it looks like the author paid for it.

As I learn more about novel writing through reading reviews and studying writing craft, I find knowing more about the craft side gives me a language to articulate what I liked—or didn’t like—about a novel. For example, I was blown away by the first Jodi Picoult novel I read, but it wasn’t until I started studying craft that I learned why: because of her excellent use of point of view to take me deep into the mind of her key characters.

There’s one final thing I think this author has forgotten. Readers, on the whole, might read reviews but they don’t write them. Reviewers write reviews, and a lot of reviewers read—and write—a lot of reviews. This means we’re going to start using “writerly” words. Like plot. Or characterisation. I’d also argue that anyone who regularly writes reviews is a writer, which makes the distinction between reader/reviewers and writer/reviewers irrelevant, redundant, or both.

In talking with my own reviewing friends, I’ve found we tend to write the reviews we want to read. 

Some readers/reviewers loathe books written in first person point of view, so they will be sure to point that out. Some don’t want to read books with certain themes or plot points (e.g. rape, abuse, religion), so they like reviews which point out possible triggers or unwanted themes. Some want comparisons between similar products; others don’t. Some prefer short reviews; others like reviews with more detail.

This is why reviewers don’t care for authors telling them how to review: reviews are for readers. 

And different readers want different kinds of reviews. If this author and her friends like short squee reviews, that’s great. But I don’t. So I follow what is often considered good writing practice: write what you know, and write the book (review) you’d want to read.

In fairness, the author did include a list of points she (and her reader friends) thought made a good review. And I agreed with them all. But some of them contradicted what she’d already said … and it was too little, too late. She’d already left me wondering whether I still wanted to read and review her book. And which kind of review I should write.

Readers, what do you think?

About Iola Goulton

I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website, or follow me on FacebookTwitterPinterest  or Tsu.

I love reading, and read and review around 150 Christian books each year on my blog. 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 2500.


  1. LOL I'm with you Iola. Maybe we should give readers more credit than this author seems to be doing. And as you say, different readers do look for different things in reviews. If they follow your reviews, it's because they find them helpful. I will say though, I don't particularly like a blow by blow description of the plot in a review (I want to discover it as I read the book).

    1. I don't want a blow by blow plot summary, but I want enough to give me an idea of why I might want to read the story ... especially if I don't think the publisher's book description covers the points which most interested me!

  2. I agree Iola, I do write what I think of a book I don't need a writer telling me as purely a reader how I am doing it wrong. Most reader only reviewers (even ones who only do it on a blog) will include a quick summary and will say why they did or didn't like it. I know I say if its part of a series as the last think I want is to get a book that's the fifth part of a series and not a stand alone read and then have to buy the first four books. I will also say if it works as a stand alone read. I guess I break all the rules. I am surprised she missed the most important one which most readers have learnt and that is to only review on the first three or four chapters and never give away any special gems in the book.

    Irony is I don't read many reviews on books unless I am curious.

    1. The series thing is one of my pet hates. If I pick up a book, I want to know whether or not it is part of a series and what number, so I can decide whether I want to read it or whether I should read the earlier first.

      And I totally agree with no spoilers!

  3. If I reviewed books by the prescription outlined by that author, I may as well close my review blog. It is reviews like she is promoting that encouraged me to write my own. The ones she describes do nothing for me and do not encourage me to read that book.

    I agree with you, Iola, I write the reviews I like to read. I have had many readers leave messages saying they bought the book and read based on the review I wrote due to it being more detailed than the other one or two paragraph, unspecific reviews on Amazon.

    I am not an author but I do include content about plot, characterisation, style, flow, subject matter, what worked well and what did not, etc in my reviews. I post one review a week, so I guess that makes me a writer as you mention in your post.

    1. I always enjoy reading your reviews, Pete.

    2. I find the best reviews are the ones which can explain what worked and what didn't work about the plot, characterisation etc. No book is going to please everyone, and it's those details which are most likely to tell me whether or not this is a book I'll enjoy.

      And I'm happy to read long reviews ... as long as the reviewer uses paragraphs. I can't read long blocks of text on screen.

    3. Thanks Ian!

      And Iola, I use paragraphs! I don't read long blocks. I don't even go there. I find it just lazy to not use paragraphs.

  4. What a great blog post. Most general readers I know don't bother to write reviews at all, or at least not consistently. Those who do tend to be reviewers, authors or passionate book bloggers. People who fits into any those three categories tend to mention writing craft and other details she says not to.
    I find that sort of detail is helpful when I'm reading reviews myself. I think I took a lot on board myself at your workshop on book reviewing back in 2012.

    1. Thank you, Paula! I'm pleased that presentation was useful, and it's great to see you reviewing a range of books now (isn't NetGalley wonderful?).

  5. One of the things that's surprised me after all these years writing reviews is they're still hard work. Funny, for some reason I thought they'd get easier. Just as in writing novels never seems to get much easier. As you point out different readers want different reviews as we all look for different things when reading.

    I still primarily focus on 3 things when reviewing novels: is it a story that engaged me, are the characters interesting and, if a Christian one, did the message stir my spirit. Typically the craft elements will help the first 2 of these 'sing' but even when there are hiccoughs in the writing I'll generally ignore it if the story is engaging me.

    1. I find the hardest part of the review is often my description of the book (well, the opening chapters). I want it to be different from the Amazon description, to give information not just about the plot and characters but about how I perceived them as well. That can be hard.

      The other hard reviews are the four-star reads. There is plenty to say about why I loved a five-star read, and plenty to say about what I didn't like about a lower-star book. But four stars means "I liked it" (at least on Amazon), and that can be hard to write about.

  6. You made me laugh, Iola. Unfortunately, the author of the mysterious-and-shall-remain-so book didn't. Sounds like she needs to chill and worry about writing rather than telling people how to review. Love your tongue in cheek post :)

  7. Every reviewer comes at reviewing a book based upon their experiences, from previous books read review writing to skills and what they find important/interesting/relevant.

    Maybe there is a segment of the reading population that prefers vapid reviews? If so, probably pretty small.

    1. Terry, that's a good point. My reviews do reflect what I find important, interesting or relevant ... which I hope my readers also find at least halfway interesting.

      I'm sure there is a section of the population who prefer vapid reviews. But I'm not sure that group intersects with the group authors should be interested in: people who buy and read books.

  8. Fabulous post. It has given me a great giggle at your tongue in cheek approach. I personally love your reviewing style.

    1. Thank you, Nicki.

      But who's spreading the rumour my post was anything less than serious?

  9. Iola, great post! I wrote a book recommendation for my blog this morning. The only hard and fast rule I follow is to recommend the book to a specific audience of readers. Diversity in book reviewing is definitely a good thing :)

  10. GREAT post, Iola, one of the best I've ever read. Just now saw it, by the way. My book-related e-mails are a little backed up.

    Whether I like or dislike a book, I want to give some kind of explanation, which is where some of those "craft" terms come in. I'm not the best at doing that, but have picked up some terms along the way. I did some research when I first started reviewing and the advice that resonated most with me was to write from the heart about my feelings, reaction, etc. Wish I could write as well as you, though! Thanks for this funny, but helpful post.


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