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.
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 GoultonI am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website, or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest 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.