Written by Jeffrey Collyer
As a writer, I think about book reviews far more frequently than is healthy. A 5-star review can put me in a great mood, ready to conquer the world. A 2 or 3-star review can make me feel every moment of my writing life is a waste of energy – that this one thing that gives me such great joy is ultimately worthless. It’s all completely out of proportion of course, but such are the sensitivities of many writers.
But recently, I’ve been thinking about the whole review ‘thing’ a little differently. And wondering just what purpose they serve.
You see, not all reviews are equal. Not all reviewers take the same approach to rating the book. Reviewers and readers are often looking for different things in the review. And writers look for yet other things.
Is it possible to offer a review that meets all of these different needs? I don’t know, but here are a number of things to consider when you’re about to review your next book.
- Do you give reasons?
Many reviewers will give a rating based almost exclusively on how much they enjoyed the book. Now, that’s fine for many readers. Not so good for others.
Let me give an example. I will often read reviews that say something along the lines of, “I could totally relate to the MC – 5 stars”, or, “Don’t bother with this book. A waste of time – 1 star”
The problem with these sorts of reviews is that while they give the reader’s personal view of a book, they don’t help a potential reader in any way because there is no “Why”.
You could love a book because of the fast-paced action, high drama, and awesome characters. But the person reading your review might prefer stories that are more thoughtful, spend a lot of time on the character development and beautiful prose, or with lots of world-building. One of those story-types isn’t inherently better than the other – they serve different readers. But a detailed review will help a potential reader work out what kind of story it is, and therefore whether it is likely to appeal to them.
And from a writer’s perspective, the more detailed a review the better, as it serves as helpful feedback to know what worked or what didn’t.
- Are you a lenient reviewer or harsh?
As a reader, one thing I do if I come across a review is likely to sway me, I’ll have a look at other reviews the person has written. If they’re all 4 or 5 star – or 1 and 2 star – I’ll ignore it.
Why? Because for me, the review has to mean something. If a person finds pretty much everything they’ve read good enough for a 4 star or better, or alternatively is so hard to please that nothing gets more than a 2 star, then their reviews don’t provide any differentiation.
What I like to see is a broad range of review scores. That way, I can get a better idea of what that reviewer likes and doesn’t like. If their explanations resonate, I can have greater confidence that it might be something I’d enjoy too.
- Is the story one that you should have enjoyed?
To a certain degree, I’m talking about genre here, but it can be much more nuanced than that.
For example, if you really enjoy fast-paced suspense thrillers and get given a copy of a fantasy novel, there’s a reasonable chance you may not enjoy it. Then again, is it Urban Fantasy, or the classic swords and sorcery type? If the latter, is it a fast-paced stand-alone book, or is it Epic Fantasy – the type of story that takes three or more huge novels to complete, with an enormous amount of world-building detail, and a huge character cast?
And even then, there is a world of difference between much of the ‘new’ type of Epic Fantasy by writers such as Brandon Sanderson, versus Tolkien. Sanderson is renowned for astonishing fight and battle scenes, and is careful to make his magic-systems consistent. Tolkien, on the other hand, writes gorgeous prose and includes tons of detail on the story itself. To enjoy the style of one, isn’t necessarily to enjoy the style of another.
I’ve read 1-star reviews of Lord of the Rings where the reviewer just found it tedious; too much hard work to get through; too much ‘unnecessary’ detail. They’re wrong, of course. Tolkien carefully crafted his masterpiece: every detail has meaning. It simply wasn’t a style of story that appealed to the reader. That’s fair enough, but should the reviewer have been more thoughtful in his/her comments – or perhaps simply not reviewed it?
- Are you giving a rating based on quality or on your personal taste?
I suspect most people would say both, but you’ll lean one way or another. For me, I focus more on quality: by which I mean what is the prose like; grammar and formatting; is it a well-crafted story (i.e. not just a well-told story).
For me, a 5 star book would be one that is just about as close to perfection as you could get in a book. That it why I have only ever given one 5-star review.
It is also why I scratch my head when I read reviews that say something like, “Yes, there were spelling and grammar mistakes, but I loved it anyway – 5 stars”.
Of course personal taste plays a part, too. I like Epic Fantasy: to be drawn into a world that comes alive to me. I like to get into the heads of the characters, to really feel the emotional journey they take. I love knowing that the real story isn’t about the action, or the quest, or whatever: it’s about the individual striving to overcome his or her own personal struggles and learn about him/herself. For me, if there’s little detail, then there’s little depth. And that’s how I’ve written my own works in the Aylosian Chronicles series.
But that’s just my own personal taste. Would someone reading my review of a book understand that?
So, next time you finish reading a book and decide to write a review, take a moment to consider what you’re writing, why, and whether a person on the other side of the world who reads your review will get where you’re coming from.
Or maybe you have different thoughts on reviews? Please tell us.