I’ve been posting a lot of book reviews recently, so I thought I’d qualify my review scale and criteria. This should help those reading them judge whether my reviews align with their views enough to be considered a good recommendation.
I’ll start with what my father taught me about wine appreciation, and is pretty much the golden rule (or only rule) I know about fine-art appreciation:
If you like it, it’s good. If not, it’s not.
Simple and to the point, with no apologies or complications. I read for enjoyment, so if I enjoy reading it – it’s good. I make no pretense of deep theoretical learning, of absolute truth, or of anything else. I read to enjoy. It’s that simple.
That said, people have different tastes so a review based on just whether I personally enjoyed a book or not is not going to be helpful. I also don’t quite agree with the inverse – if I didn’t like it, I’ll only say it wasn’t for me at the time.
I also believe people’s enjoyment (besides genre and theme preference) has a lot to do with expectations. When an author or publisher sets the right expectations, readers know what they’re getting into and are less likely to be disappointed – which helps sales in the long run. (More on settings expectations effectively in an upcoming post).
So this is what I came up with.
First up, the star scale. Can’t avoid them – you need to put in a value of 1 to 5 stars when you write a review. But with different people assigning different meanings to the rating, it’s become almost useless. So here’s my scale:
- 5 Stars: I enjoyed it so much, I’ll pick up more books by this author at first opportunity
- 4 stars: I enjoyed reading it
- 3 stars: meh
Life is too short for books I don’t enjoy, so I often don’t even finish reading 3-star books (usually only if it’s part of a series I enjoy overall). I certainly don’t bother continuing to read anything less. I have a to-read list that’s longer than my life expectancy, so I just quietly move on.
“Quietly” is an important word here. The fact I didn’t find the book engaging, doesn’t mean no one else would. So I don’t bother writing a review or spending any more time on it. Others can make their own minds. (I’m not on a quest to educate the masses. I also laugh inwardly at people who think 5-stars are only for literary masterpieces, and then rip such books apart because they didn’t enjoy them. Reviews are about personal taste, people; no point in pretending otherwise).
And this is a neat segue to writing about reviews. Because it’s about personal taste and reader’s expectations, I try to reflect and accurately set them in my reviews. This, hopefully, provides more value to review readers than another plot summary or long-winded discussions.
So here is my review skeleton:
- Intro of what drew me to this book (so you know where I’m coming from)
- What to expect: a description of what you might find in the book: focusing on elements and themes that stand out.
- What I liked: pretty self explanatory, the things that stood out for me.
- What to be aware of: aspects of the work I think might be a trigger to some people, or at least somewhat contentious subjects which some people like to avoid.
- Summary: my closing thoughts on the book
Pretty simple, innit? I sometime condense and combine sections, to avoid unnecessary verbiage. Rather than focus on plot or characters (which beyond the basics may not mean much to those who haven’t read the book), it’s aimed at making the reader educated about what to expect from the book, and therefore avoid disappointments.
I only finish reading books I enjoy (because life is too short), and I only review book I finish. So my reviews tend to be positive, highlighting the good books. That’s what the “What to be aware of” section is there for. I do try to step outside of myself, and take a more critical look at the work, and identify areas that others might feel strongly about. Again, setting expectations.
What do you think? How do you review books, and how do you read other’s reviews?
Side note: there’s also my article about how I read reviews, which isn’t quite the same. Also, it’s funny.
Really useful guidelines – thanks for explaining.
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This was really helpful! Gaining quality reviews (or any reviews at all) is difficult! Thanks for taking the time to spell this out for lamens like myself. It makes even asking for a review easier, because I can now potentially take some of the burden off a person by providing them with a useful template to use. People have told me that they don’t leave me reviews because ‘they don’t know how to say it.’ Thanks again!
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My pleasure – glad you find it useful! I always tell people to just leave a verbal thumbs up/down, ie. a simple “I enjoyed it” or “Wasn’t for me” is all that’s needed.
In my reviews, of course, I try to set up correct expectations so that readers can match it up with their own tastes and preferences. I give less attention to the plot or the craft, because those are (a) matters of taste, and (b) can be ascertained by anyone from the blurb and the first chapter. It’s highlighting what experience they can expect when reading it that should (in my theory) attract the right kind of readers to the book.