What makes a great review?

anniversary beautiful birthday bloom

I need to say first that I really value reviews, and appreciate the effort and commitment of those who write them. I’ve been thinking a lot about them lately, prompted by my first experience of a ‘blog tour’, and also by a passing comment from a friend who wanted to mention my books on his new website. ‘Have you got any reviews we could take extracts from?’ he asked. ‘Only Amazon or bloggers’ reviews,’ I said, explaining that despite all my efforts over the years, I haven’t managed to get reviews of any of my six books in the local or national press. His reply was that Amazon or blogging reviews ‘didn’t count’ in his traditional view of publishing. Was he right, I wondered? I sent some of my reviews anyway, and choosing which ones to send got me thinking about what makes a good review.

Let’s be very clear, by ‘good’ I don’t necessarily mean ‘favourable’. Some of my books are ‘better’ than others, in my own opinion. Obviously, I try to do the best I can with each book I write, but sometimes – usually through the need to meet artificial targets or deadlines – there are compromises, or one edit too few, or a scene that is left in even though it doesn’t really add to the story, or a missed chance to illuminate a character through some telling. If a reviewer spots a specific shortfall, that’s a good review, so long as the specific positives are mentioned as well.

So, there’s the first criterion for quality in a review – specificity. The vaguer the wording, the less satisfactory for me as the writer, and for those who might use the review to decide what they want to read. This presupposes that a good reviewer has read the book with care, not just skimmed it. If a review uses the back cover blurb word for word, and without quotation marks, I’m left wondering whether they read much further.

book page

The second criterion for a review’s quality, in my view, is that it describes and analyses the work rather than just ‘evaluates’ it. Saying the book is ‘good’ or ‘weak’ doesn’t tell us anything: the question is why is it so. Sometimes reviewers tell us that they ‘like’ or ‘don’t like’ a character, but don’t explain why. It’s the explanation not the judgement that helps the readers understand what’s going on, and whether they want to read the book for themselves. And some characters can be wonderful to read about, even though we might not like them much as people: sinners are often more interesting than saints.

The third criterion would probably be that the reader gets enough detail about the content to whet their appetite, but not so much that they don’t have to read the book at all! I’m not a member of a book group, but friends who are have confessed from time to time that reading a very detailed review will help them pretend that they’ve read the book. The review becomes the ‘potted version’ of the real thing, and I’m not sure that’s really helpful.

From all this, you won’t be surprised to discover that I don’t have much time for the ‘star rating’ system which seems to be ubiquitous. Yes, it’s quick, and you can use a crude number rating to filter books in or out of consideration. But what does it really mean, when you get down to it? I spent my whole working life in education on issues of ‘assessment and evaluation’ and the main thing I learned was that one single ‘number’ cannot represent a task or achievement of any complexity, such as a book. There are frequently questions of ‘subjectivity’: one reviewer’s four stars could be about the same as another’s five stars, or another’s three. Even if the reviewer uses a process of breaking down the criteria into separate ratings, one point either way can tip the total one way or the other, making the final summary number inaccurate as well as meaningless.

four star shaped cookies

Numbers are often assumed to be accurate than words, but that’s a false assumption. The star system is crude, simplistic, and riddled with potential error.The only thing going for it is speed, and the potential for comparability, but what’s the point of comparing information which is itself flawed?

Writing a high quality review is a time-consuming and demanding task. If reviewers are to be successful, they need to be paid, and not just fobbed off with a free book. And the quicker we see the back of the overall star rating system, the better.

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