Being a Better Reader: Leaving a Good Review

I’m going to file this one under Being a Better Writer, but as most of you can tell from the title, I consider it more in line with the act of being a good reader than a writer. Though I suppose as a reviewer, you’re going to leave a written review … but by the terminology of what I usually refer to when I say “writing” it is a little different.

Nevertheless, this topic has been one that’s been requested of me not just before, but on multiple occasions, so it’s about time that I got to it on the list of future topics (which, yes, is an actual list that sits on my desk, I’m up to note-paper #8 now). Plus, this topic has the added bonus of coming at a fortunes time: Right on the heels of the release of Colony! Which, having been out for exactly ten days starting today, is just moving into the realm where many of you who acquired it first thing have recently finished it and are now wondering what to do with yourselves now that it’s done. Well, let this post be your not-so-subtle guide.

So, leaving a review. Scratch that, leaving a good review.

We’ll tackle the basics first: What’s the point of leaving a review? Why do so many authors (myself included) stress them as often as possible? Why do so many institutions? Crud, turn to the back of any Kindle ebook, and the last “page” of every book, no matter where it came from, is a reminder page that invites the reader to, now that they’ve finished said book, tweet about it, share it, or leave a review for it on Amazon.com.

Now, the cynical among you might think “Well of course they want you to leave a review on Amazon. After all, they own the site.”

Sure. That’s entirely true. But at the same time, by admitting such, you’re also admitting that there must be a reason to it. Amazon wouldn’t bother doing it if there wasn’t a net gain for them in the process, would they?

No, not really. Companies, after all, usually aren’t all that altruistic. They make the moves they do for financial reasons. So them encouraging you to leave a review of a book you just read? Totally with an eye on the bottom line.

But see, here’s the part where people tend to let their minds wander off track. Sure, it’s good for Amazon (and we’ll talk about how in a moment) … but it’s also good, in fact even better for the creator of whatever you left a review for! And that’s the distinction that we need to make. When you leave a review for a book you’ve just read, you’re often helping out the seller, sure (or whatever outlet it is that you left the review on). But you’re also helping out the creator of the product you’ve reviewed—and the help you’ve given them far outstrips the help you’ve given the location that hosts the review.

“Mmm-hmm,” I can hear some of you saying. “But how? What does my review matter?”

Simple. Your review matters because it’s going to form part of what people see when they find the book. People browsing an online store for things to read, when they find one that looks interesting, are most often going to let their eyes jump to the little star-rating beside the book, checking for two things: First, the number of stars out of five, but second, and just as important, the number of reviews.

And that number? It has a big impact on how many people will move over and click the “Buy” button. Even before reading the actual reviews (or skimming over them), that number can make or break a book sale.

See, numbers have an interesting psychological effect on people. Bigger numbers means a better product, even subconsciously. In fact, this is the reason that Microsoft’s second Xbox system was named the Xbox 360, rather than something with a two in its name. Studies showed that even if the 360 was the more powerful, more capable machine at a lower cost, neutral buyers would still pick the Playstation 3, offering for their reasoning that “3 was bigger than 2.”

Now, there’s some truth to why we think this way, after all. I’m not saying that those that pass over a book with only three reviews are being subconsciously manipulated. Rather that the reasoning for such is so valid and ingrained that we as consumers tend to let it subconsciously spill into all sorts of areas.

So, getting back to that review number, it turns out that it’s really important, because people recognize that a higher number of reviews is a good thing. It means a wider variety of readers purchased the product and then left their opinion. And if the book was poor, even with a few outliers that enjoyed it immensely and gave it high reviews, the average rating would reflect that. In this manner, a book that has five stars at ten reviews is, to many, less trustworthy and less likely to be a truly good read than a book that has three stars but three hundred reviews.

And this compounds. The higher the number of reviews, the greater the variety among those leaving them, and the greater chance that the average rating is, the way a prospective reader sees it, accurate. Which therefore increases the chance that they will then seriously consider purchasing the book.

And that, of course, is good for Amazon (or whatever the seller’s page is). But it’s also good (and at a higher percentage of ‘goodness’) for the author of said book. A book with a lot of reviews that encourage people to give it a shot? That’s money the author earns to keep writing.

In fact, it can be quite a bit of money. Lots of reviews can inspire a new reader to pick up one of the author’s titles, and then in turn pick up another, and another, and even leave their own review. Which in turn means that other shoppers will see that number climb and think “Well, this many people read it and it’s sitting at four stars, so …”

Bottom line? Reviews and ratings matter. A lot. Whether it’s something as simple as leaving a star rating on a site like Goodreads or writing up a small review for Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or whatever other place you find books at, leaving a review helps. Reviews are, even as a number, one of the first indications that what the book’s cover and description have promised will be delivered on.

In other words, your review matters because it assures people that the book that they’re considering buying does or doesn’t live up to its promise. And the more reviews there are assuring the prospective reader of that likelihood, the more likely that reader is to move over and click the purchase button—thus supporting the author and helping them continue to write and sell books.

So yes, every review is important to an author. So, with that value in mind, now let’s dive into the nitty gritty and talk about what makes a good review. After all, for many sites there’s more to it than just a rating. There’s also text, a summary or description of a reader’s thoughts that those prospective buyers can read into to see more that will sway them for or against the book.

So then, what makes a good review? What should we focus on, what should we say, and what should we not discuss? What are the elements of a good review?

Honesty and Subject
First things first: A dishonest review helps no one. In fact, it can be incredibly damaging, to everyone from the author to the site that hosts it. First and foremost, your review should be honest and up front about the book you’re reviewing.

Look, we all know that some people love some authors. We call those people fans (short, often, for fanatics, at least in some circles). But sometimes these fans let their enthusiasm for an individual and their previous works cloud their judgement. For example, say an author writes a trilogy of books and the first two are really strong, but the third sort of falls apart halfway through, and random fan reader Julie notices this.

However, when the time comes to leave a review, even though the book wasn’t that great (and Julie admits such in the review), she still leaves it five stars, offering explanations of “Well, the rest of the series was so great …” or “But this author is so fantastic it doesn’t matter …”

Don’t do this. An author will understand. They’re not going to get their feelings hurt because they dropped the ball. Well, they might, but the thing is, they did drop the ball. Leaving a five-star review on a four or three-star book because of a love for the author or their other works doesn’t help that author, but actually hurts them by tainting any associated review of his other works. A reader who finds a bunch of five star reviews that were clearly being dishonest about a work, buys said book, and feels betrayed by it? They’re not going to trust any of the ordinary reviews of that author’s other works (this is one reason of many why review purchasing sites are utter blights on the industry).

Likewise, the opposite can hurt too. I’ve seen reviewers who lower their ratings of books for completely arbitrary reasons. For example, a common one you’ll see is “This was a really, really, really good book, but I’m only giving it four stars because think it has too many five star reviews, though I do think it’s that good.”

What?

Or the famous “No book is perfect, so four stars.” Well no duh no book is perfect. Five stars doesn’t mean perfection. That’s applying one’s own, individual system to the standards already in place, which follow their own system.

Be honest with your reviews. Don’t leave the book five stars because you love the author, and don’t leave low reviews just to suit your own sense of weird balance. As a reviewer, you are not called to “police” other reviews. Your only concern is your review.

Be honest with it. Rate the book on the scale given by the site according to what you thought of it. Focus the text of your review on sharing your honest opinion about what you did and didn’t like about the book.

Now, one more little tidbit to talk about here: Subject. Your review should be, barring extenuating circumstances brought about by the topic of the book, be about the book and nothing else.

It’s a shame that this even needs to be said, but far too often, especially in the last few years, book reviews have turned into a sort of social or political “affirmation” or tool, a way to strike at authors that people disagreed with or support authors whose stances or whatever they agreed with … even if this had nothing to do with the book.

Leave your baggage at the door. The review of the book is about the book. Not about the author’s sex, color, genetic heritage, political stance, etc, etc, etc. When an individual leaves a book review on such a thing, let me be perfectly clear: They are being a bigot. There’s no difference between turning away a patron from a restaurant because of the color of their skin and smearing an author in a review because of their gender. It’s bigotry, plain and simple.

Now, if the book is all about that topic? Well, then it’s something that can be discussed in the review. But if it isn’t, a review of a book is not the place to level critiques of an author’s personality, sex, religion, politics, etc, etc, etc. The book review is about the book and the contents contained therein.

And that’s all that should be in it. Talk about the book and your experiences with it.

Discuss the Positives
Okay, so you need to be honest and keep things on topic … but what should you actually write about?

Well, to start, you can talk about the things you enjoyed about the book! If you give a book four stars, it helps those who stumbled across your review to know why you thought it was worth four stars. What kept you reading? Was the action crisp and invigorating? Or was it methodical and well-described?

Think about what you liked about the book. What were your favorite parts? What did you enjoy the most? But then, rather than stopping there, go a step further. Explain why you liked them. Dig into things a little.

For example, you could say “I liked the action sequences” in a review. Which, to its credit, is a positive statement that does tell a prospective reader what you liked about the book. But what if you include the why?

So let’s expand that statement a little. What do you make of it now?

“I liked the action sequences. They were fluid and kept me on the edge of my seat, but I never lost track of what was going on or felt like the fights were dragging. There was always something new or fresh happening to keep them from getting stale.”

That says a lot more, doesn’t it? It’s informative! It offers reasons why the reviewer liked the action sequences. Reasons that a prospective reader can understand and associate with. Describing what made the action sequences enjoyable gives the prospective reader something to dig into and consider.

This same principle can be applied to all sorts of things. Enjoyed the characters? Explain why you enjoyed them. Don’t just say “I enjoyed the characters.” Give the review a little meat. Attach an explanation, like “The characters were intelligent and made smart, realistic decisions, even when they were the wrong ones.” Those are reasons to like characters. Or perhaps something like “I sympathized quite a bit with one of the main characters struggles, it felt very real to me and was handled well.”

See, stuff like that? Not only is it a positive, but it gives the prospective reader an idea of what to expect. “Oh, this story did a really good job with the science of how X worked.” Or “Oh hey, I really like stories where the action is fast and furious and never lets up. I’ll love this!”

See, it’s important to let a reader know what we enjoyed in a our review, but it’s also important to explain what we enjoyed in order to build a clearer picture. You need to do both, should be doing both when you leave a review.

Now, while there isn’t actually a set order for the things that you should discuss in your review … I’d suggest sticking the positives at the “top” of your mental “list.” Why?

Well … because people tend to get carried away with things, and reviewing is one of those things. Sometimes people think “I’m writing a review!” followed by “That means I’m a critic!” And then, from there, they make the erroneous mental jump that “critic” is an offshoot of “criticize” and not “critique.”

Uh oh. The result will end up being a four star review … but one that focuses solely on the flaws of the book.

Don’t do this. Yes, we want a review to acknowledge issues that are there. But it also needs to acknowledge the positives. And the balance should probably be related to the rating that you’re giving the book. If you’re going to drop three lines on the positives and then spend several paragraphs tearing into the book’s setting … then this shouldn’t be a book that you’re giving four or five stars to. Likewise a review that is almost entirely praise and containing only a single instance of criticism probably shouldn’t have one star (and yes, I’ve seen both).

Basically, at its core, a good review should bring up the positives of the book that its reviewing and explain them so that readers of said review know what they’re in for. Not all the positives, mind. Focus on the things that mattered the most to you.

Address the Important Flaws
Of course, no story is perfect. And it’s undoubted that during the course of reading, you’re going to find things that aren’t quite as up to par. Areas that are weaker than the rest of the book. And, yes, you should bring those up as well. With one caveat:

They need to be significant.

Don’t go hunting for flaws or blow something out of proportion just so you can have something negative (seen it done). If you felt that the middle of the book sagged, or that there was a moment where the characters didn’t resonate for a while, or found something big like an obvious plot hole or a flush of typos and errors, then yes, think about that. But if you’re looking back and can’t find a moment where you thought to yourself “Hey, wait, that wasn’t so great” then don’t go digging for one.

Do you see what I’m getting at here? It’s not that we should ignore the negatives, but rather that we should take care not to make a mountain out of a molehill. If something was important or vital and the author didn’t follow through on it, something that we noticed and thought about during the read, then yeah, you can bring that up. But don’t go looking for something to be critical about.

Likewise, when you do find something to be critical of, do yourself a favor and double-check before addressing it. Why? Because you may, in fact, be wrong. It happens. I recall once an early review I had where the reviewer slammed my work for a multitude of grammatical and punctuation errors. I was surprised because I was sure it couldn’t be as bad as they’d claimed. So I actually contacted them to ask for some examples. They gave seven and then said “I don’t want to deal with this.”

Fair enough, because only one or two of them were actual errors. The others were actually correct, the problem was that the individual who’d left the review didn’t know that. Which explained why my editor hadn’t noticed them; there was nothing wrong to begin with.

I’m not saying that all criticism is baseless. What I am saying is that if you’re going to write about a specific flaw with a work, do yourself a favor and make sure you’ve done your work beforehand. Not only can purporting a flaw that isn’t be harmful to the author … it also is a bit embarrassing to find yourself be called out on it.

Now, that done, how should you write about a flaw?

Well, the goal isn’t to be negative (hopefully), but to draw attention to “Yes, this is a flaw” and hopefully explain that it could have been done better. You don’t want to burn the book for it, but rather present and explain it so that readers and the author can identify it. The readers can then decide for themselves if the flaw is going to make or break the book, and the author, meanwhile can analyze the issue and possibly figure out how to avoid it in the future.

Of course, writing this out follows much of the same logic as the positives above. Don’t just say “The characters weren’t great,” explain why you felt that way. Put reason behind your words. Rather than “The characters were boring,” say something like “several of the characters felt flat, like they weren’t developed enough and I wasn’t sure what their logic or reasoning was.” The first is a flaw, sure, but it’s a flawed flaw because it doesn’t give anyone anything to go off of. The second explains the issue.

Even better, the second can actually lead to more readers rather than less. See, if someone finds the first, all they know to go on is “This reader didn’t like the characters. Maybe I won’t like the characters either.” They walk away.

But the second? That same prospective reader may pick up the book because “Oh, they didn’t like them because they weren’t given much development? Eh, I’m in it for the action, so as long as they kick butt …”

See, a well-written and thought-out bit of criticism is actually a pretty helpful thing. Just like with the positives. If something really stood out to you while reading a book, a review is a great place to discuss it.

Avoiding Spoilers
Now, I would say that that’s all there is to it … but it isn’t. Because while a review is there to discuss the book and give the prospective reader an idea of what to expect, there’s one thing it shouldn’t tell them to expect.

The spoilers. Don’t put them in reviews. Even if it was your favorite part of the book, don’t give away the twist (in fact, best not to mention it at all unless it was a major problem). If the final battle was your favorite part, you can explain why without giving away the what.

Keep your reviews spoiler free. For safety, best not discuss anything that doesn’t happen in the first quarter of the book directly. Unless it’s on the back of the book or something.

But don’t spoil the book for people. You want to give them reasons why they may or may not enjoy it, not take the thrill of discovery away.

But this doesn’t mean you can’t talk about the plot. You can, as with the discussions of other elements, explain why it was good/bad without giving away what made it that way. For example, if the final battle was thrilling, you can talk about how the book brought everything together in the end for a well-written finale rather than talking about the specifics of what happened in said battle.

Granted, this “rule” slips a little where flaws are concerned. My rule of thumb has always been that the worse the book is, the less people are going to care about spoilers. I once wrote about the final action scene of a Sci-Fi book in a review not to spoil it, but to point out how little logical sense any of it made (it was bad). But I did so because I didn’t feel the reader would lose anything to know how disappointing that, along with the rest of the book, was.

What I’m getting at is: Use discretion. Think about before excitedly giving away the big twist at the middle of the book.

Finale
Well, that’s about it! Follow those guidelines, and you’ll have left a decent review that, even if not prize-winning, gives a prospective reader something to dig into past “yes/no” platitudes. So, remember:

Be honest.
Keep on the subject of the book.
Talk about the positives and explain why they were positives.
Talk about relevant flaws and explain why they let you down.
Don’t spoil things for people.

And there you have it! Follow that, and you’ll have put together a good, solid review!

Good luck. Now go get reading (and then writing)!

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