What makes a review worthwhile?

What makes a review worthwhile?

Val wrote a really great article on the short attention span of readers who don’t actually read longer reviews. There has been a feeling that the longer the review is, the more thorough and worthwhile the review may be. I’ve fallen into the trap of that thinking and I can honestly say that may not be true. I tend to be overly verbose so I can appreciate the more succinct reviewers.

However when attempting to “trim down” a review I find that everything seems so important to say. [I’m *so* glad I’m not an author and have to edit beloved scenes and characters.] I always do a paragraph at the top that summarizes my feelings on the book. This is for those that don’t want to read anymore and it’ll briefly give the highlights or the potential problems. From there I summarize the plot in one paragraph and then go into the meat of the story. I talk about the characters developed or under developed, the world building, the plot itself –does it make sense or not- and the writing, editing, mistakes or not. As anyone can see this definitely adds up when writing a review.

So which of those topics or any presented in reviews are actually important to readers? This is what I wonder. If readers are really possessed of such short attention spans what is important to know? Val claims that the star rating is the first indicator and I have to agree. I know the majority of readers will first and foremost make snap decisions based on the star rating. Some will read further and a lot won’t bother so those star ratings are the first and potentially most important part of any review.

What else though…do readers really care if characters are developed and three dimensional? This is such a stock statement to review writing that I wonder if it’s lost any meaning. I wonder if the only time this should be trotted out is if the characters are wooden, boring, or without any appreciable depth at all. Is it fair to give the benefit of the doubt to the book and assume all is well if not explicitly stated otherwise? I think the exception to this is the obvious character driven stories where that is the essence and importance of the story, much more so than an action plot or a mystery.

I also really wonder if readers care about the writing. I realize what a negative comment that is but truly think about it. What appeals to one reader about the writing may not appeal to another and rarely do any reviews talk about the writing except in broad terms. The writing is good, decent, excellent, poor. What makes it good versus decent versus poor? Does that matter to the reader so much as the story itself? Will plot holes ruin the mystery or are the characters interesting?

I’ve read many, many, many reviews that are lengthy but tend to just be recitations of the story with about one or two paragraphs tacked onto the end with personal feelings and thoughts. Clearly these reviews take effort and care to write so much but again, I wonder if that’s at all helpful.

I’m just as guilty of the problems in review writing as any one else and so this isn’t to call reviews out on being boring or not worthwhile. It’s more of a question to the readers – what is important to you and amid all these staples we find in reviews, do any of them really matter?

27 thoughts on “What makes a review worthwhile?

  1. As a reader, I’m really never interested in plot summaries in reviews. If I’m reading the review, I’ve already read the blurb, and you need only bring up the plot if the blurb was a clear misdirection or misrepresentation of the story.

    Writing quality matters a LOT to me–no matter how great a plot and how lovable the characters, bad craft (grammar, flow, style, construction) or boring voice will put me off a book almost instantly. But OTOH, I’ve seen a great many glowing reviews on badly crafted books because others don’t care about craft and are just looking at story/character. So that’s obviously a deeply individual thing, but at the same time, writing quality is something enough people want to know about that IMO it’s worth discussing in a review.

    On a similar note, I think craft/writing quality should be covered in a review because it’s more objective than how a reviewer felt about a book. Things like grammar and usage are concrete and the vast majority of readers will agree about poor or strong instances of them. Things like flow, pacing, tone, voice (the elements of “artistry” in the sentence-to-sentence craft) are less concrete, but you’ll still get majority agreement (sometimes vast majority agreement) about whether a book is “well-written” or not when it comes to those things. So a reviewer who maybe doesn’t like a book overall because it pushes uncomfortable buttons, but still recognizes the skill and craft of a book, can write a review that’s valuable to both those who share their tastes and those who don’t. Conversely, someone who loves a book because it pushes all their buttons, but mentions in the review that the craft side is lacking, will also be useful to both those who share their tastes (and may read it despite poor writing) and those who don’t (who might have read it if the writing was strong but now know to avoid it).

    And of course plot and character construction fall into craft issues as well, just on the macro end of the scale. It’s just as important to me–but NOT moreso–to know about those as it is to know about the micro (writing quality) issues when I read a review.

    Wow, that was really rambly, sorry.

    I think, in the end, that a review should do its best to address both concrete (micro and macro craft) issues and abstract (emotional) issues. If I share your tastes, I will very much want to know how the book made you feel, what your gut reaction was, why you kept (or stopped) reading beyond the fact that it was well or poorly written. Even if I don’t share your tastes, I’m interested in that information. But the best reviews keep the two separate. They make it clear that the reviewer’s emotional reaction was in fact emotional, and personal, and may not apply to everyone; and the reviewer is able to separate out the personal to have an intelligent conversation about the concrete issues as well. To that end, you’re one of my favorite reviewers (even if you did hate one of my books ;-p), because you’re among the best at accomplishing those two things. I don’t ever have to share your tastes or reactions to find your reviews useful. So, keep doing what you’re doing–you’ve got it right, babe 😀

    • Marie Sexton says:

      “Writing quality matters a LOT to me–no matter how great a plot and how lovable the characters, bad craft (grammar, flow, style, construction) or boring voice will put me off a book almost instantly. But OTOH, I’ve seen a great many glowing reviews on badly crafted books because others don’t care about craft and are just looking at story/character.”

      Exactly! Other readers obviously care far more about an intricate plot, whereas I’m much more concerned about how engaging the narrative voice is. I’m not saying they’re wrong or I’m right – it’s obviously a matter of personal preference – but I’ve definitely come to the conclusion that it’s hard to pin that kind of information down in reviews.

      • Yep! It is but that doesn’t mean a review can’t try to offer that information. I think it should and the readers can filter that through the lens of the reviewer’s obvious preferences and bias. If that makes sense…

    • Thank you! This is invaluable feedback, not only for my reviews but for my curiosity as well (hehe). It is good to know that my reviews hit most of those highlights but also helpful when I read comments like this. I think it helps reviewers focus and hone down on the essentials and cut some of the fluff.

      I personally hate adding in a plot summary. I usually do it to give a better idea about the story (since I’m sorry but most blurbs suck and rarely describe the story effectively). But I get frustrated when I read a review which is 3-4 paragraphs of summary. That’s not necessary IMHO.

      The problem is of course a lot of the elements you speak about could be subjective or they seem to be areas most reviewers shy away from. They talk about personal enjoyment (that’s nice but not really what *I* need to know). I wonder if it’s because reviewers are simply readers with something to say and there is no schooling so no uniformity is offered. Nor any idea about what aspects work in reviews or don’t.

      The aspects you’ve mentioned are definitely ones I want to focus on, to the best of my ability, so it’s great to know those are important to other readers. Plus it’s helpful when you describe exactly what about those elements is important and how. Something to strive for when creating a hopefully informative review.

      Thank you for the comment, it’s invaluable!

  2. characters are developed and three dimensional

    I’m still waiting for the review dictionary that can define what this means exactly.

    I go about reviews (reading not writing because that’s just a total free-flow process that I appear to have zero control over) in a few ways.

    a) The book gets a very high rating – I’m curious what was so great about it.
    b) The book gets a very low rating – train wreck in progress, let’s all watch
    c) It’s a book I have in my TBR but haven’t read yet, or a book I want to read. – I’m curious if I’ve wasted my money or if it will be a good investment
    d) A book I read – Am I completely out to lunch or do I fit in the “norm” with how someone else felt about it?

    Sometimes if it’s a book by someone I don’t know and the title or general topic don’t appeal to me and the rating is middle of the road I don’t read that review or I skim it. I’m unlikely to read the book anyway, but I’ll skim through to pick up a few key words and phrases (lordy I sound like my supervisor when you have a conversation with her) and if I don’t see anything that catches my attenion, then I just put it out of my mind. I tend to skip to the bottom because often that is where people put “This sucked” or “I recommend this for people who love shifters” (I’m in a furry mood lately) because that may be where I go “Oh, I’ll put that on the list” or “No thanks”.

    So much can depend on the reviewer and how you felt about a book comes through. I likely wouldn’t have looked at that Gold book you reviewed except that even from the first few sentences I could tell you were really enthusiastic about it and that made me want to read it. Sometimes I have to be careful because I’ve been caught up in a reviewers enthusiasm and the book has not worked for me, but I’ve learned to make sure the themes/style of book work, and then add the enthusiasm on top. Also an example is the Thom Lane review, you loved that style of prose, I found it overly flowery and a bit too poetic, I like my writing more straightforward. No right and wrong, but that’s where I have to really decide what “I” like and not just go “Oh, a reviewer gave it 5 stars, I will have to like it”.

    • Exactly! Such a great comment from all ends.

      I do think I need to write a post about the much overused term of “three dimensional” characters because as the classic man once said “I don’t think that means what you think it means.”

      All of your reasons tend to get in line with why I personally check reviews. I want to see what other thoughts, if I’m totally out of left field or in line with the majority. If some things will work for me while others won’t. You get a feel for the taste and interests of certain reviewers if you follow them so you can get a handle on whether a book will work for you.

      I like that you can look at one review and say “thats nice but not for me” because automatically you know the prose is too flowery and fussy so it’ll bug you. That’s the kind of review that’s really helpful. It’s not slamming the book, just informing you that it’s not for you.

      I do think a lot depends on how a reader feels. If you’re on a shifter kick you may be more inclined to like a so-so sorry than if you picked it up randomly. When you’re wanting to read something you tend to forgive things because it fits with your mood. If you get sick of shifter stories the very ones you liked may become meh or blah.

  3. I’m one of those readers who likes really short reviews (you might’ve guessed from the reviewettes I write). A lot of that’s because I’m what Val described as an extremely “spoiler-avoidant reader.”

    As a reader, I’m only interested in reviews and star ratings from people I trust and whose tastes I can quantify in comparison to mine. And all I really want to know are roughly what the theme of the book is and whether you liked it or not.

    • Yea that’s kind of tough to balance those that like the short reviews with long ones. I try to accommodate both with the beginning summary than more explanation. I can definitely understand those that want it short, sweet and to the point.

  4. Marie Sexton says:

    As a reader, the number one thing I always want to know is POV – not so much whether it’s in first or third, but whether it’s consistent throughout the book or jumps around. How many different POVs are there? Does it head-hop? Although I realize not all readers give a damn about those things, I personally care very much.

    The thing I’ve come to take into account the least is the review of style and tone. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is so subjective as to be somewhat meaningless. What I think is jumpy and awkward, somebody else calls unique. What I think is juvenile and annoyingly simplistic is lauded by others as minimalistic and “clean”. Sometimes I go around reading reviews just HOPING that I’ll find one that agrees with my opinion on the tone and style (certainly not the most productive use of my time).

    Overall, the real meat of the matter is, did the book work for you? Was it engaging? How much eye-rolling did it elicit? And those are all things that you generally get across quite well. 🙂

    • Thank you! This is excellent feedback and good to know. POV and head hopping is definitely information I try to include as it’s something that affects how I read. The style and tone, well sometimes the best I can say is that it’s very typical for the author. That way readers will know it’s familiar and perhaps if that style didn’t work for another reader, it’s not significantly changed. It is a difficult and tricky topic which makes it so wonderful if you find a reviewer who shares your tastes. Good luck with that!!

  5. For me as a reader what makes it worthwhile is honesty and balance. I want to know the truth about the book and I want to know both the good and the bad about it. Very few books are all one or the other.

    As a writer I find I’m more likely to read a long review all the way through if the review has rated the book low and explains what they found problematic. That gives me useful info on the kind of things that can bother readers. If I see the same thing complained about by different reviewers it makes me think this is a troublesome trope or theme, best either avoided or subverted.

    When it comes to actually deciding to buy the book, well a good review may get me to go download a sample or find an excerpt, but I’m still mindful of the subjective nature of reviews and have certainly hated books everyone in the world loves – and vice versa. So I do like to get a little taster before it finally gets onto the To Read list.

    • Oh I totally agree that reviews are subjective and they’re not likely to completely influence a reader. Nor should they. Thats why the elements included in a review are so important. I tend to read several reviews for a book (if I’m on the fence) but almost always but reviewers I know and trust. A review without context is just as difficult to decipher.

      Honesty and balance… very important. Thank you!

  6. I usually mention the writing in my reviews because that is what interests me as a reader. Sometimes I’ve read a book where the written style hasn’t worked for me (and my heart sinks every time I start reading a book and I know I’m not going to get on with the writing) and yet someone else has praised it to the high heavens because of one of the characters or the plot. For me it was a fail from the start because no matter how great the characters, if I can’t get past the, in my opinion, dreadful prose then I’ll never engage with the characters.

    Having said that, I know that some of the written styles which I really love – intelligent, intense, range of imaginative and literate vocabulary – can be a fail for some readers. I always mention it in a review though because it’s important to me and they’re my reviews, so there :P!

    Characters and plot are important too, and I agree that sometimes we reviewers use ’empty phrases’ which show a general positive vibe about a book. I’ve found it a great exercise to write the shorter reviews that I do for BER. It forces me to be more focused and so I’m less likely to use the empty phrasing.

    As a reader, I like both types of reviews – long and short – although I do have the attention span of a gnat, so more than three paragraphs and I’m likely to start drifting. Ironic really when most of my reviews are 4-5 paragraphs long :).

    Oops, long arsed answer there – sorry!

    • I so know the feeling Jen! My reviews tend to be long but I force myself to read some reviewers who I know are worth the time/effort. Some aren’t though and I think that plays into the longer is better feeling among reviews. As if a long review is somehow higher quality. Some are, some aren’t. It’s a skill either way.

      See for me plot is important. If there are huge plot holes, there better be something to take my mind off it and even then it’s unlikely I will get over it completely. I tend to need a tight plot but can forgive sloppy characters. Similarly with writing, I need a style that suits me (though my tastes like yours are pretty wide) but if it doesn’t, ouch the book simply won’t go well.

      I do think we reviewers tend to use a lot of fluff phrasing to give a feel. It’s not necessarily a bad thing since although no one knows what a “three dimensional” character is, we know that it generally means interesting or something other than boring. There are certain catchphrases that are easy and come quickly to show a mood to the story and general level of enjoyment. Perhaps something to work on.

      I do think a shorter, more focused review isn’t a bad thing but it’s hard. I really struggle with that one.

  7. Yeah, what Jen said!

    Style and craft is hugely important to me, and I will give up on a book if it doesn’t meet my standards, no matter how much people have raved about the characters, plot or hot sex. It helps if the reviewer can say what it was they enjoyed about the writing style, but I know that can be hard to quantify sometimes other than I thought the writer had a compelling voice.

    I’m not terribly interested in a rehashing of the plot and I hate spoilers so usually skim the meat of the review. Like Becky, I also read train-wreck reviews to get ideas of what doesn’t work for certain readers/reviewers. And also just because there’s a certain grim fascination in reading a review that rips something apart. I’m not proud of myself for enjoying them…

    • Well we all have our guilty pleasures. I read train wreck reviews just as much as the next person. I may wince at the end but I probably laughed along the way. (Don’t tell anyone…)

      I do think the essentials to a book are hard to define. What makes the book “special” to one reviewer may be something entirely different to another. It’s hard to quantify enjoyment and thats why all these elements have been introduced to try to break it down. It’s really good to know that style and writing are perhaps among the most important. I tend to focus on the characters but more and more I think thats somewhat subjective and perhaps unimportant. Maybe not drop altogether but less focus on that and more on the actual writing style.

  8. When I read reviews my number one priority is HONESTY. Seriously, I don’t want to waste the time reading your review if you are just fluffing it up to be nice to the author or whoever. Be respectful, yes! But be honest!

    Sometimes, the hardest part for me is to write the plot summary – why do I do it? I wonder if the blurb then diving into the review would be more beneficial?

    I think we tend to go on the long side at Smexy – but that is just our style. I think world building and character development is important. And when I read a romance book (compared to UF) I think the sex scenes play an important role as well – at least if they fit into the tone of the book.

    It’s nice to see others opinions…thanks so much for this post!

    • I agree about the honesty vs. sucking up to the author. To me this isn’t dictated by length so much as content. Is the review simply a fluff “omg I loved it” review (regardless of length) or does it actually say why the book was so good. Sometimes it’s easy to see some readers/reviewers that are simply giving it a great grade because in their eyes the author can do no wrong. They say all the right things about the book but clearly it didn’t matter.

      What’s interesting is that there are numerous sites that do this. In fact I’d wager about equal to the number that attempt to be honest and thorough.

      That’s a great point about the world building in UF vs the sex scenes in erotica. Both have essential roles in their respective books. I don’t think longer reviews are bad (ha clearly) so keep up the good work!

  9. I’m with Tam about what reviews I read. After a while, I pick up what’s important to a particular reviewer and, if that aligns with me, I can get a pretty good feel of whether or not I will like the book he/she likes. Even if the reviewer’s view is different to me, so long as it is consistent, that is usually enough to guide me.

  10. As a reader, the writing/craft, narrative voice(s) and character development are very important for me. So when I’m reading a review I look for these elements first and foremost. Review comments on plot and world-building are also important, especially in fantasy, mystery, horror, SF, etc. But when the focus of the story is on relationships, whether romantic or other, then definitely character development and narrative voice(s) are primary for me.

    In terms of review length, I am like you and tend to write longer reviews. It’s a more natural and comfortable form of writing for me personally. I realize that there are readers out there who don’t care for lengthy reviews and that’s fine. There are enough reviewers and review sites out there that provide a vast array of choices for readers and reader preferences when it comes to the style of reviewing.

    Honestly, I find writing short, succinct reviews to be a particular talent and am amazed and in awe of those folks who can carry it off. Thus far though, I’ve only come across one online reviewer who is really good at this and I love reading his reviews. This is one of the main reasons why as a reader I also lean toward the lengthier reviews because I find that for the most part short (one or two paragraph) reviews usually don’t provide enough information for me to make a decision as to whether I want to read that particular book or story.

    But in the end I do believe that a reviewer has to follow their natural inclinations and what’s most comfortable for them in terms of review length. Trying to force a short review if your propensity is for the opposite will likely adversely affect the quality of the review.

    Another good topic for discussion. I believe you’re on a roll.

    • Thank you! The discussion topics have generated some real interest and great talking so they’ve been successful by my standards. I pretty much agree with your comments though I think you make a very good point that a reviewer should do what’s natural and not try to force it one way or the other. If we’re comfortable with longer reviews, so be it. Shorter ones work for those that can.

      More than the elements themselves I’m finding that readers tend to find reviewers that think like they do and slowly come to trust that their opinions will be similar. The other elements are helpful definitely but I think it comes down to a reader with similar likes/dislikes that makes the most out of the reviews.

  11. Depends on if I have anything to say that I have not said before. If I catch myself repeating something then it’s probably gonna be a short ass review.

  12. Thanks for the link, Kassa! I’m glad you found food for thought it that article. This is a very interesting question. I wonder, too, especially now that I’ve shortened my reviews so much, and added the blurb.

    I always mention characterization because so much of the time the characters are either bland or unappealing or unrealistic, and characterization is one of the most important things for me as a reader. Writing quality/style I tend not to mention unless it’s incredibly good (e.g., KZ Snow) or incredibly bad (uh, better not give an example here!). Otherwise, I don’t mention it in reviews and readers can assume it’s good enough. 🙂

  13. I struggled a lot with this when I was setting up DarkUrbanFantasy.com. With 416 reviews books (as of this morning) I just can’t write the reviews I’d like to write for all of them. The site focuses more on series – serieses? – but I’m not getting close to reviewing the 67 of those I’ve red yet either.

    So after thinking about it a while, I found that when I read others’ reviews, I tend to look at their old reviews to find a book that I particularly liked or disliked and how they reviewed that. Then I use that benchmark to judge how well I agreed with their ratings in general. If it likes up well with mine, I use their reviews to find new books to read. If not, I may read their reviews for pleasure but I tend not to take the recommendations.

    So for my site, I went with a rating system and a couple of sentences about the things that stood out most to me. In some cases where I felt more explanation was required I went into a lot more detail, but I still tried to keep focused on what was most remarkable about the book. My guess is that, especially given the non-blog nature of DarkUrbanFantasy.com, the individual reviews are just not going to be as useful.

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