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Reviewing the Review

By Cynthia Ruchti

Why do people write reviews?

• They want to help spread the word about a great book.
• They have been asked to give an honest review about a new book by the publishing house or publicist, the author, or the review team on which they serve.
• They feel compelled to warn potential readers about a disappointing book.
• They take sadistic joy in poisoning the pool of positive reviews.

We’re grateful those in the final category of reviewers are few. But they exist, a sad fact many authors have learned to shoulder with bravery or shake off.

In an upcoming ACFW Happenings article for Christian Fiction Online Magazine (CFOM), we take a look at what constitutes a good review from the viewpoint of a reader, a retailer, a librarian, a book club coordinator, and an author. In talking with retailers and librarians, it’s become clear that reviews carry more weight than we might assume. It’s easy to ferret out which reviews are written by those who feel somehow compelled to spew even if they haven’t read the book. One wonders how that constitutes a “review.” It may be a stronger reflection on the negligent reviewer than on the book itself.

“I stopped after the first three pages and gave this book one star,” is an assessment about the first three pages, but not a review of the book.

Let’s make this interactive. I’ll post three invented reviews like those you might find on an online purchasing site and invite you to review the reviews. What works? What doesn’t work? What helps a reader, retailer, or librarian make a purchasing decision? What’s your review of these reviews? And how do these examples help you when you create a review of a book you’ve read?

REVIEW X:

“Great book. Highly recommended.”

REVIEW Y:

“I knew from the first page that this book would stink up the room. I don’t read romances, and this is a good example of why I don’t. I’ve been jilted at the altar, and there’s nothing funny about that. Sixteen years of therapy, and believe me, it’s not over yet. And when the hero-who I didn’t like because he has sandy hair and so did my ex-proposes in the middle of the bridge between the island and the mainland on the last page, I almost gagged. Warning: DO NOT READ.”

REVIEW Z:
Anyone who identifies with the challenges of loving someone after a moral failure will relate to this story. The rawness of the emotional turmoil of the couple was handled with a sensitive hand, but invited me as a reader into the story completely. I felt submerged in their pain, yet buoyed by a hope that hovered just off-stage. The author wrote realistically yet in a way that made me see the story as anything but ordinary. The plot pulled me through to the next page and the next. Unique, yet relatable, The Hangnail is among the few novels I’m marking as an all-time favorite and recommending to my friends-both those in healthy marriages and those in trouble. Those fresh from their own heartbreak may find it a difficult read. On the other hand, it may be just the imaginative but true-to-life story that will form a brace while they start their healing journey.

There are the three samples. Time for your review of the reviews! Won’t this be fun?

Cynthia Ruchti April 2013Cynthia Ruchti, ACFW Professional Relations Liaison, is a speaker and author of six books, including the recently released novel When the Morning Glory Blooms and the nonfiction told in story form–Ragged Hope: Surviving the Fallout of Other People’s Choices. She tells stories of Hope-that-glows-in-the-dark and lives for one future review–”Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Jesus). You can connect with her at www.cynthiaruchti.com or www.facebook.com/CynthiaRuchtiReaderPage.

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17 Responses to Reviewing the Review

  1. Review X tells me nothing about the story, except that one person liked it.

    Reviewer Y needs a therapist, not a romance novel. When I review, I give my opinion without being too personal. And I generally read books in a genre I enjoy. When the reviewer is at odds with the genre, that never has a happy ending.

    Review Z would make me look more closely at the book. They give enough information, that my interest is peeked. Yet, they don’t give away the plot.

    I read reviews for selection in an academic library. If the reviewer rambles, I lose interest. I appreciate when they recommend a specific audience for the book and give enough detail that I’m intrigued.

  2. Great points, Penny!

  3. Ian says:

    Cynthia, an important post. They do say a review says more about a reviewer than the book being reviewed sometimes.

    The challenge for all of us as reviewers is to focus less on ourselves than how we can assist the author and/or others who read the review. Reviewer Y is a classic extreme case of not being able to remove themselves from their review and in so doing not adding any great value.

    Whilst Reviewer Z has managed to apply their own insight to make the review appealing. As Penny said, I’d be tempted to look further at other reviews to assess whether i wanted to buy it.

    One thing I find frustrating is how so many reviews spend 3/4s of it outlining the plot and then have one paragraph for their comment. I typically skip over the plot points and try to find the comment.

  4. I agree, Ian. A review that is largely a rehearsal of the plot of the book isn’t as helpful as the reviewers comments and insights.

  5. Reviewer Z, hands down. A good review gives insight into different aspects of a book, letting the potential reader get a feel for not only the story itself but the writing style, the characters, and any deeper meaning within the story. If a reader has a good feel for these things then she will be able to pick the book she wants to read with a much more open mind. The reviewers who barely read or bother to understand the books they review, or do read them but give such concise, generalized reviews (like the first example above) may as well save their energy for other things. They are helping no one…possibly even harming authors and readers both.

  6. Iola says:

    It’s funny that you’re not interested in the plot summary – that’s often the hardest part to write. It can be a balancing act between saying enough to give a flavour of the book, but not so much that you give away spoilers.

    And, personally, I do want a plot summary- especially if I’m reading the review on Goodreads or a blog, as otherwise I might have no idea what genre the book is!

    I also make sure to say if the novel is Christian fiction – my personal pet hate review is the one-star who says a book has too much “God stuff”, so I try and make sure if that person reads my review they’ll know not to buy the book.

  7. Lynellen Perry says:

    I don’t mind when people write a *short* plot summary in their own words, but I don’t like it when they simply type up the contents of the book’s back cover. This gets even more frustrating when more than one person employs this technique, so you end up reading the exact same words in multiple ‘reviews’.

    As a small publisher who offers free copies of our books via a book review program (bookcrash.com), I am always frustrated when people meet their 200-word requirement by simply copying a blurb that was supplied by the publisher.

    On the other hand, I’m not always thrilled when people write an interpretive essay on the symbolism of the book either… reviews are not college papers for your literature major. Your interpretation of the chair against the wall may be very misleading to someone who hasn’t read the book yet.

  8. Cindy Huff says:

    Review X tells me nothing. Unless I know the reviewer and we love the same kinds of books I am not compelled to check the novel out.

    Review Y is the kind of review no one should take seriously. When the reviewe is more about the reviewer than the book there is something wrong. However, a review that points out portions of a book that were not humorous to them could indicate it is not well-written. But all the personal rant cloaks that possible problem.

    Review Z We all know this is the perfect review. Well-written, giving the reader a desire to at least check out the book. It does not give the plot away but wets teh authors appetite.

    I would like to add that reviews that retell the story are not reviews at all. Several paragraphs of rehashing the action-blah! That’s like someone telling me how the movie turns out that I am watching. give me enough information that intigues me but mot so much that I feel maybe this isn’t such a great story. Retellings can really do a disservice to the author. Remember that friend who told you his version of a blockbuster movie.

  9. These are all great comments. Yes a short summary (without giving away important need-to-be-discovered-by-each-reader plot points) is helpful, but the emphasis is on short. Something that shows the setting, style, genre, and something intriguing about the book works. But as others have said, just copying the back cover copy is a waste of review space, since that information is so readily available elsewhere and will be skipped if the review appears in a list of other reviews that have done the same. These are all insightful comments, commenters! Thanks for stopping by.

  10. Mary Allen says:

    Of course the last review is helpful, even if it would’ve been negative because of the details: challenges after moral failure, realistic yet not ordinary, hope despite pain,recommending, might overpower the recently heartbroken.

    The second review isn’t a review of the book, but the reviewer.

    The first is a brief thumbs up, but not useful. A pro and a con would be preferable, but even a single comment would be better than none.

    That’s my review of the reviews.BTW lovely pic of you Cynthia.

  11. Pingback: Reviewing the Review | ChristianBookBarn.com

  12. I’m just a reviewer, and not an author, but I remember when I first started reading and reviewing publicly there was often disagreement on what a review was suppose to be. My reviews pretty much haven’t changed and the length of them really depends on how moved the book brought me to be. I cannot stand reviews that are a book blurb rephrase. If I want a synopsis, I’ll read the back cover, or summary from the book seller or publisher or even author’s website. What I want is to know why I should read the book… and this is what I try to write in my reviews.

  13. Bravo, a review of the reviews! I’ve had one of those one-star reviews from a reader who admitted she didn’t even read the book. I don’t think this kind should even be allowed, but I’ve shaken it off and ignored it. This happened when I gave the novella as a freebie. The people who paid for it gave it good reviews. Go figure. I think those of us who are into books, reading, and writing can usually tell the difference in the reviews, but I know there are probably some readers out there who don’t understand. Blessings, BJ Robinson

  14. Thanks for the post! Obviously, Z is the only constructive review here. It is so important to evaluate the content of reviews over the number of stars granted by the reviewer. Just because someone likes the book doesn’t mean the review is helpful, not for the author or potential readers.

    I wrote a post about this recently for Writer…Interrupted. You may want to take a look.

    How to Write a Good Bad Review

  15. More good tips and insights. Thank you, all. I’m heading soon to “How to Write a Good Bad Review,” Tanya! Interesting approach and much needed.

  16. Dawn Wilson says:

    As a book reviewer for a conservative ministry (books they might use on their book table or in media giveaways), I’ve found it helpful to use a template when reviewing books and manuscripts.

    Along with looking at the material through the prism of the ministry’s heart (trying to discover if the book fits their DNA), I ask several questions: Is it helpful to readers? Is it quality writing? What is the style/voice? Is it accessible, readable?

    This keeps me from getting “reactive” to material, but rather, I can respond to the template and questions – helping me make better reviews.

  17. Vera Godley says:

    Now I am really hoping that you folks won’t critique my blog and reviews too much if you perchance stroll that way for a look-see, but I did want to chime in a bit here.

    I don’t consider myself a writer or individual gifted to analyze professional writers and their work. I like to read and I have ventured into the realm of reviewing books and am finding it challenging and rewarding. Here is how I approach them.

    1. I feel that it is NOT a book report for high school or a term paper analyzing a work or an author. It is simply my “take” on the book.
    2. I mostly choose books to review that I think I would enjoy reading. Why read about vampires if I simply detest the subject!
    3. A child’s book – I look at the illustrations, text, plot, rhyme, appropriate content.
    4. A roamance novel I expect some roamance but don’t want the nitty, gritty details (which is why I read/review Christian fiction mostly).
    5. Historical novel – I expect some good historical details (and I am fairly astute in regard to historical periods)but I do not want it to be a textbook analysis of that time and place.
    6. I look for good, realistic characters, conversation, word-descriptions of locales, what they are wearing, how they are feeling, what they look like.

    Then I try to give my “take” about the impact the book can have. Sometimes, though, a recap of the story line without spoilers is about all you can give it.

    Wonderful article. Thanks very much!