How to Write Useful Reviews

For a long time, if I didn’t like a book enough to give it 4 or 5 stars, I wouldn’t leave a review. I’d quietly ignore the book, feeling like I was helping out the author by doing nothing instead of giving a three-star review.It turns out, ignoring a book is one of the worst things you can do for it. Sites like Amazon count the number of reviews in order to turn on certain features, such as the “if you liked ____ you may also like ____” suggestion. This feature helps connect readers to new books. Apparently, it is better to have poor reviews than no reviews at all, though the goal is to average out to 4-stars if you’re lucky.

So what do you do if you don’t love a book but don’t want to punish the writer with your silence?

In the words of 2016 Deb Jennifer Brown, every book, movie, or whatever you are reviewing has the perfect audience.  The goal of the reviewer is to connect the right reader to the right book. Someone who binge watches slasher films is probably not the right audience for a Jane Austin period drama, but that’s ok—there are plenty of people who are the perfect match.

Comments like, “not for me,” don’t tell potential readers anything, just like reviews that state, “loved it!” don’t help buyers make an informed decision. A good review (even a negative one) provides potential readers with enough information to make an informed decision. It’s perfectly fine to say you didn’t like a book, but way more useful to say why you didn’t.

For example, Girlish is written in third person, with flashes of first and second person. The main character is called simply, Girl. Some people have written that the use of Girl as a name allowed them to more easily put themselves inside the character. Other reviewers have said that it felt clinical and they disliked the emotional detachment. I feel pretty warm and fuzzy about both responses—both the positive and the negative—because they both potentially trigger interest in the book shopper. The reviewers come off as intelligent people with opinions, not like mean-spirited trolls or thoughtless cheerleaders.

Use caution when reviewing outside your preferred genre. If you never read science fiction and you happened to read one Sci-Fi novel and loved it, that informs about the book. But comments such as, “I don’t normally read sci-fi, but I found this on a bus and picked it up. I think aliens are stupid so I’m giving it 1 star,” are pretty useless. OK, I made that one up, but I just read a review for one of my favorite memoirs, and someone complained that they didn’t like it because they “hate other people’s drama.” I can’t imagine why they thought they’d enjoy memoir in the first place.

Speaking of memoir, remember you are not reviewing the writer’s life choices, you are reviewing the content of the book. It doesn’t matter if you think, as one reviewer of Girlish put it, “most of her problems were of her own making.” That’s not productive. The question is, did I honestly and sincerely allow the reader to form their own judgment, or did I try to make myself look better than I was? It’s not like I can revise my life to improve the story.

Similarly, I dislike questions such as I wonder what her children/mother/siblings will think when they read this? Do you really think anyone who spends years brining a book into this world has not considered the consequences of our words to our family members?  Beyond the moral superiority of that comment, what does it tell a potential reader about the book? Does it help someone make a good buying decision? Or does it just tell us that the reviewer is looking down his or her nose at the writer?

Also, realize that decisions like cover design and even title/subtitle are not always within the control of the writer. Taking stars off a 100,000+ word book because you didn’t care for the cover or title, of because the book arrived damaged (that goes under seller feedback) doesn’t seem fair to me. I realize it’s a whole package, but different editions can have different covers, and in formats like Kindle and Audible the cover is nearly irrelevant in my opinion—my kindle doesn’t even show the cover when I begin reading. (But then again, I have an older Kindle.)

Lastly, a good review is like a discussion at a book club—it opens the door for other opinions, it doesn’t slam the door shut.

To further illustrate my points, here are some helpful and unhelpful reviews of IT by Stephen King. Unlike me, he’s probably big enough not to get upset about reviews anymore.

Useless 5-Star review, with superfluous dog:

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Compared to this short but helpful 5-Star review:

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Here’s a Useless 1-Star review, without even a superfluous animal of any kind:

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Compared to this 3-Star review, that might help someone make a decision:

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Lara Lillibridge sings off-beat and dances off-key. She writes a lot, and sometimes even likes how it turns out. Her memoir, Girlish, available for preorder on Amazon, is slated for release in February 2018 with Skyhorse Publishing. Lara Lillibridge is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. In 2016 she won Slippery Elm Literary Journal’s Prose Contest, and The American Literary Review's Contest in Nonfiction. She has had essays published in Pure Slush Vol. 11, Vandalia, and Polychrome Ink; on the web at Hippocampus, Crab Fat Magazine, Luna Luna, Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire, and Airplane Reading, among others. Read her work at www.LaraLillibridge.com

This article has 1 Comment

  1. Hi Lara – thank you so much for sharing this. I too, used to not give a review unless it was 4stars or higher, but as a new author am realizing that this does a disservice to the author (especially as I just had to beg for that magic 50 on Amazon and I was like “I don’t even care if you hated it! Be honest!”). You make a really good point that even if you don’t like the book you can still offer suggestions for people who WOULD love it.

    I also love your reminder that authors don’t have control over the marketing of their book (titles, covers, etc.). Mine has been marketed as much more thriller/suspense than it actually is, and the negative reviews I’ve gotten have all mentioned that. And as an author you can’t exactly comment and say “that wasn’t my fault!” Haha.

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