Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What makes a good review? talk to me.

We all review differently, some of us are chatty, others serious and formal. As reviewers we have different flavours and tastes but it seems that there are good reviews and not-so-good ones. Right? I think we all have reviews that we are prouder of, and it isn't necessarily because we liked the book a whole lot better but because the review written is really good. I have been thinking about this and wondering what you all think. (I did promise a non-negative discussion, and this is it!)

What would you say completes a good review? I mean good as in high quality, not as in a positively raving review of a book. Is a good review a positive one? Is it a balanced portrayal taking note of the good and bad? What about spell check? HA! Should the reviewer do some research and find important links or key things the reader may be interested in?

What about the 'bore factor'? Are reviews that are more academic and 'boring' better or worse maybe it depends on the book? Oh, I'd say by far worse, at least for me. Maybe they are suitable for an academic journal of some sort...but I don't read those for fun. I like real reviews, personal reviews. How about length? Humor? Can a review that is too long turn off a possible reader? I think so, my attention span is short so a long review, well lets just say I usually don't read the whole thing.

I know, a review belongs to the reviewer and all reviews are different, but there should be some key factors in every high quality review. Would you agree that these should be key factors in every review?

- the use spell check!! (Amen and AMEN!)
- learn about the author (do your homework)
- include links to interesting things related to the book/author
- if you hated the book, don't skimp at review time!
- picture of author, of book cover....of something! (I am a visual person so this is a must have for me, but it may not be for you)

What do you think a high quality review should include? What do you think it should NOT include? What do YOU say, are there key elements or not?? If there are good reviews are there also bad reviews, how are they bad?


classicvasilly said...

I need to see a book cover also. I want to know what the reviewer liked and didn't like about a book and an example. Everything else is extra.


bethany said...

vasilly- so is extra good, as in extra whip cream? Or do you mean you think it is unnecessary and not good?

What about a book description?

Meghan said...

I don't necessarily need author info, although it's nice in the case of guest posts and interviews. For a review, I definitely want a book cover picture, links to Amazon and anywhere else the reviewer thinks is relevant (I only link to Amazon and LT usually though), a summary in case I haven't seen it before, and most importantly, opinion! I don't like reviews with three paragraphs of plot summary and one or two sentences of opinion. I want to know what worked for you and what didn't work for you, with examples if relevant, and maybe why it didn't work as well. If a blogger doesn't do that, I probably won't stick around for too long.

- Meghan @ Medieval Bookworm

Meghan said...

When I say "Amazon", any place to buy the book would also work. That's just what I use.

- Meghan again

thatsthebook said...

I like to see the book cover as well. But I also like to see links to others who have reviewed the book. Nothing like only having one opinion of the book. I try to add links to other reviews so readers aren't only getting one side of the story.

I would say generally speaking I like a review that's conversational. It should also include a brief synopsis (the shorter the better) and what is it you did/didn't like about the book?

jopre said...

Interesting question!
My review requirements are probably a bit skewed by the fact that I write reviews as well as read them.

My requirement is pretty simple these days: I want to know what the reviewer thought of the book. What they really thought. And why. That way I can make up my own mind about whether something is likely to interest me or not. And we don't have to have the same taste in books either – after a while you can build up a mental profile of reviewer X, and work out what areas the two of you agree on, and where your personal opinions diverge. Ideally you come to know (and trust) their consistency of opinion.

Diane said...

Ooh, I can't stay, but I'll be back later tonight--I have a LOT of opinions since I depend on reviews to select most of the books in our public library. Great topic, Bethany!

Madeleine said...

If a book is so so I have a terrible time writing a review, the book just does not speak to me. This does not mean that it is a bad book, maybe it is entertaining or a new point of view which leaves me without a strong opinion.
I guess I am best at reviewing a book which grabs me and doesn't let go even after I am finished.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

I like all those extras - the links to discussion questions, a bit of a bio about the author, a summary (what I call the back of the book blurb).

I also like a quote or two that gives a feel of the writing (without spoilers!) and supports a point the reviewer is making. I know this is a challenge with ARCs.

BiblioMom said...

For me, its all about a connection. I don't want to read a play by play of the book I can get that on Amazon. I want to see if the reader found a personal connection with the book. Reviewing for review sake just doesn't appeal to me. The problem (if you could call it one) with the few reviews that I write is that they end up being more about me and how the book fit into my life than about the book itself. That's just my style though and my blog isn't about the books it's about how they fit into the bigger picture of my life.

SuziQoregon said...

OK - couldn't wait till I got home tonight - had to come back and post some initial thoughts . . .

Gotta have a picture of the book cover. I skip reviews without a picture of the cover. Links to discussion questions don't interest me, but links to other things related to the book or author might lead me to click through. Particularly for historic fiction or non-fiction - links to related info can be interesting.

I have a short attention span too so I may not read all of a lengthy review. But for me the extent of the review depends on the type of book. A continuation of a series may not need as much as a stand alone. Some books are just for brain candy ('Mental Popcorn' is the description I stole from a Goodreads group) and those books don't take much of a review. If it is a continuation of a series, tell me what about the series you like so I can decide if I want to read one.

If you loved the writing a couple of quotes can be nice, but not necessary.

I'm an independent bookstore promoter so I will not link to Amazon on my blog. I usually link to Goodreads (where they'll see other reviews) or to Powells Books (for purchase). I live in Portland so I'm a Powells girl all the way.

claire said...

I like to write impressions about a book, just because I started my blog not to review books but to record my own favourite things that stood out for me in a book.

However, it's not a requirement I would look for in other reviews that I read. Like you said, each reviewer has his own flavour, and I like reading different styles of reviews. The only thing I don't care so much about reviews are if they just repeat the plot that's given in the blurbs or book summaries. Given, I also read reviews who give those out, but it's a lot more interesting to read impressions or opinions, and, like Bibliomom said, personal connections.

What I look for in blog reviews is different from why I read professional reviews.

Good reviews are not necessarily only good opinions of a book, but generally I don't like reading negative reviews that give off a mean or insulting tone. Negative opinions can be given without being rude.

I also like reading quotes because it gives me a taste of the book's tone and voice.

Trish said...

LOL--there goes my Sunday Salon post I had planned for this weekend. I was going ask what people looked for in reviews. I like them shortish and I honestly usually skip a lot of the quotes and plot summary unless I'm really interested. The less I know about a book when I get it into my hands, the better. What I look for is how people reacted to the book. I'm also a writing gal, so I look for things like structure and different literary elements (although I agree it isn't good to get *too* academic).

But really--with so many posts in my reader, I do a lot of skimming and try to pick up on a few of the main points. And above all honesty. I've come to distrust certain bloggers who do a tremendous amount of reviewing FOR people. I'm not saying that everyone pads their reviews, but I think that some people do. I'm sorry, but a person can NOT love every single book they read.

But who am I to talk? This is just a really fun hobby for me. I am not getting paid to review books. Are any of us getting paid? Hmmm--I didn't think so, but what if I'm wrong? Are there some of you out there getting paid? That certainly changes the game, huh?

I'm babbling. I'm really burned out, Bethany. :(

Laura said...

I think I am agreeing with several other commenters, but I'll still give my opinion! :) If the plot summary is super long, I generally just skim through. I don't mind if there isn't really much of a summary at all, and the reivewer just gives his/her likes and dislikes.

It is fun when a reviewer changes up their format every once in a while--going from a general summary paragraph and opinion paragraph to maybe an interview format or answering generic questions about the book (favorite characters, memorable scene, etc.)

Even though I think it is really nice to link to other reviews of the book, I very very rarely click on them. And the most important part of a review to me is if the reviewer is honest. There is no point of giving an opinion if it isn't the actual feeling of the reviewer. Sorry for the long answer! Great question!

Alyce said...

I always include an image of the book cover, but sometimes don't include a photo of the author. I usually try to get an author photo off of the publisher's site, or sometimes the author's website. Oftentimes they don't have a promo photo, and if I have any questions about copyright I don't use it.

I was actually going to ask you how you decide to use author photos. Should I be worried about copyright issues? Do you cite who the photographer is? I'm just curious if there is any standard on the web for "borrowing" images, especially for authors photos.

As far as review length, I get overwhelmed by the long reviews. Most reviews on feeds that I subscribe to don't fit in this category. There are a few though that have reviews that seem to go on for pages, and I tend to skim the first and last paragraphs.

I love that you include links and multimedia about the author and/or the book, but I don't think it's a necessity for every review.

I also like reviews that use a plain text (like one color of type all the way through). I will use different colors for things like a spoiler alert or in an author interview, but visually I am turned off by text that looks like neon lights.

I think that spell check is a no-brainer. If you don't spell check it will be obvious. I'm pretty good at spelling and I find errors all of the time when I use spell check on my posts before they are published.

There's obviously a place for academic reviews, but I don't read them. I prefer to get a good overview of the book, and then read about the personal experience of the reviewer reading the book.

NotNessie said...

I like to see a picture of the book cover, and amen to the spell check. Though I sometimes think grammar check might even more important.

I like to see some evaluation of the quality of the book, the impact on the reader, and a recommendation about who might like the book. A personal style works better for me than the academic.

The biggest thing for me is probably keeping it brief. My reviews are generally short, because that's what I like to read. If it's too long, my brain turns off- end of story.

softdrink said...

Diversity and character...I don't want to read similar reviews of the same book. I want to read your review where you sound like you're talking to me, I want to read Ramya's well-thought out post (not that yours isn't, but I hope you know what I mean) and I want to read raych in all her sarcastic gloriousness. I love all of the different styles.

I do like a picture of the cover, and a little blurb about the book (unless it totally spoils the book). I like warnings about spoilers. And I want to know if you liked it or not.

ANovelMenagerie said...

I try to write decent reviews. I review 3-4 books per week and I try to stay on a standard format. I, too, like pictures. When I'm really into a book or author (like Lisa See), I add extra pictures about the topic. Otherwise, I stick to the book cover and author picture.

Every review has a brief description of the story line (some I write, some from covers or websites), a review and a rating.

If you have a chance, come and check out one of my reviews and tell me if you have any suggestions for the format.

Good writing topic.

booklineandsinker said...

good topic...i've been wondering this myself because reviews tend to generate the fewest comments of all the things i post on my blogs. i guess there are only so many ways to say "good review, i'm adding this title to my TBR pile."

for me, i like to see a book cover and an honest opinion of the book.

i don't require a plot summary--that's not what a well-written review is. i can take or leave quotes...but i sometimes include them in my reviews.

and please, no longer than 300-400 words...or else i am tempted to skim. these are the things i try to adhere to in my reviews.

Diane said...

Hi Bethany,

At this point, I'd have to agree with most of the comments about the reviewer's authentic voice being really important to me. I like book covers, I like grammatically correct sentences and spelling checks and I appreciate when a reviewer gives me a taste for the prose, especially if it's a major attractive feature of the book (or it detracts from the experience of reading the book).

OK, scratch the grammar comment as I just wrote what is possibly the worlds largest run on sentence!

I also like to hear if there are facts or other things that are jarring in the story. For instance, I was so excited to read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, but I admit I was totally turned off by page 2. Why??? The author (and the editor) have 2 glaring errors in the story! First, using the phrase "24/7 as they call it these days". That is a phrase that was not in general use in 1986 (yes, it was used by a basketball star in 1983, but let's be honest--it didn't take off as a phrase until almost 20 years later...

Second, there is a reference to therapy supplemented with online chats...1986??? something like this would have been more likely called IRC or BBS and didn't become in general use until a few years later...

Nitpicky--definitely, but, these examples speak directly to the authenticity of the author's understanding of the time period in which s/he has set the story. I keep wondering what else will be wrong that I won't know about...
I'm just not sure I can "believe" the author any more...

My problem, yes. But, it surprises me that other reviews didn't note what, for me, created an instant disconnect with the story and then the author. Isn't that what we want when we read??? A connection to the story/characters and we place a LOT of trust in the author to help us make that connection.

Any way, I'm not cranky with you Bethany or any other reviewer and I'm going to try to "get over this" and read more of the book because I think I'd love it!!! But my experience will be very different now than it would have been if I hadn't seen (or been aware of--LOL) these errors.

Yikes, I sound like a nitpicky librarian! I am a librarian, but pretty non-stereotypical and usually unconcerned with detail, if I do say so myself! But, mess with my books, with my reading, with my pleasure in reading, and watch out!

Anyway, my two cents, for what they're worth. Thanks for the very interesting post, and one of my favorite new places (your blog) to check out everyday!

Shannon C. said...

I agree with the comments about wanting a reader's authentic voice, whether that's sarcastic or sweet or academic or whatever.

What I really want is a clear idea what the book is about and a reader's impressions, what worked, what didn't, what inaccuracies there are in the story, etc. I almost never quote directly from a book unless something grabs me.

But, man. Book covers. I happen to be totally blind, and since book covers don't do a thing for me, I tend not to include them because I don't want to spend too much time thinking about whether or not the picture is aligned properly for the post. I'm not likely to change this policy, but I will keep it in mind for the next time I want to complain about low blog stats. LOL.

Susan @ Reading Upside Down said...

I like to see the book cover and a link to the author site is useful and preferable to information about the author in the review.

I like a brief summary of the storyline for fiction - no spoilers, especially those given without warning.

I like a personal reponse that says what the reviewer liked/disliked about the book and why. My preferences might be different to theirs.

I enjoy reviews with some personality and humour. I write reviews for an online magazine with specific guidelines including writing in 3rd person. I am hoping to use my book blog as a way of giving a more personal response to the books I read and I appreciate reading this kind of response from others.

joanna said...

I like a review to be short and have a personal touch - I don't need extras unless they're particularly interesting. I don't have a standard set of things to include in the reviews I write - maybe that's wrong, but I just kind of go with whatever I feel like saying at the time I'm writing. Very random. Guess I'll turn this into a job. :-)

raych said...

Spell-check is HUGE. As are decent grammar skillz (I'm talking about the appropriate uses of their/there/they're, not about making sure your modifiers don't dangle), because I have a little bit of trouble trusting the opinions of people who don't seem like they read much.

Also, give me DETAILS, baby! I hate reviews that say things like 'This book deals with love and loss and regret.' Ok, but there's loving a vampire and losing your humanity and regretting that you can't have the werewolf too, so this really isn't helpful. I like a bit of a plot-taster and no spoilers.

And I know this particular sentiment is being much decried around the blogosphere just now, but give me a gut reaction. Did you love it? Hate it? Meh it? I know who likes the books I like, and I'm likely to follow their leads if I know where they're going.

This comment is getting longer than I'd thought. I like book reviews to be interesting to read in and of themselves. There are non-fiction writers out there who are interesting to read even if their topics are ho-hum, and that's what I try to do over in my little space. Even if you don't give a rip about the book, I want you to be able to enjoy the review.

And b, I always enjoy your reviews.

Dar said...

I love a book cover. If I run across a blog that doesn't sport book covers, I leave. I need it to relate to the story. I also think it's good to include author links or videos if they're available.

As for good/bad reviews I do generally write positive reviews although I will politely say if I didn't like something. I don't like to be mean though. I've said this on a couple of other blogs today but if I'm reading a bad book I don't normally get past the first 50 pages so it's not going to end up on my blog at all.

Length-if the book is interesting to me I don't mind length, same goes if someone is writing on how the book affected them on a personal level. I like to see that people have put their hearts into a review and that makes me want to come back.

Florinda said...

Another excellent discussion - I like this "talk to me" thing you have going, Bethany :-).

I think a picture of the book cover is important, but please also include the title and author's name in the body of the review itself! I've seen some bloggers who don't do this, and if the cover photo is hard to make out, it's hard to know what they are reviewing! It seems to me that this would defeat the purpose.

Author info is a nice plus, but I don't find it essential. I do include a link to the author's website/blog if I can find it, though. If I'm reviewing a book for a blog tour and have received other supplemental links and info, I'll include those in my post, but I usually don't seek them out on my own.

As a few other people have said, I don't want to see four paragraphs of plot summary (pasted from Amazon or the publisher's site) followed by two or three sentences of "review." I want to know what the book is about - and I do paste/link to publisher's descriptions myself - but I want to read about your reactions to the book: critical/intellectual, artistic, emotional, and whatever else applies. And by "critical," I don't mean negativity, but objectivity - and objectively disliking a book is perfectly acceptable.

Reading the comments here has given me some thought fodder for my own reviews, so thank you for that!

Rebecca @ The Book Lady's Blog said...

I'm with Trish---I was going to ask this question next week, but oh well. I'm just glad we're having the conversation.

Now that I've been reading book blogs for a while, I've come to expect different things from different bloggers, and I like the variety. I'm a details person (and a former English major), so I want to know more than just a brief plot summary. I want quotes to support the point and give an example of the author's writing style, and I want to know how the reviewer reacted to the book and why. Every reviewer does this in his or her own way, and I love all the different flavors.

I agree that getting too academic can be negative, and I don't want all the reviews I read to be academic-ish, but I like to look for depth in books, and I appreciate reviews that do the same.

If you write a short, one-paragraph review, half of which is generic plot summary, I'm not down with it. But I might hang around or subscribe to your blog for the "extras" in non-review posts if I like the way you say what you say. Make sense?

And I know we all love ARCs and being contacted by authors and publicists to review books, but I do start to wonder how honest reviewers are being when they rave about everything they read, especially when all of those reads were supplied by the same one or two people. (I think it was Trish that pointed this out, also.)

Trish said...

What's ironic is that I'm currently participating in my first book tour in *months* and actually really loved the book (I stopped accepting books because I was finding I didn't like them as I hoped).

When I was writing my really positive review last night, I thought about the comment I made here about positive reviews. I find myself thinking--are people going to think I'm just saying I love this book because I have to? Sad, huh?

Ramya said...

INteresting discussion topic as usual Bethany..and I can see where it stemmed from this time.

Here's what I like to see in others reviews:

1. A picture of the cover. I go a lot by first impressions and most of the time, I am right.

2. A short summary of the book. This is very important for me. There are certain books I usually don't like and I am not going to read further if this is one of them.

3. What the reviewer liked about the book - the cover, the writing style, the length, the characters

4. What the reviewer didn't like about the book (in many cases, this is more important than (3) but these days, with the advent of ARCs, reviewers shy away from writing what they didn't like about the book:(

5. Personal tidbits - I love a personal review. Most of the bloggers I visit often are my friends now and I love to read some personal detail about them in their review... my way of getting to know them better!

I try to incorporate all this in my review. And in addition, I also have a review score and a short summary that helps people make up their minds fast.

Joanne said...

Most of the things I look for in reviews has been mentioned - cover photo, links of interest, spell-check is a must, plot outline without spoilers.

The biggest thing for me is that the voice of the review is true. Which is why I prefer blogger reviews rather than newspaper/magazines. It's not always true but 99% of the time a blogger has their own personality and it's nice to see that in their writing. Basically allow your own style to show, write as though you're talking out load. If your reviews read like klausner-esque book jackets, I'm probably not likely to trust your reviews.

Oh and one last thing - paragraphs are your friend! An english teacher of mine once said that writing without visual structure can invalidate a perfectly well done article, paper etc. I agree, without paragraphs it all looks like a giant run-on sentence to me.

Vasilly said...

I mean extra like extra good. A book description is great also but I really want to know what the reviewer liked and didn't like since every reviewer is different and will talk about different aspects of the sane book.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I think short reviews are preferable but I am very guilty of not doing that, especially if I get excited about the prose in a book. I also like to put enough in that *I* remember the book a year later! But I definitely agree that many readers will be turned away from longer reviews.

susan said...

I like reviews with an academic feel but it's not a requirement. And I don't write them. I've been out of school too long and honestly, I'm too lazy. I also like very conversational, relaxed reviews. Regardless of the style, what I want most is some insight, value or perception the reviewer picked up from the read. What impressed the reviewer most and why. What disturbed or disappointed the reviewer and why. I want the reviewer to say something that motivates me to check out the book or make a very solid argument why the book fails.

What I don't want is heavy on summary and all blown sunshine. I don't mind praise but tell me why.

susan said...

I should add that after reading several book blogs, I opted not to call my blog a book review blog because it's not. It's my ramblings. It's pretty informal and I'm not interested in having to measure up.

Do I sound pathetic? lol

Ti said...

For me, the following is a must:

Pic of the cover or pic of the author.

A brief summary of the story(from the publisher) or personally written.

My thoughts. Whether I liked it or not and why. A bit about the author's writing style. I might compare it to other books as well.

A glowing review will warrant author info or a link to their website.

If I really hated the book I might include links to other reviews to balance it out a bit.

A line telling everyone where the book came from (ARC, etc).

A good use of spell check.

Hyperlinks where needed.

I think that pretty much covers it (for me anyway).

heidenkind said...

Personally, I like reviews that add to your understanding of the book. The academic vs. more casual review issue is a really good point--if a book warrants it, can you discuss academic-type subjects (symbolism, etc.) and still keep the tone of the review casual? I think you could, but it would be a tough line to walk.

One of the things I hate/love is when people take books that are obviously completely pulp fiction--romances, Dan Brown, etc.--and do very deep, intellectual reviews of them. It can be fun, if it's kind of a joke, but it can also be ridiculous.

JenR said...

Having recently started my own blog with the intent to post reviews of books, I've enjoyed reading the comments here for ideas on how to write mine.

Mine are probably way to short at the moment - something I'm working on - but it's nice to know others like short reviews as well. For myself I prefer short reviews that simply say what the story was about and if they liked it and why. Some additional information about the author or the book is cool but not required.

I find that when I read a longer review I ended up thinking "but did you LIKE it or not?" more than anything else. Sometimes the likes or dislike gets lost in the drawn out review. Academic analysis really doesn't do anything for me.

Melissa said...

Here's my 2 cents :-)

I like to see basic book info and a cover on reviews, along with the synopsis of the book. Sometimes, some reviews have SO MUCH in the way of summary and then very little of an actual review. I'd rather know what you like or don't like about a book.

To me, it's also possible for a review to be too long. This particularly happens when one tries to summarize the entire book in a few paragraphs. Quotes aren't really necessary to me, either. I'll start skimming to get to the point after awhile. I'm not saying that this is necessarily right, but when I write a review I try to keep it around 2-4 paragraphs total, and that mainly of my impressions, what I liked, what didn't work so well for me, etc.

Something else I think is important? Links to other reviews--particularly if any happen to be different from your own. I started doing that when I had to write reviews of books I didn't like; I wanted people to get an opinion from someone who DID like them, as well.

Above all, the most important thing for a good review is honesty. How did this book really and truly make you feel? I get suspicious (like Trish) when I see only positive reviews from a reviewer. I only WISH I loved every book I read :-)

Callista said...

As per usual I'm really late on this discussion.

I too love a book cover and rarely read a review without one. When I have to pick which reviews to read out of the millions in my reader I usually get caught by one of three things:

1. the book cover
2. the book title (which SHOULD be in the post title)
3. The first few lines of the review.

Spellcheck yes, author pic and bio is not necessary but I do look for links I can include so that if someone DOES want to knwo about the author they just have to follow my links.

Shannon... Do you mean really blind or were you using a metaphor or something? If you are really blind, how do you read the review in the first place?