Though this discussion will concentrate upon the writing of book reviews, many of the principles will apply equally to the writing of reviews for other products.
Who reviews are for and what readers would like to gain from them has been previously discussed in Reviews – What Wanted? This discussion is intended to enlarge upon the theme, especially with regard to the elements of a review.
It must be acknowledged, for many, particularly those not accustomed to writing, preparing a review may prove a daunting prospect. Some may also find the degree of responsibility that comes with writing a review (to get the facts right and to represent the work fairly) uncomfortable.
There are three parts to this discussion: Why some readers do not write reviews; What a review should include; The presentation of a review.
Why do readers NOT write a review?
Prior to considering the possible contents for a review it may help to understand why some people chose not to review a book or product. (In truth and sadly, it is the majority.)
Fear: A while ago an author commented that their family and friends told them they were afraid to attempt the writing of a review. Some did not consider they were competent to do so while others were afraid of possibly causing offence.
Laziness: Many in modern society appear to suffer from an indolent attitude and are not prepared to put themselves out to the least degree. There is also the issue of apathy that many also appear to suffer with. These are sad conditions which frequently emulate the individual’s dissatisfaction with their lot in life. However, this is not the place for a psychological dissertation on the topic.
Educational insecurity: Over several years governments and social observers/surveyors have expressed serious concern about decreasing literacy levels. Even those who have some reading ability may find they are not really capable of putting their thoughts, opinions and observations into written form.
Lack of Respect: (Another sad reflection upon modern society.) There now appears to be a general lack of respect both for others and for self. Someone (the author) has put a lot of effort and work into producing something the reader has, hopefully, benefited from or at least enjoyed. Even if they have not, the creator merits some respect for all the time and energy they put into their creation. It is only fair their efforts should be rewarded with a few comments besides, it is simply a matter of good manners.
What to include in a review?
The following simply incorporates a few ideas and suggestions and is not intended to be an exhaustive list.
It should be born in mind; unless the reader is a professional reviewer for a newspaper, magazine, publisher or an online equivalent, a review will be primarily subjective (professionals are expected to be objective). The review should reflect how the book impacted the individual rather than upon how they think the professional world will view it.
- Overview: Without repeating the complete published synopsis, a brief idea of the story whether factual or fictional. Of course, if it is a technical/scientific book this should reflect the subject matter. Care must be taken not to mar a potential reader’s experience by including ‘spoilers’.
- Style: Whether the ‘Point of View’ (1st, 2nd, 3rd person) worked. Whether the text flowed or hiccuped. Whether it easily, or not, carried the reader through the tale.
- Character development: Though most will automatically think of fictional characters this also applies to some non-fiction books e.g. memoir, history, etc. Were the characters realistic and believable, or were they stilted and like cardboard cut-outs. Did the reader ‘connect’ with the character, even if they did not like them.
- Plot: How it unfolded. Did it make sense or did it fail. Did it confuse or effectively carry the story forward. Were there any surprising twists (without specifying them). Etc. Whether there any explicit sexual scenes or gratuitous violence not warned about. Again, even with the possibility of having to include negative observations, care must be taken not to include any ‘spoilers’.
- Settings (World Building): Whether these were real and relevant. Did they create an image in the reader’s mind. If an actual location, did it make the reader feel they would like to visit the place or, if they have visited it, did it ring true.
- Language/Dialogue: Were these accurate for the tale as well as the placing. Was there any inappropriate terminology (graphic/bad language) that the reader was not warned about e.g. book not identified as containing ‘Adult Content’.
- Likes/Dislikes: Bearing in mind most reviews are created from a reader’s subjective (personal) view point, it is appropriate to include statements about what they liked or did not like. These may assist potential readers in determining whether the book is for them (a primary purpose for a review).
- Supporting quotes: Consider the inclusion of quotes from the tale to support various comments, observations and opinions.Again, ensure no spoilers are included.
- Rating: Most sites utilise a star rating system. Unfortunately, how these are defined varies between sites; sometimes there is a noticeable difference. This can make it difficult for the reader to come to a conclusion. Assessing Book Review Ratings discusses the point in more detail.
Despite the above, reviews do not have to be lengthy. They simply need to encompass the reader’s thoughts, observations and opinions. A few sentences may be sufficient.
As already stated, reviews do not have to be long. A few sentences encapsulating an overview of the book and the reader’s experience and opinions would suffice.
To have any value, a review needs to be honest. Accepted, most prefer not to be over critical and no one likes to have their work criticised and, of course, no one enjoys the potential of not being liked by writing something negative. Nevertheless, the reviewer has a responsibility to present the facts as they find them. They should try and subdue their insecurity issues to provide those who will be reading the review with an accurate reflection of the book. Again, it is only fair to both potential readers and to authors (no one ever stops learning and a different viewpoint, if the author bothers to listen, may prove helpful).
The language utilised in a review should be polite and considerate. There have been reports of some reviewers being extremely rude and vitriolic and of even ‘attacking’ an author personally, even though they have never met them. There is absolutely no excuse or need for such behaviour. How would they like to be ‘attacked’ similarly. Besides, a review is about the book not the author as an individual. As already mentioned, the author has put a lot of energy, time and effort into their book and, no matter what, they should be treated with respect. Of course, where merited, negative critical observations and concerns should be included in a review but in a respectful manner. This is respect for both the people who will read the review and for the author. It should also be born in mind elderly ladies and children may read it. Using inappropriate language reflects more upon the reviewer than the book.
It should also be born in mind each person is a unique individual with varying tastes, likes and dislikes. ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison.” as the saying goes.
Reviews are valuable to potential readers. They help them decide: Whether a book is for them; Whether it falls within a genre, subject or topic they are interested in; Whether it is up to the quality they would appreciate; etc.
By writing a review, the reader is simply assisting fellow readers and, though not really intended for authors, it is a way of rewarding them of their hard work or pointing out issues that may help them improve their art.
There are elements it would be nice to see in a review, as outlined above, nevertheless, a review does not have to be a lengthy treatise. A few short sentences encompassing the readers thoughts, observations and opinions is all that is really required.
Respect and politeness is simply a matter of good manners and not just in a review. Even negative, critical comments should be phrased sensitively and with consideration for those who are going to read them. ‘Do unto others as you would have done unto you.’ An old saying but one that still holds water.