Reviewing 101 – Part 2

BookglassesIn Part 1 of this series we started with a tutorial on how to enter a customer review on Amazon. That’s the easy part; now it is time for the hard part, actually writing that review. One of the reasons the first part is easy is it has simple steps that are straight-forward to define with no alternatives or choices to be made. There is only one right way. Writing the review is hard because none of those things are true of that task. There is no one right way. There are no clearly defined steps. And just like the contents of the review, which is largely personal, how you go about writing it probably will be too.

There is a good chance this post will be as full of opinion as a review, but I’ll at least try to explain my reasoning. While I’ll primarily be focused on writing a review of a book to post on Amazon, most of the ideas I’ll throw out would, with a little tweaking, be applicable to writing a review of anything to post anywhere. (I spent several years reviewing music for a magazine and a few websites before I started my book review blog and found more similarities than differences between the two.)

A good place to start is establishing what the purpose of a review is. It’s simple and maybe shouldn’t even need to be stated. Yet, this purpose is easy to forget. Many people who haven’t bothered to consider this write reviews with no value, get upset with reviews that are written, or create conflict in the process some other way. It’s so important I’m going to emphasize it.

The purpose of a review is to help a potential purchaser decide if this book (CD, lawn blower, restaurant, whatever) is one they’d be happy buying and reading (listening to, using, etc).

That’s it. That is where your focus when writing a review should go. Any other purpose the review might serve is a bonus and shouldn’t be your aim. You aren’t writing it to help the author sell more books (although it might have some small effect on sales, good or bad). A review isn’t a literary critique (we’ll leave that for more pompous and elitist venues than the pages of Amazon). It isn’t to help the author improve, although it is conceivable that something you say could be put to that use. You aren’t (or at least shouldn’t be) writing it to get the author off your back so he or she will stop begging you to review their book. If that is your only reason, here is a generic review to use. Pick one of the choices given from each of the brackets.

I read this book and [loved it | liked it | hated it]. I [would | wouldn’t] recommend it to others. I [will definitely | won’t be] reading this author’s [next book | other books].

This meets (actually exceeds by one word) Amazon’s minimum requirement of twenty words for a review. It should get the author off your back. It’s also close to useless. It doesn’t help the potential purchaser, so it won’t sell more books, and thus doesn’t help the author either, but it is a good start.

However, if you’d like to give writing a review an honest try, it doesn’t have to be that hard. The generic review is really only missing one thing, the reasons why you feel the way you do. Using the generic review we’ll explore how you might do that. First, we’ll throw away the last two sentences (you’re reviewing this book, not the author’s other books, and the first sentence gives a good indication of what you’d say in the second). It should also be a given that if you’re reviewing the book that you’ve read it. We’ll drop that too. That leaves us with something like this for a start:

I [liked | didn’t like | hated] this book because

Now write fifteen words or more telling the potential purchaser why. Here’s a couple of examples.

I didn’t like this book because the main character was constantly swearing (something that offends me) and jumping in and out of bed with every man she meets.

One sentence with twenty-eight words. Does it help a potential purchaser decide if it is right for them? Absolutely. Other readers like you who are offended by strong language or sexual content will know this isn’t for them. (If I’m on the fence your review might be the one that convinces me to buy this book. The author ought to be happy.)

Let’s try another one.

I loved this book. The main character’s sense of humor had me laughing on the subway which got some strange looks. I was so eager to see how it ended that I read the last three chapters after I got to work. I’m glad the boss didn’t catch me.

Wow. Almost fifty words. Does it help a potential purchaser? It tells them that at least one person found the book both humorous and a fun, compelling read. I think that’s a big help.

If a book you’ve read came up in a conversation with a friend and they asked what you thought of it, you’d be able to rattle off two or three sentences telling them what you thought, right? Writing a review doesn’t have to be much harder than that.

Although my reviews tend to be longer than these that’s partly because I’m not capable of answering a question in only twenty, thirty, or even a hundred words (ask any of my friends). But if you pick several things you liked or didn’t like about a book and write a sentence or two about each, the words add up quickly.

You’ve whipped out twenty or thirty words and you’re almost set. If you’re going to post the review to Amazon you’ll need two more things. First, a title or summary. This might be a few words to summarize what you say in your review (“Great Characters” or “Wasn’t for Me”). Or you can take the easy way out like I do which is to just enter the title of the book.

Last, you need to assign a star ranking, from one to five stars, one being the worst and five the best. Amazon defines the meaning of the stars this way:

1 star = “I hate it”

2 stars = “I don’t like it”

3 stars = “It’s okay”

4 stars = “I like it”

5 stars = “I love it”

It’s worth mentioning that Amazon’s definitions are different from those used elsewhere and, if you follow them, they’ll result in a typical star rating almost one star higher than some five star systems (Goodreads is a good example). I talked about Amazon’s star rating system more in one of my early posts at Indies Unlimited if you’d like more to consider when assigning this rating. If you plan on posting your review in more than one place, I’ll leave it up to you how to resolve the dilemma of the different rating systems. (There are different possible answers, none of them in my opinion are clearly correct.)

That’s it for today. Your homework assignment is to write a short, simple review and post it on Amazon. If you keep in mind its purpose (to help potential purchasers decide) and consider what you’d tell a friend to explain why you did or didn’t like it, this should be a slam dunk. In Part 3 I’ll give lots of ideas that should help those who want to do more, pumping those twenty, thirty, or fifty word reviews into two or three hundred word bloviations.

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

26 thoughts on “Reviewing 101 – Part 2”

  1. Great article, Al. I do think a well-written review can be very helpful to an author, even though that is not its purpose. I am disappointed Big Al’s Books and Pals has not yet adopted my proposed flaming skulls rating system, though.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Stephen. I agree, a review that is helpful to a reader is going to be helpful to an author. It doesn’t even have to be a positive review. Personally, when it comes to products that are artistic in nature (primarily books and music) I’ve pulled the trigger on purchases based on more negative reviews than positive. Sometimes that’s because the negative reviews complain about something that is a positive to me. The review helped because I’m in the target audience and teh reviewer wasn’t. Sometimes it is because the negative reviews are poorly written, which means I ignore their content, but tell me that others outside the author’s inner circle have read the book – if the only people inspired to write negative reviews are illiterate whiners I take it as a good sign.

      I think anything that helps the right readers decide to buy or warns off the wrong readers is a positive for the author.

  2. Great post, Al. There are times I struggle with a review, this will help me stay focused and not spend an hour trying to get it right. My toughest challenge is the title. I hate coming up with the title on Amazon.

    1. I hate writing titles too, Jim. I justify using just the book title when I post my reviews to Amazon as being content that wasn’t on the original review on my blog and I want the blog to have more content, not less. But really, that’s just my rationalization to justify not coming up with a pithy title. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment.

  3. Just wish more readers could understand a) the purpose of writing a review and b) the simple process you outline. And I wish more authors would throw out every self-serving hat they own when it comes to doing reviews. Put a reader’s hat firmly on head and go! Thanks for both these posts, Al.

  4. Great post, Al. My favorite authors’ books, I’m likely to get regardless, so I tend not to look at reviews, but for people I’m on the cusp about, reviews are helpful. I want a book to have a lot of good reviews, but negative reviews that are specific are very helpful. If the reviewer disliked it for a reason I consider ridiculous, I can feel good about buying the book. If the reviewer disliked it for reasons I totally get, then I’d pause and reevaluate.

    I am curious about your thoughts on spoilers. I tend not to like them in reviews of books I haven’t read. However, they’re fun to read if I’ve finished the book and am curious what others thought of specific plot points. Obviously spoilers need to come with a spoiler alert, but I know some people really dislike them in general.

    1. Thanks for the comment, RJ. On the issue of spoilers, I talk about that a bit on Part 4, so I’m going to defer on your question for the moment. To do otherwise would be a spoiler. 🙂

  5. Great post, Al. I really need to work on leaving reviews. I always get overwhelmed feeling as if I need to write a book report. I’ll have to use your formula. 🙂

  6. I found this post incredibly useful because I suspect, like so many others, I’ve procrastinated writing reviews for the same reason I hate writing synopses; I felt I had to describe the book, plot, characters, etc. now I realize that’s not my job! Thanks for the simple, easy to follow guidelines, Al!

    1. Thanks, Karen. You’re right, it isn’t. By the time the reader reads your review, they’ll have already read the author’s blurb.

  7. I love your template, Al, and I’ll be sharing it with folks who say they can’t write a review.

    When I write Rursday Reads reviews, I try to give a little context in the way of a plot summary (spoiler free, hopefully) before I get to my opinion. If that constitutes “regurgitating the blurb,” I guess I’m guilty. But I always give my opinion of the book, too.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Lynne.

      Your situation for Rursday Reads is different though. You can’t assume the reader knows the basic plot of the book unless you give it to them, unlike on Amazon. Like anything, there are exceptions. I’ll sometimes mention a plot point not in the book description if a reader needs it to understand the context of something I want to comment on. I also have a tendency to discuss things beyond the actual book, usually for context. (For example, norms for the genre or, for a non-fiction book, how it compares to others on the same subject.)

      I guess I’m trying to make two points here. First, that if you’re review is originally going to be somewhere other than Amazon, it might need more (either a blurb or a bit of plot for context). Second, whatever plot is explained is to give context to your appraisal of the book. Some reviews are all blurb, no appraisal, which isn’t very useful.

      1. Thanks, Al. 🙂 I do try to do what you’re suggesting, and I hope I’m more or less successful. And you’re right about all-blurb-no-opinion reviews — they’re pretty much pointless.

  8. Homework:

    Big Al’s reviewing 101 post, Part 2

    5 stars. I loved this post because it’s informative and well-written, and the reviewer clearly knows what he’s doing when it comes to reviews. The instructions are clear and easy to follow, and, frankly speaking, after this readers should really know how to write a decent review. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this post to other readers who struggle writing reviews for books they’ve read, and I will certainly be reading more posts by this reviewer.


  9. Even if all the writer of a review remembers is the initial purpose the rest is gravy. The guidelines are there to help, but that purpose is what drives it. Thanks you. Great post.

  10. My blood really starts to stew when reviewers simply state the book was boring. It happens all the time for literary fiction. Specifics definitely help make for a good review.

  11. Good guidelines for an Amazon review, Al, which is basically an uncomplicated opinion about the book you have supposedly just read: whether you liked it, why, and if you would recommend it.

    Personally, I think ‘how it made you feel’ is an excellent way of saying it all. I was lucky enough to receive the following short and beautifully succinct review:
    “Such honesty about the difficulties of the human condition is rare to find – some damaging problems of sex and cruelty are faced with refreshing openness. I just couldn’t put it down.”
    Pat Qua, Acclaimed Australian painter, sculptor and musician – 5 stars

    However, I also received this one just as short and for the same book:
    For me and i read a lot this book was hard to get into. So i didnt enjoy it as it just didnt hold my attention
    MKKI – 2 stars

  12. Great post, Al, thank you. I’d like to write better reviews and help those who cringe at the thought, so I’ll be bookmarking this. Loved Chris’s review. 😉 Five flaming skulls.

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