Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Writing Useful Reviews

Back when I worked as a reporter for a newspaper, one of my jobs was to write the weekly movie review for the entertainment section. I loved this gig, seeing as it meant I got to sit in the local theater for two hours and get paid to watch a movie. Still think that's a cool job, as is writing reviews of books.

However, just because it's easy to write a review of a book or movie now -- most everyone has a blog, writes reviews on Amazon, etc -- doesn't mean that everyone writes useful reviews.

Now, some of you might (or might not) be asking what I mean by calling a review "useful." Take a recent review on Amazon for Boneshaker by Cherie Priest.

4 of 14 people found the following review helpful:
2.0 out of 5 stars Mediocre; 2.5 stars, January 10, 2010
By R. Albin (Ann Arbor, Michigan United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Boneshaker (Sci Fi Essential Books) (Paperback)
A promising idea - steampunk in the mid-19th century American northwest combined with a zombie theme. The execution, however, is poor. The plot is a mechanical regurgitation of an average zombie movie, the characters aren't particularly well developed, and there simply isn't enough fleshing out of the parallel universe. Priest is not a poor writer, as the quality of prose is more than adequate, and indeed, better than quite a few popular books. The lack of imagination and rigor in working the parallel world, the complete lack of humor, and the jaded subplot concerning the heroine are simply inadequate.
I loved the book, so we're separating my opinions for a second. Deconstructing this review, I can tell you two things: 1) the reviewer expected a lot more than he felt he got and 2) that he praises the author while slamming the work.

Notice the stat above the review though -- only 4 out of 14 respondents found this review helpful in making their decision about the book. Why, perhaps do you think this is?

My own theory is that the review writer offered no specific examples of what he disliked about the book. When composing a review of anything, generalizations are the enemy of usefulness. Here's another review of Boneshaker, taken from the same two-star level:

15 of 19 people found the following review helpful:
2.0 out of 5 stars apparently I'm the voice of dissent, January 30, 2010
By NickelDiamer (Philadelphia, PA USA) - See all my reviews
Amazon Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: Boneshaker (Sci Fi Essential Books) (Paperback)

Compelling setup and central mysteries. Thought the story between the lead protagonists was reasonably well done.

Cons: Author did not care to develop her world.

Example - Head villain has a scary right hand man, as is typical of adventure stories. He strikes fear into the hearts of the locals. Yet in the final battle, he appears briefly and avoids the final confrontation. Why introduce him? The secondary characters are compelling, until they're abandoned. The lead fighter amongst the good guys appears to be dying, yet we're led to believe he might be saved by 19th century medicine?

Additonally, the central threat within the town (the zombies dubbed rotters) are never well developed. Minnericht can send them at his enemies, but loses control of them in the end. Why? They run the streets of the city, forcing the human residents into a subterranean existence, yet they can be repelled by bonfires? Moving a block or two in the city calls up hordes of rotters, yet the leads can linger in a house for nearly an hour? And what of the citadel like fort within the walls? Everyone agrees it's safe from the rotters, yet it's abandoned.

But the biggest problem with the story: it hints early on that living within the city walls is near suicidal (and even life in the outskirts is pretty illogical), yet no compelling reason is ever provided for why the residents stay. It's apparently not too difficult for humans to leave the city. Yet many reasonably upright citizens have spent a decade or more running for their lives from the rotters while being manipulated by a mad professor. Say what? I know the setting is an alternate history where the civil war rages on, but America is a big and open country in the late 19th century. People set out for the plains and southwest on a regular basis. Yet cleaning contaminated water all day or relying on filter masks to step outside is the best existence these people can imagine?

The beauty of sci-fi/fantasy as a genre is the ability of authors to create worlds that operate on their terms. But there need to be terms. The whole project feels adrift.
Nearly all the people who read this review found it helpful. Why? Because of those same specific examples that I mentioned before. This reviewer mentions clear points at where he felt the book fell flat and why he feels that way. He also instinctively performs my second point -- people will not find a completely negative review nearly as useful as they find a review with a grain of positive mixed in.

The illustrious Nathan Bransford uses the following formula for critique -- positive, extremely polite constructive criticism, and positive. He calls it the sandwich method, and I propose that a similar method be followed when writing a useful review:

Positive -- Say what you liked about the book/movie, if anything and why

Negative -- Say where the book/movie didn't work for you and why

Positive -- Say something else you liked about the book/movie and why

The end result of all this is to craft the most useful review you possibly can. Why is this important? Well, in the words of Boston Globe movie critic Ty Burr, he writes reviews to turn people on to something they might not have thought of before. And that, dear readers, is what a useful review can do.


The Daring Novelist said...

I think the thing to remember is that book buyers are not looking for a critique. They aren't even looking for whether the reviewer liked or hated the book.

They're trying to get a feel for the book. They not only want to know what kind of book it is, but also what the tastes of the reviewer are and whether those differ from their own.

The first review you mentioned gave an opinion, but no sense of the book or taste. The second review gave a good taste of the book, and of the kinds of things the reviewer liked and didn't.

(And yes, when it comes down to it in critique, the writer wants to know the same things as the book buyer - not whether you liked or disliked it, but what you responded to.)

Davin Malasarn said...

I had a workshop leader guide me under the philosophy that if a review can't find at least three good things about a story, then he or she doesn't have any right being critical of it either. The idea was that everyone's work, if they've put any care into it at all, has some good points to it. If a review can't see that, then they are too biased to offer helpful criticism as well. I agree that the review with the specifics is more helpful. The first one started off okay, but was too general in the back half.

L. T. Host said...

Great post! I've always tried to sandwich my critiques, too, just because I hate it when I only get negative feedback. And I agree with Davin-- there's got to be SOMETHING good about it.

I've never really thought of reviews this way, though, so thanks!

Joshua McCune said...

Specificity... always a good thing (w/o the spoilers :)...

And I like what Davin said, but sometimes a book/movie/etc. can be so offputting that the good elements get washed away. Were I critiquing for someone, I'd dig deeper, but for surface reactions to polarizing media, I'll likely discard the good or bad with sardonic brevity (e.g., I'm sure there was something good about this, just not sure what it was).

Matthew Delman said...

Daring --

Yes! That's exactly what specificity in reviews helps us with. We find out the taste of the reviewer and how the book aligned with their views, which help us to figure out whether the book will resonate with our own.

Davin --

I completely agree. I always, always try to find something good to say about a movie/book I didn't like. Even if it's just the fact that the prose was very well done or the cinematography was excellent. With video games, sometimes good gameplay is about all I can say.

L.T. --

Sandwich style is the way to go any time you give your opinion on something, methinks. At least in the creative realm.

Bane --

There are times where the negative can far outweigh the positive, but even in those cases I find that the concept is what's excellent but the execution is off. Take the Xbox game Damnation for example -- post-Civil War steampunk adventure that had the chance to be phenomenal due to an awesome concept, but fell flat on its face through execution.

dolorah said...

This was excellent examples for reference Matt. I'm attempting to write two reviews now - one on the Sherlock Holmes movie, and the other on the Sookie Stackhouse series.

And no, it doesn't seem "easy" to me. Finding specific things about what I liked or didn't isn't hard - I have a whole list of those - its organizing it so it flows coherently. I don't know why, my mind just doesn't work that way.

This is, as I said, a good example to go by, and there are a couple other bloggers out there who write excellent book and movie reviews. I like the sandwich analogy; I keep that in mind for regular critiquing, but hadn't thought of it quite that way for a review.

I swear, I learn something new everytime I read one of your Posts Matt. Thanks for the useful tips.


word verif: tries. Yep, that sums it up for me.

The Daring Novelist said...

Another thought on the sandwich style critique....

If the writer utterly failed to do what he was trying to do, and you can't think of anything positive to say, then one thing that I think all writers appreciate is if you acknowledge what they were trying to accomplish. Let them know if you "got it."

"Telling a story through out-of-sequence dreams is a really tough thing to do. You may not have accomplished it, but boy, you set the bar high for yourself...." Or "I think I would have really liked Micki if you had let me get closer to her...."

In other words, giving attention to the things the writer loves can stand in for a positive comment. It makes the negatives feel less like criticism and more like help.