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How to Identify and Write Honest Reviews

Often when viewing a product I’m thinking about buying, I will read the product reviews by users that often accompany online retail sales pages. When I find a product that doesn’t have many or any reviews, I’m hesitant to buy it, feeling like I’m going to be the guinea pig for the product. On most products, it seems such reviews are generally helpful in making a decision to buy something or keep looking.

But when it comes to books, the situation changes dramatically. The reason is somewhat obvious. Items like underwear, clocks, record albums (in most cases), and the like are produced by a company. Said company usually produces a lot of products and doesn’t have the manpower or extra cash to get their best friends and family to go post positive reviews on the 1000 different items they sell. The few who actually pay someone to do so risk making that obvious and losing credibility. So most companies are content to let the users of the products make their honest comments. Maybe doing clean up on any particularly damaging complaints, especially if they are a small company with limited product lines.

But authors who do most of their own promotion, whether they are self-published or traditionally published, usually have a handful of product to sell, and usually have family and friends who want to see them succeed with their books. So they are willing and ready to go to bat for the author by posting positive reviews, no matter the actual quality of the book. You don’t tend to find that dynamic as often in other product lines like you do with books. This tends to stuff a book’s review list with overly positive reviews by people who are as wishful thinking as the author is on the sellability of the book.

Also some authors—because it is their one and only book or series to date and they fear its failure will doom their long-term success—are willing to take the more shady routes to get their book to sell. Some create multiple email accounts and Amazon accounts to pretend to be other people and give rave reviews to the their own books. Others will pay a review company to do essentially the same thing, often without reading anything more than the blurb. Using key words like “page turner” and “couldn’t put it down” give the reader the impression they’ve read it and it was good, when it may not be the case.

Because of these differences, the value of books reviews on these sites tend to be diluted, and honest reviews get buried in the list of 1 or 5 star reviews. So I have two questions for my readers.

When buying a book, do you use the reviews as one element in your buying decision?

If not, would you if you trusted that the reviews were mostly honest?

My guess is, out of those who answered no to the first question, a majority would answer yes to the second. In other words, the main reason you don’t read reviews to help make your decision is that you generally don’t trust them to give honest opinions. And the ones that are honest are hard to find. That said, there are elements of an honest review that enable you to spot them in a list of fluff or attacks. Likewise, if you are writing a review, there are some items you want to include if you want your review to be accepted as honest.

One, an honest review answers the question, “Is this book worth my money and time to buy and read?” While an entertaining review is a plus, the reason people read reviews is to help them decide if the book they are examining is one they’ll enjoy reading. People generally don’t like plunking down hard earned money to read books they don’t like. If the reviewer answers that question, then the review will be perceived as helpful. If the reviewer has other motives, that will tend to emerge from the writing, and the reader will more likely ignore the review.

Two, an honest review contains both positives and negatives. It is rare that a book will not have any positives or negatives. Few books deserve to get totally glowing reviews with no negatives, or all negatives with no positives. Readers innately know this. So if a review has no negative, or likewise, no positives, those types tend to get discounted and ignored. For a review to be read and used, it should contain both positive and negative points.

Three, an honest reviewer rarely gives out 5 or 1 star reviews. Like extreme positive gushing reviews and angry sounding rants, books given 5 or 1 stars tend to be discounted. The exceptions to that rule are when a reviewer usually doesn’t give out 5 or 1 stars, then it means something when they do; or if a book is really so good that the reviewer is ready to rank it with the classics; or there are thirty or more reviews and the bulk of them are 1s or 5s. Sure, getting that 5-star review makes the author feel good. But whether the reviewer is being honest or not, the reader, if they see 5 stars and a glowing review, will likely figure the author’s mom or another friend/family member wrote it and dismiss it as too biased.

My rating system on 5 stars is: 1 equals, “I couldn’t make it through the first chapter or two, it was so bad”; 2 equals, “Not that great, it has some redeeming values and I appreciate what the author was doing, but overall, too many negative issues to make it work for me”; 3 equals, “Though it had some problems, overall the story was worth reading, recommend”; 4 equals, “I really liked this book. Some issues here and there, but really worth my time to read it and I would highly recommend it”; and 5 equals, “Wow, just wow! This book knocked my socks off and I would rank it with the all time greats in publishing history!” If a reviewer marks every book a 5 that they review, then the ranking doesn’t mean anything. Especially if “every” equals one or two reviews.

Four, an honest review avoids using marketing catch phrases like, “page-turner,” “couldn’t put it down,” “stayed up late to finish the book,” “threw the book across the room,” “reading it was like watching paint dry,” etc. Even if true, using those types of trite phrases will tend to make the review read more like marketing text. The moment it sounds like a sales pitch to the reader, that’s the moment they discredit it.

Five, an honest review gives a brief, spoiler-free summary of the book. This not only indicates that the reviewer read it and know the basic character names and plot, but allows the reader to see the gist of the story from another person’s eyes than the publisher’s. Reviewers who haven’t read the book will generally not give much, if any, of a summary beyond what can be found in the blurb. But don’t make this too long. One or two paragraphs should be all you need. A review is much more than regurgitating the plot and saying whether you did or didn’t like it.

Six, an honest review gives an opinion on the main elements of the story: plot, pacing, characterization, settings, writing style, grammar and typo issues (readability), what stood out to the reviewer as good or bad about it. The more a review casts a critical eye to the various elements of the story, the more honest and authentic the review will ring to the reader. If all a reader gets is, “it was a great story,” the more likely the reader will assume that the review isn’t worth factoring into their decision.

Seven, an honest review gives an opinion on what kinds of readers will and won’t enjoy the book in question. Even if the reviewer indicates he or she didn’t care for the book, saying who will or won’t like a book lets readers know the reviewer is trying to be objective. Even the negative can help. Warning men who like action novels that a specific book isn’t action/plot driven can be a service to the reader, whether or not the reviewer is glad or not that it is or isn’t present.

Eight, an honest reviewer personalizes his or her review. Such a review relates not only the technical aspects and how well the author did or didn’t pull them off, but any aspects that spoke to the reviewer personally, made a difference in how the reviewer views an issue, people, problem, or other life experience. When the reviewer answer the question, “What did I take away from this story?” it shows the reader that he or she interacted with the story, digested it, and gave it thought. An insincere review isn’t likely to provide such feedback.

The next time you read reviews to decide whether to buy a book, consider the above guidelines as a means to spot the more helpful and honest reviews. Likewise, if you wish to write a review on a book, give consideration to those elements, and you’re more likely to get readers to give due consideration to your review in their buying decision.

About R. L. Copple
R. L. Copple enjoys a good cup of coffee and a fun story. These two realities and inspiration from the likes of Lester Del Ray, J. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, among others, caused him to write his own science fiction and fantasy stories to increase the fun in the world and to share his fresh perspective.
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7 Responses to How to Identify and Write Honest Reviews

  1. Don’t forget to mention the “honest reviews” that are written by people who don’t know what a review is supposed to include. They might not cover all those bases, and instead just tell what they think or feel about the book.

    Next time I need a refresher on what to include in my review, I’ll jump back here. Great stuff, Rick!

    • Rick says:

      Teddi, yes, that is always a possibility. Two points.

      One, the above is more to designate what will come across to a reader as being an honest review, not whether the review is in actuality an honest review. Certainly, someone could write what they feel, but not know all the above items to cover. They may only hit one or two if any. Not including or avoiding those things doesn’t mean the review isn’t an honest one, only that it will not tend to convey to the reader that it is an honest one. Does that make sense?

      Two, some of those points are more important than others in accomplishing that goal. IOW, probably the most critical is to include both positive and negative. What tends to happen is when a reviewer knows the author, they naturally don’t want to be critical. And unfortunately authors will see even a 4-star rating and any negatives as a personal attack. So most friends and family of the author, not wanting to offend them, will not post any negative comments. The presence alone of any negative comments tends to tell the reader that the reviewer isn’t biased. Is willing to say there is something wrong, and it will come across as more honest. Even if the reviewer doesn’t personalize it, or does use some trite marketing sounding phrases, etc. I’m not saying one has to hit all these bases to sound honest, only that these are elements that will say to a reader you are giving an unbiased review of what you honestly think about the book. It wouldn’t hurt to hit them all, but it isn’t necessary to do them all to convey you’re giving an honest review.

  2. Rick says:

    Just read an article this morning that illustrates part of what I’ve been saying. Couple of notes before you go read it. One of the realities of this article may sound like it directly conflicts with my point #3. But you will note, I didn’t say that a row of 5-star reviews won’t help you sell your book. Rather, that it is one signal to the critical reader looking for an honest review that the review is in fact, an honest review.

    IOW, this article is intended to give you the “signs” that indicate an honest review. I think in the end, a group of honest sounding reviews will sell books, probably more or better than a bunch of glowing reviews that give little specifics other than “Wow, loved this book.” But even if it doesn’t, it will give the readers who get the book a higher level of satisfaction if the reviewer has done their job right. If the book really stinks, positive reviews are going to look like a stab in the back when someone buys it and thinks to themselves: “Oh my! This book stinks. What were those reviewers on when they read this book?”

    As an example, not to single out the author, but I reviewed a book and is to date the only real negative review I’ve given. First check out his book’s page on Amazon and read the three reviews currently there. Ignoring the first review from the author himself (a bad sign as it is when the author violates Amazon’s TOS and reviews his own book), notice the second “glowing” review. You’ll notice the review contains no details that the person has even read the book. No specifics, just marketing terminology and general statements one could make about any number of books. Check it out here:

    And now go read my review of the book, and you can see the difference both in opinion on the book and the level of detail and interacting with the text I did, even though I ended up not reading but four or five chapters (I couldn’t keep going).

    That second review on Amazon was written no doubt by either a friend or family member, and it isn’t even clear they read the book. Either that, or to get specific would mean to start getting critical. Because from my perspective, no honest person could give that book 5-stars. I’d had a hard time even thinking about giving it 3. But I was nice to the author in that I didn’t post my review on his Amazon book page. I guess I’m just not “mean” like that. ;)

  3. Hiya RL,

    Nice article, and I agree with a lot of it – I also agree with the comment above, that people who like the book may very well not include the ‘hallmarks’ of a real review. :)

    I contacted reputable book bloggers who put their opinions online publicly, and had a great review response for my YA series. Do you think that book blogger reviews (including the blogger’s name and website) are equally ‘legitimate’ review sources?


    • Rick says:

      Hi Anthea,

      Yes. I would consider such reviews as potentially valid. The source really doesn’t make as much difference, really, as it does the content of the review. My mom could write an honest review, and say what about my book she didn’t like. Granted, she’s not going to be quick to do so, which is why reviews from mom and relatives tend to be biased and not negative. But the truth is, her review would be taken more seriously if she did (btw, as far as I know, my mom has never posted a review of my books, and I’ve never asked her to).

      Likewise, someone could get paid for a review, and then write an honest one. Like it seems Locke did on the surface at least, that he didn’t care if they were negative or not and asked that to be conveyed to the reviewers. Obviously there were other monetary motivations to avoid negative reviews in that system. If he had paid them the same no matter the direction the review went, he may have avoided some of the problems he encountered.

      But, point being, anyone can write an honest review, despite motivations to do so. And yes, people who are writing honest reviews can look like they aren’t. Usually by being too generic about what they liked or their experience. One of the best reviews I’ve received on my books is a short one that doesn’t get into specifics, but simply tells the reader that her 11 year old boy was engrossed in the book and didn’t want to go to sleep at night, and she had trouble getting her Kindle back from him. I became one of his favorite authors, right up there with the “greats” in his mind. Humbling, to say the least, that someone will out there will grow up thinking that of me, like I’ve always looked at someone like Lester del Ray.

      I have no reason to believe she wasn’t telling the truth, and I’m sure not every 11-year-old is going to react that way. I think it comes across as an honest review. But, she pretty much broke nearly every rule I have up above. :)

      BTW, you can see how I’ve put some of these principles into place in some of the reviews I’ve written. Note, I don’t do them all, all the time. But the key ones I do in as far as getting to specifics and stating positive and negative points.

      R. L. Copple’s Reviews

  4. Iola says:

    A good list. No, not every review is going to contain everything (I wrote a 5-star yesterday and didn’t put in any negatives, because it felt a bit churlish to put one in just for the sake of it).

    On book bloggers: just like with other reviewers, some five-star everything, so I take those opinions with the proverbial grain of salt. Personally, I like, because when you click on the reviewer name to see their profile, it tells you their average rating. If it’s too close to five, I know not to trust their taste so much.

    • Rick says:

      True, Iola. If you don’t think there are any serious negatives worth mentioning, not necessary to come up with them. You just know by doing that, that it is one aspect that will make your honest review not read as honest as it perhaps is to a reader. I think showing where it doesn’t hit the mark signals to the reader that you’re being objective. And few books are perfect.

      Another aspect of that is not so much a negative, but simply the opposite of the positive. IOW, if it is a romance, chances are it won’t have a lot of battle action in it. If it is a vampire story, whether it is a romance, gore, classic horror tale, etc. will be negatives to some readers and positives to others. So if you have a positive, often that positive has an opposite negative for others.

      Thanks for your input.

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