Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Art & Science of Reviewing by Marie Wells Coutu

Marie Wells Coutu
Angie, here. Happy New Year! We're starting 2018 with our favorite posts of 2017. This ia a favorite of mine from September and, according to the numbers, it's one of your favorites, too. Writers depend on word-of-mouth to sell books and reviews are a great way to encourage an author. My friend, Marie Wells Coutu, has a few tips for writing a great review. 

As an author, I know the importance of reviews. As a reader, others’ reviews help me determine which books to spend my money and time on.

So I try to post reviews of the books I read, especially novels. Thanks to Amazon, if I’m reading on my Kindle, I get a reminder and it’s easy to write the review as soon as I’ve finished.

But here’s the thing: how good should a book be to rate five stars?

Does five mean I loved the book and found nothing wrong? Do three stars mean it was only “so-so”? Will I hurt the author if I give her book four stars? (This especially concerns me if she’s an acquaintance.) On the other hand, if all my reviews are 5 stars, do I lose credibility as a reviewer?

Recently, I finished a book that I really enjoyed and couldn’t put down. But there were a couple scenes where I was momentarily pulled out of the story. In one, for example, there was a severe thunderstorm and a car accident where the heroine was injured. Yet when the police and the hero arrived, everyone stood around talking while the victim was loaded into the ambulance—with no reference to rain, water, or the storm having passed. As a writer, I couldn’t help but notice the omission. But was it serious enough to downgrade my rating?

In the end, I asked myself the following questions before deciding on the rating I’d give:

  • Did I enjoy reading the book in spite of the minor deficiencies?
  • Are there similar deficiencies throughout the novel, or did they occur in only one or two spots?
  • Would the average reader notice these weaknesses, or did it bother me because I’m also an author?
  • Could I recommend the book to a friend (because, after all, that’s what a rating is—a recommendation)?
  • With the exception of the “problem” spots, is the book well-written, are the characters well-developed and is the story believable?
Based on my answers to these questions, I chose to give the book a favorable review. Since I know the author, I could address my concerns with her privately, but I decided a public review is not the place to point out minor—some might say “petty”--weaknesses.

I’ve read other novels where there were so many “issues” that I could not enjoy the book and thus could not rate it higher than a 2. In those cases, I chose not to post a review. Mother taught me, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

But I’m curious. What’s your approach for reviews? How far do you go to provide an honest review without damaging the author’s overall rating, ego, and potentially your friendship?

The Secret Heart
by Marie Wells Coutu
About the Author
Marie Wells Coutu retired in 2013 from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. She now spends her time writing fiction—when she’s not busy having fun with her husband or with their four grandchildren. She has written three novels for Write Integrity Press, including the award-winning For Such a Moment and Thirsting for More. Her most recent book, The Secret Heart, released in February. She is working on a historical novel set in western Kentucky, near where she grew up.

Marie is a regular contributor to Seriously WriteFor more posts by Marie, click here.


  1. Marie: I love the title of your post: The Art and Science of Reviewing. There's the Art ... and the Science ... and then, as you also pointed out, there's the subjective. And that's okay. The "Art" for me is the actual crafting of the review -- the words I use when I write the review. The science? How I evaluate a book -- some of the questions I ask myself, not unlike the ones you ask. And then it comes down to intangibles. Sometimes I don't review a book if I can't give it a positive review because, well, there are plenty of other people willing to post negative reviews and I don't want to be one of those people. An I've also learned not to give another author feedback unless they ask for it.

    1. Beth, what great insights! I agree, it's best not to review if it can't be a positive one in my opinion. But I have noticed that the more I learn about the craft of writing, the more lenient I am in my reviews.

      Thanks so much for the comment!

    2. Beth, thanks for your comments! You make a great point about not giving feedback unless it's asked for (if it's negative). And you're right--there are plenty of people willing to post negative reviews. I want to be helpful to prospective readers (as well as the author) but unsolicited negative reviews, especially for trivial matters, are not helpful to anyone.

  2. Excellent review and conversation. I also choose not to leave a review if I can't provide a favorable one.

    And even though I'm a writer I try and approach the review strictly as a reader. If it entertained or moved me and I couldn't put it down, definitely going to get a good review.

    1. Terri, Somehow I missed your comment earlier, but thanks for adding to the conversation! I love that you approach the review as a reader, not as a writer. It is really all about the readers.

  3. Yes, I won't put up 1-2 stars if the author is still living. Once they're dead I'm not worried. I only give 5 stars to Christian fiction if they have the added extra of inspiring my spiritual life or what I call an 'eternity impacting' story. Too few of those sadly.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Christine! I'd love to know what titles you have found that have that "eternal impact." Not easy to write those but certainly worth learning from the examples you might give us!


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