Monday, July 26, 2010

Ratings: What Works and Why

Another day. I awaken, bleary eyed. After some breakfast and waking up a bit more, I switch on my computer and turn to Google Reader. Some posts I look through are lengthy, others short, others full of pictures. I even see stars in some cases, and notice how many different techniques I see among different reviews.

I’m sure many of you have noticed that I don’t post ratings my book reviews. I thought about it when I first started my blog, but decided against it. For one thing, I’ve always been better with words than numbers. Furthermore, I’m intrigued to hear what other people like or don’t like about what they’re reading. While I sometimes look through star ratings that a book has gotten on GoodReads, I feel that those without reviews often tell me more about how popular a book is than what I specifically might like about it. However, I know other people certainly feel differently than I do, so I decided to ask some other bloggers for their thoughts on ratings.

I set out to talk to people who all had different set ups, whether it be a simple star rating, a system with many facets or no ratings at all. I actually really liked some of the explanations that bloggers who decided to use ratings provided. Jessica of Chick Lit Teens said that ratings are important to her because, in some ways, they can be the most truthful part of a review.

"As my blog originally began as a byproduct of my review writing on RandomBuzzers.com (where you have to give a rating), I've just always included them. Now that I've been blogging for some time, I still could not imagine reviewing a book without giving a rating. A rating is a review in and of itself, in my opinion. When I read other blogger's reviews, I always look for the rating first because it's an honest reflection of where that book stands in the reviewers mind. I can write a lovely review for a book, but give it only 3 stars. Even though it was an enjoyable book, it just wasn't a great book. That's where the rating comes in handy, differentiating between the entertaining and the simply fabulous. There isn't always a big difference between a four star and a five star review, but there's a big difference between a four star and five star book."
-Jessica of Chick Lit Teens

As someone who worries that I sometimes conveys a lot of praise for a book that was merely enjoyable as opposed to WOW!, Jessica kind of makes me want to change the way I do things. I will say that if I only enjoyed a book but wasn’t jumping up and down over it, I try to convey that in my reviews (I realize try might be the operative word here). However, I totally agree that there is a big difference between a four and a five star book, and I think for me the four star books are the ones where, while I may not have anything negative to say about it, I just didn’t love it whereas five star books are the ones where I fall head over heels in love and am still thinking about it weeks later. Jen of The Introverted Reader says she pays particularly close attention to 5 star reviews, because she might find something worth reading. Gail of Ticket to Anywhere eloquently points out that ratings can give her an idea of how much others enjoyed a book, while still keeping distance between her and spoilers.

“I don't like to read reviews of books that I haven't read yet as reviews tend to spoil me. With a rating I can get a quick snap shot feel of how the blogger thought about the book. Then later on I can go back and read their full thoughts. Too often I've found that the reviewers who don't have a rating system end up spoiling the book for me in their reviews. Yes that happens with those who rate as well....but it just seems to happen more in the ones who don't.”
-Gail of Ticket to Anywhere

I think this is especially true in a circumstance like the one I’ve been in lately: my Google Reader has been filled with reviews of Linger by Maggie Stiefvater, but I don’t want to check them out because I’m still reading Shiver, which is its prequel. However, it seems that based on the ratings I’m seeing I’ve gotten the sense that people are enjoying it.

I've also seen rating systems that touch on multiple aspects of a novel. For example, Kristi of The Story Siren, gives the Plot, Characters, Ending, Writing and Cover each their own individual rating, but she also gives an individual rating, and says that the Overall rating is the best way to find out how much she enjoyed reading a book.

"I don't add my ratings up to come up with an overall rating. My overall rating is basically the equivalent of how much I enjoyed reading it. A book can be poorly written and have a predictable plot, but if I still enjoyed reading it, I might give it an overall rating of a four or five yet give the writing and plot, one star."
-Kristi of The Story Siren

I totally agree with this reasoning. I read the Gossip Girl series by Cecily von Ziegesar and while I don’t particularly care for how they’re written, I’ve given most of them four or five stars on Goodreads because I think they make awesome guilty pleasure reads. Some bloggers, such as Melina of Reading Vacation, have set up lovely personalized rating systems: Melina looks at Plot, Characters, Attention Grabbing, Girlie Meter and Ending. I love Melina’s system because it’s unique to her tastes: while not every other blogger would rate on girliness, it’s important to her, and I think it’s awesome that she’s so frank about what she looks for.

And then there’s people like me, where you have to hunt us down on GoodReads to find out how we rated a book. I give a book a star rating when I’m on GoodReads, but to be honest, I occasionally feel a little reluctant to do so. The truth be told, I find it challenging to use some kind of numerical scale to convey how much I liked or disliked or a book. For example, no blog I’ve seen that has a multi-faceted system has a category for “experience” which is a hard thing to rate, but can also be really important to one’s impression of a book. Like I remember reading The Hunger Games and knowing that I should have been working on a paper but unable to put it down, or the feelings of my stomach flipping throughout Before I Fall. While some of the previously mentioned bloggers have talked about a rating as a snapshot, I know some other people who realize that ratings can lead to people jumping to conclusions.

"Everyone spends a lot of time writing their book reviews, but I think a lot of people are often in a hurry to get through their Google Readers and tend to just skip to the rating to see if the reviewer enjoyed the book in question. I might rate a book just 2 or 3 stars on Goodreads, but that doesn't mean the book isn't good. I might have a specific reason not to like it that wouldn't affect someone else. I don't want someone to look at my rating, see it isn't a 5, and assume there is something horribly wrong with the book. I like to explain my reasons for liking/not liking in more detail."
-Allison The Allure of Books

I think what Allison talks about here is the idea of telling vs. showing. As an English major, when I wrote a paper, my goal was not just to tell my professor, that my thesis is right, but to show them, perhaps by using textual evidence. Misty of Book Rat expresses many ideas which are similar to Allison’s, but also points out that her ratings of books are subject to change.

"I change my ratings after having mulled it over. I may initially rate something higher and then have it fade quickly and the rating then changes, even though the review doesn't. The opposite, too: I may rate something lower and then have it really stick with me, or like it more a second reading, and this bumps up the rating."
-Misty of Book Rat

I totally agree with Misty here. There are some books that I’d like to re-read for the sake of forming my coherent opinions about them. Sometimes I’ll be surprised that a book is still fresh in my mind six months after reading it or vice versa. Just because I rate a book on GoodReads doesn't mean that it's set in stone.

My point in writing this post is that when it comes to book ratings, there isn’t a right or wrong way of doing things. Every technique has its ups and downs, and I've simply set out to explore why bloggers might choose to do things a certain way, primarily out of curiosity and for the sake of contemplation. I've learned that different things work for every blog writer and every blog reader. I like how I post my reviews, and the responses I’ve gotten from others whose tastes are similar to mine. Plus, I think people should post whatever and however they want on their blogs. I’d love to hear what you all think about ratings, so feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

11 comments:

  1. I tend to skim reviews and appreciate a good rating system. Personally, I use an actual number and letter grade (like 93/A or whatever). One, it gives me a little more wiggle room: a book may be an "A" book but it can be an A+ book or an A- book. Two, I'm used to grading kids' papers so it was a logical system for me.

    However, I love your reviews and don't feel they're missing anything just because you don't rate them along with your review. I say, do what feels right for you! :)

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  2. Great post---it seems like there are as many ways to rate books as there are books and blogs. I don't do a rating either (except, like you, on GoodReads) because I want the review/recommendation to stand for itself. I also feel like my own thoughts on books are so complicated that I have a hard to boiling it down to a single number. (As an English teacher this is why I also have a hard time giving grades). People should, of course, do whatever they're comfortable with, and I'm personally glad to see so much variety.

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  3. Liz, It's interesting to see how we all do our ratings differently. You did such a good job putting this all together. Thank you for including me.

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  4. Thanks for this thoughtful, timely, and well-researched post. I've thought about ratings before, and as someone who occasionally consults GoodReads to get the skinny on books, I get puzzled when some get a glowing review but only, say, three stars.

    I wish that reviewers would push themselves to identify what makes a book "enjoyable" but not "great," to quote one of your sources. It would be more helpful to me as a reader, and, at the risk of revealing the English teacher side of myself, I wonder if it would help them develop as critics, too.

    On a side note, I too love Melina's Girlie Meter ranking! Since so many bloggers are writing for themselves, and not an official publication, it absolutely makes sense for them to reveal their hands about their tastes. It helps readers know their reviewer and builds reviewer credibility!

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  5. Its interesting reading how people make ratings. I know when i rate a book many factors go into it. For me a 5 star book is one where it had everything. Kept my interest, great plot and characters, and generally a re-reader. A five star from me is very rare mostly because i'm a picky reader. Therefore those books that receive one are rare, but usually mean i praise them to the high heavens.

    Most books i like get a 3-4 star rating. Usually this means i had a problem with something in it. It could be that the plot wasn't that well done, didn't like a character or two, lost interest, or it was merely an "ok" book. Most books i read fall in these categories. A book may keep my interest, but it still can end up as a 3/4 star if i have an issue with it.

    A 2 star rating means that i found the book bad, but it may be redeemable to some readers. A 1 star generally means that "an innocent tree died to make this worthless piece of literature". A one star is just as rare as a 5 star, but i have given them out. These are the books that i usually have major issues with and spend a lot of time telling people why not to read them. The most notable for me is the "Twilight" series. The whole series were one stars for me.

    Melissa

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  6. I'm of mixed opinions on ratings, I'm not a huge fan of reviews that don't have any rating system at all, but I still read them. The reasons I'm for them is I'm a skimmer. Also, if someone gives a book a bad rating and I was really looking forward to that book, I'll read their whole review because it sparks my interest. Or if someone rates a book differently than I would have, I'll read the review. For me, the ratingis an attention grabber. However, if there is no rating I usually read the first few lines of a review and find out the reviewer's thoughts there. One system I saw that I really liked, was a site that sort of gave rating, and sort of didn't. They wrote their ratings in words. So i could look at their initial thoughts, what they thought of the plot, etc. without having to look at the whole review. Genius idea! So, as a reader, I love ratings. As a reviewer, not as much because I'm always torn between a higher rating or a lower rating. So, I guess I like ratings and I hate them. But overall, it's not going to stop me from reading a review if they don't have a rating. Awesome post!

    - Amanda at The Mortal's Library

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  7. Love the way you phrased everything, Liz! And of course, thanks for quoting me :)

    Like you said, both points of view make a lot of sense, I definitely agree with everything Jessica, Gail etc. said. Definitely food for thought.

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  8. I don't rate books in my reviews. Like you, I only put 'ratings' on GoodReads (or Facebook's Visual Bookshelf). When I write a review, I do it without spoilers, and I try to highlight what worked and didn't work for me. If another person reads something that I didn't like, but thinks that they're interested in it, I don't want to dissuade them by stamping a 2 or 3 star rating on it.

    Also, I have a certain dislike of judging in general. Coming from a Marching Band background, where judges supposedly ticked you off for imperfections, I find scores and ratings to be personal preferences hiding behind an impersonal system.

    Plus, there's comparing to do. I might LOVE a book, and would give it 5 stars, yet it doesn't rate as high as another 5 star book. What then? Do you change to a 10-point scale? 20? 100? And what if the main reason you didn't enjoy it was because you were going through a bad time? A numeric rating doesn't encompass that at all.

    So, since I'm slightly obsessed with perfection, I'd rather come right out and state that my review is my opinion and use the more personable tool of language, than the empirical one of numbers.

    All that being said, I don't fault others for using a scale. But I don't ever stop at the rating. If anything, low ratings always spark my curiosity.

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  9. I'd just like to say thanks for to everyone for sharing your thoughts in the comments! Unfortunately, and I think especially after writing this post, that ratings are something I will almost always feel conflicted about.

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  10. Very thoughtful, well-written post with great answers from everyone! I especially agree with what Gail said. I'll read one review of a new-to-me book, and if it goes on my tbr list, I won't read anymore; I don't want to let those other reviews subconsciously influence my own. I will sneak a peek at ratings though.

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  11. Thanks for writing this -- it's so interesting. My own rating system is more like a "rubric" than star rating, which I love because it lets me rate each individual element of a book and is so much more objective/in-depth.

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