Elements of a Good Review 1: Book Reports and Body Parts Suck


Recently, someone asked me how I review. Do I use a formulaic approach? Is it an OWL-Perdue thing? And the painful part, why do most of my reviews end up as four and five star ratings? Am I just some polyanna-ish happy factory?


Here it is. But before I get into the noble gases of this thing, I have to warn you: my technique is not a conventional, collegiate-based review system and will lead to terrible marks if applied to a standard college lit class. There. If you do try anyway, let me know how it works out.

So first, what I DON’T do.

Summaries. Spoilers. A CliffsNotes play-by-play and how I felt about each by-play. I see so many reviews written in standard book report format on Goodreads and Amazon, but what’s the point? Writers and publishers already work hard at creating strong cover copy for that very reason. Imagine how hard it was to boil down the original Lord of the Rings into something concise enough to fit on the back of a trade paperback, yet with the intrigue to attract an audience. So why revisit what’s already on the book? What’s more, if I read a complete mini-synopsis of a book, chances are I won’t buy it because the review just sucked the fun out of it for me.

My reviews rarely have anything to do with nitpicky details about what happens in the story. I like to address the guts of it. From Voice to Originality. Mechanics. Craft. The only thing I don’t hold a writer hostage over is theme, but if they do a bang up job of a solid theme, I use it to counterbalance weaker areas.

Now. What I do. The CS Nelson Autopsy.

Voice-Character-Clunk-Setting-Theme-Dialogue-Plot-Originality …or, “VoCl Characters Set The DiaBolical PlottOr”

I despise acronyms thanks to my day job, but this one works for me. I use an 8-point, Go/ No-Go system with two major elements and six minor ones, plus a floating Theme bonus. As I read, I highlight points in a story that reflect the writer’s command of each part of the craft and plug them into an Element-Value matrix at the end. Here is the breakdown:


Notice how Voice and Clunk have higher values? Each is equivalent to one-star. The rest are a half value. In other words, if a story has a curvy, twist-a-plot frame about hot dialogue between warm bodies in a sensual setting… but no sultry voice and yappety over-done prose, it still ain’t sexy. It talks too much. But it is a three-star, and if this monotone romp-writer at least sticks with a solid theme of say, “love over the need to be wanted,” or “animal urges amongst parakeets,” then that’s a bonus half star and I take a hard look to see if I can’t squeeze a little more out of it. Now, if it’s suffering in all areas and has great Voice with zero Clunk, chances are there will be enough of the other elements present to forgive some of the downfalls.

Finally, I don’t write like this. I wish I did. The reviews on my site are from people I admire. Which brings me to the nagging question as to why I don’t sling two-star reviews or lower: 1) Because if it was that bad, I probably didn’t even finish the thing! But what I will do, is 2) send my opinion to the writer directly. I believe most people have the ability to write a story. Where they fail is in feedback, albeit because they shy from rejection, or they’re coddled. Some writers swim in pleasant social ponds where readers/friends are going to love anything that writer cranks out.

If a person has a story to tell, I would rather see them bring it to life than cut their legs at the gate the way so many reviewers do… which also seems to be a writing trend. People really enjoy trashing a person’s hard work as flamboyantly as possible. Body parts have been named after those precious little piranhas.

Thanks for reading. Over the next few weeks I’ll go into each element individually, citing examples of what turns me on and what doesn’t work so well. Until then, whether you are a reader or a writer, READ!



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1 Response to Elements of a Good Review 1: Book Reports and Body Parts Suck

  1. Pingback: Elements of a Good Review 2: Voice, Verbosity, and Gettin They Clunk On | Author CS Nelson

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