What Makes a Review Good?

For this post, here's one given: a "good" review is one that contains information valuable to someone other than the reviewer.

Which means that "I liked it" or "I didn't like it," as expressed by thumbs up or down, aren't helpful reviews.

For a positive example, here's a link to the YouTube channel (where you can find her playlists) of Cindy Guentert-Baldo, with some amazingly helpful reviews, if you're interested in various types of pens and planners. NB: she also has an awesome website, here.

Cindy is one of the most upfront, thoughtful reviewers I've run across (and I've been watching a lot of online reviews of various consumer and other products in the past year). Two qualities contribute to her success as a reviewer. First, Cindy knows herself. And second, she considers other perspectives.

Cindy is experienced in graphic design and hand-lettering. She is right-handed but she has a teenager who's a lefty (this makes a big difference when pens don't dry quickly). She's what she calls "heavy-handed," which apparently means she presses down heavily when writing (and probably grips pens tightly as well). She likes a pen you can cap with a satisfying click, and whose cap stays on the end when you're writing with it.

In relation to planners, she also has firm preferences. She is suspicious of overly complicated systems that dedicate multiple pages up front to specific "how to use this planner" content. She likes good-quality paper (and evaluates the extent to which pens ghost or bleed through). In a pre-printed planner, she prefers neutral colors or monochromatic color schemes, so that she can add colors herself.

She shares her preferences with her viewers. She also acknowledges that her personality isn't for everyone--she's "salty," as the kids say.

AND AND AND: she recognizes that PEOPLE ARE DIFFERENT, and she addresses their needs. For example, she will say
* that a particular set of pens is too expensive to recommend to beginners because these three brands have the same colors and are half the cost
* that a particular planner is too difficult to find online for her to recommend but if you can wait a month to receive it, it might be worth the wait
* that a particular product is pricey overall, and you can get most of these features in a product that's always available (and oh by the way, some chain/craft stores have coupons every single day)
* that although she didn't use the goal-setting pages in a particular planner, they might be useful for someone who's newer to goal-setting
* that some pens are fine for watercolour projects, when you might not be in a hurry, but would be horrible if you're trying to do quick lettering or just write something in a notebook.

BUT WAIT, there's more. Cindy KNOWS the MARKET. She evaluates pens in a (yearly?) Thunderdome, pitting pen against pen in several categories. She tries planners. Lots and lots of planners. The kind that start in July, the kind that are undated, the kind that "everybody" knows about, the kind that fewer consumers know about. The kind that are "just notebooks," not that anybody uses "just notebooks" these days.

When I apply these qualities of her helpful reviews to books, I can see why so many book reviews irritated me to the point that I stopped reading them. (Besides telling me too much plot, sheesh.) Reviewers often seem unaware of what they like (astonishing)--it's fine to prefer wordplay to a book whose plot includes with a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter, but you should know and disclose that you go into a reading experience with that bias. Instead, I found that reviewers express their preferences in terms of absolutes--for example, "this book is tedious and bad because every chapter ends with a cliffhanger." Well, how about "if you don't like books with lots of cliffhangers, this won't be for you"? Because I MIGHT BE DIFFERENT (sorry for the shouting).

Sure, various retailers and book-sharing sites try to use an algorithm, some "if you liked that, try this" thing. But their algorithm doesn't work well for me; it apparently includes sales or bestseller lists.

Instead, I find my personal knowledge of individual readers to be a better predictor for me. For example, I know of two people who loathed the book that was my favorite of this past year. They also both (independently) hated one of my faves from a few years back, and one of them has given up altogether on a writer whose work I adore. All of which I find fascinating, because I consider both of them to be discerning and thoughtful readers.

So: I'm not a good reviewer of books. I'm not interested in today's market enough to carefully and correctly place a book in its place among others published in recent years. I'm not well-enough-read to have a decades-old landscape of historical work in which to place today's books. I am grateful for creators for going through the process of creating, and to publishing companies for making them widely available. And to libraries for making it possible for me to read things I don't have to buy.

But I still love me a good review, of almost anything other than books. I have a fun new notebook for the new year. And I know what set of drawing pens I'm going to buy tomorrow--thanks to Cindy.