Discussing Ratings & Reviews


I’ve noticed that many people don’t use the full spectrum when rating; in fact most use about half: 5/5, 4/5, and the rare 3/5. And I can understand why. Growing up, most of us attended classes where we were graded on a scale of 1 to 100, but everything below a 60 was simply labeled F. I also think there’s a very real concern about “being mean”. Many of us know how hard it can be to toil away for months or even years, only to see our work rejected.

But it’s also true that ratings themselves are a convention, a system of meaning that we’ve created, and where the 100% system uses approximately 40 distinct values, most rating systems only offer 5 (10 if they allow for halves). Instead, I like to treat the 5 point system like the 4.0 system; clustering over half the spectrum (60%) into the lowest value (.5/5).

I agree that there are many stories out there that are so bad that we can lump them all together as “bad”, but if we’re going to all lump them together, why waste multiple values on them? Instead let’s use the whole spectrum. Granted, that’s not the current convention, but we can change that.

“I like” and/or “It’s good”

What does it mean when we give a story a high rating? Does a 4/5 mean that “I” as the reviewer like it, or am I suggesting that “most” would like it? Often the two are lumped together, but I think it’s an important distinction to make. I may not like The Great Gatsby, but I can recognize it as a well written piece of literature. So where does that leave us?

I like to average the two. If I really enjoy a story, but I feel it has significant shortcomings, then I try to incorporate that into my rating.

Taken another way there are:

  1. Specific Recommendations: For someone who wants a story with a specific focus, whether it’s traveling in a fantasy setting, or the daily routines and details of life in space.
  2. Sub-genre Recommendations: For someone who wants a specific type of fantasy, science fiction, or horror. Perhaps it’s a grim and harsh medieval narrative, where ruthless politics win the day; or a safe story, where heroes are rewarded and villains suffer a terrible fate. It could be the difference between a challenging, philosophical tale, and an easy adventure story.
  3. Genre Recommendations: For someone who just wants a fantasy, or a scifi, or a horror.
  4. General Recommendations: For someone who just wants quality stories, regardless of the genre, tone, or style.

But Why?

Ratings are very useful, but by themselves they tell us very little. Everyone is biased; every story has strengths and weaknesses. Even the choice to label something as a strength or weakness is very subjective. One fan may praise Jane Austen’s stories for their relationship driven narratives, while another might find fault with the slow pacing, and the lack of life-or-death consequences.

Citing the strengths and weaknesses in a review helps audiences understand why the reviewer gave a specific rating. It gives the reviewer credibility by demonstrating that this isn’t a simple rave or rant, fueled by passionate emotions. The reviewer carefully thought through why they liked or didn’t like the story, hopefully recognizing their own bias in the process.

I once read a review for a series called Kino’s Journey, where the critic described it as “incredibly slow”, “almost no action”, and “very little character development”, and I don’t disagree. The story is a minimalist, idea focused journey, ideal for those times when I want to slow down, relax, and just drift.

Depending on my mood I may crave a harsh story, tolerate it, or skip it in favor of something more mellow. It all comes back to why, and the reality that no story can do it all.

Agree to Disagree

It’s easy to become invested in stories; they stir our hearts and inspire our minds, never mind the time spent composing our own. So it’s understandable if someone becomes frustrated when they read a bad review besmirching one of their favorite stories. But that’s not the way to interpret a bad review.

As a reader I like to treat reviews like a discussion; here are someone else’s thoughts and opinions on a story. If I haven’t experienced the story yet, then this review can help me decide whether this is the story I’m looking for right now. If I have experienced the story, then this is a great opportunity to see it in a whole new light.

As an author it can be even harder to see bad reviews in a positive light, but part of storytelling is a never-ending journey of discovery and growth. Every review is a free piece of constructive feedback from someone who chose to experience your story.

I once attended a writing panel where several professionals from a publishing house discussed the business side of writing, and right out of the gate I was struck by how incredibly ornery they all were. It was only gradually that I realized they were frustrated because they had spent many years honestly offering constructive criticism, only to receive angry denials in return.

It may be that some negative reviews speak from a place of hostility, but any time someone chooses to respond, that’s an opportunity to learn, and if nothing else you can always calmly say “I disagree,” and leave it at that.

What do others think?
How do you approach ratings and reviews?

Use Discussion to see other topics.

10 thoughts on “Discussing Ratings & Reviews

  1. This is kind of why I don’t use a rating system on my blog. I do rate stuff I watch on Crunchyroll though my average rating is three stars and is the this was watchable but not particularly special.
    When I read reviews others have written, I seldom look at what ‘rating’ they’ve given whether it be stars or out of ten or whatever else. As you said, the reasons why, what they liked and disliked, found good or bad, is more interesting and useful than an arbitarily assigned rating.

  2. I do use an out-of-ten rating system for my reviews and honestly, the numbers on them are based on my subjective enjoyment rather than anything else. And even though I do use it, I often feel like assigning numbers are too vague to really capture the effect of the show in question.

    I guess that’s why I find the text accompanying the rating to be more important whether it’s my own reviews or that of others.

  3. I admit that many of my reviews have scores of three stars and higher. The reason for that is that if I don’t like something I’ll stop playing/watching it. Unless I finish the game/series I can’t give it a fair review so I don’t bother. Maybe someday someone will pay be to review and I will have the financial obligation to stick with bad stuff to the end.

  4. I tend to shy away from doing reviews. I feel like some aspects of story are so subjective that my review is really only going to apply to folks who think like me. At the same time, I know I find reviews by folks with similar taste to mine to be helpful when deciding whether I want to read or watch something. My biggest issue is probably that I loathe to do negative reviews. I prefer to trumpet the positive and be gentle about the negative. This probably isn’t super helpful for folks looking for criticial, serious reviews.

    • I think we all have our own style, which is part of what makes this so interesting. I often prefer to read reviews of things I’ve already read, seen, or played, comparing their ideas to my own. If I am looking for guidance on something I’m unfamiliar with, I rarely stop with just 1 or 2 reviews.
      As long as there’s a good variety, people will find what they’re looking for.

  5. I very much enjoy the system that Destructoid (a gaming blog) uses in their reviews. It’s a simple 1-10, but they give a thorough and reasonably objective explanation for what each number generally means. They have their guide posted for anyone to reference as they desire.

    For book reviews, I personally dropped ratings and just do a short Pro/Con list of what I did and did not like. Totally subjective, but I try to back up my opinions with constructive arguments.

    Great post BTW!

    • Thank you. I’ll have to check out Destructoid.

      I definitely agree that the whys, the pros and cons, say a lot more than the number, but I think I still like the idea of a ranking system. I like the idea of asking myself “what stories would I put on the same shelf as this one?”

      For example, I’m currently working on a review of the last Dune book, Chapterhouse, and one of the questions for me was “Do I think this is stronger than Heretics of Dune, or Dune Messiah?”

      I also think it’s really interesting to consider in light of how different two stories can be. Lord of the Rings is an epic fantasy, while Coraline is a quick little novella about a young girl and her neighbors, but I consider them both very strong stories.

      As you say, it’s very subjective, and, much like the stories themselves, it’s fun to experience the personal styles of different reviewers.

      Thank you again. 🙂

  6. Very interesting post, Adam. I love your different ways of approaching “recommendations” and will keep that in mind. It’s a little harder to wade through the “to review or not to review” decision as an author. This is partly because I have a hard time turning off the picky “inner critiquer,” which most readers don’t have chattering in their heads, and partly because as a writer, I feel sensitive about my professional persona and don’t want to trash my peers. Right or wrong, I only post 4 and 5 star reviews, which means quite a few books I read don’t get reviewed. I will give a well-written book a positive review even if its not a genre or style that I personally enjoy. I’ll post it on my blog and give it a bit of fanfare if the inner critiquer enjoyed the book as much as I did. 😀 Excellent, thought-provoking post.

    • Thank you. I also wrestle with the dilemma of kindness vs honesty. There’s no denying that it’s tricky, though hopefully people read the review, and recognize the whys behind the rank/score. At the end of the day I also don’t like being restricted to such a narrow margin of the score range.

      I definitely agree that there’s “the me who likes to read for fun”, and “the me who strives to write strong stories.” I frequently love a story when I’m experiencing it for the first time, and only gradually recognize that there are weak points I’m overlooking. I think one of the more difficult tasks is simultaneously hating a story, and recognizing that it’s one of the more well written novels out there, which itself is a very interesting combination of statements, leading right back to the question of “what does a good/bad score mean?”

      Definitely an interest topic, and one that has no definitive answers; only our personal opinions in this moment.

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