Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Essay: Ratings: Who Needs Them?

Every Wednesday, I'll have an essay or a feature on any topic that catches my fancy!

In this week's book review, Jeff Vandermeer commented that I probably don't need ratings for my book reviews. Personally, ratings are this double-edged sword.

On one hand, ratings are a slippery slope that in certain ways, encourages lazy reading at the very least and lazy writing at the most. Sometimes, people pay too much attention to the ratings instead of the actual review, just like how some parents might look at their child's report card and gauge their kid based on grades alone rather than what he/she actually learned or his/her actual experiences in school.

I work for a music magazine and a few years ago, our reviews editor got a lot of flack and threatening phone calls from the bands and musicians she was reviewing. A lot of it boiled down to the actual ratings rather than the content of the review (which is usually a mixed bag and filled with constructive qualifications).

As a reader, especially when you're in a rush, there's a tendency to skip reading the review and simply focus on the ratings, in much the same way that some people read the headlines of newspapers and nothing else. It's certainly a bad habit but one that society doesn't seem too concerned chastising out of us.

Competent writers put a lot of thought into their ratings (and if there's anything I've learned using ratings, it's to identify to readers what each score means--a 2 out of 4 for example conveys different meanings to different people) although in retrospect, is there really something a score can convey that the actual review can't? I honestly think there are times when I'm depending too much on the ratings of my reviews to inform something to the reader that's not present in the text. As a writer, that's horrible: I should be able to elaborate and be concise--at least if words are going to be my medium of expression.

Once, during an editorial meeting, some of our staff proposed getting rid of ratings in the magazine's reviews. But it quickly got shut down by our publisher. Ratings are a sacred cow. And perhaps more importantly, it's "fun" for our readers. It's something they look forward to and I have a sneaking suspicion that there are more rating-readers than review-readers.

From a marketing standpoint, ratings are quite effective in selling stories to readers. Again, part of it is its visual appeal: one merely needs to glance at a rating instead of reading the entire review to grasp how the author feels about a particular subject. When I started my blog, it was a conscious decision on my part to include ratings to help draw in readers.

A lot of book review sites that I respect such as Strange Horizons or The Fix don't use ratings. Maybe it's time I drop them as well. As far as writing book reviews go, it'll help me hone my skills. As for my blog readership, I'd like to think you're the type to read the actual review (whether you agree with my review or not is another matter).

So, what do you think of ratings?

1 comment:

Jesse Willis said...

SFFaudio, of course doesn't use ratings (although we do have one blogger who posts his stuff on SFFaudio for his reviews with a score out of 10).

This was a conscious decision when we started the blog. But later we decided to add an "Essential" designation to the outstanding audiobooks and audio dramas.

I think this works out pretty well, and for much the same reason you've decided to drop ratings too. :)