I’d previously discussed my many frustrations with the default 5-star rating system, and even done some preliminary “research” into upgrades and alternatives. But I was so used to assigning one convenient — if somewhat arbitrary — number and channeling the details and qualifications into my review. Change is hard.
Then Bookending Summer came around, so it was easy to add it to my Tidyathon list … and never actually sit down to create a new rating system. (I didn’t get around to most of my Tidyathon to-dos; we’re only tackling one of them in this post.)
Actually, I’d almost forgotten that this was something I wanted to do, until I checked my post schedule and saw that this one was coming up. So in true student fashion, I procrastinated then wrote this under deadline pressure; I don’t expect the product to be perfect, it’s a process.
(This was supposed to be up yesterday so I’ve backdated it; my wifi went out and I wasn’t able to get it posted as planned.)
The Research Phase
Naturally, I started with the 5-star Goodreads system that I already use, which progresses through “did not like it” (1 star), “it was ok” (2 stars), “liked it” (3 stars), “really liked it” (4 stars), “it was amazing” (5 stars). It works fine as a quick, convenient shorthand — until I don’t know how I feel about a book, or I’m stuck between ratings.
One of the first alternatives I found was CAWPILE, which stands for Characters, Atmosphere, Writing Style, Plot, Intrigue, Logic, Enjoyment. Each category is rated from 1-10, then you find the average and the corresponding 5-star rating (predetermined values).
Just to be thorough, I also took a look at the categories listed on Edelweiss — writing quality, image / illustration quality, character development, “couldn’t put it down”-ness, intellectual depth, originality (with each one being optional, scored out of ten) — and Book Sloth — “amazing story,” “incredible worldbuilding,” “great writing style,” “awesome characters,” “perfect romance,” “wonderful perspective,” “beautiful artwork,” “powerful struggle,” “insightful & informative,” “inspiring,” “practical approach,” “useful & educational” (select all that apply).
I briefly considered a quantitative system of symbols, like Mandy @ Book Princess Reviews. But I’m still figuring out a brand for this blog, and I thought of so many possible combinations of the above categories, that this option just seemed like too much work for me, at least for now.
Finally, while I appreciate CW @ The Quiet Pond‘s recommendation scale (from Highly Recommended to Not Recommended, including Not For Us, But Maybe For You), I don’t think it would work for me since my ratings and reviews are intended primarily for my own reference — of course I don’t mind sharing them and I’m always glad when y’all find them helpful, but I still write them for myself first and foremost.
My Thought Process
One of the major reasons I didn’t just adopt the CAWPILE system is that I wanted customized optional and weighted categories since not every aspect of a book has equal impact on my reading experience; some elements are strong in some books and nonexistent in others.
So I went back through my reviews and reading notes to see which elements appeared most frequently and most powerfully. A lot of them are already included in the review systems I referenced, in one form or another, but I came up with a few more and combined some overlapping ones.
I also knew that I didn’t want to make it too complicated; at the end of the day, the rating is just a data point and most of my thoughts about a book still go into the review. And I didn’t want to have to pull out a calculator every time I finished a book.
- Prose: Since I’m a writer myself, I pay quite a bit of attention to the actual words and sentences on the page. Full score means I could pull any random passage and it would be a lovely quote; however, plain / invisible and functional has its own charm and also scores pretty high. (This category includes all the technical aspects, including dialogue and descriptions.)
- Characters & Relationships: I agree with every author and philosopher who’s pointed out how much we’re defined and influenced by our engagement with other people, so for me these categories are inextricably linked. High scores indicate nuanced and believable portrayals.
- Emotional Engagement: This is my “je ne sais quoi” factor — sometimes I can’t articulate what it is exactly that makes a book resonate (or fail to resonate) with me. But if I teared up or took a pause to feel all the feelings, that’s a pretty good sign.
- Development / Flow: Primarily, this category accounts for pacing and believability; sometimes a twist is too abrupt and/or stretches my suspension of disbelief to breaking point. This score also reflects how engaging and satisfying I find the opening and ending scenes.
- Setting: Even in realistic fiction (if that’s a term we still use; I haven’t seen it much lately), I want to be immersed in the worldbuilding. I want to want to explore the main character’s life, whether it takes place in a magical empire or ordinary high school.
- Diversity & Social Themes: This is important to me, but it doesn’t seem fair to penalize every book that overlooks it (especially for backlist books) since publishing as an industry still has a long way to go.
- Intellectual Impact: I’m not generally a fan of internal monologues about what it means to be human / good / moral, though I respect commercial fiction’s propensity for what I call unsubtle philosophizing. For the rare read that makes me stop and think for myself, I want to acknowledge that insightfulness.
- Originality / Trope Execution: A well-executed trope can be just as powerful as a totally original twist, though plenty of narratives have neither and do just fine.
- Rereadability: Once in a while, I finish a book and immediately want to start over from the beginning, or I know that I’ll want to revisit it after some time has passed. Often but not always, these are comfort reads.
- Memorability: There are some stories that I just can’t stop thinking about, whether or not I’m interested in actually rereading them anytime soon.
Conversion & Rounding
My major categories are scored out of 10, because a) I wanted to weight them against optional categories (scored out of 5), and b) a book doesn’t have to be perfect in every category to receive 5 stars.
But since that makes the numbers a little wonky, I’ve decided to average the scores separately then add them together for a final score out of 15. (If I didn’t use any of my optional categories, I’ll just add 3 to the average of the first set.)
It’ll take some more trial and error to solidify my conversion scale, but based on my preliminary calibration I’m starting with the following:
1 star = 0 – 3
1.5 stars = 3.1 – 4.5
2 stars = 4.6 – 6
2.5 stars = 6.1 – 7.5
3 stars = 7.6 – 9
3.5 stars = 9.1 – 10.5
4 stars = 10.6 – 12
4.5 stars = 12.1 – 13.5
5 stars = 13.6 – 15
I have a few reviews already scheduled, which still use the arbitrary 5-flame system; I decided not to update them, or to go back and try to “fix” my existing reviews. As I’ve already mentioned, this post was kind of haphazardly thrown together, so I anticipate some tweaking will be necessary.
But reviews that I write and post from here on out will include my category scores as well as the final rating (or, for DNFs, I’ll score the relevant categories up to where I stopped without averaging them). And if I reread a book, I’ll update the rating using my new system.
Do you use the 5-star (or -cup, -flame, etc.) system, and if so, do you give half- or even quarter-stars? What criteria do you use when deciding your rating — or do you rate based on your overall enjoyment?