Assigning Stars to Books I’ve Read


After I started transferring my memoir reviews over to Goodreads, I had to go through another critiquing process: assigning the number of stars to each book. What goes into that analysis is different from writing a review. A review focuses on all the ways the reader (the reviewer) reacts to and interacts with a book. I can love the experience of reading a book without thinking that overall the book deserves the highest score possible, 5 stars.

Also, there are books I want to give a 4.5, but I don’t know how to do that. Do you have to assign a 4 or a 5? No halves?

And what does a 5 mean? Does it always mean that I think the book is the most engaging story? Not necessarily because some books aren’t about the narrative. Does it mean that the book has the most literate, well-crafted sentences? Often times it does mean that. But not always. I am using 5 stars to mean a book that I can see myself reading again, should the occasion arise. And a book I can advise others to read, without qualification.

It kind of astonishes me how stingy some people are when they assign stars to books on Goodreads. I suspect those people have never written anything themselves ;).

Here are some unexpected stars in nature:

And here:

Speaking of book reviews, I plan on writing one for Julia Scheeres’ memoir Jesus Land in the near future.

This winter I will complete my tutorial in the Stanford program. In the tutorial I will be working with an instructor who will read my whole book draft (the memoir) and give me feedback for revision. Researching the Stanford instructors I realized that I so wanted to work with Julia Scheeres, especially after I read her Jesus Land.  Oh, what a book! Imagine my excitement when I got the email saying that my request had been approved and that I get to work with Ms. Scheeres this winter!

But I have to go work on my draft which needs another year’s worth of work before it’s ready. And I only have until the end of December. Good thing we’re not having our Thanksgiving dinner today. Pumpkin pie Saturday!



Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Editing, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing, Writing goals

53 responses to “Assigning Stars to Books I’ve Read

  1. Mom

    O I hate the stars…They are so–pardon the pun–to the point. I’d much rather read and review and analyze and perhaps excuse…but…well, I guess you just can’t do without them and their friends (or lack there of 🙁 ) Happy Thanksgiving Lu!

    • Yeah, the stars really do force everything down to that one point. And books are so much more than that. I wonder if you can do reviews and not do the stars. Is that possible. You, too, Mom: Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. I’m not a fan of the stars, they don’t really tell me anything.
    Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family, Luanne! xo

    • Exactly. I was just asking Mom above if there is a way to do a review without the stars. Is that possible, I wonder . . . Happy Thanksgiving, Jill! xo

  3. I won’t review books I can’t give at least three stars for, because I can’t recommend them. I get uncomfortable around a three. I can most often find something nice to say about every book I read, even the ones that might not be up my alley…maybe they are right up someone else’s. I usually score fours and fives but make mention of anything that might have bothered me personally, even slightly. If I think it is super stellar, I will say so in the review. That’s how how I mentally process the stars. Like Jill said…stars don’t really yell you anything and they can be horribly detrimental to writers when they are low and yet, amazingly beneficial when they are above three.

    • That’s a good policy, I think. Why leave a 1 or a 2? Honestly, I have barely read any books that I would even think of a one or two star rating for. Mostly, by the time a book gets in my hands, it’s at least a 3. Except for maybe “Little Men” by Louisa May Alcott. That’s a 2, although if you’re reading it with the others in the series the it feels higher. From what you are saying, SK, it sounds like those little stars have WAY too much power!!! Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. Happy Thanksgiving Luanne! Have a 5 Star day and weekend!

  5. Stars, stars, stars…my kingdom for lots of stars…movies, books, blogs…I’d probably be more of a fan if I got 5 every time I wrote something, but since that’s unlikely, I’ll have to rate them a 3. 🙂
    So happy for you to work with someone you admire this winter and hope the writing flows freely and with no grammatical errors!! 🙂
    I am thankful for you, Luanne…

    • Hahaha, maybe stars actually deserve a ONE rating, Sheila, from the sounds of things. They really minimize all the wonderful things about a book that might not be “perfect” (as if there were such a book). Thanks so much for your good thoughts and your nice comment, Sheila. You and Pretty and the furballs have a wonderful holiday!

  6. What a timely post as I have to write a book review for Andra Watkins’ new memoir and you raise a couple of things I hadn’t considered when ranking. More importantly, Luanne, I want to know your top 5 (ha!) favourites as I want to provide a book wish list to my family for Christmas!

    • Oh, nice! I can’t wait to read the review. Be sure to point me to it if you don’t post it on your blog. Hahaha, my top 5. Gee, I am awful at that. Every other book I read is my new favorite. Nevertheless, I will say that one of the most important books I’ve ever read was Harriet Arnow’s The Dollmaker (a novel). It spoke to me so clearly and personally. I think it’s an important book like To Kill a Mockingbird–and way too overlooked.

  7. And then there are the people who “pretend” to have read your book and give it one star and a nasty comment. When it is the only “one star” and “one line” review among the 4.5s and 5s, you know that person was just having a bad day (more like a bad life). But they do their damage.

    • This kind of thing scares me. One person can do that kind of damage to a book. Awful. Anneli, is it possible to leave a 4.5 on Goodreads? I tried to figure out how to do it and it wouldn’t “take.”

  8. As a book buyer & reader, I find the star system helpful ONLY if the reviewer leaves a decent explanation for his/her rating.

    In my personal favorites journal, I record only 4 & 5-star reads, and I have read my 5 stars over and over.

    • Ah good point, Sammy. Yes, what good is a star rating without knowing the rationale? After all, without support it could just be someone who hasn’t even read the book click click clicking! I love that you have a personal favorites journal! How cool is that! Is it an actual journal-journal or on the computer?

  9. I hope you and your family had a wonderful Thanksgiving, Luanne!

    You get five stars from me xxxxx

  10. Congratulations on getting your book to the point where it’s ready for revisions AND getting to work with the adviser of your choice, Luanne!

    With regard to Goodreads, I don’t understand how it works so I haven’t returned since my first visit. I’m always behind the curve on social media stuff. By the time I get to a platform, it’s pretty much on it’s way out. Watch out Twitter users – I’m headed your way!

    • Well, thank you re getting the advisor I wanted. I can’t say that the book will be ready. My answer to that is HAHAHAHAHAH.
      That’s pretty funny about you and social media. I know what you mean, though. Facebook is so much less than it used to be, for instance. Does anyone remember MySpace?

  11. Sounds great – congrats on getting the author you wanted!

    • Thanks, C. I am pretty excited to work with her, although I am feeling a lot of stress right now that I have 4 weeks left to prepare the so-not-done-draft.

  12. Happy Thanksgiving, Luanne! I wish you all the best with your memoir revision and upcoming tutorial; how exciting! I’ll be here cheering you on.

    • Thank you, Lynne, for all your kind wishes! Thank you so much. I am feeling like I particularly need the cheering on right now as I am kind of “paralyzed” into wondering how I can get anything done in such a short period of time.

  13. Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving, Luanne (or are you having it today?) I agree with Sammy that stars don’t mean much if there’s no review attached to them. Kind of like the The New York Times Best Seller lists: it’s the quantity of copies sold that gets a book on the list, not the quality of the writing. I’ve seen some reviewers give a 4-star review and then explain how they really wanted to give a 4.5 star and why. What bothers me is that 5 stars over at Goodreads (“it was amazing”) is somewhat different from 5 stars over at Amazon, but I always feel compelled to give a book the same number of stars at each site. I can love a book without thinking it was amazing. Oh, well. Ultimately what’s really important to the writer is the written review, stars be damned 😉

    • I did have it yesterday; you were right. So good! And my kids made most of the food–even better ;). Interesting: really? Is that true that the written review is more important? Everybody is always talking about stars so I assumed that was more important. I wish they would just get rid of the stars. To easy to screw things up for someone intentionally with a number system.

      • Hey, Luanne! Yeah, most of my writing friends feel that written reviews have more weight, at least with Amazon, than just star ratings. As a reader, I’m hesitant to buy a book by an unknown author unless someone has taken the time to write a review. Think about this, too: most reviews I read in print magazines and newspapers don’t give star ratings. The reviewer just shares his or her opinion and you make up your own mind whether you’ll buy the book. I agree with you: the number system can wreak havoc for an author.

        • Exactly! Can you imagine some big deal critic at a big newspaper, for instance, relying on stars instead of developing their skill at conveying all the important aspects to consider about a work? We need to start a petition :).

  14. The stars are so subjective. I personally enjoy reading the reviews to understand the reader’s perspective. Congrats on landing Julia Scheeres as your mentor!

    • Thanks, Rudri! I hope I can get something prepared to give her in time (anxiety flowing freely here right now). Yes, how can we ever know what the stars mean to someone else, even if they are honest about it?!

  15. Congratulations Luanne on getting the instructor you hoped for! well done! I have to agree with you – I think people are stingy with their stars or maybe just spiteful? Since most of my favourite (and most beautifully written) books have received 2 and 3 stars I don’t actually place any value on them anymore.

  16. I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving Luanne…thinking of you at this busy time! Just had my boys home (no Thanksgiving here in the UK, I miss it…) for middle son’s birthday and I made a pumpkin pie as well as cake. I must be nuts, haha 🙂

  17. I am so glad you put your reviews on Goodread. They are so considered and helpful. I’m glad others are having access to them.

    • Thanks, Ellen. I’m just getting the hang of things over there. It’s a little daunting–follows, likes, fans,etc. I don’t know the difference between any of these things!

  18. Luanne in the goodreads reviews Im not confident that the stars tell the true story, I mostly give a four start review but each book may have its good and bad points. So for me I don’t take much notice of the stars I read the review and get a better idea from that.

    • Kath, I just discovered that a friend’s very well written book had low stars and then that Nick Flynn’s amazing memoir had so-so stars and thought how unreliable the stars are. There is no meaning to them at all.

  19. Congratulations, Luanne! I am excited you were able to have Julia Sheeres for your assigned to help you edit and critique your memoir. What a wonderful surprise and gift!
    As far as reviews, I have seen 1/2 stars on other sources of reviews… I am one who would be starting a trend on GoodReads with those better reviews. I appreciate the effort that goes into the writing, more and more. I also am proud of your reading so many memoir reviews. I always seemed to have my eyes ‘peeled’ at the library for new memoir books to tell you about, but really should have left your searching up to your own. I would write them down, then feel guilty to burden you with adding another book on the pile you already had.
    I think reviews need to be individual, like yours always have been. You go with how you feel and you also are great at explaining what parts were good and which weren’t how you liked them to be. Almost always you have been able to find positives in every review. Good luck with this project, but won’t you be putting it on your back burner and getting down to the nuts and bolts of editing your memoir.

    • I apologize for this belated entry, Luanne…

      • No apologies, Robin :)! I too am behind, really behind! And yes I am trying to work on my book, but gosh, there’s been the audit and lots of work problems and I had to go to Cali again for work and then I was a beta reader for Stuart Horwitz’ new book about writing (he wrote Blueprint Your Bestseller, so I was thrilled to be asked!!). His book will be an excellent addition to the writing theory bookshelf, but truly with BYB it might be all that’s needed!
        Have you ever seen 1/2 stars on Goodreads? I know I’ve seen them somewhere. Is it Amazon? I wish I could leave 1/2 because so often I feel that a book is very deserving, but to give 5 feels as if I am saying it’s perfect–and I haven’t found any “perfect” books yet!
        Thank you so saying that about my reviews being individual. That is how I like to write them (so they don’t feel like work haha), and I appreciate that you like that about them. I can’t really speak for someone else’s reading anyway. Funny thing is, I think I would be a good drama critic, and I think my reviews of shows would be less individual and more the sort of thing you might read in a newspaper. A stage production seems easier to review for some reason. Does that make sense?

        • In a word — no. 🙂 For several years I was the main theater reviewer for a local weekly. At that point, I’d been reviewing books for at least a decade. At first reviewing theater sent me into a panic. With a book, you can read and reread, go back and puzzle over a particular passage, etc. With a performance, it goes by once and that’s it. Ideally you get to read the script beforehand, but often (esp. with newer plays) no script is available, and even if there is, you have no time to read it. Plus, if you live in a small-to-medium-size town, there’s a good chance that you’re only one or two degrees of separation from some of the cast and crew, and/or you might run into one of them at the post office right after the review comes out. I learned a lot from reviewing theater, but easy it was not.

          • Susanna, so true about running into the cast and crew in your hometown! That would be beyond tough for me. I love critiquing theatre, though, and have a real affinity for it. I even considered it as a dream career when I was in high school. In my long-running fantasy, I am both Walter and Jean Kerr all wrapped up into one and can be both astute critic and well-loved mom, writer, and theatre afficianado all at the same time ;).

  20. I recently rejoined Goodreads after several years away. I’ve been thinking a lot about stars, and about reviewing. I’ve often wished I could give 3.5 or 4.5 stars, but on the whole I like Goodreads’ suggestions: 3 stars is “like,” 4 stars is “really like,” and 5 stars is “it was amazing.” For me 5 stars means “you should drop everything and read this, even if it’s not the sort of thing you usually read.” I haven’t given out any 1 or 2 stars, because if I dislike something that much I’m not going to (a) finish, or (b) review it. Why bother? I totally agree that the reviews and comments are more important. I can’t evaluate a review unless I have some idea of where the reviewer is coming from, and stars don’t tell me that.

    • Your rationale for assigning stars is very logical and probably the best course, given what we are allowed on Goodreads. I do think it would be much better to be able to give a 3.5 or a 4.5. Not having that option makes me give 1/2 star higher than I would many times. I wonder if the stars can even be necessary for any reason. I mean, I can’t think of a good reason for having the star system. Or if they use one, there needs to be a way of users being “normed” so that people are using the system in a more similar fashion.

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