How I use rating systems

This page explains to you how I use rating systems, when paired with reviews or commentary of books, music, theatre, or other creative works.
5 stars in a row

This page explains to you how I use rating systems, when paired with reviews or commentary of books, music, theatre, or other creative works.

Rating systems are a haphazard-at-best method for assessing the value of a work such as a book or CD, or indeed any service or product. They are used very differently by each individual, which is often because platforms, publishers, and outlets fail to define the scale.

If you have read my book Music Journalism 101, you will have a good grasp of why, as a publisher, I refused to incorporate rating systems. The TL;DR: Rating systems create lazy critics.

Nevertheless, some platforms that I use regularly – like Goodreads – do have ratings. Therefore, I have some level of responsibility to tell you how I approach them. It will give you a greater understanding of how my reviews are categorised.

My 5-star rating approach explained

1 Star
The single star is reserved only for the very worst [item]s in the category. Works assigned a single star are extremely uncommon because they are only appalling works. They are books that are poorly structured, poorly written, badly designed, filled with errors, awful to hold. In short, the kinds of books that should go in the bin, and not even to a recycler. They are albums that look bad, sound bad, are written badly, played badly, produced badly, and are probably filled with self-aggrandising commentary. You get the picture. You wouldn’t gift these. If you get them as a gift, you won’t speak to the gift-giver again very easily, because clearly they don’t know you very well and have offended your interests significantly.

2 Stars
Two stars are reserved for the [item]s that you actively dislike. It’s much worse than ‘I could sit on the fence about it’. In my world, they are books with poor character development, poor author understanding, factual errors, minor errors, bad design, too much political correctness. They are books with parts that you skip over because you’re bored, irritated, frustrated, or annoyed. You read them while sighing with annoyance; you think ‘blah blah blah’ to yourself because you’ve stopped caring. And you’ll write a scathing review. However, the book will have some redeeming features. In music, the same applies: Significant elements like production, songwriting, levelling, or lyrics are poor or poorly handled; there are errors in the sleeves; they are badly printed. They contains tracks you skip or forward through, they’re samey, or bland. Whatever the item, you wouldn’t give it as a gift in case you offended someone, and you’ll seriously reconsider keeping it in your collection.

3 Stars
The three stars rating for [item]s is what I fondly think of as the middle-of-the-road rating. It’s not bad, like the two stars. It’s not excellent, like the four stars. It’s somewhere in between. It’s not horrible. It’s not fraught with errors. You don’t necessarily dislike it, you aren’t overly bored, or irritated, or annoyed. You aren’t in love with it, you won’t read it again immediately, or spin it on your stereo for a month. You’d give it as a gift to someone whom you know loves this kind of thing, but you’ll think about that, too.

4 Stars
Four stars are for [item]s that exhibit a level of excellence. They are the books, albums, shows that you heartily and unthinkingly recommend to others when you find yourself in conversation. You can wax lyrical about the story, the character, the immersion. You love the sound, the hooks are well-handled, the artwork is great, you have been spinning the album on repeat. Songwriting is good, just like stories are good. You find yourself getting lost in the experience… but not completely. The work exhibits an all-around level of excellence that you’d happily list on a potential ‘best of’ at the end of the year.

5 Stars
The five star rating is, like one-star rating, uncommon. It’s a rare beast, in which every aspect of it is faultless. Not only is the item faultless, but the experience of handling it, reading it, listening to it, watching it, is faultless. You find yourself completely immersed in the experience; you find yourself transcended to a place of absolute joy. With books and music alike, the item will become a classic, if it isn’t already.

I rarely give either 1-star or 5-star reviews. Here’s why.
Both are at extremes on the spectrum. A one-star review is for works that are appalling, just as a five-star review is for works that are incredible and outstanding. When you find yourself moved to give an album a five-star rating, you have to ask yourself if it’s as good as (or better than) the best album of all time from that band. Or the best, most-read, classic books by any author. Or the most well-regarded, highly thought-of performances of that dance company. If you can’t say that it is with certainty, the rating is not warranted.

In summary: Treat ratings with suspicion until you see the scale.

Treat all star-rated reviews with suspicion until you know how the writer deals with each level of the scale. If you can’t find an explanation of the scale somewhere, don’t rely on the rating. Read the reviews instead.

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