Tips for Reviewers

I've been a reviewer on several platforms for over a decade. This is what I learned.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Amazon recently reminded me (apropos of nothing) that my reviews on that platform have over 637,000 views and nearly 10,000 likes. That's not a surprise given I've written over 2,000 reviews over the span of a decade. And that doesn't include my reviews for RPG.net, Allgame.com, Gamers.com, and DriveThruRPG. I've reviewed everything from books to movies to video games to tabletop role-playing games to dice (so, so much dice). Here's how I try to guide my writing. These are tips, not rules, as reviewing is a tricky business.

Anyone Can Be a Reviewer

The Internet has created a lot of low-barrier-to-entry opportunities, and reviewing is one of them. Anyone can be a reviewer. Not everyone should be a reviewer, but there's no gatekeepers to stop poor reviewers from writing reviews. This has led to entire fake review profiles, sites, and industries dedicated to making a product look better than it is.

If you plan to review at least semi-professionally (and by that I mean, get paid somehow, see below), it's worth understanding what makes a good review. And simply put, a good review, even of a bad product, explains itself. Readers may disagree with your assessment, but if you explain your reasoning they can decide for themselves if your perspective reflects theirs. Fake reviews rarely go into much detail for precisely this reason, because it defeats the purpose of mass-spamming fake reviews to bolster a product (or to damage the reputation of a competitor!).

There Are Ways to Get Paid

There are professional reviewers who do nothing but review products full time, but since I have a day job I'm more judicious with my time. That means I don't review everything, and increasingly only review things that interest me (not products someone pitched me). That's a luxury though.

Now that the review industry has matured, there's a way to get paid for virtually any product by using affiliate links. These provide a small percentage of sales if a customer buys the product after clicking through from your link. At one point, my wife and I ran our own virtual bookstore for this purpose.

Affiliate links are the minimum way to get paid, but they're not the only way. The other possibility is free product. This in itself is a form of payment, and depending on the value of the product, can be significant. I've reviewed furniture and appliances for Amazon worth hundreds of dollars ... and I also pay taxes on it.

There are a handful of sites that pay for reviews, EN World included. If you're interested in becoming an EN World columnist, you can apply here.

Write Enough, But Not Too Much

Different platforms lend themselves to different review lengths. EN World and RPG.net have the space for long-form reviews, while reviews on Amazon and DriveThruRPG tend to be shorter. You can still write long reviews for these platforms, but they subtly encourage shorter reviews by cutting off the preview text after a certain character count, and few people click through to read the entire review.

But your review shouldn't be so short that it doesn't get the point across. Some products don't require that much to convey how you feel about it, while others require a more in-depth examination of the content. Role-playing games, by their nature, should have at least three paragraphs if not more; dice usually don't need nearly as much.

Your Rating Should Match Your Text

The five star range is typical of reviews these days, so it's worth reflecting on what each rating means. Stars are a short-hand for reviews, so it's important to get it right, because some readers may not read your text, and some platforms provide an average by adding up all the reviews and providing a score. This means while your text may not see the light of day, your score carries more weight in determining the product's rating.

Five stars and one star ratings are easy enough: five means you are giving it the highest rating and therefore consider it to exceed your expectations, while one star reviews are below your expectations. What gets tricky is just how far above or below your expectations a review is. While three stars is average, two and four stars are more nebulous. They're bad/good, but not necessarily THAT bad/good. There's some wiggle room here in conveying how you feel, and truth is many five star reviews seem like they should be four star reviews after reading the text.

There are reviewers who give a product five stars but then list a major flaw in the text; there are reviewers who give products one star and then explain that it has nothing to do with the product (poor shipping, a weird smell in packaging, customer service, etc.). People use reviews to advance their own agendas all the time, like attacking a company or advancing their own philosophy. If you make your stars match your reviews, it will go a long way to getting someone to read it.

Your Turn: What tips do you have for reviewers?
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

PJ Coffey

Villager
If you give a product less than a 5* review than, by the algorithms determining what gets shown to customers, you have said

"This product stinks."

Is that incredibly unhelpful and stupid? Yes. But it's why flaws in a product still have 5* reviews because whilst flawed, in that respect, the product is otherwise excellent.

I'm quite surprised that you didn't mention this in the article and called out the opposite. I thought it was common knowledge!
 

delericho

Legend
Yeah, my view is that 5* is an unqualified recommendation, 4* is flawed but still recommended, and 3* or below is "don't bother". Also, 1* reviews can sometimes be worth reading for the comedy value, but that's about it.

A couple of things I do want from reviewers are some context: did you pay for your copy, or was it a freebie? Similarly, were you given early access by the producer? And, for RPGs specifically, I want to know if you've actually read the thing (which should be a bare minimum, but given the "no gatekeeper" thing can't actually be assumed), and have you played it/seen it in actual use in a game?

The answers to the above don't invalidate the review, of course, but they do affect the weight with which I consider them.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
The most helpful reviews for me are when reviewers give some content on why they bought something, what their use case and expectations are, and their experience with similar products. So, I try to provide that content in my reviews.

There are many times when a very negative review actually makes me more inclined to get a product or service because the reviewer's ignorance or unreasonableness actually helps reveal that the product might be a good fit for me.
 


payn

Legend
Along the "write enough, but not too much" theme, I recommend compartmentalizing components of the review. For example, in film and music, there is the writing and artistic aspect, but also the technical creation aspect. It is ok to only focus on one or the other if you lack experience, but it is very helpful not to mix the two interchangeably.
 


Mistwell

Crusty Old Meatwad (he/him)
For companies which buy reviews from reviewers for Amazon to artificially boost their review rating their instructions are usually to rate it five stars but to mention a minor negative thing which the user easily overcame, as apparently those reviews are trusted as more believable by readers than reviews which are only glowing in nature.
 


Voadam

Legend
Sometimes I read reviews to find out more about a product because there is little description in the product description itself. I really do not need a chapter by chapter breakdown though (Chapter one is geography, Chapter two is politics, Chapter three is cosmology.)

Some evaluation and reasoning is always nice.
 


Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
I typically only read one star reviews, especially on Amazon. If I'm interested in a product and the description of the product suggests it will meet my needs, what I most want to know is what challenges others have had using it.

As a rule, people singing a product's praises seem to not hit the level of detail that answers the questions I actually have. If I can't check out the product in person, it's good to know what to expect.
 

payn

Legend
I always felt bad panning someone. I mean, I don't know, people are very sensitive about their creative work.

I guess that's why I don't run one of these sites!
This is a good topic. I always try and focus on the product I'm reviewing specifically. If the company has issues I will talk about them separately in a different forum. It's not personal either, they didn't design the product in a way I didn't like just to slight me. They dont even know who I am. A very strange thing to get personal in a review.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I typically only read one star reviews, especially on Amazon. If I'm interested in a product and the description of the product suggests it will meet my needs, what I most want to know is what challenges others have had using it.
I generally find that 1-star reviews aren't usually much use. They are entertaining usually though! There are exception, but they're infrequent.
 

payn

Legend
I generally find that 1-star reviews aren't usually much use. They are entertaining usually though! There are exception, but they're infrequent.
Right, 1 stars are usually folks just really upset. What I do instead is look for common complaints amongst many reviews. For example, if im looking for a TV and several people complain about bad speakers, I'll have to decide if that's something I care about or not.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
I wrote reviews for everything in the last 20 years, but I still see myself mainly as a review reader. I find them essential.

So my main tip as a reviews reader could be this: do not write reviews just after you bought something. Wait until you've actually USED it for a while.

This is a big deal really. I think a lot of people feel the urge to share their feelings instead of sharing information. We typically have this "shopping hype" just after buying anything which makes us happy and proud because we just proved to ourselves that we are wealthy enough to afford it, and we added something to our "stash" of properties by which we measure our personal value. If you write a review while under this state, you'll certainly overestimate the product.

Not to mention that for gaming material, the way it looks is not the same as the way it plays! The longer you wait before a review (assuming you will actually USE the book in the meantime) the more you know about it, and the more useful your opinion is for others.

This is the reasons why I consider early reviews of gaming products essentially worthless. They are made by people who don't know the book yet but just want to grab the "me first!" prize.

---

Secondary tip (more personal pet peeve): avoid details on your personal life.

This is not something frequently seen in RPG reviews but very common in reviews of old movies on IMDB for example, or music and videogames.

Either way, nobody cares that you used to watch/listen/play this with your brother in the attic on summer nights. Nobody cares if you got this as a gift from your bf/gf, or if you found it in the discount bin. This stuff is irrelevant to anyone who just wants to know the value of the product.
 


talien

Community Supporter
I wrote reviews for everything in the last 20 years, but I still see myself mainly as a review reader. I find them essential.

So my main tip as a reviews reader could be this: do not write reviews just after you bought something. Wait until you've actually USED it for a while.

This is a big deal really. I think a lot of people feel the urge to share their feelings instead of sharing information. We typically have this "shopping hype" just after buying anything which makes us happy and proud because we just proved to ourselves that we are wealthy enough to afford it, and we added something to our "stash" of properties by which we measure our personal value. If you write a review while under this state, you'll certainly overestimate the product.

Not to mention that for gaming material, the way it looks is not the same as the way it plays! The longer you wait before a review (assuming you will actually USE the book in the meantime) the more you know about it, and the more useful your opinion is for others.

This is the reasons why I consider early reviews of gaming products essentially worthless. They are made by people who don't know the book yet but just want to grab the "me first!" prize.
This here is one of the tips I plan to address in a future article: how long do you wait until you write a review?

Role-playing games are vulnerable to this, in that reading an adventure is quite different from playing it, and playing it once with one group can be very different from playing it with another. Over time, rules changes, tastes change, and players change, so if you wait too long, the product may no longer reflect the intent of its authors.

Conversely, some products are seasonal but due to rules constraints on reviewing, I can't wait that long to review the product. On Amazon, if I don't write a review quickly, I stop getting access to products to review until eventually they just cut me off completely. This encourages fast reviews, which isn't always great when the product is seasonal or the company makes it cheap so it works the first time, then breaks down later. I have gone back to reviews I've written to update them after a product has spectacularly failed, but that's rare (and Amazon makes it hard for you to find past reviews on Vine, which is a different system from the main Amazon site).

In short, reviews bias towards first impressions and unfortunately there isn't an easy quantifier of "I owned this product for this long" or "I used it 15 times." If there were, I suspect it would definitely carry more weight with readers.
 

J.M

Explorer
As an RPG consumer, I totally depend on quality reviews to help me navigate the massive deluge of products we're seeing at the moment. As a publisher, thorough reviews of our products help lessen the chance that a customer will be disappointed with their purchase, and that's a win for everyone. So thank you Mike, Charles, Egg, Beth, Darryl, Rob, Andrew, and many others!
 

Li Shenron

Legend
On Amazon, if I don't write a review quickly, I stop getting access to products to review until eventually they just cut me off completely.
Yep. Why do you think they do that? If the product won't be available for long then the reason is good, but otherwise (i.e. almost always) it is exactly to obtain more positive reviews before flaws are noticed, and higher grades encourage customers to buy.

For a RPG adventure, I value a review only if they played it, but once is definitely enough.

For a non-adventure RPG book it's more complicated... usually it contains rules and characters/monsters material. I can value a review of such book even if the reviewers haven't yet used the material as long as I can read proof within their writing that they have put some critical thoughts on the material. If it's just a sequence of "this is so good for my <whatever pc>" comments or if I get the feeling that they only browsed it instead of reading and thinking, then it's worthless. Mostly this is what happens with day-1 youtubers reviews.
 

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