Sunday Salon: Book reviewer clichés

This post is about an article by Michelle Kerns on “reviewerspeak” which I came across yesterday through Twitter. It’s a pretty old article, but I’m still going to respond — and I don’t entirely agree with it.

Kerns lists twenty words and phrases which (she says) are overused by reviewers and have simply become stand-ins for any meaningful comment. It’s very easy to use those terms, no doubt — I know I’ve used at least seven in the past, and probably more — and I’ll agree that they can be stifling when deployed in the way they are in Kerns’ sample bad review. None of this, however, stopped me from using one of the terms from the list (“that said”) in the review I was writing at the time.

Why did I deliberately use this term which I’d just seen labelled a cliché? Because it helped me say what I wanted to say. My problem with Kerns’ list is that it treats all those words and expressions as clichés in and of themselves — well, “readable” and “page-turner” maybe, but I’d say that, for the rest, it depends on context. Sometimes a book is gripping; sometimes a scene is poignant — as you long as you make it clear why they are, what’s wrong with saying so?

As for “that said”, I think it’s a perfectly good way to link together two contrasting points, as long as you stand equally by both of them (e.g. in my last review, I wanted to say that I enjoyed the novel, even though I felt disadvantaged by not knowing the back-story). If, on the other hand, it’s used (per Kerns’ example) as a way of watering down a firm opinion, then yes, that’s a bad thing. As I say, it all depends on context.

Question: what do you think of that list? Do you think there are any words or phrases that are so tired, a reviewer just shouldn’t use them?


  1. I agree with you. While I think it can be helpful to have guidelines to help us edit or check our own writing, I don’t think it’s wise to hold fast to a set of arbitrary rules.

  2. My response: Hey, I’m not a professional reviewer. I’m just trying to share my impressions of a book with my fellow readers. That’s it.

    (Though it is nice to reflect on ways to become a better writer and reviewer….)

  3. Huzzah Mr. Hebblethwaite,

    Greetings from loverly Lincoln, California.

    Thanks for yammering about my cliche (pardon the lack of accent mark) article even though it’s as old as New Year’s Eve champagne. (Which, incidentally, I would still drink, old or no.)

    I pondered your cliche arguments deeply, but I still must respectfully disagree. The whole point in purging cliches out of review writing is that it forces reviewers to substitute energetic and meaningful words instead of allowing us/them to hide behind cliches. I dare you to try it. Don’t use ANY cliches — not one, not even riveting — for your next, oh, say 10 reviews. I’m not being flip here; I really mean it. I did the same thing and it completely altered the way I wrote and thought about reviews. It made me more opinionated (never a bad thing for a reviewer unless, of course, you want to write for, you know, the New York Times) and forced me to actually say something substantive with every sentence instead of mooching about with things like, “This novel is a poignant and thought-provoking pageturner.”

    More than ever, reviewers need to rise above the noise and SAY something worth reading. That begins with writing with boldness and energy. I’m not saying never, ever, ever use “epic” (though I really do think people who use “unputdownable” should be the first against the wall when the revolution begins) but only use those reviewerspeak cliches under duress. And, really, only when you are absolutely certain you’ve already gotten your point across to your readers anyway. Which is totally, completely, tour de force-ably, unputdownably possible.

    By the way, very nice review of Mr. Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream. You know, I read the whole Red Mars series when I was living in the same durn town as Mr. Robinson and didn’t even know he lived there? Makes me so angry I could spit. If I were there now, I’d go to his house and pull on his skirts and beg for his autograph. Oh well.

    Feel free to dispute with me about this. I love a good bookish contretemps. I’m at the Book Examiner site or at

  4. I’m a relatively new book blogger, so I enjoyed this bit of debate over how to write about books in an engaging (and useful!) way. Makes me think again about what I hope to achieve by discussing books at all.

    I’m sure I have used or will use some of these phrases, but I would like to avoid the most obvious ones if I can, especially the ones I’m tempted to use the most, like page-turner.

    For a couple of the books I’ve talked about recently (Vann’s Legend of a Suicide and Collins’ Hunger Games), I tried to get around using some of these words by focusing on the physical reactions these books elicited, instead (graphic nightmares, unintentional speed reading, respectively).

  5. David Hebblethwaite

    12th January 2010 at 5:19 pm

    Thanks to everyone for the comments! Interesting to see the range of opinion.

  6. The finale of this season’s Curb Your Enthusiasm made it very clear why “that said” should be stricken not only from the reviewers’ vocabularies, but the lexicon in general. It’s basically a signal to your reader that everything that came before the “that said” can be totally disregarded, because what follows is what you really want to convey. I couldn’t agree more.

  7. David Hebblethwaite

    18th January 2010 at 9:48 am

    Many thanks for visiting and commenting, Greg — though I’m afraid I still disagree.

  8. The idea of a cliche, though, is exactly that it DOESN’T depend on context to be cliche. If a word is overused, whether or not the context is good, and whether or not it actually is the precise word, it’s still cliche. The key in a cliche is not the context it’s used in, but the simple fact that the same word or phrase keeps showing up in different places to describe different things. And “that said” most certainly shows up frequently enough to be considered a reviewer’s cliche!

    Hey, you got me thinking, so thanks! I wrote a post tangentially about this (and linked to you) at my own book blog. Check it out:


  9. very interesting discussion. I do not attempt to approach professional reviews in my book blog and like to think that readers benefit from a more down to earth reaction similar to what you would get in a conversation with a friend about the book.

    However, there are times when writing reviews that I struggle with the words to articulate my reaction and do notice those cliches creeping in at that moment. Good reminder to be aware of that.

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