Essays

What Is The CAWPILE Review System?

A few years ago, I made a New Year’s resolution to write a book review for each book I read through the year. This might come across as the lowest stakes resolution on January 1 in history, but I really wanted to improve my critical reading skills (and have never stuck to a resolution before so figured, might as well start small).

I found that often, when I read a book I loved, I struggled to express why. My reviews came down to a “did I like it or didn’t I and how much,” an expression of totality which was very subjective and never plumbed deeper into the good stuff.

The truth is, reviewing things is hard. Critical reading and writing are really difficult; there’s a reason why my local bookstore has a section for “Criticism” and why my name isn’t on the shelf. Everyone’s a critic, yes — but some people have what seems to be a rare gift for cutting to the heart of why something rocks or sucks.

Throughout the year of my resolution, my reviews started out poor and got a little better, but I found my hackles rising with the 5-star system in Goodreads because everyone seemed to have a different subjective method of using it. For me, a three star is “okay, wouldn’t read again, unlikely to recommend unless someone is very into the subject matter.” For some people, three stars means no more or less than “good,” and for some it means “forgettable” or even “meh.” How is a reader supposed to know the difference when we’re all just anonymous internetters?

There are things I gave 5 stars to because I absolutely loved the idea (if not the execution), and this seems controversial, too. Me liking it is a “me” thing — and reviewing should surely be a little more objective so everyone can actually make use of the reviews that are now a dime a dozen for every book ever published.

And that’s where CAWPILE comes in.

What is CAWPILE?

CAWPILE is a rating system, an acronym for seven key tenets a reader can use to generate specific, targeted reviews in a consistent way. The letters stand for:

  • Characters
  • Atmosphere/Setting
  • Writing Style
  • Plot
  • Intrigue
  • Logic/Relationships
  • Enjoyment

To fulfil the system, each parameter should be rated out of 10. Once this is done, the overall result should be divided by seven, which produces a sometimes decimal-pointed answer between 1 and 10.

This 1-10 scale is arguably too specific to be broadly adopted, so instead, we convert the number back into a 5 star rating as follows:

If the book score 0-1, there is no score.

If it scored 1.1-2.2, that’s one star.

2.3-4.5 is two stars.

4.6-6.9 is three stars.

7-8.9 is four stars.

9-10 is five stars.

So, in a hypothetical book review, I have scored as follows.

  • C: 9
  • A: 9
  • W: 8
  • P: 9
  • I: 7
  • L: 8
  • E: 9

This gives me a total score of 46, which divided by 7 is 8.4. This gives me a solid four star review.

Who came up with this?

CAWPILE was invented by G at Book Roast. You can watch the explainer video here, but we’ll run through the details in text too.

Does it work?

I like CAWPILE a lot. It gives me a sense of structure and helps me to unpack what I liked or didn’t like. Sometimes, I find that I loved the characters but not the writing style. These are subjective thoughts, but just having the parameters makes me think a little more outside the box. Perhaps I don’t like the writing style, but does that mean it’s legitimately bad… or just that it’s not for me? CAWPILE lets me consider a little more broadly.

On top of that, the fact that seven parameters are scored and then averaged out means that one thing I really didn’t like doesn’t drag the rest down, or vice versa. I’ve gone through the review process a few times now and each time it’s given me a number I can agree with, and my review has considered in some depth the strengths and weaknesses.

It doesn’t work for all types of books, and is, in my view, best suited to fiction or occasionally, narrative nonfiction. I couldn’t find a way to make it work for essay or poetry collections — and to be honest, this isn’t a criticism, because different book types deserve different systems of critical thinking.

Of course, much like my original problem, reviews with CAWPILE are subjective, but at least they offer a deeper dive into the positives and negatives of a story. I might strive for some sense of objectivity which ties closely to the idea of criticism as its own art form, but I’d imagine a lot of reviewers might not care about that at all: after all, the glut of reviews speaks to the fact that there’s a book out there for everyone.

If you’ve been trying to write reviews and find you’re struggling and can’t quite get your point across, CAWPILE might help you get there. Even if you’re just snipping favourite bits for your own commonplace book, you could add some CAWPILE structured thoughts. In 50 years time, someone might pick up and see your little thoughts and rediscover a lost gem.

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