Writing Book Reviews

Broken Pencil

I’m not going to lie. Writing book reviews is sometimes (okay, most times) a daunting task. Where do I start? I hated the book, now what? OMG I LOVE IT LOVE IT LOVE IT but I can’t actually tell you why I love it.

Relax. You’re making a big deal out of nothing.

Well, not nothing, but don’t blow it all out of proportion just yet.

The Basics

You’ve read a book. Great! You want to write a review. Also great! Reviews are the best thing you can do for an author (besides buying the book to begin with). Would you recommend the book? What did you like about it? What didn’t you like about it? Once you answer those three questions, you’ve got a book review.

Some reviewers like to start with a synopsis of the book. If I’m posting a review someplace other than Goodreads or Amazon, I generally summarize the plot, because there’s no handy-dandy little plot synopsis or back cover blurb posted for people to refer to. If you’re a writer, this a good habit to get into, because it is ever-so-helpful when you have to write your own query or blurb. The synopsis can be as short as a sentence or two, or it can be more in-depth. I usually let the synopsis set the tone for the rest of the review – but more on that in a minute.

Three Questions

  • What did you like about it?
  • What didn’t work for you?
  • Would you recommend it?

The first two are usually fairly easy to answer. Think about the characters. The pacing. The storyline itself. The little things, like dialog, setting, description, and, in some instances, even the way it was written. Did the pages fly by and when you looked up, you found you’d spent the entire afternoon on the couch with a book in your hands? Or was every paragraph a challenge to get through? Were the characters believable? Or, did you want to reach into the pages and strangle them?

By the time I reach the last question, I almost always have a clear idea of whether I’d recommend the book. It gets a yes, an absolutely, a yes, but check it out of the library, or an unequivocal no. But, every once in a while, I’m confronted with a book that I liked, but I can’t give a clear cut answer one way or another. I had that problem with Real, by Katy Evans – everything about the book was outstanding, and I hold it up as a great example of how you should go about self-publishing your book. The characters were fully developed, as was the plot. It was well-written, had been edited properly, and even scored a wicked cool cover. The problem stemmed from the relationship between the central characters. Obsessive relationships bother me, so this was an instance where I couldn’t recommend the book, despite everything it had going for it. I had the opposite problem with Jessica Lott’s The Rest of Us. It was mostly unremarkable, the writing falling somewhere between the chattiness of women’s fiction and the winding, languid prose of literary fiction. The characters don’t really grow, and the plot drags in places. But, there was this intangible “it” that compelled me to finish it, and in the end, I recommended it, but I couldn’t give a clear reason why. It still bothers me. So I put that in the review: that I thought people ought to read it and decide for themselves.

SilenceIf you reach the conclusion that you wouldn’t recommend the book, and it was, in fact, a complete waste of your time (A.S.A Harrison’s The Silent Wife was several hours of my life I’d like to have back), don’t be afraid to write that review. No book is going to appeal to all readers, so varied reviews are important. You don’t have to be outright sarcastic or mean about it, but elaborating on tangible reasons why you thought the book was terrible is possible. Keep the focus on what you didn’t like about the book – flat characters, spelling and grammar errors, plot holes and/or so much suspension of disbelief you’d swear you were reading a fantasy novel instead of a contemporary romance. Authors have to be able to handle the truth, and if they can’t, they probably shouldn’t be publishing.

Tone

You want your review to be informative, but not as dry as paper. The best tip I can give you at this point is to read other reviews. See what they’re lacking and what they include. I, personally, find overly enthusiastic reviews stuffed with GIFs completely unhelpful and won’t read them; too often they think the book is absolutely perfect and don’t give you any hint that it may actually be a crappy book. Some of my reviews lean toward snarky, because the book itself was snarky. For some of them, I find myself trying to emulate the story or the author’s style (like Steve Brezenoff or Isabel Allende). Honestly, this is the part that’s hard to describe, so this is where I point you to other reviews. And sometimes reading them before I write one of my own solidifies my likes and dislikes.

feedback hipstaWell! I hope that gives you a good place to start. Reviews aren’t book reports; no one’s going to grade you on it. If you feel strongly enough about a book, positively or negatively, to share a review and help out a fellow reader, just answer those three questions (What did you like? What didn’t you like? Would you recommend it?) and you’ll be good to go.

Book Review Sites

Want to check out a few other reviewers’ styles? Here are some I recommend:

And, of course, there’s my own review sites: Byrne After Reading and Vampire Book Club (What? You thought I wouldn’t get in a little self-promotion?)

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Do you have any reviewing tips? What questions do you ask yourself when writing a review? Share them in the comments below! 

 

6 comments for “Writing Book Reviews

  1. September 23, 2013 at 6:32 am

    Thanks! That was really a helpful way to look at book reviews. I appreciate the tips!

  2. Becca
    September 23, 2013 at 7:33 am

    I’ve been needing help with this for a long time. I always want to leave reviews for the books I like, but I NEVER know what to write in them. UGH! But this makes it really easy. Three simple questions. I love it! Thanks for your help!!

  3. September 23, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    Very thorough post, Amanda! I had a question come up in a different online writers’ group, though: As an author, should you post anything less than a three-star review (knowing the hurt it could cause other writers)? Or should you just recommend the books you love and ignore the others? What if a friend of yours requested the review?

    • September 23, 2013 at 7:15 pm

      Good question. There’s two parts to that answer. The first is not to worry about if your review is negative or positive – if you feel strongly enough to write a review in the first place, post it. Whether you’re an author shouldn’t matter. Authors HAVE to be able to take the bad with the good. If they can’t, they have no business being published. While it’s not exactly a cutthroat business, the ones with the thicker skins survive.

      The second part of that…I don’t review books by my author friends. It’s a hard and fast rule, and one I’m not willing to bend on. It’s a double-edged sword, because I refuse to be anything other than completely honest. If I loved the book, there’s always a chance people will think I’m just saying that because I know the author personally, and that reflects badly on me as a reviewer. If I didn’t love the book, I run the risk of hurting my author friend’s feelings. So I solve the problem by turning down review requests by authors I’d consider friends.

  4. September 24, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    This is all wonderful advice, and I use those same three questions in my reviews. Sometimes I tweak the recommendation- like, “If you enjoyed Wonder, then I bet you’ll like this book.” I also like your suggestions for handling friend reviews. Thanks!

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