How to Write a Book Review

In part one of this series, I discussed several reasons to write a book review, which boil down to one main reason: other readers (and the author, but primarily other readers) want to know what you think.

There are ancillary reasons, of course. You can gush or rant about a book you loved/hated, thus giving vent to powerful emotions. You get to participate in a literary community of fellow authors and readers. If you develop a profile as a reviewer, authors and publishers send you books for free (bonus!). And who knows but that leaving frequent Goodreads reviews boosts your chances of winning one of those elusive giveaways (more free books! yay!).

A reason I never hear given, but which I believe in deeply, is that reviews are good writing practice. It’s a concise form with specific qualifications and it challenges you to distill complex thoughts and emotion into a few salient, powerful sentences. There was a period in my life when writing time was scarce and I felt my muscles atrophying by the day. I got a job as a reviewer for a major publication which requires its reviews to be both rigorously in-depth and rigorously short, and learning to write that sharply and that well was a challenge I relished and a training I now greatly appreciate.

Also, in the scholarly world, book reviews count as publication credits on your CV, so there’s that.

There’s one last obstacle (assuming you have time, a venue, and thoughts in order): very few of us want to leave a “bad” review. That childhood training surfaces: if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. There are two approaches you can take, as I see it. You can follow the “lemon” rule, which says, if you can’t ultimately recommend a book, don’t review it, and move on. The second approach draws on the old adage attributed to P.T. Barnum: There is no such thing as bad publicity. Really, the accepted convention (no matter what we privately want or think) is to encourage an honest review. And you’re an honest person, right?

So let’s hear what you think. Ready?

Writing a Review: The Basic Plan

There is one essential, fail-proof way to write a review and it is this:

Tell us what you thought of the book.

It doesn’t have to be long. It doesn’t have to be nice. It doesn’t have to be in flowery or pedantic language. It need only, by accepted convention, be your honest opinion.

Wow! That was easy.

There are further options, for those who want to add coverage.

Writing a Review: The Upgrade Package

Option: Explain how you came by the book. “I got an ARC/free copy from the author/publisher/Netgalley in return for an honest review.” “I won this book in a giveaway/sweepstakes.” “I found this book sitting on a park bench and decided to pick it up.” I always like hearing how relationships began—I’m a sucker for the meet cute.

Option: Share your initial thoughts, reservations, or excitement. This gives us an early glimpse into the relationship. “I don’t usually like timeslip historical fantasies, but . . .” “I’m a huge fan, so I was waiting on tenterhooks for this release . . .” “I’ve read all 17 books in the series, and couldn’t wait to find out what happens next.”

Option: Give your own jacket copy. This used to be less of an option and more of an essential in the days when print review venues were predominant and readers had no more than the book’s title and pub info. On online sites like Goodreads and Amazon, where the top of the page already consists of cover, pub info, and jacket copy, I find it less useful when reviews start out telling me what the characters, setting, and conflict are. I prefer to assume readers have already read the jacket copy, above, and don’t need it rehearsed for them.

That said, if you feel the jacket copy is inadequate, or only gives the hook when there’s a lot more going on, feel free to give your version of the setup. You can make this description your own by weaving in your opinion. “Self-absorbed Scarlett sets her cap for wilting Ashley Wilkes, but finds her torrid confession of love overheard by the rakish, reprehensible Rhett Butler. Fortunately, she’s saved from scandal by the outbreak of war . . .”

Image by Ylanite Koppens from Pixabay

Basic, expanded: Tell us what you think of the plot. Solid? Flimsy? Is the book a breathless page-turner, are there gaping holes, or can you see the big twist written out on a billboard?

Basic, expanded: Tell us what you think of the characters. Funny? Sweet? Relatable? Completely reprehensible in every way?

Basic, expanded: What got you thinking while you read the book? Did you find portrayal of a character’s disability effective, sensitive, and stirring? Did you enjoy feeling like you were really living and moving around in 1920s Singapore/Mars/the underwater world of Atlantis? What did you think of the characters’ motivations? What did you think of their flaws? Do you think the book really does give amazing insights into the world of chimney sweeps and orange sellers in the streets of late Victorian London?

Basic, expanded: What did you think of the resolution? Fulfilling? Outrageous? Sweet and satisfying? Did you give a primal roar of approval when the villain went down? Remember, as I’m shopping, I want to hear about your interaction with the book just as much or more as much as I want to know about the book.

One caveat: If you’re going to give away spoilers, preface them with [spoiler alert]. I for one love being spoiled, but a lot of people want to figure out whodunnit themselves. This is just another one of those conventions that helps us all get along, like staying in the proper lane of traffic.

Option: Conclusion/wrap-up/relationship retrospective. What do you want to do next? “I’m going to go back to every title in this author’s backlist. I know I’m in for a treat.” “I’m going to light this stinkbomb on fire and enjoy watching it burn.” “I’m going to buy a copy of this treasure and leave it on a park bench for someone else to find. I love knowing I’ll make their day.”

Now, submit

See? It really is that easy. There are no tricks. There is no secret. There is no special form. (Well, actually, there is a form, and it changes depending on what you are reviewing, who you are reviewing for, and how much space you have, but I’ll save that discussion for a different post.)

Here’s your homework, dear reader. Pick up the last book you read, choose the Basic or Upgrade Package, make your selections, and write your review. Feel free to link in the comments and share your work! Congratulations, and thank you for participating in the literary community. Keep an eye out for the third installment in this series, when we’ll discuss how authors can read and respond to reviews without going into the emotional tailspin or existential crisis that we discussed in part one.

You, a book, and your imagination. What else do you need?
How to Write a Book Review

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