Tuesday, December 30, 2014

How to Write a Book Review

Very recently I came across a bad book review. Okay, if we’re completely honest, I manage to find bad book reviews all the time—and I think I know a common problem.

Flickr Credit: Alan Levine
There are some people out there who have gotten a book review horribly confused with a book report. To clarify, a book report was that thing that you had to do where you wrote down the book name, author, wrote a short summary, and then drew a picture of what happened; and then your mom told you that you spelled everything wrong and you had to do it all over again.

A book review is that thing where you read a book and then tell people what you thought about it. It is NOT a summary. 

Well, that’s a little wrong. You should have a summary of the book in your review—but if you can borrow it from Goodreads, do it. For one thing, you and I both know you have better things to do with your time than write a summary that has already been written. My other reason, I’m sad to say, is that hand-crafted summaries are long. And kind of boring. And sometimes they only tell the story from the perspective of what they thought was important, and not what was actually important (like the plot).

The only excellent reason I can think of for writing your own summary is if your summary is the review. By that, I mean it looks something like this:

So this chick, Cinderella? I could not be more unimpressed. That weakling has spent her entire life in the ashes—no dreams, no aspirations, no nothing—until her family is invited to Prince Charming’s fab party. Cinderella totally wants to party, but wouldn’t you know it, she can’t even stand up for herself when that gargoyle (also known as the evil stepmother) makes completely reasonable suggestions about Cinderella’s time management issues. Cinderella, though, is so bent out of shape she gets all weepy until a fairy godmother comes down, probably just to get her to shut up! And, oh joy, now Cinderella’s at the party. What fun. We really care how she falls in love with Prince Charming, and her still-bad time management skills ruin her otherwise-flawless getaway. Prince Creeper decides to track down this girl with a shoe, and what I assume is some years later, he finds the one girl in the whole blanged kingdom who wears a size seven. It’s totally realistic. 

Maybe I went a little overboard. Still, the idea holds true—unless you can make your voice do the work for you, don’t spend a lot of time summarizing. You can tell I am not enamored with Cinderella’s story from the language—I probably wouldn’t need to say much beyond the paragraph itself.

However, most people don’t review like that, so I have developed this list, reminiscent of a Todd Parr book (which coincidentally sits next to me on the desk).

DO say what you liked about the book. (Inquiring minds want to know.)

DON’T focus on positives only. (Unless it is the book of all books.)

DO discuss negatives. (Otherwise it can sound like you’re advertising.)

DON’T focus solely on sensitive content. (“They have sex so mind your virgin eyes” doesn’t count.)

DO be kind. (Especially if your review will go somewhere the author will read it.)

DON’T milk it. (It’s okay if you give a negative review.)

DO be honest. (Seriously. Honest.)

DON’T let authors guilt you out of it. (Reviews are for the readers, not them.)

DO mention the genre. (Not everyone reads everything.)

DON’T (always) recommend an audience. (The “desired reader base” can be exclusive.)

DO give a star rating. (If you really want to.)

DON’T give a star rating and call it good. (Otherwise you will tell us pretty much nothing.)

DO feel free to gives spoilers. (Just give us a warning.)

DON’T spoil everything. (Watching people’s faces as they learn horrible and terrifying things they hadn’t anticipated is the greatest fun in the world.)

DO be meaningful. (If you have a particular audience, recognize their patterns and styles.)

DON’T be super particular. (Who knows who will read your review?)

And, most importantly…

DO be yourself. (Be interesting, unique, and fancy—make it said that no one reviews the way you do.)

If I had an illustrator I could probably make a Todd Parr book, honestly. 

Anyway, these are recent conclusions (don’t hurt me for former misguided Thursentaries) and certainly not the conclusive list. But, if you want to see some of my favorite reviews, here are a few I enjoyed:


You’ll find a mix and match of things I appreciate in all of those, and the various styles bloggers adopt to share their thoughts. It’s kind of awesome. 

What do you think is important when writing reviews?

10 comments :

  1. When I saw this, my first thought was 'OH NO!' because I wrote a post about book reviews last night and I was going to post it in the next few days. However, it is about why you shouldn't write very negative book reviews, so we have tackled different topics.

    But anyway, I really enjoyed this post! And I'll be using it as a reference when I write book reviews from now on :) A list of do's and don't's is very helpful.

    I like reviews where people openly discuss why the book was good/bad for them. I don't like it when people say 'this was awful/great, therefore, this is what you should do: not read it/read it.

    If that made sense xD

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    1. How weird, though, that we'd both end up posting these around the same time? XD I have to admit, the post I had originally scheduled for today actually sucked, so I dug it out of a to-do folder instead. So it was kind of an accidental coincidence. ANYWAY I look forward to reading your commentary on reviews, since I'm interested in another perspective.

      I thought it might be helpful as well, and I'm glad you liked it! And I agree, it is nicer when people take reviews in a personal context, rather than in a "one preference suits all" kind of way. :)

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  2. Ooh, very useful post -- bookmarking this for future use. As an avid reader, I read a LOT, but don't always review everything I read because I don't feel like I have something meaningful to contribute. Which do you think of review blogs vs. Goodreads reviews?

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    1. I certainly hope it's useful in practice! :) I know what you mean; especially with really popular books it feels like there isn't much else to be said. But I think every review has the possibility to be meaningful.

      I think when you blog a review, you're already blogging to a particular audience (so like on our blogs we really aren't catering to people who want to know how to clean and maintain motorcycles, though they're certainly welcome), which means you're recommending a book to a certain audience as well. I think Goodreads, on the other hand, is more for readers and writers, for promotion and to gauge popularity, which makes it a more impersonal way to talk about a book and form its overall reputation. I suppose. I guess? I'm confused with myself.

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  3. For the most part, I completely agree with all of your tips, especially the one about being yourself. Reviews can sometimes be boring if the reader of the review does not care about the book being mentioned, but an interesting and unique review can fix that.

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    1. I certainly didn't have a conclusive list, and obviously it's not perfect advice. But I think it might be better than a painfully written summary and "READ IT I LIKED IT" at the end. :/ You're right on both accounts—boring reviews are solved by excitement and flair.

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  4. I COMPLETELY AGREE. I keep wanting to write a post like this but I'm just going to link to yours because it is awesome. YES AND YES AGAIN. I really hate boring reviews. I, personally, don't actually care what the book is about. I just to know one thing: how did it make you feel? If a book makes someone feel something, then I want in on this! XD Which is why, 98% of the time, I go into books not knowing what they're about just that they're highly loved. And I like that. That's how I try and review. And my #1 reviewing goal is to make people laugh too. ;-)
    STILL YOU MENTIONED MY REVIEWS SO I AM THE HAPPIEST OF HAPPY.

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    1. EXCELLENT, because you review so much and I love reading them. Even if I never read the books it's like getting a book and a show every time you share your thoughts. :) Watching people's feelings is awesome, and especially if they're really good at communicating their feelings then it just amps you up for something better! (And don't worry, you are great at making me laugh when you review.)
      AND THEY ARE AWESOME REVIEWS SO DON'T BE SO SURPRISED. BECAUSE I LOVE THEM. THEY'RE WHY I FOLLOWED YOUR BLOG IN THE FIRST PLACE.

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  5. I loved this post!!! I will say though, one of your don't's is something I do... I am pretty much always 'super particular'!! I think it's from studying English Lit for so long that I go pretty deep into the text by habit. O_O Great stuff. =]

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    1. :) I'm glad! Although when I said, "super particular" I meant, 'don't just cater to the people who always read your blog, because maybe someone else will read it, too.' I mean, I love delving into the text too. I guess... Well, I meant it to be taken in the context of the one above it. Sorry for the confusion!

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