One of the ‘perks’ of being an author is that you gain insight into writing in all its forms, including book reviews. Authors typically read widely and write everything from books to blurbs to blogs to marketing promotions and of course book reviews. They are also on the receiving end of positive and negative book reviews (regardless of commercial success or failure).
Here is some advice about how to write a well constructed book review. If you wish to help others, then you (the book reviewer) can also put on a writer’s hat and consider how to improve your writing and build a reputation for being a talented book reviewer.
Tips about structure and content – in order:
1) You are writing a mini-thesis, build up your ‘case’
Your viewpoint is a subjective perspective which is valid for you – and probably for people like you – it is not a universal ‘fact’. If other people agree with you they will say so in their own way. Others may not agree with you at all. You do not speak for them. You are making your ‘thesis’ in support of your viewpoint. To have validity, you need to balance and support your considerations and arguments. You also need to have a measure of consistency and coherence in your review.
e.g. ‘It’s brilliant/rubbish/boring/amazing’ etc. says very little. Instead consider explaining why you hold your view.
I found it boring because…. I liked it when….. I was lost halfway through when…. I thought the x parts were amazing because… I loved the twists because… I hated the book because….
2) Describe the work you are reviewing upfront.
Otherwise people will be none the wiser what the book is about, who it is aimed at, or what it is intended to be.
e.g. ‘I read this book and I loved/hated it.’ Tells us nothing about the actual nature of the book.
‘This is a Young Adult/ fiction novel about vampires/sci-fi/relationships etc’ Gives the reader something to go on. It demonstrates that you know what you have read. It also provides a context for your later comments.
Most readers of a review would expect a serious piece of literature to be reviewed in a similarly considered manner. They would not expect such a high brow approach when reviewing a children’s picture book. A non-fiction book may appear superficially ‘dull’, but if it is a reference book about detailed facts what would people reasonably expect?
3) Describe and explain what you like about the book and why
If you have read and finished a book it must have some merit to it. Talk about what you liked. Explain why you liked what you liked. Where are the strengths or stronger points in the book?
If you loved a book then clearly this section will be longer and more detailed. However, be careful not to gush too much. Explain what you liked and why you liked those aspects. This will be more helpful to other potential readers than ‘it’s brilliant’ type statements. Give reasons for your emotional reaction and support your ‘thesis’ that the book ‘is brilliant’.
e.g. I once reviewed a children’s book which was not overly well written. However, it had some good characters, some funny moments and some enjoyable scenes and settings. As a courtesy for all the hard work that went into writing the book, I described these strengths. To omit these would also undermine my review. A good review should be balanced whether you love, hate or are undecided about a work.
4) Describe and explain what you dislike about the book and why
Whether you have a glass half empty, half full or objective approach, this section should still be present. No works are perfect and neither are they completely awful. Again, you are making a case for your viewpoints. Other readers may completely disagree with you, as is their equal right.
A well constructed criticism will explain the nature of your dislike and the reason ‘in your view’ that this was a negative point.
e.g. ‘I hated the characters in this book’ Is ambiguous, lacks explanation and does not help to build your case.
‘I disliked the main characters because they seemed unrealistic and their actions were not believable’ Makes a statement in support of ‘what’ you disliked and ‘why’ you disliked it. (This principle applies equally to positive statements.)
e.g. ‘It’s too slow and I found it boring’ Is an okay statement, but it fails to specify what was too slow.
‘I found the first part of the book slow to develop and struggled to read on’ Gives a far better statement of what the reviewer disliked and why they disliked it. A consequence (struggled to read on) adds support to their case that the slowness was a problem for them.
5) Summarise your conclusions
On balance, your conclusions should reflect your earlier statements and you may wish to elaborate on your view. However, be careful to be consistent in the conclusions you make. They should follow on from your earlier points. Your summary is like the final statement of a lawyer in a trial case. To suddenly switch opinions would look laughable. And to begrudgingly concede that a book is quite good in the last section of a review, having slated it for pages, gives the impression that the reviewer is being biased or miserly for the sake of it.
Consider these two examples:
a) I found the book an okay read. It was boring to begin with and then sped up too much towards the end. I enjoyed the twists and I liked the characters.
b) Overall, I quite enjoyed the book. There were some good twists in the plot. I liked the way some of the main characters were portrayed. However, for me the pacing was too slow in the early part of the book and too fast at the end. I felt it had a rushed ending and I found some of the characters unconvincing because they were only sketched out.
Neither are ‘wrong’. However, b) supports a ‘case’ that the book is ‘okay’ and expresses personal feelings with reasons rather than stating ‘facts’. And a) appears to be inconsistent – if they enjoyed the twists and liked the characters why was the book only ‘okay’ ?
We can debate these points, but hopefully you can see the contrasts. Explain, give examples and be fair minded in your review. Even if you don’t like the book!
6) State your recommendation (or lack of one) with a context
Ultimately, your review serves to help other potential readers decide whether to buy and read a book or not. Your case or thesis will help guide their decision. However, people may still disagree with you, hence the need for context. Not everyone wants to read a murder mystery/thriller/vampire/erotic/sci-fi book. Equally there are fans of each genre who read a lot of works with an open mind and forgive ‘errors’.
e.g. A useful close might look like:
‘I recommend this book to all fans of dystopian science fiction, particularly the hard-sci-fi fans’
Or something along the lines of:
‘I would caution Harry Potter fans from reading this book. It is not a patch on the genuine article and I did not enjoy reading it.’
I also suggest that book reviewers should be balanced in their final statements. It is only fair to other potential readers and to the author. Avoid statements like these:
‘This book is rubbish, I binned mine.’
Unhelpful, vindictive and a poor explanation of why to avoid the book.
‘I found it boring, but I suppose it might appeal to younger readers.’
Suggests the reviewer has no grasp of what the book was intended to be and read a book aimed at ‘younger readers’ through the eyes of someone who was not a ‘younger reader’.
‘It’s fantastic, buy it!’
While energetic (and no author would object too much) this statement reads like a paid for review or one from a close family member. They don’t explain why it’s fantastic or relate it to other books. The demand that people ‘buy it’ is also over the top. Anyone can understand that a great book is worth considering. It is for the reader of the reviews (i.e. not just one reviewer’s opinion) to draw their own conclusion.
Much better would be something like:
‘I really loved this book. It reminded me of The Great Gatsby and I thoroughly recommend it.’
7) Now review your text and make corrections
Your first draft book review will contain errors. We are all fallible. So scan it, correct it and look up any spellings you are unsure about. Also, check that you have told a consistent and compelling ‘case’ about the book you’ve read.
‘I luv this book its realy grate.’
Will make you look like an illiterate person (whether you can actually spell or not) and will also undermine your recommendation. Spell checkers and dictionaries are never far away. Text speak in a book review looks really lazy in the context of someone commenting on a completed book.
Hope that helps any budding book reviewers out there.