Writing Book Reviews—Well

This is an essay by Dianna L. Gunn.

You might think that writing a book review is as simple as reading a book and writing down what you think about it. I used to think the same thing. Then, as time went by and I spoke to some people who actually review books for money, I realized I had it all wrong.

To be a book reviewer, you can’t just read like anyone else would. Think about all the books you’ve read. Do you remember the great lines? Can you name almost all the characters? Can you actually write a synopsis that makes sense based on what you remember?

Probably not. If you are trying to write book reviews on your blog or for a publication, you might find yourself struggling to say something unique about the book you just read. Your brain might suddenly fog up when you’re trying to write a book review.

We can’t rely purely on memory if we’re trying to really help our readers. I’ve recently started paying more attention when I read a book that I’m planning to review. There are five basic things I’ve been doing to make the most of my book reviews.

Follow these steps, and you can make your book reviews even more interesting:

1. Read slowly. As tempting as it is to rush through a book and find out the ending at top speed, it’s not a good strategy when you’re going to review the book later. You need to make sure that you absorb everything that happens in the book, so read slowly. Re-read paragraphs or even whole chapters if you have to. Take your time and make sure you thoroughly understand what the book is about and how the plot works.

2. Take notes. I know that finishing high school English was a great moment. I bet you thought—aha, now I never have to take notes while I read again.

Wrong. In order to be a good book reviewer, you need to remember important things about the books: names of main characters, important parts of the plot, details of the setting. You need to be able to tell people why you thought it was a good book or a bad book. This means you have to take notes.

Your notes don’t have to be extensive, however. You may have had ten—or twenty—pages of notes for the last book you wrote an English essay on. The book you’re about to review, on the other hand, might be worth only two or three pages of notes. Write down only the most important, touching or interesting parts of the book so you don’t lose the joy of reading.

3. Deconstruct the book to figure out what works. As you’re getting ready to write a book review, think about why the book works. Figure out how the writer convinced you to like or not like a certain character and how they drew you into the world. Those are the things your reader is going to want to know. While you’re reading—or, at the latest, while you’re planning your book review—ask yourself the following:

  • Why do I like/dislike the main character?
  • Does the writer use all the senses well?
  • What makes the location of the story so interesting?
  • Did I learn anything from this book?
  • Who else would enjoy this book?

4. Figure out what you would have done differently. In other words, what do you think the writer should have included that they left out? Did they forget to develop one of the characters properly? Is their new culture too close to ours to be unique?

There can be a lot of things you might have done differently without you disliking the book. For example, I loved Dragon Night by Stephanie Campbell, but when I reviewed it on my blog, I mentioned that the culture could have been developed further. That’s not to say it hurt the book—it’s just to say a little more culture would have been nice.

5. Decide on a rating system. Not all book review blogs rate books, but some do. Before you start reviewing books, it’s a good idea to decide what sort of rating system you’re going to use. You can use basic numbers on a five or ten scale basis—i.e. 1/5 or 1/10—or you can go online and find a fancy star graphic to use. Of course, any other kind of graphic—moons, suns, cats—works too. Deciding against using a rating system is fine too. Just make sure you know what system you’re going to use before you start writing book reviews.

There are hundreds, probably thousands, of book bloggers. No matter what genre you review or how much advice I give you, it will be a struggle to make yourself heard. Armed with these five tips, however, you’ll be able to write a book review that should satisfy any curious reader.

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Dianna L. Gunn is a young Canadian beginning her career as a freelance writer and blogger and hoping to someday soon begin her career as a fiction writer. She blogs about writing at Dianna’s Writing Den and is currently an editorial intern with Musa Publishing, working for the Penumbra speculative fiction eMagazine.

For further reading, please consider this essay by Brandon Monk which applies this process to the reading of a novel by Andrew Blackman: Writing Book Reviews – An Application

Photo: Some rights reserved by donovanhouse

7 Replies to “Writing Book Reviews—Well”

  1. As the Book Review Editor for VSPN.org, I enjoyed your post immensely. You really nailed the style of reading that it takes to be a good book reviewer. One cannot just read the book, you almost “become” the book. I myself review textbooks of veterinary medicine and even textbooks take on a personality that must be discovered if the review is to be successfula nd provide useful information. Great job, great post.
    Oreta Samples

  2. Thank you for this post! Ive recently been looking into what it takes to be a book reviewer and this is the most informative and useful article I have found on the subject thus far. I bookmarked your post and will be coming back to it again!

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