10 ways to write a book review and what to do when the book sucks
By Emlyn Chand/ Book reviews. They’re where I found my start as a writer. They’re where many of us find our starts as bloggers. They’re a great way to spread the word about good books, bad books, and everything in between.
They can also be a challenge to write.
One of the most frequent questions I get from other writers is “how can I write a book review?” Luckily, it’s not that tough once you hit your reviewing stride. It may take a while to figure out your style, but once you have it, you have it.
Allow me to offer some assistance. Here are the points I try to hit in most reviews. As you develop your own style, you may find that you prefer to stick to one major element like characterization, plotting, or literary merit—that’s perfectly fine. Find what works for you, and do it.
1. Provide a synopsis—I always start by grounding my review with a synopsis. In a way, I offer my own version of a back cover teaser. I want the reader to know what’s going on, who the key players are and what is at stake before I dive deep into analyzing the writing style or the deeper meaning.
2. Don’t give anything away—Don’t spoil the excitement for future readers by giving away the ending. How many times has a book or movie been ruined for you by a mouthy friend or sibling? If you find it’s impossible to talk about the book without divulging all of the details, come up with an alternate review style. I know one very talented blogger who knows this is a weakness of hers and instead of offering straight reviews asks very insightful interview questions. And it works for her.
3. Talk about the key characters—I’ve seen many reviews which are conducted primarily as character studies, and they are really quite effective. Give a run down of each of the key players, his or her motivations, unique quirks and importance within the story. Perhaps add in an intro to explain how the characters are connected to one another or work their descriptions into your synopsis. Another fun tactic you could employ would be doing the review from a character’s point-of-view. I have yet to write a review this way, but I have written a few book trailer scripts, and I find it quite enjoyable. Authors tend to enjoy the fresh perspective as well.
4. Analyze the deeper meaning—Why was this book important? What does it have to say about society at large? How does it reflect upon the human condition? Break it down for the readers. Most books will have at least some deeper meaning hidden within them. If the one you’re reviewing doesn’t or it’s just too difficult to find, analyze the entertainment value. Let the reader know what the book meant to you and why you decided to read it in the first place.
5. Keep your balance—Overly negative or unconditionally positive reviews suck. They just do. Why bash your fellow writer (especially when you know how time-consuming and emotionally wrought the entire process is)? Alternately, over-enthusiasm may come across as bias. “What does this reviewer have to gain?” A reader may ask. I make it a practice to only review books that I like, which means I may sometimes sway to the over zealous side of things. Providing my interpretation of the book’s synopsis definitely provides some balance. I also have created a device that I use in some of my reviews that gives a list of reasons why a reader may like a particular book and why she’ll dislike it. I’ve gotten very positive feedback on this method but find it hard to provide might not likes for contemporary authors.
6. Ask questions—I like asking questions, both in real life and in writing life. Questions are fun. They set the reader thinking. They draw people in. Maybe others have the same questions nagging in the backs of their minds but don’t realize it until you set fingers to keyboard and get those questions out there. I especially like asking questions at the end of reviews to give the reader something to think about after the fact. Hopefully, my questions haunt them enough to encourage some book sales. Search through the reviews on my site and find one without a question in it—seriously, I challenge you!
7. Provide links—Give the reader somewhere to go for more information. Link to the author’s site, the book sale page on Amazon, an interview the author did about the book, something to do with the book’s setting or theme—whatever—just link! Links also help with your SEO, which brings more traffic to your blog.
8. Introduce the author—Yes, yes, the focus of a book review is the book, but I still like to make mention of the author and his or her possible motivations and personal tie-ins. Sometimes you may want to integrate an interview into your review. Ask poignant questions and then craft the best answers into a cohesive article-style post rather than a structured Q & A. Let people know if more books are coming soon or if the author has given up society to go live in the woods and carve her stories into tree trunks. It’s interesting.
9. Bring your own unique flair—Every writer is unique. Every book is unique. Therefore, every book review is unique. Perhaps you’ll develop a format that you use for every single review, and that’s fine. Sometimes a certain book will refuse to fit into your review mold (see my write-up of Ulysses linked below), and you’ll have to work with it. Whatever you decide to do, don’t lose your you-ness. Don’t try to write like the reviewer at the New Yorker or USA Today. I promise something about you is exciting and interesting. If you bring that into your reviews, they’ll be much stronger.
10. If you don’t like the book…Eek. More than “how do I write a book review” I am asked “what do I do when I’ve agreed to review a book but find I don’t like it?” This is very tricky indeed. I have a tendency to review only books I do enjoy to avoid being negative. But sometimes you’re stuck. Either you’ve agreed to review a book for a gig or because you have a personal connection to the author. You can’t back out.
Well, I wouldn’t recommend tearing into a book when you have a personal connection to the author. It’s just not worth it. I also don’t recommend lying in your review and risking credibility. Even reneging on your offer of a review can be very hurtful. But there are a few things you can do.
You can choose to interview the author instead—give him a chance to talk about his book’s merits without having to proclaim your adoration. You can focus on the synopsis technique outlined above—present the facts without providing your personal opinion. You can focus on the positive and fail to discuss areas that don’t work. Just don’t lie; it’s a mistake. With a little creative thinking, you’ll be able to figure out a way to provide an honest review or interview while preserving your relationship with the author. If you don’t have a personal tie to the author—no problem. Just remember point #5 above: keep your balance.
Bonus Tip: A great way to gather reviews for your book is to review others’ books. Writerly karma goes a long, long way, my friends.
Reviews I’ve written:
- Jodi Picoult’s Sing You Home
- Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest
- Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables
- Terri Giuilano Long’s In Leah’s Wake
- John Irving’s Prayer for Owen Meany
- Ian McEwan’s Atonement
- James Joyce’s Ulysses
- Victoria Forester’s Girl who could Fly
- …and a whole bunch of others
Emlyn Chand was born with a fountain pen grasped firmly in her left hand (true story). Novel Publicity's mascot is a Sun Conure, thanks to her obsession with birds–and she gets to decide anyway since she is the company's founder and president. Although her first novel Farsighted won the prestigious Writer's Digest Self-Published Novel of the Year award in 2012 for the YA category, she now writes most of her fiction under her “real” name, Melissa Storm. Learn more or connect with her (or her Sun Conure, Ducky!) on either of her author websites: www.emlynchand.com or www.melstorm.com. You can also friend her on Facebook, tweet with her @novelpublicity, or send her an email via [email protected].