Writing Useful Book Reviews

After writing about this subject before, I’ve had several people say it was helpful, but they’d really appreciate something more…specific. It can be tough to take that feeling you get when you finish a book and translate it into a handful of sentences. I’ve had a few times myself when I had to stare at the screen for a few minutes to come up with something to say. Here are some questions to ask yourself so you can pin down your reaction and write a review:

1. Did I like the book?

Seems obvious, but worth mentioning. Say directly how you felt about it. ‘I loved it!’, ‘I hated it!’, ‘I liked it.’, and ‘I can’t decide if I liked it or not.’ are all valid things to include in a review. The more you liked it, the less things you should have found wrong with it, so if you’re unsure how you really feel about the book, or the degree to which you liked or disliked it, move on and come back to this one.

2. Did the main character inspire any feelings for me?I sometimes wish people had a gauge like this to check

The underlying question here is whether the book was written well enough to emotionally involve you in the character. It’s not about whether you liked the character or not, it’s about whether you cared. If you don’t care about the character, it’s harder to have significant interest in the book overall. Wanting to smack a character for doing something dumb or obnoxious means you’re interested enough to care and have an emotional reaction to it. Likewise, wanting to meet the character in real life (for whatever, I don’t judge) is being interested in them.

3. Did everything feel ‘realistic’?

Most fiction is, of course, not real. The question is whether you had moments while reading where your ability to suspend disbelief was strained to the point that you lost immersion. If you find yourself stopping and thinking ‘that makes no sense’, that’s a problem. In some genres, such as sword and sorcery fantasy, that’s less of an issue, but it still happens. I’ve read books where the setting left me confused as to why any sane person would settle in a place where a town is, and it detracted from the story.

4. Did you notice poor grammar, lots of typos, or confusing phrasing?

If you didn’t notice, great! If you did notice, the necessity of re-reading sentences and phrases can pull you out of the story long enough to get annoyed by it. Don’t nitpick about a few typos, though. There’s no such thing as a proofreader who catches them all, and it’s monstrously easy to get one or two inserted during the formatting process. Cut authors a little slack–but not too much. My guideline is that I’m willing to ignore up to 1 typo per chapter. More than that and I comment about it.

5. Do you think the blurb/description is clear about the subject matter, or were you completely surprised by the contents of the book?

As an author, I know this much with certainty: writing blurbs is tough. Few of us like doing it. Many of us aren’t that great at it. Sometimes, the blurb highlights parts that the author thinks are important, but the reader disagrees. The author may have forgotten to mention something you think is critical to know before starting it, or maybe it really needs a trigger warning or other content note. Feel free to provide such a warning or note for other readers.

6. If you didn’t like it, unless it’s already addressed by one of the above questions, what specifically turned you off?

This is probably the most important question of all. There does not exist a book that is universally liked by everyone. Every single book in existence, ever and forever, has a segment of humanity that will not like it. Guaranteed. The important part is why you didn’t like it. The things you hate could be the very things I love, and your negative review may be what sells the book to me.

Take the answers to these questions and do your best to articulate them in words. Here’s one more note to keep in mind:

Reviews are not intended for the author, nor should they be about the author. Instead, it’s a notice for other potential purchasers to help them decide if they want the product or not. Because a book is a product, much like a painting is a product. Writing and painting as verbs are art. Writing and painting as nouns are products.

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