Today we will take a look at what goes into writing the (almost) perfect book review. Nothing is ever really perfect, but those imperfections should never be an excuse for being unprofessional or rude.
Okay, so you’re new to the fine art of writing book reviews. Maybe you’re not quite sure how to go about sharing that incredible (or terrible) story you just finished reading (or couldn’t force yourself to read the entire thing). The hope here is that perhaps we can shed some light on approaching the task—regardless of your feelings toward the book in question.
Book reviews are opinions and nothing else. But these are valued opinions (when done correctly) that can guide readers to—or away from—an author’s hard work. Opinions will always vary when it comes to books, movies, restaurants, or anything else that is often the target of reviews. I may not have enjoyed the mashed potatoes at Cracker Barrel, but those same spuds may stir recollections of Granny’s home-cooked Sunday dinners from way back in another patron. So does that make my opinion any greater than another’s? Not a chance. My opinion is just an option for those reading reviews of dinner choices at the local Cracker Barrel.
But this presentation isn’t about culinary creativity. We’re here to discuss books and the reviews we seek to write. I’ve written over a hundred book reviews and dozens of concert and record album reviews. Book reviews (and movie reviews) are a different breed from other write-ups in that there are certain things of which you need to be aware when sharing your thoughts on the latest novel you’ve read.
The first (and most important) item to remember is: NO SPOILERS! Not even with a “spoiler alert” attached to the front end of your review. If there’s a twist at the end of the story that really blew your mind, then please allow the next mind to be equally blown. I hate it when such things are divulged—even with a warning. I may choose to not read beyond the warning, but that doesn’t mean a friend will stop at that point. This friend then decides to bring up the twist as I’m mentioning the new book I just added to my Kindle.
I call to mind the first time I saw the movie The Others. I hadn’t even heard of this film prior to my viewing it one lazy afternoon. I remember thinking that the film trotted along at a rather slow pace—so much so that I nearly turned the channel. I’m glad I didn’t. As the film progressed, I became even more invested. And as it reached its conclusion, POW! I honestly did not see that twist coming. And thankfully, I was able to be floored by the brilliance of the writing and the acting because nobody spoiled it for me.
I’ve read the novel Me & Emma by Elizabeth Flock. This wonderful story contains a twist at the end that spins the entire story into a whole new perspective from the one through which I’d viewed it right up to the final two chapters. Good writers will do these things. Good reviewers will leave those things hidden, allowing the next readers to discover those gems for themselves. So please leave the spoiler alerts out of your reviews.
The next thing to keep in mind is: DITCH THE PLAY-BY-PLAY! A review is never meant to be an outline spilling plot details. Neither is it supposed to be a road map through the story. If I can gather most of what’s going on between those book covers from your review, what reason do I have in investing money and time in reading it for myself? This only serves to cheat the reader out of a good read, and it snuffs out a sale for the author.
A well-written review will give us just a taste of the plot, a glimpse into the lives of the characters, and offer opinions on whether or not the author has what it takes to tell a fine story. It should be a critique of story and style.
This leads us to another very important point: ATTACKING CONTENT MISSES THE MARK! Okay, so what exactly am I talking about? Saying you didn’t like the story in question because the girl was raped or a child died says more about the reviewer than it says about the book. If we’re voracious readers, we’ll eventually run into a story that may, at points, make us feel uncomfortable. My skin was crawling at times while reading The End of Alice by A. M. Homes. It’s a dark read, this story. But Miss Homes is one of my favorite writers. Her stories are vivid with living characters. She, as a writer, is skilled at yanking the reader from his or her comfort zone. The best writers are able to do these things without a second thought.
The End of Alice is a bestseller. I mention this only because, as such, there are quite a few reviews for this work. The titles of some of those reviews posted on Amazon are rather telling. Beautifully Disturbing; Disgusting, But Impossible to Forget; Fascinating, Frustrating and Disappointing—but Unforgettable. Most opinions of this book award four and five stars—even though many of these reviewers found the story quite disturbing. Then there are those who simply attack the content and do all they can to steer potential readers away from this work.
Did the writing captivate you? Are the characters believable? What sort of emotions did you experience while reading? Did the author pull you out of your comfort zone? Is it a well-written story without punctuation or spelling errors? Did you care about the characters or were they worthy of being hated? These are the sorts of questions we should ponder while determining our opinions of the works of others.
Not all reviews warrant four and five stars. But that’s not license to attack an author’s work either. An honest review should be constructive in its criticism, not destructive. Social media is rife with mean and nasty comments that are designed to tear down rather than build up. Take into consideration the author may learn something from your review, and thus become a better writer because of you! Be honest, be tactful, be kind—even if it’s a 1, 2, or 3 star review. If you don’t like a particular story, explain the reasons behind your opinion.
As reviews coordinator for RRBC, I’ve heard from members who found issues with books they’ve read. They tell me they feel guilty writing a one or two star review. Well, if that’s their honest opinion, then that’s what they should award. I challenge them to offer the author—as well as potential future readers—an explanation on why they arrived at this rating. Are there punctuation problems? Plot holes? Is the story just too unbelievable? Share these details—but do so in a way that teaches. Be encouraging rather than discouraging.
And finally, when posting your reviews, be sure to proofread before sharing with the world via Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Nothing is quite as ridiculous as a critique of another’s work in a review filled with misspellings, missing or poor punctuation, and sentences that make little or no sense at all. If need be, allow another pair of eyes to do the proofreading for you—before you hit the post button. Your words represent you as a writer—whether they’re reviews, blog articles, essays, or novels. Always strive to make a strong impression. And remember, writing reviews is another way to make connections in the indie author world. If you’re needlessly harsh in your criticisms, that’s a reflection on you.