How to write a book review

I’m the editor at an online literary fiction review called Dactyl Review. We  receive a lot of  emails asking  for some general pointers for writing reviews.  Most requests have come from conscientious readers who want to post their first review on, GoodReads or LibraryThing.  As a supporter of literature, I liked to help the reviewing world do a good job, on Dactyl Review and elsewhere.  So here’s some guidance that (I hope) will help you write the kind of review that will be useful to readers and writers alike, no matter what you think of the book.

A good review is not necessarily one that is full of praise.  Your tastes, the writer’s tastes, and potential readers’ tastes may vary wildly.  So saying you liked the book so much you couldn’t put it down is pretty much useless information. Just give it the appropriate number of stars. If you can’t resist saying you liked it or didn’t, be specific about the kinds of books you generally like, so that readers understand something about the criteria you are using when you give it the thumbs up or thumbs down. If you like “Romance” novels and the book you are reviewing is “experimental fiction,” then your thumbs down on the book might actually convince readers to buy it rather than not.

The objective of any review should be to help readers make their own decisions. Therefore, a good review is specific and provides examples from the writing to support the opinions offered.  Of course, to be fair, the examples should be more or less typical of the style. Don’t quote the worst or best sentences if they are not in keeping with the rest of the book.  All good reviewers read with pen in hand and mark passages that stand out so that they will be able to go back and choose lines to quote. Never rely on your general impressions of a book. Always be prepared to back up what you say.

Apparently, most reviewers have been told as students to “say what you liked about the book and didn’t like about the book.” I can just see schoolmarms all over the country writing this down on blackboards and students diligently copying it out. These days too many reviews, even in professional publications, seesaw their ways through their analyses in a grotesque parody of “unbiased” reporting.  If you don’t have anything bad to say, don’t bother or at least don’t bother too much.  Whatever you do, don’t try to make the “good” and the “bad” points equal in length. If you don’t have any thing good to say, then you probably shouldn’t bother writing the review.

Take less than half of your review for a synopsis. You are writing a “review,” after all, not a “report.” In general, it’s a good idea to summarize the “initiating event,”  explain what the main character does in response, and, if appropriate, say whether the response worked out for the character or not. Then pick a crucial scene and/or favorite aspect to focus on. Some novels may not have “initiating events,” but they will likely have something similar, e.g. initial conditions that either change or stay the same.

Most importantly, never assume that the writer fails.  Too many reviewers judge books according to their own expectations.  If you like happy endings and the book ends in disaster, resist the temptation to say “the ending wasn’t very good.”  Don’t say the “pace was off,” assuming the writer meant to keep the pace to your liking.  Don’t say the writer failed to make the main character likable when this may not have been the intention.  Whatever the effect of the book, assume, for the sake of the review, that the writer intended this effect, then show how it was accomplished. For example, if the main character is not a likable person, quote lines that show the character doing/saying/thinking offensive things. I cannot stress how important this piece of advice is for writing good reviews. It shows respect for the writer, and it will help prevent you, the reviewer, from seeming like a pompous ass.

You also might want to say something about whether or not the writer sticks to the conventions of the genre he or she is working in.  This, of course, assumes you know for certain the genre and are very familiar with its conventions. And here again be careful not to assume failure. The book might be a parody of a genre or the writer might be intentionally breaking convention. You can compare the book to others like it in style or to previous books by the same author. Again support your assertions with quotes.  In the end, say something that seems to sum up your review by confirming the points you’ve made throughout.

Your review will not be “objective” if you follow this advice. It will still be subjective, but all your opinions will be substantiated by quotes from the book. Good luck and remember to always review responsibly.

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