How to review

As book reviewing becomes more and more the purview of book bloggers (as newspapers fade away, taking their book sections along into the mist), it’s important to consider what reviews must have, what it’s nice to find, and what’s over the top.

So-called professional reviews (so defined, I suppose, because the reviewer is getting paid to write an unbiased, expert review), as found in these standalone book sections of yore, are long. Very long. I think it essential that book bloggers’ reviews not be automatically held to this standard — at least not unthinkingly. Because of the simple fact that bloggers’ reviews are read on-screen, they should be shorter than the massive critiques of yesteryear. Frankly, even on paper, some of those reviews are still too long for my taste.

This article by Michelle Kerns, Book Examiner, lists factors she believes every book review should include.

You should go read it, it’s well-written and a challenge to reviewers of all stripes (and to consumers of reviews, as well). It’s sparked a conversation. For discussion purposes, I’m including here the crux of Kerns’s piece:

    The Book Examiner Book Review format:

  • Title
  • Author
  • The genre(s) this book fits most comfortably within
  • The basic plot
  • How does this author write? (this should include at least one representative sample) Whose writing is it most similar to?
  • What feel does the book have?
  • What worked magnificently
  • What failed miserably
  • How does it compare to other books within the same genre(s)?
  • How does it compare to the author’s other books?
  • What books are most similar to this book?
  • If you like this book, you will probably like …
  • If you hate this book, you will probably like …
  • What to drink while reading this book (you knew I couldn’t leave this out)

It’s obvious to me that some of these pieces are essential. Others certainly add value, while others are generally unnecessary and may merely contribute to undesirable length. Before delving too far into this, though, let’s look at another list, posted (within one day of the first list, although without the blogger’s knowledge of the first) by Chris at book-a-rama:

    How to Write a Review from a Very Amateur Book Blogger

  • Make sure you mention the title and author’s name in the title and body of the post. Don’t rely on a book cover picture. This is important not only to readers but for Google spiderbots that look for content. You want your review to be found.
  • Describe the book briefly. Some bloggers cut and paste from the book jacket. You might choose this route too but I think it’s a good writing exercise to do it yourself. I also think it helps me focus before I give my opinion. Avoid spoilers.
  • Opinion: Find your voice. Blogs are personal and your readers want a sense of the person behind the blog. When you give your opinion, give it in your own style. Is this hard for you? Here’s a trick: pretend your BFF, Mom, spouse, etc., has asked, “Why did you like this book?” What would you say? How would you say it? Think of this question and start writing stream-of-conscious style. Don’t think too hard and don’t worry about grammar. Read what you wrote. Pick your best comments and expand on those ideas.
  • Opinion: What’s the story, Morning Glory? How did you feel about the plot? The characters? Were they relatable? Believable? How was the pacing? Did the story drag? Or could you not put it down? Is the writer a great storyteller? Or was it so-so?
  • The technical details. This is optional but I like it. Tell us about the writing itself. Whose point of view was the told from? What is the writing style? Did it work? Were there a lot of grammatical errors? A lack of punctuation? Did this work as a writing device or was it distracting? How about the atmosphere — dark, funny, etc.?
  • Balance. Try to balance your reviews with both the good and bad. Most books have something good about them. Someone else might like what you didn’t. However, if it just wasn’t for you, say so.
  • Watch your grammar. I’ve made many mistakes, believe me, and will continue to but I do try to catch as many grammatical errors as I can. If you have spell check, use it. Mistakes distract the reader. Try to avoid it.
  • To thine own self be true. This is kind of like finding you voice but encompasses your whole blog. Be honest in your opinions. Your readers will appreciate it. No one will die if you didn’t like Twilight. Be yourself. You have to be able to stand behind what you write. You might like to make an About Me page to clarify your review policies.
  • Ratings? I gave up on rating books because I gave everything a 4 star rating. If you choose to have one, give an explanation of your system somewhere on your blog.
  • Just write! Not everything you write will be gold. When you look back on your blog there will be some reviews you’re really proud of and maybe some you’ll wonder if you wrote at all! That’s okay. Just do it!

Actually, these two lists have a lot of similarities. Here’s the deal. I love that we as bloggers (humans, even) are all unique. I don’t think it’s to anyone’s lasting benefit for all book reviews to be written the same way. It’s great to have a unique style, voice, etc.

For my thoughts here, I’m color-coding the items from the two above lists. These are not set in stone, and I’m not ready to sign a contract that I’ll abide by this myself even, but here goes:

GREEN = Things all book reviews must have
AMBER = Things that add value to a book review, but aren’t essential
RED = Things that might be nice once in a while but could just be making a review too long
(Get it? It’s like a stoplight.)

Word Lily’s Stoplight Guide to Book Reviews

  • Title, author, basic plot synopsis
  • I also have taken to including the publisher, page count, and publication year.

  • Reviewer’s opinion of the book
  • This should at least go beyond “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it,” to include some discussion of the book’s feel, writing, plot, characters, perhaps.
    What I liked, and what I didn’t like.

  • As far as how the book compares to others of its genre or by the same author, this is good information. However, the way the items are worded seems to require that the reviewer has read all of the other books in the universe.
  • It’s also not necessary information.

  • If you like this book, you will probably like … and If you hate this book, you will probably like …

There’s also a good conversation about the initial list at Callista’s blog.


So what do you think? Agree, disagree?

If none of this provokes thought for you (or maybe you just need something to laugh at?), perhaps you’ll enjoy Kerns’s top 20 most annoying book reviewer cliches list.

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7 responses to “How to review

  1. Thanks for linking. Actually I hadn’t seen that Kearns article. My post was in response to the kerfuffle on My Friend Amy’s blog.

    I also agree that it my be hard to the compare books of an author if you’ve only read one book.

  2. This is a really good article (both yours and the others). I wouldn’t mind taking a workshop on reviewing just to fine tune what I write. Sometimes I wonder if my reviews are too long. They are typically four paragraphs – 1) plot summary (I prefer to write my own), 2 + 3) things that I wanted to point out about the book one may be the good while the other is the bad, but not always, and 4) sum it all up. Even when I try to write less it ends up in this format. I guess that’s part of my voice. Love me, love my reviews I suppose.

    I’m not necessarily one for writing about how a novel compares to the rest of its genre or the author’s other works. That smacks too much of writing a paper to me. However, if there is something that strikes me along those lines, I write about it. I hope that makes sense.

    I’m tweeking the formatting of all my posts and so I’m rereading my earlier reviews right now. I can definitely see that I’ve found my voice – or that my voice has gotten stronger. I’d like to think that people who read my reviews and other posts get to know me a little bit.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    • Lit Housewife said: “However, if there is something that strikes me along those lines, I write about it. I hope that makes sense.”

      Yes, that is something I actually said aloud while composing this post! :)

      I’m amazed that you’re going back and re-doing all your old reviews. I know mine have improved immensely, but I’m not ready to make that kind of time investment.

  3. Fantastic post. I love the Stoplight Guide!

  4. This is fabulous! I post regularly about books and call them reviews . . . perhaps it is merely semantics, but I now wonder if I need to either step up my content or call these posts something other than “reviews.” Thanks for consolidating all these sources—I’ll be using this regularly.

  5. I am really shocked by the number of bloggers who don’t give the title and author of the book that they are talking about! I see it so much that it’s a pet peeve. Plus, how do search engines find them? They don’t!

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