6 things you need to know about book reviews by Rebecca Byfield
How do you write a book review?
It might seem like a straight forward thing, so why do so many people get it wrong?
While this is aimed at writing book reviews, the information in it is just as important regardless of what you are reviewing: movies, services, products..
First let’s start with the basics.
1. What is a review?
Over the last few years, there has been an explosion in the number of people posting book reviews – or at least, what they think are book reviews.
For the most part, what are really being posted are book reports. You know – those things you used to have to crank out in high school.
So what is the difference between the two?
By definition, a book report is a rehash of a book you have read. (The book report was actually thought up by teachers to prove students read the book – ie, give me a summary of the book in 300 hundred words or less, and tell me how it made you feel, or what the author was trying to convey when they wrote it).
A book review, on the other hand, is a form of literary criticism that scrutinizes the content, style and merit of the book.
A review should give new and original information about the book, and forms the basis of your recommendation.
“Too many book reviews are actually book reports, and offer nothing to the potential buyer.”
2. What purpose does it serve?
The main purpose of a book review is to convey your opinion and your recommendation.
Yes, that’s right – I said your opinion.
As a potential reader who has chosen your review to read, I want to know what you thought of the book. I wouldn’t be reading your review if I just wanted a recap of the blurb.
I can already hear a number of you cringing at that thought. I can hear you saying ‘but I don’t want to be mean. What if I scare off a potential reader? Won’t I be hurting that poor author’s sales?’
In a word – NO!
Go to Goodreads and read the reviews of 50 Shades of Grey.
Nobody could ever argue that this book isn’t a bestseller. The author has made a ton of money. Yet on Goodreads, it has an average rating of just 3.60. A whopping 62,306 people gave it a 1 star rating or review. A further 58,795 people gave it just 2 stars. That means 23% of people who rated the book did not like it.
Do you think Ms James cares that over 100,000 people rated her book so low? I can guarantee she doesn’t. She’s laughing all the way to the bank, because even those low ratings have pushed her book up the best-seller list. What’s more, there are another 380,000 people who did like the book to some varying degree, and gave it a rating of 3 or higher.
Then there is that other massively successful bestseller, Twilight, which has a user rating of just 3.58.
Out of more than 1.6 million ratings, 190,394 rated it 1 star. A further 171,763 rated it 2 stars, yet that still equates to only 22% of the total ratings. More than 1.2 million people liked it and rated it above 3 stars.
Remember, opinions are subjective. Everybody has one.
A well written 1 star review can actually result in sales. No, I haven’t lost my mind. Think about it. Just say I’m on the lookout for an erotic novel that makes my pulse race.
If someone has given the book 1 star, and told me that they were disgusted by the sexual content, and it went against all of their moral beliefs, then that 1 star review is actually a 5 star recommendation to someone looking for that exact content.
On the other hand, had I just said ‘Crap book. Don’t bother reading it,’ I haven’t given the potential reader anything to form an opinion by. I’ve just flamed the book.
“A review should help a potential reader make an informed decision on whether to buy a book or not.”
3. Who is our audience?
There are thousands – hundreds of thousands – of book review sites and blogs all over the Internet. And who do you think the main audience is?
Well I’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s not authors.
The target audience for book reviews is readers; people who will actually take your advice and use it to make a decision on their next book purchase.
So why do so many reviewers get it wrong?
Simple – they try to please the author and, in the process, forget who their ‘client’ really is.
Sure, you can fill your blog full of four and five star reviews. You may think you’re being positive and farting rainbows, but the truth is, your audience will stop trusting your opinion.
If you tell me that Book X was fantastic, and you give it five stars, I’m going to expect it to be fantastic and deserve five stars.
Just say I read that book and find it is poorly edited, has a plot hole bigger than the Grand Canyon and an ending that makes no sense whatsoever.
It’s very possible that we just had a difference of opinion. People have them all the time. Critics rave about books I loathed, and pan books I loved. We all take different things out of books.
However, while I may accept a difference of opinion a couple of times, if I never agree with your assessment, and am always left bitterly disappointed after reading the books you recommend, I am going to stop trusting your opinion. I will go somewhere else to get advice on books to read – and so will many of your other readers.
Sure, you will get a pat on the head from the author for giving him five stars, but your core audience – readers – have gone elsewhere, and now your reviews are being read by no one.
Writing reviews is about building trust. Your audience has to trust that you have their best interests at heart. They have to believe that what you write is your honest opinion on the book, not just some flowery prose to fluff out some author’s ego.
So here are two things you need to remember:
You don’t write reviews for authors. You write them for readers.
Give your audience reason to trust you.
“If you want to write book reviews that people trust, give your honest opinion. Don’t pull your punches to protect an author’s feelings.”
4. What are the mechanics of a good review?
A good review should tell me whether you liked a book or not, but most importantly, it should tell me why!
It’s not enough to just say ‘great book’. I want to know what made it great. What did you enjoy about it?
Maybe it had great pace, or page turning suspense. Maybe the characters were believable and engaging, or the plot was so strong, Superman couldn’t poke holes in it.
On the other hand, maybe the book lacked editing or character development. Perhaps the plot resembled Swiss cheese it had so many holes in it.
Or maybe you just didn’t like the story line. That doesn’t mean there was necessarily anything wrong with it; you just didn’t enjoy the book.
Take Eat, Pray, Love for example. The book was a commercial success, and was made into a film starring Julia Roberts. But personally, I hated it!
There was nothing wrong with the writing. There was nothing wrong with the character, or the plot. There was nothing technically wrong with the story at all.
So why did I hate it so much?
Because I found the whole concept to be completely selfish. One woman divorces a perfectly good man so she can go and ‘find’ herself. She spends an entire book belly-button gazing and looking inwards at herself.
The book pressed one of my hot buttons – my pet hates, if you will. I personally believe half of the problem with our world is that, as humans, we are endemically selfish. We are always looking inwards, when really we should be looking out. We are always worried about how things affect us, when we should be worried about how our actions affect others.
See, I told you it was a hot button.
Is my opinion on this book going to turn millions of people away? Hell no! But what it has done is given a meaningful insight into the book. The only people who will be influenced by my opinion are those who share a similar viewpoint of the world.
I have a similar issue with a number of Indie books that I read and review.
Some have really good storylines and characters but it is very obvious they have not been properly edited.
Now for some people, they can overlook editing issues. For me, they are a hot button. They irritate me to the point that I spend half my time highlighting every error I find. I end up feeling like I’m marking a kid’s school essay, and that is not enjoyable to me at all.
If I point out in my review that a book had editing issues, all I am doing is forewarning anyone as anal as me. I am potentially saving a fellow reader a boot load of frustration.
I’m also making the author aware that there are issues. For every person who writes a review, there are hundreds more who read a book and won’t take the time.
As an author myself, I’d prefer to know as soon as possible that there are major issues with my book, before I turn a lot of people off ever bothering to read another of my stories again.
In a review, you might want to answer one or more of the following questions:
- What’s the basic plot of the book? Don’t give us a book report, or a full rehash of the story. Just recount the central themes. Be careful not to give away any major spoilers or reveal pivotal twists in the storyline.
- Who was your favourite character(s) and what did you like about them? Did they feel real, or were they lacking development? How about the bad guys? Were they believable or cardboard cutouts? Did they make you hate them? Perhaps you felt sorry for them and understood where they were coming from?
- What was your favourite scene(s), and why?
- How was the pace? Did you find it easy to put the book down at night, or impossible to stop reading?
- Was the book full of clichés and stereotypes?
- Did the storyline keep you guessing, or was it predictable?
- How did you feel about the central theme? Was it uplifting, confronting, emotional, or horrifying?
- Was it a topic or genre that you would normally read? Does that affect your overall feeling for the book?
- What emotions did the book bring out in you?
- What about technique? Did the writer change point of view suddenly and without warning? Were there editorial issues? Plot holes? Character issues? Or did you find the book technically perfect but still unappealing?
- Who is the target audience of the book?
- What other books might it be compared to – and how does it rate against other books in its genre?
- Now for the biggies – at the end of the day, did you enjoy reading the book? Would you read it again? Would you recommend it to your mother? Your best friend? Your school librarian? Are you willing to put your stamp of approval against the book?
“It doesn’t matter whether you liked a book or hated it. The important thing is the reasons why.”
5. How long should it be?
How long is a piece of string?
A book review can be short and sweet and straight to the point, or it can go into great depth. The length is completely up to you as a reviewer, and how comfortable you are with your writing.
If you do decide to write a longer review, you might think about breaking it up into segments with subject headings, such as overall view of the book, what worked, and what didn’t.
6. How do you write criticism?
Ultimately, reviews are tools to help readers buy books. This means that, sometimes, you have to point out a book’s faults.
However, there is a massive difference between writing a critical review and flaming an author.
It is human nature to let our emotions get in the way – just take a look at some of the nasty stuff that gets said on social media.
However, vile, hateful posts, or flaming an author will lose you respect quicker than if you just wrote fluffy, rainbow reviews.
If there are flaws with the book, point it out but do it in a nice way.
There are two things to keep in mind when pointing out negative aspects of a book.
1. Keep it constructive.
2. Always temper the criticism with praise.
Constructive criticism is exactly as it sounds. You are pointing out a fault but doing it in a way that is designed to build up (construct) rather than tear down (destruct).
For example, saying “I can’t believe this guy passed the sixth grade, let alone managed to write a book. Seriously dude, don’t give up your day job. My dog can spell better than you,” is negative criticism (or destructive criticism) that does nothing but flame.
However, I can say “while I think the author has a great gift for storytelling, the book would have benefitted from tighter editing. Quite a few spelling mistakes and syntax errors slipped through the net. With better editing, this book has all the hallmarks of a best seller.”
In the latter example, you have kept the criticism constructive, telling the author something that they could improve upon, but you have also softened it by congratulating him on his storytelling abilities.
You have also ‘sandwiched’ the criticism between praise by starting off with something positive, mentioning the things you didn’t like, and then finishing off with something else helpful or complimentary.
Sometimes it is good to split your criticism into two categories: story and technique.
I have read quite a few books lately that have brilliant storyline and characters but a lot of technical issues. Perhaps they jump between POVs without giving the reader fair warning, or switch between past and present tense. Maybe there was an unacceptable amount of spelling or editing errors.
On the other hand, I have also read books that are technically brilliant but the storyline just failed to grab me, or perhaps there were aspects of the storyline I didn’t enjoy, or which pressed one of my hot buttons.
By pointing out exactly what you did or didn’t like about a book, you actually give potential readers far more to base their decision on.
“Constructive criticism is designed to build up rather than tear down.”
The most important thing to remember when writing a review is that there is no right or wrong answer.
What one person loves another may hate.
Our reaction to things is a very personal, subjective matter influenced by a number of factors. If you are completely honest about your response to whatever it is you’re reviewing, your audience will enjoy reading your thoughts even if they don’t always agree with your opinion.