Monday, November 9, 2015

How to Write a Book Review in 4 Easy Steps

Ah, book reviews. As a reader, I have a love-hate relationship with book reviews. For most of the books I read, I only look at a handful of reviews prior to reading. And those I do read are usually the 1 and 2 star reviews. If there is consistency in the negative reviews—poorly written/edited, clich├ęd plot, incomplete ending—then I think twice before reading. If the negative reviews are random or about things not important to me—such as the author using too many swear words—then I will likely jump in and read the book. I then go back and read several reviews, both positive and negative, after I finish the book to see how the views of other readers compare to my own. I especially like doing this for a book that I’ve read outside of my book club. Although it’s not a two way discussion, it sort of feels like a virtual book club review!

I love reviews because many times someone else’s analysis helps me process my own thoughts and feelings. It also helps me determine if I should take a chance on an author who I haven’t read before. I hate them because often people leave spoilers, gripe about things that are not essential to the book, or use it as a venue to berate the author.

As a fairly new indie author, it doesn’t matter how I feel about reviews. I need them—it’s that simple. As I mentioned above, I use reviews for authors who are new to me to determine if it’s worth my time and money to invest in one of their books. I’m confident that I’m not alone in this practice. I’m still building my reader platform, and reviews help me connect with readers who have never heard of me. The challenge is that only a small percentage of readers will leave a review. That means if I want reviews then I have to ask some people to do something they’ve never done before. As a result, I’ve had several readers tell me that they’d like to leave a review but didn’t know how to write one.

Luckily, that’s a problem I can help solve.

4 Easy Steps for Writing a Book Review

1) Read the book.
I know, I know. Sounds like this might be something you’d hear from Mr. Obvious. The unfortunate reality is that it needs to be said. Never, ever, review a book you haven’t read. Don’t leave a 5-star review because you love the cover, because the author is a friend/family member and therefore it must be fabulous, or because you have loved all of the authors other books and consequently you just know you will love this book too before you’ve even purchased it. Also, book reviews are not favors. If an author asks you to review a book without reading it first, just remember that it’s your integrity on the line.

2) Be honest.
Similar to my first point, it seems that this should go without saying. However, the pressure is sometimes there to rate/review a book higher than you want. Maybe you know the author and you don’t want to hurt his or her feelings. Maybe all the other reviews are glowing and you don’t want to be the one to go against the grain. Try to resist the pressure. It truly is better for both the readers and the author if you’re honest in your review.

3) Be respectful.
In this world of technology, it’s easy to forget that we’re not just talking to our computer screens when we post something on a public page. There are ways to respectfully say that a book is poorly written. You should simply say, “The book was poorly written, with several mistakes.” That will go over much better than, “The author is an illiterate idiot who has no business writing books. Stay away from this foul smelling piece of crap.” Remember that a review is in your words, so it reflects upon you just as much as it does the product you are reviewing.

4) Keep it simple.
I’m assuming that most of you are not looking to become book bloggers. If I’m wrong in that assumption, then you will need to create more in-depth reviews—here’s an article that will help you get started. But for the vast majority of you, a simple review will be sufficient.

I’ll start with the rating. Most book review sites require a rating (usually 5 stars, with 5 being the highest) along with the review. The simplest way to rate a book is to first identify the one book you’ve read that you love more than any other. That’s your 5 star benchmark. Then identify the book you liked the least. That’s your 1 star benchmark. From there, compare each book you read to those two books to determine its rating.

For the actual review, the simplest approach is to focus on how the book made you feel. Did it make you happy, sad, angry, frustrated, hot and bothered, confused, irritated, entertained, scared, hopeful . . . You get the idea. Once you identify how the book made you feel, base your review around that emotion. A simple and effective way to write a review is to answer these three questions:
  • 1st Sentence: How did it make you feel?
  • 2nd Sentence: Why did it make you feel that way?
  • 3rd Sentence: Who would you recommend this book to?

Here are two examples from books I’ve recently read using this approach. One I loved and one I thought was only OK.

Example 1: I thought this book was amazing and it really made me think about how we live our lives. The author’s unique approach to the storyline introduced a diverse view into how our environment affects who we are as people. I’d recommend this book to anyone looking for a thought-provoking read.

Example 2: I enjoyed several parts of this book, but the ending killed it for me. I personally felt the ending was far reaching and the characters resolved their issues rather quickly. It wasn’t a bad book, so you might want to check it out if you enjoy historical fiction and family dynamics.

Pretty simple, right? If you want to go into more detail, that’s perfectly fine. You might want to comment on the writing style, the characters, the flow, etc.

Finally, two things you should not include in your review:
  • If the author is a family member/friend/friend of the family, don’t mention it in the review. Not for the purpose of hiding it, but because it will discredit your review. If you read the book then you have a right to review it. And if you’re following step #2 (be honest) then it shouldn’t matter if you have a connection to the author or not.
  • Try your best to not give spoilers. Many review sites have a feature where you can hide spoilers. Use this feature if you feel you can’t give a review without disclosing some of the plot twists. If there is no spoiler feature available (such as on Amazon) the put at the top of your review, “This review contains spoilers.”

I’ve focused on fiction novels in this post (since that’s what I write), but these same steps can be applied to non-fiction as well. You’ll just have to add a bit more around the validity of the topic and approach.

Now, go out and review a book!

~ Carrie


Stephen Kozeniewski said...

Great, great, great advice, Carrie. I agree that reading reviews (especially from source I trust, like the AV Club or Ebert before he passed away) helps me gel what my feelings were. It also makes me worry that maybe I didn't feel that way until I read the review, so usually I try to write my own review of something (if I'm going to) before checking out any reviews. But that's just me. I think this would be a great post to share with reluctant reviewers like friends and families who give the ubiquitous, "But I'm nobody, I can't write a review" response when you ask.

Brenda St John Brown said...

This is great advice. I have a few go-to reviewers whose reviews I skim when I'm considering buying a book, especially if it's a $10 Kindle purchase. I feel like I need that justification. :) But my own reviews are pretty perfunctory. I'm especially conscious now, as a writer, how much reviews matter, and even those 2-3 sentences help!

Carrie Beckort said...

Thanks, Brenda! I think I wrote up one book review prior to being a writer. Since, I have written several as I know how they can help!

Carrie Beckort said...

Thanks, Stephen! The reluctant reviewer is who I had in mind when I wrote this up. I can understand their hesitation if they are not accustomed to writing up anything on a public page. I know what you mean about the potential danger of a review biasing my own thoughts. Personally I try to process my thoughts/feelings before reading the reviews, but don't write up my own review until after I've read and reflected.

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