How To Write a Useful Book Review

According to both authors and publicists, reader reviews are the best way to increase online sales. And yet so many of them teach me more about the reviewer than about the book.

There are at least two reasons for this. First, what makes us a critical reader doesn’t always translate into excellent critical writing. Second, the best reviews are intimate and biased; something that only that particular reviewer could possibly have written. It’s hard to write intimately without it becoming personal, which is what separates the professional book reviewers from the rest of us.

So, now that we are all just a few clicks away from reviewing any book we read, how do we make our reviews useful to potential readers—not just another click for the bean-counting bots? Here are the two lists I will try to follow in 2017: What to Include, and What to Leave Out. Let me know if you think I’ve missed anything.

book reviewer parking
Wouldn’t it be cool if this sign really existed?

What to Include in a book review

  1. Why I liked it (or didn’t)
  2. What I usually read, especially if this book was a departure from the norm.
  3. Were there any distractions, like grammar issues or plot twists or some weird font? (No plot spoilers, of course.)
  4. Was it a quick read, or did I need time to savor each word and turn of phrase?
  5. Were the characters believable and familiar, or different than I expected?

And here’s what I promise to leave out.

1. Absolutely no spoilers

The goal is to help future readers decide whether to buy the book or not, not to be the first one to spill the beans about what happens in the last ten pages.

2. No plot summary

I know it’s how we were all taught to begin our grade school book reports (if only to prove that we’d actually read and digested the story), but the official blurb should do that job. (If it doesn’t, the book probably isn’t worth reading.)

New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul covered this well in a recent interview, under the subhead “The best book reviews are emotional.” 

Last but certainly not least, I will

3. Edit a review before publishing

Typos not only make something harder to read; they reduce the clout of any written information, including a reader review.

I usually end up reviewing only the books I enjoy, since writing about a book increases the time spent in its world. But I often learn the most about the book and my own reading habits by forcing out a review of a book I didn’t particularly like. There’s a fine line between words that instantly create a picture in our brains and those that don’t, so explaining what I didn’t “get” usually makes me realize that it had something to do with me: I was distracted, or tired, or just not that into the story.

Biased and very personal, but not all about me: I’ll try to keep that in mind for future reviews . It might not make them more important to the number-crunching bots, but it might help other humans decide whether to buy a book or not.

And PS, if you are inspired to post a review of any of my books, it will help improve their sales ranking with the bots and might also help future readers decide to buy. Thank you!

Read my book reviews

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