Today I’m welcoming freelance writer Desiree Villena to the blog. Desiree is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories, as well as the occasional book review!
In the dim and distant past, book lovers scoured the pages of newspapers and magazines for reading recommendations. Today, when they want to discuss the latest page-turner or need a new fantasy series to binge, bibliophiles peruse the endless book review blogs and sites available at the click of a mouse!
By shepherding fellow booklovers toward the latest must-reads, reviewers have become a driving force in the book world. And with more titles to choose from than ever before, authors are always looking to get reviews of their latest releases. So if you’re an aspiring reviewer, there’s plenty of work for you on the horizon!
However, getting into this community isn’t about finding chances to write reviews, but rather about making your work stand out. To that end, this post covers five tips for writing a book review that’s enjoyable as well as informative, for an experience readers will love.
Tip #1: Whet their appetite
Although there may be those among us who read the last page of a book first (especially those with a purported “dark side”), most people don’t like to have endings spoiled. Enjoyable reviews intrigue the reader without giving too much away. So before you start writing a brief summary if a book, ask yourself: What’s interesting about this book? Why might someone want to read it? This is what you need to highlight, rather than where the plot ends up going.
A foolproof way to pique your reader’s interest is to open with a hook. Try a question or a provocative statement. For example, in her ode to Lucia Berlin’s Evening in Paradise, Patricia Lockwood begins with the irresistible lead: “There ought to be a cult, really, of teenagers with Lucia Berlin’s books in their back pockets, hair combed into black bouffants, imitating her squint against sunlight.”
Another great strategy for grabbing readers’ attention at the start of a review is to compare the book to other titles they know. Statements like “This book is Pride and Prejudice meets 50 Shades of Grey” are often used by authors to pitch their books to agents because they make an unknown book sound immediately interesting and suggest that it has a ready-made audience. They work well in book reviews for pretty much the same reasons: comparative titles instantly summarize the book’s essence and let the reader know whether it’s up their alley or not.
Tip #2: Make it personal
The most enjoyable reviews feel less like prose and more like a discussion with a friend — whether that’s an eloquent conversation over a cup of tea or enthusiastic exclamations over a round of beers! Though you should probably steer clear of cuss-filled takedowns, when it comes to the tone of a book review, the best advice I can give is to be yourself.
A great way to make a review feel natural and intimate is to reflect on personal experiences, especially since your readers will inevitably do the same thing. When approaching non-fiction, think about how reading the book changed or developed your perspective on this topic, and describe personal connections to the central issue(s) where possible. Alternatively, if you’re reviewing fiction, ask yourself questions like these to personalize your commentary:
- Does the story stay with you?
- Do you still think about the characters?
- Did you learn something?
Tip #3: Don’t chase tangents
When writing a review, you’re aiming to encapsulate a whole book in brutally few words — the sweet spot is around 1,000. There’s a little wiggle room, but if it’s too long, you risk losing the reader’s interest. With this in mind, keep things short and sweet by sticking to the bare essentials. If you tend to chase tangents (or even if you don’t!) it’s never a bad idea to familiarize yourself with some universal elements of book reviews and follow them.
The advice from veteran indie critics is almost always to take notes as you read. Jotting down your thoughts as you go will help you to write a much more clear and focused review. Track characters, chronicle the basic contours of the plot, note what works, what doesn’t, and keep a record of your general impressions — especially if they transform as the book goes on!
Highlighting key quotes in your review is another great tactic to demonstrate a book’s themes, or an author’s distinctive writing style. Not to mention they give the reader a tantalizing taste of what’s to come.
Tip #4: Know your stuff
At the end of the day, somebody reading a review wants to know whether or not they should buy the book. If your reader is coming to a review site rather than scrolling through Amazon ratings or simply judging a book by its cover, then they’re looking for an informed review that shows understanding of the genre’s tropes and trends.
So choose a genre you already know well — one that you love to read — and become even better-versed in its recent trends so that you can draw comparisons between hot titles and interesting topics and themes. Before you know it, you’ll be a resident expert!
Also, with any review, it’s important to include something about the author; in the case of non-fiction, the author’s background is especially crucial (and interesting!). If it’s relevant, you can also add a lot of panache to a review — whether fiction or non-fiction — by layering historical, political, or social context into your criticism.
Tip #5: Give your honest opinion
A review doesn’t have to be effusive to be enjoyable. Remember that you’re not selling the book to an agent, a publisher or even a reader — you’re only sharing your thoughts with fellow readers. Most of them will value honesty above all else.
Of course, there’s a difference between being honest and being ruthless. If you didn’t like the book, you don’t need to go on and on about every little thing that made your blood boil. Cover the main reasons and include a few concrete examples, then take the time to really focus on the reader.
Consider what kind of audience will love this book, even if it missed the mark for you personally. You might want to let them know if the book was from a genre that you don’t usually get along with, or if it didn’t meet your expectations, or perhaps if your opinions are based on a personal experience. The reviewer’s job is to help readers form their own impressions, rather than to be an absolute arbiter of taste.
As long as it’s genuine, it doesn’t hurt to throw a little compliment to the author; it might be that you thought they built suspense really well, or had some snappy dialogue. But if you can’t think of a single nice thing to say, maybe don’t say anything at all. George Orwell once wrote that best practice “would be simply to ignore the great majority of books”; to write only about the best. And if it’s good enough for him, it should be good enough for us!