I'm so excited to welcome the lovely Savannah Cordova to The Magic Violinist today! She's written an excellent and comprehensive guide to writing enticing book reviews. It's the perfect how-to for new book bloggers and a great refresher for those who have been at it for years.
So take a look at the post below and be sure to leave Savannah a comment about what you enjoyed, as well as any extra tips you might have about writing reviews. Take it away, Savannah!
Book reviews might seem short and simple, but there’s more depth to a quality review than you may think! A strong book review can not only showcase the parts of the book that you enjoyed the most, but also your unique skills as a writer. To help you achieve both these things and more, I’ve compiled this list of key tips on how to write a book review that will help you pull in new readers and avoid some common pitfalls. Let’s jump right in!
1. Avoid the traps of plot summary and description
While it’s tempting to elaborate on all your favorite details (especially if you really loved the book), getting too deep into the weeds of a book’s plot can leave readers feeling like they’ve just read an extended synopsis.
So try to keep your book description to a short paragraph or two — some context about the story is still important, but it’s not what your review should be all about. It may be useful to compare your review with the official synopsis: if you notice significant overlap, consider cutting a few plot details and letting the reader dive into it themselves.
Then, as you wade into your commentary, challenge yourself to explain the reasons behind your claims. If you’re struggling with writer’s block on how exactly to put it, think about specifics. What made the book “impossible to put down” — the acerbic black humor? The witty dialogue? Gorgeous descriptions of fantasy settings that paint amazing mental images? Dig into what exactly made you connect with the story. Just remember, no spoilers!
2. Highlight standout aspects of the author’s style or approach
What did the author do that made you sit up and re-read a paragraph? Did they pose a dilemma that got you thinking? Or did they surprise you and defy your expectations?
Let’s say you’re covering a romance book that does a great job of satirizing common romance tropes, subverting your expectations in hilarious ways at every turn. Tell that to your readers (again, without giving too much away)!
To keep track of moments like this, bookmark the page or make a note when something pops out at you as you’re reading. It’s easy to get absorbed in a book and lose track of bits you want to quote, so something as simple as jotting down a page number can save you a great deal of time and stress later on!
And for a concrete example of how to underscore such signature elements, Kate’s review of Riley Redgate’s Final Draft does an excellent job of highlighting specifics without letting the analysis devolve into plot summary, or giving any crucial plot points away. It’s also a great model of how to do the following in a review…
3. Balance your praise with critique
The difference between the work of a thoughtful reviewer and the comments of any old reader is a combination of knowledge and tact. Your readers — and the authors whose work you review — rely on your ability to judge a work fairly. To demonstrate this, do try and balance your praise with critique (and vice-versa). Jay A. Fernandez, former book review editor for the Washington Post, puts it this way:
“Unmitigated praise is logically absurd. Every work of writing has its weaknesses, especially once personal tastes are factored in. It is your job to point to them, in a clear-eyed but tactful (and tactical) fashion that measures the work against reasonable standards for literature and/or its genre. If the prospect of hurting an author’s feelings causes you to hesitate [...] you oughtn’t be reviewing books.”
As a final note, you can absolutely agree with the importance of a book’s broad topics/themes while still disagreeing about how the author portrayed them! A diplomatic approach from the August Wrap-Up, about Kelly Yang’s Parachutes:
“[...] this story is HUGELY important for all of the representation it has and the topics it deals with: Asian culture, what it's like to be Asian in the United States, socioeconomic issues, sexual assault and the #MeToo movement, etc. So many important things were talked about in a really great way (and this is an #OwnVoices story!). But the way that message was delivered didn't totally work for me.”
4. Give a verdict and demographic recommendation
It may be intimidating to give a definitive verdict of a book, but remember that this is the whole purpose of a review! Your audience wants to know your thoughts, and a concrete distillation of them helps readers make more informed decisions about whether to read a book themselves.
In your final verdict, you’ll want to briefly summarize what you’ve said and give as precise a recommendation as possible. For example, instead of saying “I would recommend this book to people who enjoy dystopian sci-fi,” what about “I would recommend this to anyone who appreciates deep worldbuilding, gritty & seedy underworld environments, or an unreliable narrator?”
By thinking outside of traditional genre boundaries like this, you can pull in more potential readers who otherwise might not label themselves “dystopian sci-fi fans,” but might be intrigued by the themes of the book as a whole. If you can get readers to expand their repertoires based on your review, that’s a major win!
5. Be honest and let your feelings show
A negative review that gives clear reasoning and constructive criticism does not make you “the bad guy,” and a 5-star review with no substance behind it can be more harmful than helpful. Being honest about writing that you think needs work (and giving an emphatic thumbs-up only when you feel it is fully deserved) reinforces your credibility and standards as a reviewer.
On top of that, your honesty not only helps other readers, but also authors! Thoughtful praise of a book can really motivate an author to keep going, and even criticism — so long as it’s delivered fairly — will push them to hone their craft. If you see problems but feel uncomfortable bringing them up, the author might never hear about or realize those concerns, and their writing will suffer for it. Your review has more power than you know, especially if you truly appreciate and believe in the author whose work you’re reviewing!
Finally, as any writer knows, it’s infinitely easier to write convincingly when you’re passionate about your subject. So if you have strong feelings about a book you’re reviewing, whether it’s frustration or awe or anything in between, let it show in your writing! It’ll make for a much more engaging read, and readers and authors will thank you for it.
Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world's best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories — as well as the occasional book review!
What's the best book review you've ever written? Do you have any additional tips to writing a book review readers will love? Leave a comment!