You finally reach the last page of a book that kept you up all night and close it with the afterglow of satisfaction and a tinge of regret that it’s over. If you enjoyed the book enough to stay up reading it way past your bedtime, consider writing a review. It is one of the best gifts you can give an author. Regardless of how much you know about how to write a book review, the author will appreciate hearing how their words touched you.
But as you face the five shaded stars and empty box, a blank mind strikes. What do I say? I mean, is this a book really deserving of five stars? How did it compare to Dostoevsky or Dickens?
Maybe there’s an easier way to write a book review.
The Fallacy of Book Reviews
Once you’ve decided to give a review, you are faced with the task of deciding how many stars to give a book.
When I first started giving reviews, I made the mistake of trying to compare a book to ALL BOOKS OF ALL TIME. (Sorry for the all caps, but that’s how it felt, like a James Earl Jones voice was asking me where to put this book in the queue of all books.)
This is honestly why I didn’t give reviews of books for a long time. How can I compare a sweet romance with Dostoevsky? I can’t, and I shouldn’t.
I realized my mistake one day as I was watching (of all things) a dog show. In the final round, they trotted out dogs of all shapes, colors, and sizes. I thought, “How can a Yorkshire Terrier compete with a Basset Hound?” The announcer explained that each is judged by the standards for its breed.
This was my “Aha!” moment. I have to take a book on its own terms. The question is not, “How does this book compare to all books I’ve read?” but “How well did this book deliver what it promised?”
How to Write a Book Review: Consider a Book’s Promise
A book makes a promise with its cover, blurb, and first pages. It begins to set expectations the minute a reader views the thumbnail or cover.
If a book cover has a picture of a lip-locked beautiful couple in flowing linen on a beach, and I open to the first page to read about a pimpled vampire in a trench coat speaking like Mr. Knightly about his plan for revenge on the entire human race, there’s been a breach of contract before I even get to page two. These are the books we put down immediately (unless a mixed-message beachy cover combined with an Austen vampire story is your thing).
But what if the cover, blurb, and first pages are cohesive and perk our interest enough to keep reading? Then we have to think about what the book has promised us, which revolves around one key idea: What is the core story question and how well is it resolved?
Sometimes genre expectations help us answer this question: a romance will end with a couple who finds their way, a murder mystery ends with a solved case, a thriller’s protagonist beats the clock and saves the country or planet.
The stories we love most do those expected things in a fresh or surprising way with characters we root for from the first page. Even (and especially!) when a book doesn’t fit neatly in a genre category, we need to consider what the book promises on those first pages and decide how well it succeeds on the terms it sets for itself.
When I Don’t Know What to Write
About a month ago, I realized I was overthinking how to write a book review. Here at the Write Practice we have a longstanding tradition of giving critiques using the Oreo method: point out something that was a strength, then something we wondered about or that confused us, followed by another positive.
We can use this same structure to write a simple review when we finish books.
[Book Title] by [book author] is about ___[plot in a sentence—no spoilers!]___.
I chose this book based on ________.
I really enjoyed ________.
I wondered how ___________.
Anyone who likes ____ will love this book.
Following this basic template can help you write an honest review about most any book, and it will give the author or publisher good information about what worked (and possibly what didn’t). You might write about the characters, the conflict, the setting, or anything else that captured you and kept you reading.
As an added bonus, you will be a stronger reader when you are able to express why you enjoyed parts of a book (just like when you critique!). After you complete a few, you’ll find it gets easier, and you won’t need the template anymore.
What if I Didn’t Like It?
You will have to make the call about when to leave a low review. If I can’t give a book at least three stars, I don’t review it. Why? If I don’t like a book after a couple chapters, I put it down. I don’t review anything that I haven’t read all the way through.
Also, it may be that I’m not the intended market. The book might be well-written and well-reviewed with a great cover, and it just doesn’t capture me. Every book is not meant for every reader.
If a book kept me reading all the way to the end and I didn’t like the ending? I would probably still review it, since there had to be enough good things going on to keep me reading to the end. I might mention in my review that the ending was less satisfying than I hoped, but I would still end with a positive.
As writers, we know how difficult it is to put down the words day after day. We are typically voracious readers. Let’s send some love back out to our fellow writers this week and review the most recent title we enjoyed.
What was the last book you read or reviewed? Do you ever find it hard to review a book? Share in the comments.
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