An Idiot’s Guide to Writing (book) Reviews

We’ve all seen them: Reviews on Amazon or Ebay that are so bad that they are used solely for comedic purposes. A favorite of mine was an Amazon review of an infant’s car seat that was rated with one star due to the fact that the warning and caution stickers apparently ruined a photo of the baby in the seat….despite the fact that they had actually been in an accident before and the baby was not harmed at all, thanks to the seat.

Sadly, I’ve seen book reviews on Goodreads that are nearly as bad. So here are some things you might want to keep in mind while writing your next book review.

Keep note of the book’s genre. 

The genre of a book will likely have a strong effect on how the reader responds to it. Many people have favorite genres and dislike others altogether. The reviewer needs to be conscious of the book’s intent in this manner. This will prevent you from making the foolish mistake of, for example, rating an erotica work with two stars because it ‘contained too much sensuality.’ Yes, a horror novel will probably contain gore or violence. It is supposed to, so please don’t take off points just because you didn’t look into what you were reading before you actually started reading. This mistake is akin to parents who took their children to see Sausage Party or Deadpool, and then complaining because it was not a family-friendly film. Ask yourself:

  • Does this genre interest me?
  • What elements of this work might appeal to me?
  • Why do I want to read this book?
  • What can I infer about the content of this book based on title, genre, summaries, reviews, the jacket, etc? Am I still interested?

You don’t have to like the main character(s). 

People fall into the habit of identifying with the main character, even when it may be inappropriate. Sure, it might be easy enough for many to relate to Halley of Dessen’s Someone Like You. If that makes the experience more enjoyable for you, all the more power to you. But keep in mind that a character isn’t necessarily poorly developed, useless, or overall ‘bad’ just because you cannot see a reflection of yourself in them. A fourteen year old girl might relate more to Halley over say, Sydney Carton, but that doesn’t mean A Tale of Two Cities is inherently a bad piece of literature.  This is especially important in works wherein the main character is intended to repulse the reader. I, as an avid cat enthusiast, certainly don’t intend on building a fandom around the unnamed narrator in Poe’s The Black Cat. But I won’t rate the poem poorly on that basis alone. Ask yourself:

  • Why is this character this way?
  • What is the author trying to portray with this character?
  • How is the character received by others in the book? Negatively or positively?
  • Is this character static or dynamic? Why? How do I know?
  • How does this character see themselves?
  • How does this character react to conflict? Why?
  • Is this character fundamental to the plot? Does the character compliment the story?

You won’t be the only reader. 

Everyone has different tastes. Clearly, because if it were up to me, James Patterson couldn’t have achieved a 3.97 average rating on Goodreads. And while I stay true to my opinion of Patterson, I am willing to accept that fact that many people actually do (somehow) enjoy his writing. When writing a review, it is helpful to consider the public as a whole as well as yourself individually. I’ve often personally felt that a book merits 5 stars, but gave 4 due to the acknowledgment that many others would likely rate it with 3 stars. Reviews are not only to provide feedback for an author, but to help others decide if they should even bother picking up the book, or to perhaps even give them a new perspective on a book they’ve already read. So even if something in a book is done well, but you dislike it, at least praise whatever it for what you can. The reverse is also useful: “While I enjoyed x in this book because *insert explanation*, I can see why many others would not due to *insert potential reasoning*”

Be useful, or go home. 

Again, reviews are meant to have a purpose. If you just want to write “This book sucked and wasted my time,” please write in your diary. Those of us who will be reading book reviews, including writers themselves, are looking for explanations, specific criticism, key emotions, what thoughts were evoked, etc. not merely the whether or not you liked the book, hence why these are reviews and not polls with “yes” or “no” questions. We are looking for why more than just a what. Ask yourself:

  • Would I recommend this book to anyone? If so, to whom?
  • Was this book worth reading? Would I read it again if given the chance?
  • What were my favorite things about this book? My least favorite things?
  • What compelled me to read this book in the first place? Did I make the right choice in choosing to read it?
  • Did I laugh, cry, get frustrated, or bored while reading? At what parts?

 

There isn’t necessarily a “wrong” way to write a review, but perhaps these tips can help you write some that are much more useful and less laughable.

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