How Not to Write a Book Review

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by Jacqui Murray 

I read a lot, on average three books a week (based on my Goodreads Reading Challenge numbers). I live the maxim that writers must be readers. Because I love writing, I review many of them for one of my three blogs. When Amazon asked me to be a Vine Voice, I was flattered and wanted to understand why my reviews caught their eye.

I spent time reading a wide selection of reviews and came away with a framework of what all critics included:

  • a brief plot summary
  • an overview of characters
  • a discussion on the theme/plot/goal and whether it’s well-delivered
  • the reviewer’s evidence-based opinion
  • an appealing voice

Reviews I didn’t like often covered these critical areas, but got lost in the ‘personal history’ weeds.  Unless the reviewer is Michiko Kakutani or James Wood (both listed among the top ten most feared literary critics), I’m ambivalent to a reviewers’ personal opinions.

As a result, I’ve developed a template for what to avoid in my reviews. See if you agree:

 

Opinionated
Book reviews aren’t opinions; they’re factually-based summaries. Sure, many books include the author’s opinion. A reviewer’s job is not to disagree with the opinion, rather discuss how the author rolls it out. Do they provide evidence? Is their argument well-developed or gratuitous? Do readers find themselves nodding in agreement or fuming in anger? They should feel the reviewer is even-handed, neutral, and an arbiter of the discussion rather than a participant.

 

Narrow perspective
The author writes from their personal experience. True, the reviewer’s personal fable is as unique–and likely different–as the author’s, but that isn’t what’s being reviewed. Show how motivation/theme/goals connect to a vast swath of readers even as the character/plot/setting are fresh and unique.

 

‘This isn’t my favorite genre’
Not only do I avoid that phrase, I hate hearing it as an excuse why the critic has her/his opinion. In fact, it tells me to ignore everything they’re about to say. If this isn’t the reviewer’s genre, research it. For example, literary fiction delves into characters; thrillers focus on plot. I wouldn’t down-star Ted Bell’s Patriot for the lack of Lord Hawkes’ personal thoughts.

If the reviewer isn’t willing to understand the book’s genre, stick with traditional traits like a compelling voice, developed characters, and well-paced plot.

 

Takes too long to get to the point
Reviewers should be pithy and laser-focused. Sometimes, they’re neither. Often, that happens because the reviewer isn’t sure of what they’re saying and hopes to throw enough words on the page to hit the bullseye for most people. Long reviews should be stuffed full of meaty information, not fat.

 

Conclusions without evidence
I love hearing a conclusion I may not agree with because it means I’m about to learn something. I feel cheated when that conclusion lacks evidence. Unless the reviewer is part of my inner circle (people who I tend to accept at face value), please cite sources–multiple sources–and give me linkbacks so I can verify statements.

 

Superiority
Reviewers aren’t there to judge writers, rather evaluate. A debut novel is  different than the tenth in the series, and a young thriller writer should not be compared to Lee Child. Critics offer advice to inform the reader’s decision on whether they should read more of this author. That’s a weighty responsibility. Approach it with respect and humility.

 

 

Guest post contributed by Jacqui Murray. Jacqui is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of dozens of books on integrating tech into education, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, and Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers. You can find her book at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.  

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17 thoughts on “How Not to Write a Book Review”

  1. I guess we are allowed to disagree as a comment: on ‘genre’ as in ‘it;s not my favourite genre’ I think that is a useful, not an irrelevant/boring to the review reader, comment in a review *as long as* it is part of the reviewer ‘flagging up’ that this is not a ‘genre’ (i.e. type of story) which they read much of by choice, so their reactions may be coloured by, for example, not knowing what to expect, not totally understanding all the technical terms, classic plot twists of the genre, etc. Their review may then actually continue to give a reader a fresh eye’s view of this kind of story, new insights into, for example crime fiction, or whatever. Also, it does depend on where the review will be placed: Amazon reviews often tell the whole plot – (which is my personal loathing and I feel it’s a weakness) – whereas a literary magazine/newspapaer/online equivalent will go into style of story-telling, pace, characterisation, et al, but not give the whole game away so nobody needs to read the book.
    btw, know what I real loathe? Those words ‘beautifully written’ – though they do tell me that though the words chosen may be beautiful, the book is a bit boring!
    Anyhow, that’s just a few thoughts on reviewing …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you 🙂 The phrase doesn’t put me off at all. It means I will get a review that is not clouded with notions of what a genre is all about. There will be no comparison to any other books in the same genre. A genre can be so many things and may not stick with what is seen as classic traits of it. Otherwise why have sub-genres and the mixing of more than one?

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  2. “This isn’t my favorite genre” usually gets me to ignore the review when I’m looking for a book to read. I want a review from someone who enjoys the genre they’re reading. It gives me a better view of the book that way because the reviewer is familiar with what is expected from the genre.

    This is a great list. I love all the points presenting.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I don’t see much point to a book review (outside things like Publisher’s Weekly maybe) that doesn’t include personal opinions. After all, it’s not as if personal reaction doesn’t influence my judgment whether the characters are interesting or the voice compelling. Some people love flowery, elaborate style; some people hate anything but plain, no-frills writing. Some books win me over despite the fact they’re badly written.
    Conversely, trying to speak for all readers implies a mind-reading or market-reading ability I don’t have. All i can do is give my own analysis/reaction
    And if I do read something that’s not my favorite genre, I think it’s obligatory to mention it. That’s going to influence whether I like the book, the characters, the voice, so I think it’s only fair to the author to point it out.

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  4. This is a great post, and I agree with most of it. Reviews are there to evaluate the quality of the book, not for personal thoughts. But, as a blogger, I feel like I don’t have to stick to all the technical, formal structure of a review. We all have our own styles in everything we write, whether it’s book reviews, short stories, articles, and whatever. My point is this: if it’s your blog and not a magazine website or anything, write how you want to write, forget the rules. That’s why you started a blog in the first place isn’t it?

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  5. I actually think pointing out “this is not my favourite genre” is a GOOD thing. It’s an honest disclosure of possible bias or possible lack of understanding of how the genre is generally accepted. Nothing wrong with that, it’s like writing about indigenous culture and disclosing at the start what your ethnicity etc is to show how it might colour your writing.

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    1. Yes, Terry, that’s why I have written it a couple of times … and ironically, it can be a powerful recommendation if one happens to have enjoyed the experience of reading outside one’s usual choices, indicating how good at telling the story this writer is!

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  6. Book reviews are opinions. They are the opinions of the reviewer. Otherwise why bother with reviews? Readers may disagree with said opinion so may the author but that is how the reviewer has perceived what he/she has read. No opinion is ‘wrong.’

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  7. A couple of thoughts:
    In reading and reviewing books outside of my own favorite genres, I’ve actually found that I do enjoy many of them, and that the features that lead to enjoyment (or conversely, turn me off) seem to be fairly universal. I hope authors are pleased that I enjoyed their books despite not being a special fan of their genres.
    On my blog, I asked about a choice I’ve seen discussed on Goodreads and elsewhere: to refrain from reviewing at all if the book doesn’t merit at least three stars. Obviously many people don’t mind at all hurting someone’s feelings, but others do express qualms. In my post I wondered whether something is lost when we don’t explain to an author why a book failed for us. Sure, that the book failed on some count is a personal opinion, but often that opinion can be backed up by examples and evidence. I learned from my bad reviews, even though they were painful; I’ve actually used them to edit the new ebook editions I published after regaining my rights.
    So what do people think? If we have something substantive to say about why a book resonated or didn’t, should we review even if someone’s going to be hurt?

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  8. I’m probably guilty of some of these book reviewer sins, but nevertheless, it’s a good checklist. I actually like reading a book reviewer’s opinion because it defines his/her point of view and if it’s part of a blog, establishes the blog’s “brand”. I don’t mind reading a good rant as long as it’s backed up by valid points. That said, a ranting review is in its own category and not especially professional. I also like when reviewers read outside their preferred genre, but as you say, it’s important to respect and understand the genre.

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  9. I really don’t agree with Jacqui: “Book reviews aren’t opinions; they’re factually-based summaries.” I recently read a very good article by Tim Parks in which he called out for reviewers to give their honest opinion and not simply follow the herd. I would far rather read a challenging personal opinion than a “factually-based summary”.

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    1. I enjoy being able to respond to a review–mentally if not in print. I often disagree with others’ assessments and find being able to state my reasons stimulating. I wouldn’t be able to do this if the review didn’t express an opinion, preferably with explanations and evidence to back up the points. So I agree with you.
      I’m wondering if some of us are using the word “opinion” differently from each other. Maybe for some, a set of claims and reasons about a book isn’t “an opinion.” As a writing teacher, I stand by the importance of differentiating between “that’s just my opinion” and “Here’s my judgment about this and my reasons for coming to this position.” Two different processes, but we may be calling both of them “an opinion” and thus talking about different things.

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      1. Yes, I agree with you very much. The great pleasure in reading reviews is this engagement with the reviewer’s point of view, and of course that has to be explained, not just asserted. I’m wondering, too, about Amazon reviews which are tied to a commercial imperative as opposed to blog or newspaper reviews which lend themselves more to this discursive approach.

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      2. I wonder a lot about Amazon reviews … Amazon actively says it will not accept reviews from ‘friends & family’ as if writers engage such people to write positive reviews to boost sales etc. I’m dubious about that: people are not stupid and surely do not just write positively when they know a book is not worth it! That aside, my real worry about Amazon reviews is that they are tied to ‘star ratings’ which go from ‘love to hate’, encouraging, even requesting, a highly personal opinion-based view. A true ‘review’, such as would appear in a newspaper or magazine, etc, should not be based on emotions alone, or tell the story so you do not need to read the book. It is more subtle than that, and requires thought, consideration, and objectivity blended with/also including whether the book was to the reviewer’s taste/whether they enjoyed it.

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