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I've recently started writing book reviews. I am doing this for numerous reasons, most importantly perhaps is to be able to express in a clear and concise manner. English is not my first language and I do feel that I often struggle to convey my meaning. Writing reviews turned out to be a lot harder than I thought so I am hoping that the Writers community would have some tips and pointers.

So what are the ingredients for a good book review?

I try and structure my reviews like this:

  1. Why did I read this book?
  2. Who is the main character and what are they like?
  3. A brief introduction of the story, and what challenges are the main character facing next
  4. My analysis of the book, the plot, world building, dialog, characters (examples not all of them usually in one review)
  5. My recommendation

Anything I have left out? Anything that should not be in there? Any other tips you may have!

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welcome to the site. This question, as it stands, is extremely broad. Please edit it to match all the guidelines in this blog post or it will likely be closed. –  justkt Apr 27 '11 at 13:51
    
@justkt - I thought having one specific question disguising the broad one would cover my rear here. –  iwillreadbooks Apr 27 '11 at 13:55
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Adapt this answer: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/1282/… –  John Smithers Apr 27 '11 at 14:30
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3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Your list is pretty good, but it's missing something a bit fundamental.

Most reviewers tend to think that they're trying to help someone make up their mind whether or not to buy a book based on the what they think of the book's contents.

This is only half the equation.

What a reviewer also needs to do is show that their opinion is worth a damn. Who cares if you didn't like the book? Lots of people like and dislike books, so why should I care what you have to say?

A successful review is one that demonstrates to me that the writer is an authority that I should pay attention to and, perhaps more importantly, someone I can identify with in terms of likes and dislikes. If the reviewer has similar tastes to mine, it's a sure bet I'll be a lot more interested in what they have to say.

So, these are some of the questions you need to answer for the reader:

  • What other work can you compare this book to that I may have read?
  • How does this book stand in relation to its genre?
  • Is the author established enough that I may have read some of his previous work, and if so, how does this book compare to those other works?
  • If the book is derivative, unoriginal, or isn't good, what would you recommend as being similar, but far superior?

All of these give me hints and clues as to what your preferences and tastes are, which in turn helps me decide whether your opinion actually matters. That's the trick of a good review.

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Those are all very valid points! –  iwillreadbooks Apr 27 '11 at 16:12
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Good answer. I'd add just one more thing: don't stick too closely to a template. The best reviews that I've ever read tend to be very creative in their structure and rhetoric, leading to a much more engaging experience than just marching down a list of bullet points. –  JSBձոգչ Apr 27 '11 at 18:38
    
@JSBangs - agreed! –  Craig Sefton Apr 27 '11 at 22:11
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  • Distinguish between a review and a critique. A review is meant for people who haven't read the book, and is largely intended to help them form their opinion of it; a critique is a discussion of the book which assumes the reader is familiar with the book (or, at least, is willing to read significant spoilers, because he's interested in the critique).
  • If it's a review, a major component should be introducing the piece to the reader. Let him know what it's about (no spoilers!), tone, theme, why it might (or might not) be interesting. I usually make an effort to leave the introduction largely unbiased in either direction - I think that helps readers be able to judge both the book and my review in proper context and on their own merit. It also helps ground them - if they don't know what I'm talking about, it'll be hard for them to understand my opinion and comments!
  • Back up what you're saying whenever you can. Don't hesitate to quote passages that demonstrate the parts you adored, hated, or found problematic. Look for passages that you feel will give an accurate representation of the piece. Give details - not "Character A is a complete airhead," but rather, "Character A is portrayed as being obsessed with clothing and cars, and he shows no empathy when Character B is in trouble - coming across like a complete airhead."
  • Consider what the author was trying to achieve. If the author was aiming for a blockbuster thriller, then complaining that the characters were dull and superficial is legitimate criticism, but might be missing the point. It's fine to mention faults that the author might have accepted willingly - but do devote some attention to the goals the author was actually aiming for. Again, this also helps readers with different tastes than you figure out where their tastes diverge from your own.

Hope this is helpful :)

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+1 for review vs. critique, an important distinction. –  Craig Sefton Apr 28 '11 at 8:25
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You're reviewing fiction, which I rarely touch. IMO, more subjective; in addition, I prefer to keep my tastes in recreational reading private.

+1 here: someone I can identify with in terms of likes and dislikes

Tell me why it is that you responded / reacted the way you did. "The book wasn't about the parrot in the title, but the dysfunctional family that never figured out how to take care of the parrot they thought they needed to have." "I found it strange that the author insists on systems, yet punishes wait staff for not living up to his uncommunicated expectations by leaving a tiny or no tip." "This book exclusively addresses 'breed-standard' photography, and every dog in the pictures has a string of letters in front of its formal name. No mutts allowed."

Readers can chose to agree or disagree with the # of my stars, but it's clear why I selected the # I did.

Most of all? Keep at it. I almost always disregard the reviews of people who have written fewer than one page of reviews in Amazon. I'll pay much more attention to someone who has > 100.

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