Just like books themselves, book reviews come in many shapes and sizes — some more successful than others. The digital age has expanded opportunities for both self-published writers in search of an audience and literary aficionados wanting to try their hand at reviewing the latest releases.
That said, developing a knack for producing quality analysis might not come easily to everyone. If you’re brimming with opinions but aren’t quite sure how to express them, this simple guide will make you an expert reviewer in no time!
1. Think about your audience and platform
It’s important to think about whom you are writing for and the purpose of your review before you tackle it. Taking time to consider your audience is extra-important when it comes to deciding on an appropriate style and format: somebody scouring review sites for an escapist beach read won’t want to be faced with a long, scholarly tome — and you don’t want to lose your reader before you’ve even begun.
Where your review ends up will also influence how and what you write. A commissioned piece for a prestigious literary magazine, like the London Review of Books, is an entirely different beast to an appraisal of a gossipy celebrity memoir for a personal blog. The former will likely require greater compliance to guidelines, a more formal tone, and possibly some in-depth research. On the other hand, the latter will likely give you more freedom to write in your own style and play around with how you present your ideas. But if this freedom seems a bit daunting, read on!
2. Provide a summary of the contents
A pithy summary and a bit of context will give your readers a solid sense of the book and contextualise the critical analysis you go on to provide. This doesn’t mean a play-by-play overview of everything that happens — nor should you reveal the ending! Nonetheless, it’s vital to cover some preliminaries like genre, topic, theme and narrative style, as your reader will want a basic sketch of the text to work from.
Any good review requires a bit of additional research as well. Context about the author could be provided by answering some of the following questions:
- When was the author writing? What part of the world are they from?
- What other work has the author produced? How does it compare to their genre contemporaries?
- What political/cultural events inspired the book (or have relevance to the plot)?
For all things biographical, Wikipedia is a trusty source of information to establish the basic facts — but some quick detective work looking at news articles, interviews and video clips might provide some more colourful details that give your review its edge.
3. Consider your critical standpoint
It’s important to establish a clear opinion on the text and introduce this early on — don’t leave your reader waiting until the final paragraph. Resist the need to fall on one side of the fence throughout; often your feelings will be somewhere in the middle, and this will make for a more engaging and nuanced assessment. A reader will be mistrustful of sycophantic approval of a text, just as they would be turned off by a cruel takedown.
The key is balance: highlighting what another reader might find interesting and compelling about the book, even if much of it wasn’t to your personal taste. But don’t shy away from a definitive assessment, as this will be all the more helpful once you get into the nitty-gritty of your analysis.
4. Provide examples of what worked — and what didn’t
Now it’s time for a bit more detail. For a concise review, you can’t cover all bases, so it’s best to make a list of a few features that stood out to you. You can focus on a variety of things, but perhaps the most important and interesting for readers are:
- Writing style. Is the narration believable? Does it suit the story? Would you consider the author to be a good writer overall — and if you’ve read their other books, how does this one compare?
- Characterisation. Were the characters fully formed? Did they feel authentic?
- Plot. Does the story reach a satisfying conclusion? Are there any major plot holes? Is the story “pacy” enough to sustain interest?
Don’t leave a point hanging! If you thought the character development was insufficient, avoid vagueness by explaining why this was. You could think of an instance in the plot where this really stood out, and include direct quotations to exemplify the point — you might even suggest the sort of scene you’d have liked to see instead.
And remember, don’t be afraid to skewer certain parts of a book, even if your broader critical standpoint suggests you enjoyed it, and vice-versa. Again, a bit of balance will foster a considered, authoritative review that readers can trust.
5. Finish with a concrete evaluation
A great way to wrap up your review is to clearly indicate whether you think the book is worth reading or not. Recommendations can be given in words or simply take the form of a star rating or mark out of ten. Again, consider what would be most appropriate for your audience. A personal blog will have more latitude than a journalistic platform, which may set out stricter guidelines.
If this has inspired you to pen a review, you can look on Reedsy Discovery’s blog for plenty of examples to get your own ideas flowing, and even apply to be a Reedsy reviewer here. The brave amongst you might even consider how you could apply this skill set to a larger piece of evaluative non-fiction, or even pen a novel yourself! What’s most important is having faith in your own voice — the best reviews combine clear, considered analysis with personal flair.
By following the steps above, anybody can write an enjoyable and illuminating book review. And who knows? It could be your evaluation that encourages someone to take the plunge and read a book that becomes a new favourite!