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January 12, 2019
How I Write a Fiction Book Review
Have you written a book review?
Do you write reviews for Goodreads? Instagram? Or occasional blog reviews?
If you’ve never written a review, would you like you to try?
Even if you are an avid reader and are not interested in writing reviews, you might be interested to know how I approach writing a review because it might enhance your reading experience. If you don’t write a review, you might tell a friend what you like about a book or give a video review in Instagram stories, and that involves some of the same thinking and communication skills as a written review. Here’s a behind the scenes look at my process for writing a fiction book review. Usually for a review, I will choose a few of these elements to build my review….it depends on the reading and what impressed me.
My Intent. In sharing my thoughts, I need to stress that I am a definite work in progress. Readers have vastly different opinions on books and reviews, and writing a review feels like walking through a mine field at times. I want to provide honest reviews, but I don’t want to offend anyone either or be overly critical of an author. Even though I rewrite and thoughtfully edit my reviews, I realize they can be improved. It’s also helpful to read and learn from the reviews of others. What I’m offering here are steps to begin your thinking process and to explore the planning stage of writing a review.
…and this is not meant to scare you, but… I usually think about how I’m going to take notes. I’ve found that when a thought strikes me while I’m reading that it’s best to write it down. Otherwise, the book takes my mind in so many different directions that I can’t always remember the specific moments that make the most impact. I also like to note at least one quote for my review. For me, it’s convenient to make notes right in the notes section of my iPad as I’m reading because I complete the majority of my reading in the Kindle app on my iPad. You could keep a small notebook or even a scrap of paper that doubles as a bookmark. It doesn’t matter what the note taking process looks like for you. I find that looking at my notes gives me a great starting point for my review. Recently, I read a physical copy of a book and decided that I would simply flag certain passages with little flag post its. Well….my five year old grandson picked up my book one day and little hands removed a few of my post its! Sometimes there are hazards involved with note taking.
Next is the reading…..and I’m considering the following elements:
Using my five senses, can I envision a place? The time period? The atmosphere? The season? When I close my eyes and stop to think about the story, can I place myself in the story? What do I see, hear, touch, feel, taste, smell? What details do I notice? If I’m having difficulty in answering these questions, this might mean a low rating for this element of the story. How important is the setting to the story? Is the setting an important aspect of the story or could the story have taken place in any location or in any time period? Sometimes the setting can be as important in a story as a character. An example of this is Where the Crawdads Sing.
Main Characters/Narrator/Point of View
Are main characters well developed? I’m hoping not to find stereotypes (this lowers my star rating). I’m watching for diversity, point of view, and I’m looking intently for character traits. Sometimes there are too many characters and keeping them straight is confusing. Who’s the narrator of the story? Is the story told from multiple perspectives or only one? Are the characters children, young adults, or adults? Or is this a story of family dynamics? Interestingly, the story in The Book Thief is told by Death. That’s an interesting detail for a review!
Do the events of the story move the story forward at a nice pace? Or are there places where the story drags? At the story’s end, are you left with unanswered questions and disappointed with dangling story lines? Is the story predictable? (this is something that readers tend to either like or dislike) Does it bother you if you are able to consistently guess what is going to happen before it happens? Honestly, predictability takes a bit of the enjoyment out of the story for me and I usually give those stories three stars. Is the story engaging? Is it a page turner? Is it a happily ever after (HEA)? Is it unputdownable? Is the story character driven or plot driven? An example of character driven is A Gentleman in Moscow, and an example of plot driven is The Great Alone.
Themes are the most enjoyable part of my reading experience and my favorite aspect of writing a review. I love a great theme! A story that doesn’t have a few good themes won’t be earning four or five stars from me. I always include themes in my reviews. Common themes include family dynamics (parent/child, siblings), faith, friendship, loyalty, ambition, bravery, determination, survival, pursuing a dream or goal, loss, achievement, overcoming obstacles, grief, etc., etc.
Does the writing flow? Or are you confused and find yourself rereading for clarification or understanding? Is it evident that the writer excels at her or his craft? With certain authors like Fredrik Backman, I need to stop often and simply reflect on how beautifully the sentence was constructed or how uniquely the thought was expressed (Beartown). I notice gorgeous and creative figurative language, descriptive details, and a unique turn of phrase (Virgil Wander). The recent trend of not punctuating dialogue (The Boat People) seriously annoys me and slows down my reading pace. Even though the author has a specific artistic reason for using this style (which I appreciate), it still creates a more difficult than necessary reading experience. Personally, I like short chapters. I have a difficult time stopping mid chapter, so I appreciate having frequent opportunities for taking a pause. In addition, short paragraphs lend itself to easier reading. This might be a good place to note that I love reading books by “own voices” authors (e.g. Inside Out and Back Again or The Hate U Give). This is an interesting fact to point out in a review. Some of what I mention in this section consists of personal preferences and will be a small consideration in your rating.
This is one of the most important elements in a book review. Potential readers want to know if you enjoy the book and why or why not. I ask myself: Would I reread this? Does it earn a place on my “forever shelf”? Am I tempted to carry it with me where ever I go? Do I find myself wanting to pull it out and read at stop signs? Would I save it in a fire? Is it unputdownable? Did I read the entire book in one day or one sitting? (Castle of Water) Did I neglect everything else in my life to read this book? Or did I purposefully stretch it out to savor it? Recently, I lent a book to my mother and her complaint about it was that she wasn’t getting her housework done because she was constantly tempted to pick up the book (The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter) to find out what happened next! Do I recommend this book to everyone I see? How many significant connections with characters and/or circumstances have I made with the story? My favorite read of last year (A Place For Us) earned five stars from me mostly because of the emotional connections I felt with the characters. It outweighed every other element of the story. Ultimately, reading is a subjective and emotional experience and no two people read the same book. Does the book give me a reading hangover? That is, do I still think about the story and the characters days and weeks or even years later? This enjoyability factor sometimes determines the difference between a four and a five star read for me. Five star reads MUST meet many aspects of the enjoyability factor. The enjoyability factor will be evident in your review and your enthusiasm will be the part of your review that causes other readers to pick up the book. It’s a good thing to let your enthusiasm for a book show! If I don’t sense a reviewer’s enthusiasm, I think that she/he must not be recommending it despite all the other wonderful points being made. (Some reviewers do not believe in leaving negative reviews, so I’ve learned to read between the lines!)
I typically end my review with a recommendation (e.g. “recommended for readers of historical fiction”). You can recommend the genre, the style of writing, the topic, the author, read-a-likes, etc. This is something I look for in a review because it helps me decide if this story is one for me or if it eliminates me. If I write that a book is recommended for readers who love paranormal, what I’m also saying is you might not want to read this if you don’t like the genre. Bottom line, there are kind ways of saying negative things. I’ve developed a few tricks for writing reviews for books that haven’t been the best reads for me. It’s amazing what can be communicated by creating a recommendation statement.
The Five Star Rating System is a fairly subjective and highly discussed rating system. I happen to love when reviewers give me a star rating….it provides a great deal of information at a glance. However, some reviewers avoid the star rating system completely. Goodreads has a guideline for the 5 star system and you can find my complete explanation of my five star scale here. This is a brief explanation of mine: 5=it’s going on my lifetime favorites list; 4=very good read; 3=OK, satisfactory; 2=didn’t like it for several reasons; 1=DNF, not recommended. If you decide to use the 5 star system, I would encourage you to spend some time reflecting on the categories and developing what the stars mean to you and then apply it consistently. I will warn you that it is rather disconcerting to see that someone has awarded 1 star to your 5 star read!
The Hook: It’s always good writing technique to begin your review with a hook. Three ideas for frequently used hooks: create a question (based on a theme or conflict from the story), consider a bold statement (a fact from the story), or find a quote (from your notes!).
Genre: You want to mention the genre in your review. If you’re not sure, check sites like Amazon (looking to see where it’s been shelved is helpful). Keep the genre in mind when writing your review. Does the story accomplish what the genre typically sets out to do? I try not to rate the story down for standards I would apply to another genre. For example, a YA selection is likely to include teenage angst and/or instalove, so I take that into consideration even though I might not have enjoyed it. Chic Lit is going to be light, predictable, and perhaps filled with stereotypes. Memoirs are going to be focused on self. Science fiction might need a suspension of disbelief. Romance will include an HEA and might have overused or predictable tropes. I need to remind myself frequently to keep the genre in mind. Let the reader know if the book is a genre that you don’t typically read so that your comments are taken in context. Others that prefer that genre might really enjoy the read.
Triggers: It’s always appropriate and considerate of readers to let them know about possible trigger warnings in a way that allows them to make their own reading decision (offensive language, steamy romance, graphic violence, sensitive subjects, etc.). Often, if I feel a need to include a trigger warning, I will place it as a simple *starred note at the end of my review. Here’s an example.
Be Specific: Do not say “I liked it.” Include specific examples of what you liked (using ideas from your notes). When we were in school, we learned Point + Example for expository writing. This is a good model for writing a review, too.
Tone: Is it suspenseful? Thrilling? Melancholy? Reflective? Humorous? Pedantic? Agenda driven? Heartfelt? Informative? Atmospheric? Romantic? These are examples of descriptive words you can add into your review that gives readers more insight into what to expect from the reading experience.
Summaries/Spoilers: Although it’s common to begin a review with a brief summary, it’s not absolutely necessary (official summaries are readily available on Amazon or Goodreads). I like to start a review with a general summary (in my own words) because it provides context for the remainder of my review. Be careful not to reveal spoilers. Sometimes, I refer to the synopsis on the back cover when writing my summary, but I find that it can also include spoilers. It’s forgivable to reveal small inconsequential spoilers, but please avoid spoiling the main resolution or final outcome. If you know your review will include spoilers, you can warn readers at the beginning that the review includes spoilers (Goodreads has a spoiler alert function as part of writing a review).
Author’s Note: I hope you always read the author’s note (if provided). It can greatly enhance your reading experience and provide an important perspective. I remember when I read We Were the Lucky Ones, I was struck by the author’s note that the story was really her family history, and it made the story even more meaningful for me and I was sure to include that information in my review.
Extra Resources: Sometimes authors will include extra resources like maps, illustrations, links, photos (especially if it’s a fictionalized biography). Specifics like this might be nice to mention in a review. It’s also interesting and helpful to include links to outside sources in your review if available. For example, I recently reviewed a fictionalized biography about Dorothea Lange and I included three links to YouTube video clips about her life.
Length: Reviews can be short or more detailed. For a blog post, I will write a longer review than what I write for Goodreads. You can pick one of the above elements as your focus or select a few elements. Sometimes it helps to develop a template (e.g. one sentence summary+a sentence about characters or plot or theme+a sentence about what you enjoyed most about the story+a sentence about recommending the read).
Proofread: I always read my review several times to proof for spelling, punctuation, word usage, verb tense agreement (I like to write book reviews in present tense), sentence structure, clarity, clear communication of ideas, etc. I also consider if there is a kinder way to say something if I’m being critical.
Do I Need to Write a Review? First, writing a review is a perfect way to support an author and authors greatly appreciate reviews. If you tag them on Instagram, many of them will respond with a “like” or a comment. Out of consideration, I only tag authors when I write very positive reviews. (***Updated to add that I have stopped tagging authors….but I always hashtag the title….that way if the author wants to find your review, she or he can find it.) If you start writing reviews, keep in mind that you are not required to write a review for every book you read! Sometimes I simply give it a Star rating on Goodreads and leave it at that with no explanation. Or if it’s a book that I really dislike, I will shelve it as a DNF on Goodreads with no review or star rating. If I can’t say one good thing about the book, I usually won’t write a review. Although if I do review a book I dislike, I’ll start off with a statement of what I appreciate about the book and then add statements about what “I wish…” would have been different. For an example of one of the most negative reviews I’ve written read here. For an example of a recent book I felt meh about read here. If I can’t give a book a 4 or 5 star rating, I usually won’t feature it on the blog. Occasionally, a 3.5 will be featured. When you see a book review on this blog, I want you to be able to trust that I’m sincerely and wholeheartedly recommending it (even though you may end up with a different opinion).
Criticism: Your reviews are public so be prepared for a variety of responses. Most commenters are kind and will make comments like “I enjoyed it.” Very rarely you might receive a negative comment such as “I do not agree at all.” If I disagree with a reviewer, I usually do not write a comment. If I comment, I relate it to something positive she/he said in their review. (practice “eye roll and scroll” and “let it be” as the kind response)