Monday, August 23, 2010

Writing a Book Review

A good writer is not, per se, a good book critic. No more than a good drunk is automatically a good bartender. - Jim Bishop

I never thought about writing book reviews until I was the author of a book receiving reviews. I know how nice it is to have someone who liked the book take the time to post their thoughts. Therefore, I decided I wanted to do a better job of writing reviews of the books I’ve read and enjoyed; especially those by new authors.

Writing reviews, I quickly learned, is not as easy as it sounds.

I know what kind of reviews I like to read—short and to-the-point. An example of what I consider well-written book reviews can be found at Straight from Hel. Helen Ginger’s reviews leave me wanting to read the book even if it’s not in a genre I normally select (the disclaimers posted along with the reviews are also thoroughly entertaining). Click here and here to read samples of her recent reviews. Her blog involves many other book related topics, so if you haven’t visited, I recommend a stop.

I also know what type of reviews I don’t like to read—the tell-all style that reads more like a book report and often gives away important plot twists. I avoid these types of reviews (unless it’s something someone posted on The Ride, and then I read every word). I simply don’t want to know all there is to know about a book I haven’t read yet. And, if there is a spoiler alert, I cringe and close the page as quickly as possible.

In my quest to learn how to write good reviews, I ran across an article by Michelle Kerns at, titled “The top 20 most annoying book reviewer clichés and how to use them all in one meaningless review.” Gripping, poignant and compelling are samples of the words on her list. According to Michelle:

“The purpose of reviewerspeak is to force every free-thinking book, movie, and art reviewer into the submissive parroting of only a handful of approved reviewer words to describe any item that may come their way. Call it laziness, call it the incessant demands of the ever-wakeful internet, call it fear of the wrath of Harold Bloom, but reviewers -- particularly book reviewers -- spew out these same, tired old clichés with the force and regularity of Linda Blair in a scene from The Exorcist.”

Then I read another of Michelle’s articles “Book Review Bingo: More book review cliché fun than you can shake a riveting, unputdownable stick at,” that takes these clichés a step further. She added a few words, such as "unputdownable," and developed a Bingo game. She says:

“I hardly think there is anything that drives a stake into the heart of a book review faster and with more determined force than a cliché. Book reviews that use clichés mean nothing, say nothing, and tell the reader nothing. They're like eating a cream puff when what you really want is prime rib -- they're unsatisfying and, ultimately, useless.”

After my “research” this week, I am confident about words I want to avoid and the kind of review I don’t want to write, but I am nowhere near being able to sit down and write a review with ease.

Now I plan to spend some time visiting the 100 Best Blogs for Book Reviews at This site looks interesting as it divides the review blogs by genre, so I can concentrate on the types of books I read the most.

It’s important for me to find my voice in writing book reviews soon, because my stack of read-but-need-to-write-a-review books is about to become taller than my to-read stack.

Do you write reviews? If so, do you review all the books you read or only the ones you really like? How do you feel about tell-all reviews? Do you have any hints on how to write the perfect book review?

Before I forget, I want to thank Virginia Grenier at The Writing Mama for bestowing me with the Versatile Blogger Award. It’s quite an honor coming from a truly resourceful blogger, who manages to raise three kids while writing, running a publishing company, editing…oh and blogging. If you’re not familiar with her blog, you might want to stop by to see what you’re missing.

Thanks for stopping here today. I hope to see you again, next Monday.

Tags: Jim Bishop, book reviews, book reviewers, writing book reviews, best blogs for book reviews, Helen Ginger , The Ride,


Michelle @ The True Book Addict said...

I try to write short and to-the-point reviews that really only explore my thoughts on the book and whether I liked it or not. I do not like long, tell-all reviews either and do not read them usually. I have come across too many spoilers in this way. I don't want a rehash of the plot...I want the person's thoughts on the book.

Mason Canyon said...

Book reviewing isn't as easy as it sounds. You're right, you don't want to give away too much but you want to tell the readers just enough to make it interesting for them.

Thoughts in Progress

Darcia Helle said...

I try to write short reviews, highlighting only what I didn't and/or did like about the book. I don't do plot summaries (I figure that's what the book's blurb is for) and I never give away spoilers.

Those long, rambling reviews that give the entire plot away read more like high school book reports than reviews. I avoid reading them and cringe when I see them written for my own books. I've had a certain reviewer give away all the twists, so there is no suspense left in my suspense novels!

A. K. said...

Book Review, Pewee.. Honestly, not for me..

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I've written a few reviews and it is more difficult than it seems! I prefer the shorter reviews, ones that give me a feel for the book and the reviewer's tastes. Really long reviews - I tend to just skip to the rating.

Anonymous said...

I've only reviewed a handful of books for my blog. My reviews are not as long as most other reviews I've read. I worry sometimes that I'm not doing it right or that I'm not supplying enough information, but I myself prefer shorter reviews over longer ones. I want to know what the reviewer thought of the book.

When getting more information about a book, I prefer to look at the writer's blog and website. They usually share a chapter or a few paragraphs of the book in question. I also like reading the author interviews shared on other blogs, because that gives me some insight into the author and gives me an idea as to if I will want to read their book.

Book reviewing is not as easy as it seems, but I'm learning.

Karen Walker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karen Walker said...

I've been asked to write a few reviews, and you're right, Jane. It is challenging. I look forward to reading your reviews as you move through your list.

Carol Kilgore said...

I don't write reviews because it requires way too much brain power from my limited supply. Good ones are great to read, though.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Michelle, I think the reviews you write are very good and never give away too much. Your blog makes the difficult process of writing a review look easy.

Mason, finding that perfect balance is what I hope to do.

Darcia, I think the reviewers who give away the twists should have to call themselves book reporters and only post on sites clearly labeled as tell-all.

A.K., does that mean you don’t like writing book reviews or reading them or both?)

Diane, skipping to the rating seems like a good solution.

Susanne, I’d say you were doing it just right. I know I’d rather know too little about a book rather than too much. Looking at the authors’ web page or blogs is a good idea for learning more about a particular book. I also enjoy author interviews, but think of them as more of a way to learn how other authors approach their craft and not so much to find out about a particular book. I’ll look at them differently from now on.

Karen, I’m not sure I’m going to post them on my blog as I feel like there are plenty of review blogs out there, but I would like to post to Amazon, GoodReads and so on.

Hart Johnson said...

It is a tricky business, isn't it? Like you, I have a strong preference for 'spoiler free' but where do you stop? How do you make someone INTERESTED without telling too much? I don't review every book I read, but I do a fair number of them--typically with the goal of being insructional to WRITERS--pointing out what was strong and why I thought so... what might have been improved through this or that tweak. It is rare for me to post a fully negative review, as I feel like we are all trying to help each other here, but if something has had what I feel is an undue amount of success or hype, I will make an exception.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I've written a few reviews and try to keep them objective.
And Helen's disclaimers rock!!

Glynis said...

I love Helen's reviews and disclaimers.

My reviews are weak, I never know what to say. I sit armed to the teeth with enthusiasm, and then nothing, zilch.

I scribble down a few thoughts and wonder if I should write an apology to the author for failing to sing louder about their work. :)

Holly Ruggiero, Southpaw said...

This is a timely post for me. Writing book reviews are hard. I don’t want to regurgitate the plot – that’s what the synopsis if for. I want to give insight into how the book make me feel, likes and dislikes without giving away plot points or twists. I also don’t like spoiler reviews.

I don’t know what to do about book I’m not super crazy about. Do I just not review them? It’s a tough call.

Helen Ginger said...

I'm surprised to see me listed in your blog. I struggle with reviews. I want to say what I liked, plus a bit about the plot of the book, without giving away anything that would be best discovered through reading. If there were a book I didn't like, I don't think I would review it. I'm just not into crushing someone who's spent months or years writing a book.

I agree with you. Reviewing is not easy.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Hart, I think to write a good review is almost like writing a perfect teaser – it’s an art to be able to tell just enough to make a reader want to read more.

Alex, since what I like or dislike about a book always seems personal, I haven’t figured out how to be objective yet.

Glynis, I don’t know why it makes me feel better to know that others have as many problems with review writing as I do! I also have the enthusiasm but still come up with zilch as well.

Holly, I probably won’t write a review for a book I didn’t like. Maybe it goes back to my mother continuing to tell me if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all:)

Helen, you make book review writing look so easy that I had no idea you struggled with them. I agree, I wouldn’t feel right bashing someone’s book simply because I didn’t like it.

The Old Silly said...

I agree writing a good review is a literary art form unto its own. Good pointers here, Jane. I ALWAYS love the apt quotes you come up with, lol.

And kudos on the award!

Anonymous said...

Book reviews re not easy. I've formed a little format that I use. A quick rundown of the author, then a brief synopsis (three sentences or so). Then WHAT I LIKED. I will recommend it as I do not write reviews for books I don't like because I don't finish them. Sometimes I'll give it a rating out of five stars. Then I post on Amazon and B&N along with my blog.

Stephen Tremp

Daisy Hickman said...

Don't know a great deal about book reviews ... besides the ones I scan in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. I look for info re key characters and plot line summaries, but don't take the "great book" v. "not-so-great book" comments too seriously. Opinions vary widely, so I'd rather draw my own conclusions about a book. If a friend calls or emails about a book, well, that's a different story, of course! Great post, as always, Jane. Merci!

Anonymous said...

Fantastic site, I had not come across before in my searches!
Keep up the excellent work!

Christina Rodriguez said...

I write book reviews for my own enjoyment only. If other people get anything out of them, that's a bonus. I'm guilty of using those cliches, though, so I guess I'd better be more careful in the future...

kitchen table said...

I don't write book review but I really love reading reviews. Through book reviews. I can tell if the book is worth reading or not.

arlee bird said...

I have written a few book reviews, sometimes because it's a book I've really liked, one that I've disliked, or something that I just have something about which I want say. I dislike extremely any detailed recounting of a story. Just a general plot summary with perhaps a few points that seem pertinent to what is being focused upon.

I disagree to some extent about the so-called cliche words. If a book happens to be "compelling" or "poignant" what's wrong with saying so?

My biggest dislike in a book review are when personal political or other opinions unrelated to the book itself are interjected. For example, if a book takes place during the 70s and has nothing to do with the political climate or anything remotely related to it, the reviewer doesn't need to make a personally reflected dig on Nixon or the Republicans. A reviewers personal agenda should not be a part of the review unless that is the specific intent of the review.

Tossing It Out

Patricia Stoltey said...

Hi Jane --

I'd done nothing but super-short mini-reviews until I took on Sophie Littlefield's new release, "A Bad Day for Pretty," for The Blood-Red Pencil. For that one, I adopted my own conversational style, almost in the voice of Littlefield's main character. I discovered it was a lot of work for me, because I read slower than usual and took notes. It took half the fun out of reading.

I'll do occasional reviews in the future (and I emphasize occasional), but there's no way I'd lay out the whole plot, include spoilers, or use all the stock phrases. Mostly I'll just review books I read and loved. Once in a while I'll review a book for an author's blog book tour if I like the book's synopsis.


Cruella Collett said...

It's true that this is a difficult genre. I work in a bookshop, and a considerable part of the job is to give recommendations to customers. I always try to give them an idea what "sort" of book it is, what the feel of it is, how they will react to it, rather than to tell the story. Often I find this is easier and more efficient than telling them that Hero meets Heroine and then they face problems, so they have to go to A to get to B, where they will... You know what I mean..

Blog wise I don't really write book reviews, and I usually don't read them either. Both for the reasons you listed in your post, but also because I am not overly fond of having other people's opinions colouring what I think of a book. I prefer looking at the book, holding it, reading a little from the beginning, then maybe some a little way in. Often I don't even read the blurbs on the jacket of the book. I want it unspoiled, ding it!

Journaling Woman said...

I don't write reviews, but love reading them. I admire those who write them.


Bob Sanchez said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bob Sanchez said...

Hi Jane,
Please check out the Internet Review of Books (, which publishes reviews of both fiction and non-fiction. I've been the webmaster over there and am taking over as non-fiction editor soon, while Julie McGuire does a fine job editing fiction reviews. We've had about 80 different reviewers in our first three years.

I don't know if there is such a thing as a perfect book review, but there sure as heck are imperfect ones. The worst offense, to my mind, is the book report style, which means a total rewrite. Cliches are bad, but at least they're usually easy to fix. Another offense is the bland review that fails to convey the flavor of the book.

Clifton Hill said...

Good post and I'll agree. I don't like the tell-all type of posts either. At least I don't like them before I've read a book. Afterwards I'm fine with them and it can be fun to read what someone else thought. It opens up an opportunity to talk about the title with someone else that has formed an opinion of it.

I haven't written too many reviews yet, but I do avoid spoilers. I like to give my endorsement of a title for its various reasons, cautioning a reader against some of its failings (in my eyes), but I like to leave the ultimate decision of whether a book is good or bad...up to the reader.

Clifton Hill

Jane's Ride - Novelist Jane Kennedy Sutton's journey through the ups and downs of the writing, publishing and marketing world