In our discussions of late on reviews and authors’ reactions to reviews, I thought it would be helpful to take a look at the elements of a good review. And when I say “good,” I mean helpful. For the readers. Because that’s what reviews are about. Helping readers decide if this is a book for them. So here are some things, based on book reviews out there, for reviewers to keep in mind.
A good review is balanced. It takes into account that we all have likes and dislikes, and while this book may not be our cup of tea, it could be someone else’s absolute favorite. (Hey, it could happen!) Yes, share your honest opinion. But realize that’s what it is. Your opinion. A subjective evaluation of what you’ve read. No more, no less.
A good review is about the book, not the author. Focus on the writing, on the treatment of the topic, on the characters, on the storyline, on the research, on the facts, and so on. Don’t make judgment calls about the author’s faith, intelligence, relationships, parenting skills, parentage, or whatever. A reviewer’s job is to share your opinion of the book. You don’t have the right to go beyond that.
A good review is about the author’s craft, not the book’s packaging. Don’t base your review on the cover or endorsements or things over which, I guarantee you, most traditionally published writers have absolutely no control. (Now, if the authors are indie, then yes, they control those things…) But remember, what you’re reviewing is the writing, not the packaging.
A good book review doesn’t give an extensive summary of the book and then one or two lines about your thoughts. Readers can get the summary from lots of places. What they want to know is what you thought of the writing, the message, the story.
Even more important, a good review doesn’t give away the ending/secret/mystery/twist! Please, friends, for the love of heaven, don’t ruin the read for others. If you knew who the killer was on page 2, fine, say, “I knew who the killer was by page two.” But do NOT say, “I knew by page two that the butler was the killer.” If a book has a great twist, say that. But don’t give the twist away. Have mercy on not just the readers, but on the author.
A good book review is specific. Don’t just say you loved the book or hated it, tell us why. And tell us what specific aspect of it you loved or hated. For example:
What did you like or dislike about the writing?
What drew you to–or left you cold about–the topic or characters?
What moved or challenged or inspired or infuriated or disappointed you?
That’s my list. How about you? What makes a book review most helpful for you?
Thank you for this, Karen. I recently had a potential read ruined by a reviewer who gave away the ending. Who died. Who lived. What happened to the living, afterward. Every novel has mystery. It’s a huge part of what keeps readers turning the pages. I don’t want to know the ending before I start. Or even much of what happens beyond the few chapters (those plot twists).
If I could have unseen that detailed “book report” I’d have done so. A disappointing moment for this avid reader.
This is a great check list for anyone writing a review. Off to share.
I’ve just had a potentially good read ruined by the publisher … who revealed everything which happened (including the twist in the last chapter) in the book description.
While I generally follow Karen’s suggestion of writing my review about the book, not the packaging, there are rare times when the publisher makes such a mess of the packaging that it spoils the story. In these cases, I believe the publisher should be called on it.
Iola, I hear you, but the reality is the publisher doesn’t much care. They’ve moved on to a multitude of covers since they did the cover you’re commenting on. The only one who feels the sting is the author. Which is why, if a reviewer is going to comment on the packaging, it’s best to couch it in terms of, “This book deserves a much stronger cover,” or something like that, so that you’re making it clear that while the packaging isn’t stellar, the writing is. Well…if that’s the case, anyway. Otherwise you can just say, “The cover of this book is a good match for the content.” Nuff said, know what I mean?
Thanks, Lori! And folks, if you haven’t discovered Lori’s books, run to the store and get them! She’s a gifted writer.
Sandy Faye Mauck
Lori that is awful and when I read reviews, I do a super skim. I hate knowing the outcome or even the simple changes in the story.
I don’t even like reading the back of the book because they tell me way more than I want to know right off but that is just me.
Thanks for this article. I review dozens of books a year; some are advance reads, so I am particularly interested in ways to bring out the best in every story. When I read a review, I want to sense depth; depth of character development, depth of emotion; a deep inspirational thread and an interesting story line that remains strong from beginning to end. There are so many good writers out there right now, it’s a pleasure to be a reader!
Rebecca, love this:
“When I read a review, I want to sense depth; depth of character development, depth of emotion; a deep inspirational thread and an interesting story line that remains strong from beginning to end.”
Elaine, good point. Now, if a review is well written, I don’t mind if it’s a little longer. But for the most part, people who read reviews aren’t looking for a long read.
Elaine Marie Cooper
Thanks for this important post. Another consideration is length. If a review goes on for several paragraphs, I know it is probably going to tell me far more than I want to know. A few paragraphs with meaningful, concise info (and no spoilers) means more than a dissertation.
Debra L. Butterfield
Thanks, Karen, for such a concise list. I agree with Elaine about length. I’ve read reviews that are really just a summary of the book’s contents, rather than an opinion. I’m not a reader (or movie goer) who has a read spoiled by knowing the end, but I do want to know why a book was or wasn’t a good read.
Debra, exactly! That’s what most of us are looking for, isn’t it? For someone to share how the book/writing/message affected them.
All excellent points, Karen. I especially appreciate not giving a long summary of the story and not spoiling it for other readers.
If I were going to suggest possible additions, it might be to consider mentioning how the story affected you. Did it make you laugh, cry, anxious for the hero? Did it affect the way you think about life? About God? About your purpose for being in the world? Would you recommend it to others? Those are all fair to include and potentially helpful to other readers.
Rick, absolutely those are fair and helpful. You fleshed out what I wrote:
“What moved or challenged or inspired or infuriated or disappointed you?”
Thanks for this confirmation of what a book review is.
I keep my reviews to one paragraph if possible as I think when readers as scanning through the reviews, that is what they are doing – scanning. They don’t want to read another book – in the review.
I do a lot of reviews on either advanced copies or new releases. One thing I try to do is forward the “helpful” emails I get from Amazon to the author. It may indicate a sale…
I think the only time I would post a negative review is if the book advertised itself as one thing and was something else altogether. Example: I once read a book from someone claiming to be a Christian author and the book had sex scenes and AWFUL language. I posted only that if the reader was looking for a Christian book, this was not it.
So I broke my own rule about one paragraph…
Bobbie, yes, you need to tell readers if a book isn’t what it says it is. And I would definitely inform readers if a book released in the Christian market had those kinds of things. I might even say I couldn’t fathom what the writer was thinking to include those elements in a book for the Christian market. But I’d caution you against saying this author “claims” to be a Christian author. That comes across as a judgement call on that person’s faith.
Sandy Faye Mauck
Thanks Karen. Very good reminders. Good additions, Rick.
I know that we all have our opinion and it makes me think twice because of a friend and I who share our reviews with each other. She absolutely loved a book, I found awful. I could always go in and say that the writing was good but it had a horrible effect on me but I usually don’t. I like to stay positive if at all possible. I do tell me friend if I was utterly bored to death or there were questionable things in it in regards to God.
I really appreciate when people let me know if it has too much violence, sexual issues or innuendoes, language, etc. All of which I don’t have any desire to sift through for a good story. We all have our preferences and compromises and if I see a review that even smacks of it, I am leery. Even if it is one of my favorite authors.
Sandy, totally agree. Especially with: “I really appreciate when people let me know if it has too much violence, sexual issues or innuendoes, language, etc. All of which I don’t have any desire to sift through for a good story.”
Great points, Karen. I have wondered about leaving comments in a review about what I didn’t like, because usually there is something, even in my favorite books, that I felt could be improved. But I wondered if others, and especially the author if they happened to read it, would feel it was uncalled for. Thanks for the summary!
Amber, yes, what you’re sharing is your opinion, but that’s what people want to know: what you thought of the book and the writing. It’s when people cross the line from that into being nasty that’s problematic.
I have no problem with the reviewers of my books who say they didn’t like a character, or a character’s accent, or whatever. That those things didn’t work for them.
For example, I had one reviewer comment about a novella I wrote that one of the character’s accents was hard for her to follow. I went back and reviewed the dialogue, and I could see where she was right. That helped me learn how to do dialogue/accents better.
But in another book, which I’d set in Southern Oregon, I gave a character dialogue with a “countrified” element to it. And one reviewer took me to task saying something like, “Someone should have told Ms. Ball that Oregonians are not Southerners and don’t talk that way.” I just shook my head. Because I’m here to tell you, there are people in this area–a number of whom I’ve known since childhood–who absolutely do talk that way. And I patterned this character’s dialogue after them. That review wasn’t about helping the author or the readers, it was about the reviewer “knowing” more than the poor, uninformed writer. Yeah, okay…it stuck in my craw. But not because he criticized my writing. It was because he made the assumption he knew my home better than I did.
So as long as reviewers keep in mind the difference between expressing their opinion and trying to show off or show someone up, it’s all good. 🙂
Thanks, Karen. I haven’t reviewed many books and I wondered about the extent of the book description. Some I look at appear to have copied the paragraph(s) off of the back of the book, others only give two or three sentences.
Your information is helpful!
Sherry, just keep in mind that folks can get the descriptions in a lot of other places. They aren’t looking for a story summary or book report in reviews, they’re looking for whether or not the book/characters/message/voice and so on were effective for the reviewer.
I like it when a review states what the book is. For example, “A Test of Faith by Karen Ball is an authentic, moving novel chronicling the joys and hardships of a mother-daughter relationship.” Now, I obviously liked that because it was so complementary, but I also really liked the way the reviewer told the readers the basics of what the book was without giving a summary.
what does the book say
is it worth saying
how well does it say it
that is what I think a review should provide
Thanks for your thoughts on how a good review should be. I am to review an upcoming book in Nigeria and yours here is a sure guild for a me not to kill the enthusiasm of would be readers.
Very helpful. Giving an opinion is important for the reader to know if its for them or not. Also to describe the essence and type of the book.
Some great points here! I definitely agree the best reviews I’ve read follow these guidelines. I also like Rick’s point about stating how the book affected you.
I am a little surprised to see so many people commenting on length. Is the length of a review really an issue in and of itself, or only when it’s longer because of summarizing or spoilering? I ask because I think my reviews tend to be on the long side (300-500 words), but I like to think it’s because I’m being specific about what I liked/disliked and why without giving away spoilers or focusing on summarizing. Perhaps I’m being too specific? I do try to make my main point in the first paragraph for those who are skimming and don’t want to read the whole thing.
Now I’m wondering, is there a generally preferred length for a book review? Should I be rethinking the length of my reviews?
Karen, you bring up a good point. With our “get it now, get it fast” world, I’m not surprised folks tend to prefer a shorter review, so long as it is helpful. Maybe aim for a max of 400? Just a thought.
Thanks, Karen. I’ll keep that target in mind.
I use the back of the book for a summary and then give my review. I think the back of the book gives what their authors want people to know. I put a header called “overview” so people know it’s the overview and then have a header for my review and another about the author. Do y’all think it is bad to use the back of the book? (I only do this on my own blog, for amazon, goodreads, etc. I just use my review).
Sandy, a lot of reviewers do that, but I really do think it would be better to let readers get the summary elsewhere and just focus on how the book affected you or if the author accomplished what he wanted to. If it’s a book on rebuilding marriages, say that, but then let us know your thoughts. If it’s a suspense novel, tell us that, but again, go from there to your thoughts.
Just my vote.
Good article and good comments. I totally agree with not giving things away. In fact, more reaction and less plot seems a better mix.
I try to keep my reviews (both blog and Goodreads.com) to 300 words, but I’ve seen some that run to pages. Those are usually only readable if they are reacting to the book rather than reviewing it.
Ron, exactly! More reaction, less plot. That’s a good key to keep in mind.
Thanks for sharing. I’m going to pass this along to a couple readers groups I’m in. There have been several discussions about reviewing books, so this may help them.
Laura, that’s great. Let me know if they have any questions.
Thanks, Karen! I’ve read many reviews lately that told the entire plot, and I wondered if I was missing something by not doing that in my reviews. I actually prefer to read people’s responses rather than the summary, which as you say, can be found on the book. Breathing a sigh of relief here. Also, just a couple days ago, I read a review in which the writer of said review told us a main character dies later in the book. Bummer. I felt bad for the author, wondering how many people may not read that book now. This post helps clarify book review content. Thanks again.
I have much impressed with the charming views of Karen so please keep it up and try to share other views which are helpful for poor students like me
hey need help
Thank you so much for this post. I’ve started writing book reviews and while I know not to give away anything in my review such as who dies, who lives, etc. but I wasn’t quite sure what to include.
This post helped me tremendously.
Thank you, Karen, for this insightful summary. I’ve just suffered through two reviews that did nothing but rehash the plot (inserting errors that showed the reviewer hadn’t actually read all of the book) and was beginning to doubt my sanity. Do you have any advice on how to locate reviewers with attitudes like Rebecca Maney’s?
Robin E. Mason
saving this ’cause although i can write an entire novel, i stumble when writing a review!! LOL
Thank you for telling me that I should specify what aspect of the book I ended up loving or hating after reading the entire story in the book review I am about to write. For our English class, we were asked to do a detailed book review of The Donna Gentile Story which is based on real-life, but I’m not really good at writing and I’m not sure if I’m doing it right. I’ll keep your tips in mind and see if I could come up with a good and objective book review.
hi this is cool
Carol Wilson Mack
Everyone can write a book, but not everyone can produce an amazing one. Whether fiction or non-fiction, it always takes knowledge, experience, passion, and attitude to create praiseworthy literature.
I completely agree with what you have written. I hope this post could reach more people as this was truly an interesting post.