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Blog – Posted on Wednesday, Apr 03

How to Write a Book Review in 3 Steps

If the idea of reading for free — or even getting paid to read — sounds like a dream come true, remember that it isn’t a pipe dream. There are many places aspiring book reviewers can read books for free, such as Reedsy Discovery — a new platform for reviewing indie books. Of course, if you’re giving serious thought to becoming a book reviewer, your first step should be learning how to write a book review. To that end, this post covers all the basics of literary criticism. Let’s get started!

The three main steps of writing a book review are simple:

  1. Provide a summary: What is story about? Who are the main characters and what is the main conflict? 
  2. Present your evaluation: What did you think of the book? What elements worked well, and which ones didn’t? 
  3. Give your recommendation: Would you recommend this book to others? If so, what kinds of readers will enjoy it?

Let’s take a closer look at each element.

Step 1. Provide a summary

Have you ever watched a movie only to realize that all the good bits were already in the trailer? Well, you don’t want your review to do that. What you do want the summary to do is reveal the genre, theme, main conflict, and main characters in the story — without giving away spoilers or revealing how the story ends.

A good rule of thumb is not to mention anything that happens beyond the midpoint. Set the stage and give readers a sense of the book without explaining how the central issue is resolved.

Emily W. Thompson's review of The Crossing:

In [Michael] Doane’s debut novel, a young man embarks on a journey of self-discovery with surprising results.

An unnamed protagonist (The Narrator) is dealing with heartbreak. His love, determined to see the world, sets out for Portland, Oregon. But he’s a small-town boy who hasn’t traveled much. So, the Narrator mourns her loss and hides from life, throwing himself into rehabbing an old motorcycle. Until one day, he takes a leap; he packs his bike and a few belongings and heads out to find the Girl. Read more...

Here are a few more reviews with well-written summaries for you to check out. Summaries tend to be the longest parts of book reviews, so we won’t turn this post into a novel itself by pasting them all here: Le Cirque Navire reviewed by Anna Brill, The Heart of Stone reviewed by Kevin R. Dickinson, Fitting Out: The Friendship Experiment reviewed by Lianna Albrizio.

Non-fiction summary tip: The primary goal of a non-fiction summary is to provide context: what problems or issues has the book spotted, and how does it go about addressing them? Be sure to mention the authors of the title and what experience or expertise they bring to the book. Check Stefan Kløvning’s review of Creativity Cycling for an example of a summary that establishes the framework of the book within the context of its field.

Step 2. Present your evaluation

While you should absolutely weave your own personal take of a book into the review, your evaluation shouldn’t only be based on your subjective opinion. Along with presenting how you reacted to the story and how it affected you, you should also try to objectively review the stronger and weaker elements of the story, and provide examples from the text to back up your points.

To help you write your evaluation, you should record your reactions and thoughts as you work your way through a novel you’re planning on reviewing. Here are some questions to keep in mind as you do:

  • Which genres does the book fit into? How does it match up to your expectations of that genre?
  • Which point of view does the book use? How does that contribute to the story?
  • What is the theme of the book? What elements underscore the theme or make it apparent to the reader?
  • How would you describe the author’s writing style?
  • Does the story start with action? With exposition? Which elements are introduced to the reader in the first chapter?
  • Does the story have a satisfying denouement? Which loose ends are tied up, and which questions are left unanswered?
  • Is the book well-edited or are there frequent instances of spelling or grammatical errors? What about plot holes or inconsistencies within the story itself?
  • What emotions were you left with upon finishing the book? Does the book feel well-developed or like it needs more work? 
  • How does this book compares to other works by this author? Or to other relevant books in the same genre/with the same themes?

Let’s turn to some great examples of book evaluations.

Your evaluation might focus heartily on the book’s prose:

Donald Barker's review of Mercenary

Such are the bones of the story. But, of course, it is the manner in which Mr Gaughran puts the bones back together and fills them with life that makes “Mercenary” such a great read. The author’s style seems plain; it seems straightforward and even simple. But an attempt at imitation or emulation quickly proves that simple it is not. He employs short, punchy sentences that generate excellent dialogue dripping with irony, deadpan humour and wit. This, mixed with good descriptive prose, draws the characters – and what characters they are – along with the tumultuous events in which they participated amidst the stinking, steaming heat of the South American jungle, out from the past to the present; alive, scheming, drinking, womanising and fighting, onto the written page.

You can give readers a sense of the book by drawing comparisons to other well-known titles or authors:

Laura Hartman's review of The Mystery of Ruby's Mistletoe:

Reading Ms. Donovan’s book is reminiscent to one of my favorite authors, Dame Agatha Christie. Setting up the suspects in a snowbound house, asking them to meet in the drawing room and the cleverly satisfying conclusion was extremely gratifying. I can picture Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot nodding at Ms. Donovan saying “Well done!”

Not everyone’s tastes are the same, and you can always acknowledge this by calling out specific story elements in your evaluation: 

Kevin R. Dickinson's review of The Heart of Stone:

Whether you enjoy Galley’s worldbuilding will depend heavily on preference. Galley delivers information piecemeal, letting the characters, not the author, navigate the reader through Hartlund. A notable example is the magic system, an enigmatic force that lacks the ridge structures of, say, a Brandon Sanderson novel. While the world’s magical workings are explained, you only learn what the characters know and many mysteries remain by the end. Similar choices throughout make the world feel expansive and authentic.

Non-fiction evaluation tip: A book’s topic is only as compelling as its supporting arguments. Your evaluation of a nonfiction book should address that: how clearly and effectively are the points communicated? Turn back to Stefan’s review for an example of a non-fiction review that covers key takeaways and readability, without giving away any “big reveals.”

Step 3. Give your recommendation 

At the end of the day, your review needs to answer this question: is this a book you would (or wouldn’t) recommend to other readers? You might wrap up by comparing it to other books in the same genre, or authors with similar styles, such as: “Fans of so-and-so will enjoy this book.” 

Let’s take a look at a few more examples:

You don’t need to outright state, “I recommend this book” — you can make it clear by highlighting your favorable opinion:

Emily W. Thompson's review of The Crossing:

Following in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac and William Least Heat-Moon, Doane offers a coming of age story about a man finding himself on the backroads of America. Doane’s a gifted writer with fluid prose and insightful observations, using The Narrator’s personal interactions to illuminate the diversity of the United States.
Despite his flaws, it’s a pleasure to accompany The Narrator on his physical and emotional journey. The unexpected ending is a fitting denouement to an epic and memorable road trip.

Add more punch to your recommendation by mentioning what kind of readers will or won’t enjoy the book:

Charleigh Aleyna Reid's review of The King of FU:

I would recommend this book to anyone who grew up in the 90’s and would like to reminisce about the time, someone who is interested to see what it was like to be a 90’s kid, or perhaps anyone who is looking for a unique, funny story about someone’s life.

Unless you found the title absolutely abhorrent, balance out a less favorable review by mentioning what you did like about the book — before ultimately stating why you wouldn’t recommend the novel:

Nicola O's review of Secrets of the Sea Lord:

Overall, there are plenty of enjoyable elements in this story and fans of Atlantis and mer mythology should give it a try. Despite this, it does not rise above a three-star rating, and while I had some difficulty pinning down why this is, I concluded that it comes from a surprisingly unsophisticated vocabulary. There are a couple of graphic sex scenes, which is absolutely fine in a paranormal romance, but if they were removed, I could easily imagine this as an appealing story for middle-schoolers.

Non-fiction recommendation tip: As with fiction book reviews, mention why you did or didn’t enjoy the title. However, in one of the starkest divergences from fiction book reviews it’s more important than ever to mention your expectations coming into the non-fiction book. For instance, if you’re a cow farmer who’s reading a book on the benefits of becoming a vegetarian, you’re coming in with a large and inherent bias that the book will struggle to alter. So your recommendation should cover your thoughts about the book, while clearly taking account your perspective before you started reading. Let’s turn once more to Stefan’s review for an example of a recommendation that includes an explanation of the reviewer’s own bias.

Bonus tips for writing a book review

Let’s wrap up with a few final tips for writing a compelling review.

  • Remember, this isn’t a book report. If someone wants the summary of a book, they can read the synopsis. People turn to book reviews for a fellow reader’s take on the book. And for that reason...
  • Have an opinion. Even if your opinion is totally middle-of-the-line — you didn’t hate the book but you didn’t love it either — state that clearly, and explain why.
  • Make your stance clear from the outset. Don’t save your opinion just for the evaluation/recommendation. Weave your thoughts about the book into your summary as well, so that readers have an idea of your opinion from the outset.
  • Back up your points. Instead of just saying, “the prose was evocative” — show readers by providing an actual passage that displays this. Same goes for negative points — don’t simply tell readers you found the character unbelievable, reference a certain (non-spoiler) scene that backs this up.
  • Provide the details. Don’t forget to weave the book’s information into the review: is this a debut author? Is this one installment of a series? What types of books has the author written before? What is their background? How many pages does the book have? Who published the book? What is the book’s price?
  • Follow guidelines. Is the review you’re writing for Goodreads? For The New York Times? Your content, tone, and book review format of your review will vary a good deal from publication to publication.
  • Learn from others. One of the best ways to learn how to write a great review is to read other reviews! To help you out with that, we’ve published a post all about book review examples.

Writing book reviews can be a rewarding experience! As a book-lover yourself, it’s a great opportunity to help guide readers to their next favorite title. If you’re just getting started as a book reviewer and could use a couple of nudges in the right direction, check out our comprehensive blog post on how to become a book reviewer.

Finally, if you feel ready to put your reviewing chops into action, we recommend you check out Reedsy Discovery, where you can review books for free and are guaranteed people will read them. To register as a book reviewer, simply go here!

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