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How to Write a Book Review

Wednesday, Apr 03

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.

This post covers the basics of literary criticism — including how to write fiction and non-fiction books reviews. Let’s start at the very beginning: reading the book!

Before writing a book review

Reading for pleasure and reading to write a review are two different things. To record your reactions and thoughts, you will want to have a notepad with you as you work your way through the book. Here are some questions to keep in mind as you do:

For fiction 

  • 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?

For non-fiction

  • What genre or field does the book fit into? How does it match up to your expectations of that genre?
  • What is the theme, thesis, or position of the book? Do you agree with it?
  • Are the book's points well-conveyed, compellingly argued, and fully-developed? Do any parts feel half-baked?
  • How would you describe the author’s writing style? Is the text accessible? 
  • How does the book’s format help convey the themes? Are there any graphics or illustrations that are particularly useful?
  • Are footnotes used in the book? If so, are they helpful or cluttering?
  • Is the book logically organized? Is there an index or glossary?
  • What emotions were you left with upon finishing the book? 
  • How does this book compares to other works by this author? Or to other relevant books in the same genre/with the same themes?

With these points in mind, let’s move on to the structure of a book review — the basic elements a standard review should contain.

How to write a fiction book review

The three main elements of fiction and non-fiction book reviews are identical, though they might accomplish different things. These include:

  1. The Summary: What is the story about? Who are the main characters? What is the main conflict?
  2. The Evaluation: What did you think of the book? What elements worked well, and which ones didn’t
  3. The 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 of a fiction book review.

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.
The Narrator initially sticks to the highways, trying to make it to the West Coast as quickly as possible. But a hitchhiker named Duke convinces him to get off the beaten path and enjoy the ride. “There’s not a place that’s like any other,” [39] Dukes contends, and The Narrator realizes he’s right. Suddenly, the trip is about the journey, not just the destination. The Narrator ditches his truck and traverses the deserts and mountains on his bike. He destroys his phone, cutting off ties with his past and living only in the moment.
As he crosses the country, The Narrator connects with several unique personalities whose experiences and views deeply impact his own. Duke, the complicated cowboy and drifter, who opens The Narrator’s eyes to a larger world. Zooey, the waitress in Colorado who opens his heart and reminds him that love can be found in this big world. And Rosie, The Narrator’s sweet landlady in Portland, who helps piece him back together both physically and emotionally.

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.

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. As much as possible, you should try to objectively review the stronger and weaker elements of the story, and provide examples from the text to back up your points.

Of course, you might have biases: these might, for instance, be informed by a prior connection that you had to the author or story, or preconceived expectations you had going into the novel. Acknowledge these, and try to discern the author’s intent with the story, and how you feel readers at large will react to it. But above all, the evaluation should explain how you reacted to the story or how it affected you.

Let’s turn to examples once again.

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.

Recommendation 

At the end of the day, your review needs to answer the 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 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.

How to write a non-fiction book review

As mentioned earlier, a non-fiction book review is no different to its fiction counterpart: it should also include a summary, evaluation, and recommendation. 

However, instead of informing prospective readers about the quality of the story, the three elements will aim to tell readers about the book’s thesis and the effectiveness with which the author presents and argues their topic.

Let’s take a closer look.

Summary

The summary should 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.

This is how Stefan Kløvning’s review of Creativity Cycling establishes the framework of the book within the framework of its field:

As globalization and digitization move the economy forward, workers and businesses are prompted to adapt to a changing and competitive marketplace to a larger degree than previously. A vital skill for adapting to the changing environment is that of creativity: to think outside the box and come up with original solutions to the problems we're facing today, or to view old suggestions with new perspectives. In Creativity Cycling, Barbara Wilson and Tracy Stanley build upon their research on the issue to help individuals and businesses encourage creativity for themselves and their teams through a myriad of advice, illustrations, and tools. 

Evaluation

The quality of a fiction story relies completely on how well it’s told: a story that seems incredibly boring at first glance can be a rip-roaring adventure when told the right way. 

The same goes for nonfiction: a 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? 

While you don’t want to give away any big reveals in fiction book reviews, it’s important to mention the key takeaways of the book in a non-fiction review, as it can help readers decide whether they want to pursue the title further.

Continuing with Stefan’s review, his evaluation points out the readability of the title:

First, the style and structure of the book is aesthetic, ordered and clear, making it easy to read and understand the points brought forth. Wilson and Stanley also do a great job of presenting an overview in the beginning of “How the book is organised,” and making clear what topics will be discussed in the different chapters. They also summarize each chapter, and point out what they consider to be the key takeaways.
Regarding the content itself, they provide a lot of interesting suggestions for advice and tools leaders could adopt for their teams to encourage creativity. Given that I’m not involved with much leadership in teamwork activities, a lot of the suggestions weren’t relevant for me, but entrepreneurs and managers could surely get a lot more practical results from the advice provided here. As the authors make clear in the beginning of the book, it is written “for leaders who want to help their team solve complex problems by applying creative thinking skills.
Despite this, I still learnt a lot that I could use to fuel creativity in the way I think about certain issues and problems, and how to encourage myself to be more open and curious about new ideas. Possibly the main takeaway from the book for me was the reference to Jane Henry’s “four Ps,” summarizing the most important conditions for creativity: positivity, playfulness, passion and persistence. I do not need to be a business owner to put this into practice. I can take a positive mindset about being able to think, read and learn; be curious or “playful” about new ideas; consider what really motivates me, and visualize achieving the goals I’m moving towards; and use that to fuel a persistence and dedication in such a search for truth and to reach the goals I’m setting for myself.

Recommendation

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 to Stefan’s review once more for an example of a recommendation that includes an explanation of the reviewer’s own bias:

I give the work a rating of three, given that I as an “non-leader” individual, so to speak, found it worth reading – and thought it had some great points that I could make use of – but ultimately found that much of the book was impractical considering my situation. For those in leader positions, the score may be higher depending on the degree to which they think they could apply the suggestions to encourage creativity in their teams. I think that “Creativity Cycling” would at least be worth checking out for them in case they could improve teamwork and cooperation by doing so. 

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? The content and tone 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 join Reedsy Discovery as a book reviewer, where you can review books for free and are guaranteed people will read them.

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