How to Write a Review

A review should give the reader an idea of whether they’d like to read the book being reviewed. The purpose is to guide readers towards books they want to read but don’t know exist.

Good reviews aren’t necessarily positive. But those reviews that are critical are constructive. Reviewers aren’t always the target audience for the book they’re reviewing and their review should recognise this.

Focus on the book being reviewed. If space permits by all means mention that cover image isn’t suitable or the blurbs on the back cover are excessively hyperbolic, or the typeface was difficult to read but only if space permits.

A review is more than just an opinion. “I like this book,” is not a review. A reviewer needs to tell their readers why they liked the book and back-up opinions with illustrations of how that opinion was reached. “I recommend this book because I could identify with the characters, the pace was fast but not furious, the plot was complex but not complicated to follow and the final twist was credible but still caught me by surprise,” is a review.

Read the book you are reviewing. Be prepared to read it again. Compiling a review from a review of the same book published elsewhere or from the publisher’s publicity material is unprofessional and lazy. It might also come back to haunt you if you review a subsequent book by the same writer or a similar book by other writer and write a review that contradicts your compiled effort.

Don’t review the book you wanted to read. An article that consists of the writer telling the reader that the author should have written something else or should have changed the plot or written a sequence of villanelles instead of sonnets might be interesting, but it’s not a review.

Think about how much of the plot you are giving away. You need to give a flavour of what the plot’s about, but is it necessary to give away the ending? It’s not a reviewer’s job to discourage readers who would have liked the book but now feel that they don’t need to read it because they know what happens.

Don’t be tempted to show off your knowledge of the writer’s previous publications and start an in-depth assessment of the writer’s career to date. There isn’t space for a critical essay within a review. It may be relevant to mention previous publications, but generally treat the book under review as a stand alone publication. Even if the book you are reviewing is part of the series, readers need to know if they can still read the book in isolation from the rest of the series.

Don’t assume opinions expressed by characters are the same as those of the author. The point of fiction is to make it up and give writers the freedom to imagine what it’s like to hold contrary opinions or hold extreme views.

Be aware that the author of the book you are reviewing will either read the review or receive comments on your review from others. Have you justified the opinions you’ve expressed? If you did meet the author and they mentioned your review, how comfortable a conversation would that be?

Be honest. If you don’t like a book, say so, but say why. If you don’t have anything to say, it may be better not to review the book. If you’re unsure about a review you’ve written, think about whether you need to review the book at all – could you pass it on to someone who’d love to review it or pass it to an editor who can find another reviewer? If the review is for a blog, you could do a notice of a book received and link to reviews by others or the publisher’s site.

Don’t be humbled by your own achievements: it’s your reading experience that counts, not your track record as a writer. You may still be trying to get your first full collection published and write a review of someone else’s tenth publication, but you are writing your review as a reader. In fact you don’t have to be a writer to write reviews, just able to communicate your experience as a reader to other readers.

Be aware of what your review is saying about you. If you only criticise or are dismissive of what you review, you may come across as arrogant. If you express opinion as fact (“The second stanza should be cut” rather than “I think the second stanza could go, it merely repeats what’s said in the first”), you will come across as too proscriptive. Aim for a balanced review.

Don’t write about yourself or your own book(s). Impressive as your achievements may be, they are not in the book under review.

Don’t write about the author. A celebrity penning or ghost writing a first novel may find it easier to get published than you did (or perhaps you’ll still waiting for your big break), but if you write about celebrities “taking away publishing slots from real writers”, you’re not writing a review. You may think the author is the worst/most wonderful person you know, but that may not be reflected in their writing.

Before pressing publish or sending your review to an editor, double check your facts: have you got the title and author’s name, publisher and price details correct? Check character names, check the poem you said was a sestina is a sestina, check for spelling, grammar and other typos.

Check your word count. Editors generally will specify word counts so make sure your review fits.

If you don’t have a word count, that doesn’t mean you can ramble on for 2500 words when 500 would be sufficient. If you are reviewing an epic you’ll need more space for your review but 300 words should be sufficient for a slender pamphlet of poetry. Check your review’s length is in proportion to what’s under review. Cut where you’ve made the same point twice, check quotations are relevant to the point they are supporting (do you need to quote the whole poem or just a stanza?).

Would a reader be able to decide whether or not they want to read the book under review?

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3 Responses to “How to Write a Review”

  1. Josephine Corcoran Says:

    Reblogged this on Josephine Corcoran and commented:
    Several of us in my writing group have been talking about reviews – there’s some excellent tips here. Thanks, Emma Lee.

  2. karmen99 Says:

    It has helped me a lot. Thanks.

  3. Some Poetry Reviews – Josephine Corcoran Says:

    […] How to Write a Review by Emma Lee. […]


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