How to write a book review

underliningJust saw a nice post on Read.Learn.Write which goes into the methodology of writing book reviews, using my novel On the Holloway Road as a model.

I’ve never really thought about a method for writing reviews before – I tend to just give my response to the book in whatever form seems natural. That’s probably because the reviews started as my own way of keeping track of what I was reading and analysing it to improve my understanding, and although other people now read them, the style is still quite personal and informal.

Still, I do employ most of the steps outlined in the post:

  1. Read slowly
  2. Take notes
  3. Deconstruct the book to figure out what works
  4. Figure out what you would have done differently
  5. Decide on a rating system

Well, I don’t use a rating system on this site, because I find it very difficult to slot books into neat little categories. Plus I think that if the review has done its job, it should be obvious what I thought of it, and I don’t really see what giving a score out of five or ten really adds. When I post the reviews on sites like Goodreads or Amazon and am forced to choose a star rating, I usually vacillate, and when I look back at my overall ratings, they don’t make a lot of sense – sometimes a book with a 4-star rating is actually one I enjoyed more than another which only got 3 stars, probably because of my differing moods at the time of scoring.

But the others make sense to me. I think it’s designed for people who are just starting to write reviews – clearly there’s a lot more you could say about reviewing, and a lot more depth you could go into if you wanted to pursue it further. But as a basic five-step process, this seems pretty sound to me.

How about you? Do you follow a particular process when writing book reviews? Do you agree with the five-step process, or are there things you would add in or take out?

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11 thoughts on “How to write a book review

  1. I feel the same way about rating books. For the last book I reviewed, I was forced to give a rating out of 10, so I settled on an 8.5 just to show that I enjoyed it overall. When it comes to all the book cataloging websites, I simply avoid doing it. I feel like the scores are so arbitrary anyway – as you said, the review should speak for itself.

    1. Hi Joseph! Glad I’m not the only one. It seems to work for a lot of people, which is fine, but I’ve never got much out of it. I do like the book cataloging sites – I’m on Goodreads and LIbraryThing, although I don’t have time to be very active on them these days, what with blogging, tweeting and, oh yeah, writing from time to time…

  2. I am also anti-star ratings. It seems illogical to me to write a nuanced, detailed review and then judge the book on a scale of one to five. I still love writing reviews although I’d be hard pressed to say what my method is. I suppose while I’m reading I just listen out for the things that pull hard on my attention, and for the places where something really happens (not just plot). I’m thinking about the shape of the book, and its moral universe. If I’m stuck with a book, I think about the characters, and how each one develops or interacts with the others, how to describe them. And I’m always looking for patterns. Have you seen John Updike’s article on how to review books? It often makes a little tour around the blogworld and it’s my own favourite account of the process.

    1. Oh, I haven’t seen John Updike’s article – will have to look out for it. You know, since you come from academia I thought you might have more of a conscious method, so it’s interesting to hear this. Your approach sounds good, though, and it clearly works, because your reviews are always good to read and tell me exactly whether I’ll like the book. It’s not always that I’ll like what you like, but it’s more that your review gives me a good picture of the book and allows me to decide for myself.

  3. I’d say that’s a good list, and I like that it’s not too detailed. My process is pretty similar, though in addition to those five I tend to hone in on themes that I picked up on (whether purposely written into the book or not). I probably go into detail too much sometimes, but it’s a style that works for me. “De-constructing what you would have done differently” is very important to writing an objective review, or as objective as a review is ever going to get (I don’t believe a review can ever be completely unbiased). It stops it from being a candidate for people thinking you’re just a gushing fan, because that can happen.

    I do use ratings, because lots of different factors come into play when deciding how much I liked a book. That said, sometimes I’ll look back on a past review I wonder why I rated it as such, so it’s not perfect, but for me they are a big help when trying to describe what I read and how I understood what I read.

    1. Hi Charlie,

      Yes, themes are very important, and I like the distinction you make between intended and unintended! Definitely a reader can pick up on something the author didn’t intend at all, but that doesn’t make it invalid – in my view it enriches the book to have other people bringing their own ideas and interpretations. Some readers have mentioned things in my book that surprised me!

      Objectivity is tough, and to be honest I like to read people’s opinions anyway, not a completely objective account. But I know what you mean – you want to be fair to your readers and not just gush about a book. I think it’s very rare to find a book that’s so perfect you can’t find even one criticism to make. Funnily enough, I sometimes don’t review books I loved, and although I hadn’t really thought about why that is, it just occurred to me that perhaps it’s because I don’t think I’d have anything interesting to say about them. I felt that way about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example – I honestly couldn’t think of one thing I’d have done differently. But I never reviewed it. It wasn’t a conscious choice – just never got around to it. Will have to ponder that some more.

      Thanks for standing up for ratings! It’s good to hear someone does use them. As long as they work for you and help you to describe what you’ve read, that’s great. For me they are more of a hindrance, and that’s why I don’t use them. Thanks for connecting with me on Goodreads, by the way! I’m not on there very much these days, but like to go on every now and then and get some recommendations. Do you use it much? If so, what for?

  4. Interesting 5-step process, Andrew! I agree with the first step, but the other four seem like hard work. I occasionally take notes when I read. I highlight my favourite passages when I read and I browse through them before I write my review.

    1. 🙂 the good thing about writing reviews is that there are lots of different approaches, and we can put in as much or as little work as we want. Since you write reviews for fun, it’s definitely not something you want to make hard work of. It’s interesting, though, because your reviews are always very detailed and thoughtful, so I imagined you’d put a lot of work into them. Maybe you do, really, in an unconscious way, but it just doesn’t seem like work 🙂

  5. Today, I went to the beachfront with my kids. I found
    a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the shell to her ear and screamed.

    There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear. She never wants to go back!
    LoL I know this is completely off topic but I had to tell someone!

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