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How to Write a Book Review
It doesn’t matter who you are—a blogger, a student or a corporate employee—having the skills to review a book is a valuable one. If you read books, learning how to write a review is essential. Today, with the mushrooming of book websites, anyone can write a book review and post it. But not many people know how to.
Let’s begin at the beginning. You already know what a book review is. Just to recap, book reviews are articles or write-ups that give a brief overview of a book along with the book reviewer’s impressions of the same. Sometimes they are rated on a scale of 1 to 5 stars where 1 is the lowest and 5 the highest. They appear on newspapers, magazines, blogs and book reading websites. Usually the book under review is a new one that has hit the market. But there are also book reviews of classics and other older books. The book review could be a few lines to a few thousand words long. It depends on the space available in the newspaper, website, blog and book reading websites.
You might as well ask—who reviews books? Well, since the internet exploded, almost anyone can review a book. Before that and even now, there are paid book reviewers who write for one or many publications. Some book reviewers have become so famous that their word can make or break the sales of a book. Michiko Kakutani, former chief book critic for the New York Times is one of them. Not all of us can aim that high as a book reviewer. However, you can certainly learn to write a decent book review. And perhaps even earn some money on the way. Let’s find out how to do that.
The Importance of Book Reviews
Book reviews are a marketing tool for publishers of books. They spread the word about the book. Book reviewers are also readers in a sense so book reviews let other readers know about a book. Many people don’t buy books unless they have read a few reviews. If you are a writer or have a profession that has something to do with books, you will already know why book reviews are important. If you are a reader, you know that by reading book reviews, you decide if the book under review is a book you’d like to invest your time and money in.
Book reviews are so important that there is an underground practice of paid reviews on a leading e-commerce website. This is certainly extremely unfair and should not be tolerated.
So now that you know a bit about what book reviews are, let’s dive into how to write them.
1. Choose a Book
Unless you have been commissioned to write a book review, you will have to find a book first to review. Usually book reviewers either love a book or hate a book so much that they are moved to review it. If you want to choose a book solely for the purpose of reviewing, then any book will do. You can write a book review of a book on any subject under the sun.
If you have been commissioned to write a book review, you’d still need to know which genre it fits in. A nodding acquaintance with genres will help you at this point. This is because in order to review a book, you’ll need to know which genre it belongs to. The book cover also gives you a clue about the genre. Sometimes, publishers mention the genre near the barcode of the book on the back cover. Look closely for it.
Broadly there are two types of books—fiction and non-fiction. There are several genres in each types.
The following genres come under fiction.
- Action and adventure
- Comic and graphic novel
- Crime and detective
- Historical fiction
- Magical Realism
- Realistic fiction
- Science fiction (Sci-fi)
- Short story
The following genres come under non-fiction:
- Creative nonfiction
- Narrative nonfiction
Note: poetry can come under fiction and non-fiction as well.
2. Read the Book
This might seem like an obvious next step but you’d be surprised to know how many people falter here. Having an opinion is easy: everyone seems to have one. But reading a book whether you like it or not till the end without skipping any pages, isn’t. After you have chosen a book or have been given one as a commission, you need to read it thoroughly. There will be bits that will not be your liking (take note of this) or some that are outright boring (make note again) as well as bits that you will love (make note of this too), but it has to be read completely. That is the commitment that you as a book reviewer makes when you pick up a book to review. To be an honest book reviewer, you need to read the whole book.
Remember that someone somewhere will read your book review and will buy the book and perhaps that might change that reader’s life.
3. Make Notes
While you are reading the book, you’ll need to make notes. These notes will help you when you start writing the book review.
You have several ways to do that. You could keep a notebook alongside and note down the page number, its corresponding lines (if any) and your comment about the same. Some people write on the margins of the books as well. If the book is not your own copy, you should avoid writing on it. Besides, how much can be fit into the margins anyway? Some others use post-it notes. Some even use online notetaking apps. As you begin to review books regularly, you will discover your favourite method of notetaking and will stick to it.
Now, you might ask—what should go into the notes? Lines that resonate with you, any quotations that appeal universally and ideas that you think stand out. In addition, if you have any particular theories in your head, you can note them down for the book review later.
4. Follow the Format
A complete book review does the following:
- Lists the strengths and weaknesses of the book.
- Observes what the author intended to do and if he/she was able to do it.
- Fits into 50 to 1500 words.
After you have finished reading the book and collected all your notes, now you can start writing the book review. Do keep in mind the format of a book review.
- Book details
- Your analysis/opinion
- Your recommendation
These sections don’t have to fall into neat paragraphs. You can take as many paragraphs as you want per point.
Before you start writing, you need to make notes of the book details: title, author, place, publisher, publication date, edition, pages and price.
5. Start with a Brief Summary
You are on your way to writing your book review now. Start with a brief summary. No matter the genre try not to give out too many details. Your review should make people want to read the book not come away with feeling that they don’t need to read it! So try not to give out any plot spoilers. This is especially true for fiction genres. If however you cannot help it, add a ‘Spoiler Alert’ note to the book review.
6. Frame Your Opinion
Now you are more than halfway into writing the book review. If you are sure you won’t be influenced by other reviewers, you can go ahead and read some other reviews of the book that you are reviewing. But if you think that will influence you, please avoid them.
If you are reviewing a book in a fictional genre, you’ll need to comment on the title, story, plot, character, action, tone, pace and genre. Some books break the rules of genre so be alert to that as well. This could be an interesting facet to talk about in the review. For example, Junot Diaz’s short story collection Drown relies on his own life heavily making it almost a semi-autographical collection of short stories where the narrator Yunior is the author’s fictional alter-ego.
If you are reviewing a book from a non-fiction genre, you’ll need to comment on the title, subject, the author’s qualification to tackle that subject, how well the author covers the subject, the tone, the pace and any omissions.
Certainly this is the time to add all those notes that you have meticulously made. Round up the review by mentioning the parts of the book that worked for you. Any criticisms of the book can be pointed out too as diplomatically as possible.
A few points to keep in mind:
- Avoid being intimidated by famous authors or their earlier works.
- Try not to review books of people you love or hate.
- Find a genre you love and become an expert in it.
7. Include Quotes
Do include quotes because they are illustrations of all the points that are you are making. For example, you might say that the book showed a character as being quick-witted. Then if you can add a quote from the book that illustrates this, it makes your review stronger.
Avoid adding chunks of text as an example since they can slow the pace of the review and might overwhelm the reader. KISS—keeping it short and simple—always works!
8. Refer to Other Books
To add weight to your review, you can refer to other books either in the same genre, connected to the same subject, or written by the same author in the body of your book review. There many ways of making connections. So feel free to link ideas across diverse books. This will show that you are knowledgeable and well read.
It’s better to refer to books that fall within your reading orbit rather than reading up summaries on the internet and making superficial connections based on them. Once the review is in print or posted online, you don’t want to be called out for it.
If you are writing your first book review, don’t worry. Everyone starts somewhere. You can always build up a repertoire of read books as you go along. The more authentic you are, the better your book review will be.
As you come to the end of your book review, you’d want to recommend to the reader if the book is worth their time. This recommendation works very well when you connect it to similar books. You might have come across lines like ‘If you liked The Game of Thrones books, you will like this book as well.’ which are nothing but a recommendation connected to a similar book.
9. Rate the Book
Now that you have almost come to the end of the book review, you might have to decide on a rating for the book. This is not a compulsory feature but a nice-to-have one.
If there is a rating system already in place, go ahead and follow it. Usually all established newspapers and websites have a system in place.
If however are blogging or have the freedom to make your own rating system, feel free inject a bit of humour. It gives the reader something to smile about as he/she reads your book review. You might even become something of a trendsetter as a result. Here’s an example:
* * * * * Outstanding
* * * * Standing
* * * Leaning
* * Falling
While rating the book, think of the book’s merits and drawbacks. Do not let personal feelings for the author or the publisher colour your opinion. Even though the book review is a subject piece of writing, try to be as objective as you can. Your reputation as book review will be enhanced by it.
10. Write a Conclusion
Give yourself a pat on the back if you have come to this part of the book review. Your hard work is soon going to pay off.
Summarise all the points you have covered in the conclusion and rephrase them in a short and sweet manner. Restate your overall opinion once before wrapping up the review.
So now you have learnt how to write a book review. All you need to do is find that book and start reading. Good luck and happy reviewing!