What Elements Make An Ace Book Review?

Day 18 of the A-Z challenge.

R is for Reviews

Whether you’re blogging to connect with like-minded people or to share your love of particular types of books, reviews will invariably be the cornerstone of your book blog.

Writing a good review is a skill. One you improve through regular practice and reading the work of other reviewers. I cringe when I look back at the first reviews I wrote on this blog. They’re very basic and stilted in tone. I’ve become more confident over the years but there are still some aspects I struggle with – getting the balance between plot detail and my reaction to the book, is my principle challenge.

What makes for a “good review” is a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly over the years. I’ve come to realise that there are no absolutely definitive answers to this question. The tone and style of reviews vary enormously because when you write them, you are injecting your own personality. So it’s impossible to say that a good review must do X, Y and Z.

Maybe however there are some general principles upon which we can all agree. Here are my suggestions for those principles.

General Principles for Good Reviews

A good review I think is one that is enjoyable to read, informative and helpful. It helps a reader understand enough about the book for them to decide if they would want to read it themselves.

A good book review is also:

Balanced

The best book reviews are measured and constructive. They highlight the positives but also any aspects that perhaps didn’t work as effectively. Even if you don’t write about books you didn’t enjoy (see the earlier discussion on that topic here) it’s rare to find a book that is perfect in any detail. You don’t need to dwell on the negatives, it’s enough to acknowledge them and move on – but that simple acknowledgement will signal to your readers that they can rely on you to be honest.

Selective

A good review whet’s the reader’s appetite rather than satisfying it entirely. So it provides a summary of the book rather than describing the whole plot. If you include extensive details of the plot it doesn’t leave much for the reader to discover for themselves.

Good reviews don’t give away key elements that could spoil the experience for other readers (such as the ending, the identity of the culprit, the twist in the tale).

Personal

What your readers want to know is what you thought about the book. Your personal reactions to the style of writing, the characterisation, settings and themes. They are looking insight rather than an academic style analysis. In the worlds of Lisa Hill from ANZLitLovers “The detached, impersonal style of a university essay is not what’s needed!”

Specific

It’s not enough for a reviewer to say they loved the book or hated it, a good review explains why. Give some concrete examples of what you liked or disliked about the book, such as the treatment of the key themes or the pace of the story. A few well-selected quotes can help illustrate your point as well as indicating the style of the writing.  

Any Guidance On Length of Reviews?

You may have noticed I haven’t said anything about the length of the review.

In my article about Quality vs Quantity, I said that Google prefers articles 2,000 words and upwards. That statement triggered a lot of discussion and it’s clear a question where the answer varies from blogger to blogger.

Susan Osborne from ALifeInBooks for example typically writes reviews around 500 words. Lisa Hill and Sue at Whispering Gums however both tend to write reviews around 1100 to 1300 words.

I’ve never thought to look at how many words my reviews tend to be since i tend to write until I nothing more I want to say that I think will be of interest. Out of curiosity however I checked the word count on my three most recent reviews.

The post on The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton was just over 1200 words; that on The Silent Treatment was 833 words while the review of One Moonlit Night by Caradog Prichard was slightly over 1,000 words. So clearly I’m more in the “long review” than the short review camp.

How do these other bloggers approach writing reviews for their blogs? Let me hand you over to Lisa and Susan to share their experiences.

Susan Osborne @ALifeInBooks

Before starting my blog, I was a book reviews editor for print magazines, used to working to strict word counts, scratching my head as to what to cut and what to leave in when faced with a piece far longer than the space available.

Of course, with a blog post, none of that applies. I could either have joyfully thrown all word count concerns to the winds and let rip or keep within my accustomed bounds.

I’m not sure I could have taken the first route, even if I’d wanted to, after so many years of constraint, but I plumped for the second, partly because I prefer to read short pieces myself.

My reviews tend to follow a formula – an introduction, a brief spoiler-free synopsis and a paragraph on what I particularly enjoyed about the book, perhaps with a few apposite quotes, all wrapped up in around 500 words. It works for me and I hope it does for my readers. 

Lisa Hill @ANZLitLovers

I think the biggest difference in approach to writing reviews is whether the review is written almost straight away, or after a delay.  Some readers, like me, mostly write the review within 24-48 hours of finishing the book, when details about characters and setting are fresh in the mind.  Others let the book percolate for a while, and come back to it with a clear vision of what was memorable about the book. 

Both strategies are equally valid, but the do-it-now approach means that the reviewer needs time and opportunity.  People might think that I can do it this way because I have the luxury of being retired, but it was also my approach when I was working 60-hour weeks at school.

Back then, blogging my reviews was wonderful way to switch off after a long hard day, and it wasn’t all that different to what I’d been doing for years anyway, writing about the books I read in my Reading Journal.  But like everyone else, for me there were times when Life Got in The Way and so there are some reviews on my blog that reflect the more considered approach when I had to come back and write the review after a delay.  

Then there is the question of what to put in a review. 

Everybody writes reviews these days, sharing their experience and satisfactions about everything from holidays and restaurants to toasters and hand cream.  Anyone can share their opinion about books on sites like Goodreads and Library Thing, as well as at bookseller sites.  Most of us have learned to be cynical about the 5-star reviews given to review copies ‘in exchange for an honest review’ but these sites are like any other kind of social media.  They need to be curated to weed out the dross from your feed.  

If you’re going to blog, however, you need to realise that audiences expect more than you’ll find at those book review sites.  Yes, your readers want to know what the book is about, without having it ruined with spoilers; they expect some discussion about setting and characters and themes; and they expect some attention to style and form.  They appreciate some background about the author if she is not so well-known. I always link to my own reviews of books by the same author or books on a similar theme. 

But most importantly, your readers expect to find your honest opinion about a book, and they expect it to be expressed in a way that reflects your personality as a reader.  This is how they learn to trust what you say.  

What Do YOU Think?

Do you agree with those general principles about the contents of a good review? Are there any elements that are missing? Leave a comment below to let me know what you think.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on April 23, 2020, in Blogging and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Completely agree with you here! I do like to see balanced reviews, but most of all I like when they are personal and specific.

  2. I like that you say the review is to help readers “decide if they would want to read it themselves.” not “to make them want to read it” as someone I think said earlier in you series. I love it if people want to read a book I’ve reviewed because it means I’ve intrigued them.

    I had writing about plots, and I hate reading reviews that focus on plots. I’m sure some people don’t like my reviews but I write about what interests me – what is the book’s “message” or why do I think the author wrote the book, and how did they do it. (What voice did they use, what was the language like, how did they structure the story to get their point across, how well developed are the characters.) Some books can really move me but my interest is usually more analysing how the writer did that. Which is weird I suppose given I have no plans to be a novelist and have never even started one, not even in my childhood. I don’t believe everyone has a book in them!

  3. I’m like you, I write what I want to say and don’t look at the word count.

    Usually, my crime fiction posts are shorter because I find it harder to write a lot without spoiling the plot.

    I’m not a fan of writing about a writer’s bio but I do it if it’s a lesser known writer; (and usually link to the corresponding Wikipedia page. Why paraphrase what’s already written, right?)

    As reader, I don’t like reviews with long descriptions of the plot. I don’t read book blogs to avoid reading books by knowing about them without taking the time to read them. I want to know what the reader thought about it.

    You quickly hear a blogger’s voice and see whether you have common interests or not.

    I’m not really interested in very academic posts, especially if it’s literary commentary. If it’s a description of a moment in History, an explanation about the culture of the country where the book is set or some social commentary, I’m interested.

    • It’s certainly hard to write a long post about crime fiction – unless its a novel where the theme or the characterisation is noteworthy. Glad to know we share a dislike of long plot explanations. Often when I write a review I have to stop myself drifting into plot land…

  4. For me, my favourite reviews are when I find something genuinely original to say – which with classics is incredibly hard! But every now and then I spot something new, and that can be exciting to develop and explore.

  5. Excellent insights from all, and I agree your principles very much. I tend to go for a basic format similar to Susan’s – although me being the rambler I am I very much go off at a tangent. Balance is definitely the thing – giving enough of a flavour of the plot without giving too much away or just re-telling the story. You’re right – the reader *does* want the personal response, what the blogger felt about the book! And never spoilers…

  6. Do you know Aiden Chambers wonderfull little book for teachers about how to help children talk about what they’ve been reading, ‘Tell Me’. The one thing you never do is use the ‘why’ word. You use the phrase “tell me”. There are four basic prompts: tell me about something you liked, tell me about something you didn’t like, tell me about any patterns you noticed, tell me about it anything that puzzled you. Of course, this assumes that both the teacher and the child know the content of the book and any review needs to give some indication of that to someone who hasn’t read it, but that apart, I always think that if you’ve answered those four basic prompts you’ve covered the ground you need to.

  7. I can generally write a book review in about 800 words, and if I’m struggling that might include a fair bit of plot. But I tend more to write about writers and periods which can often lead to much longer posts. The longest I can recall was 1400 words about DH Lawrence’s The Boy in the Bush and 1400 more words about the writing of. Which also illustrates that I don’t like one individual post to go beyond 1500 words, and I generally aim for 1000.

    I would like to thank here Melanie from Grab the Lapels who often asks me pointed questions which has had the effect over the years of sharpening up how I write.

  8. Stopping by for A-Z. I love a good review ‘how-to.’ Thanks for sharing this!

  9. A big topic! I avoid giving a detailed outline of the plot – those are available on Goodreads if that’s what you want. Instead, I give a broad outline of the plot for context, and then a mention of the main themes. From there, I include what I did or didn’t like about the book. I give evidence (usually in the form of quotes) – I never say I didn’t like writing style or plot elements without giving clear examples.

    I often take the ‘personal’ a little further – a story from my own life/ experience may explain why I am drawn to a particular book or theme, or the book may remind me of something that’s happened to me – I include those things in my review. As a result, my reviews are not serious/ literary but I also think that the personal is what makes it interesting for others.

  10. Awwww … ask an easier question!!!!! I feel like my reviews have been all over the board! In the beginning they were too formal (because of formal training in school as a grad student and from teaching formal essay writing as an elementary teacher). It’s a constant challenge for me to write more informally! Yet those are the reviews I enjoy the most! Just this afternoon I’m staring at a blank screen and feeling like I don’t have the bandwidth for writing a review right now! I’m tempted to write it in bullet points…yes…in fact….that’s what I will do! I know my word count will suffer.

    In constructing a review, I particularly like to focus on characters and themes. I do like to begin with a brief summary for context. I usually conclude with a recommendation for certain types of readers that might enjoy the book. I know this is controversial, but I always include trigger or content warnings as necessary (at times this needs a spoiler warning). Sometimes I will include a “I wish….” statement if I feel like a shortcoming needs to be addressed. I approach negative comments with fear and trepidation after being blasted by a commenter that I was insensitive and uncaring about Canadian history (for context it was a review of a mystery that included a lot of history which, in my opinion, affected the page turning pace of the story). I am so torn between not hurting anyone’s feelings and being honest, that I spend hours rewording it or just skip the review altogether.

    In reading a review, I want to know if you enjoyed it or not and why. I also appreciate trigger or content warning because I I want to avoid certain topics.

    I greatly appreciate reading excellently constructed reviews! I do not enjoy the ones that are 90% synopsis!

    Thanks for a great post!

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