How to write a book review like a pro
There are thousands of book review blogs and websites on the web. In addition, major newspapers and magazines regularly publish book reviews. So, if you are a book blogger, why will someone come to your blog for reading book reviews and why will he give importance to your book reviews as compared to those on established websites and blogs - and sites like Goodreads?
The short answer is: You should know how to write a book review like a professional. Of course, you will have to promote the blog among readers so that they know that your book review blog exists.
But that answer does not solve the problem of book reviewers whose blogs are yet to reach a big reputation and a big audience. Let me tell you step by step how to write good book reviews and what makes a good book review, starting with the basics of reviewing books:
How to write a book review: the basics
Though a book review is nothing but exposing good or bad points of a book, it has to follow some basic rules so that it does not look amateurish or does not serve its purpose well.
These are the elements a book review should have:
- Basic information about the book and the author.
- Information about the book's content.
- Analysis of the content.
- Your recommendation to the prospective reader.
Well, one can say that every blog review will probably have these four elements; what is so unique about them? Yes, these are the basics, but unless these elements are in the right quantity and quality, the review will not be special. So, let us look closely at these obvious-looking elements and how they fit in a good book review template:
A good book blogger does not forget to give the basic information about the book and the author
Certain pieces of information look so commonplace that book reviewers tend to ignore them, but they are an essential part of a perfect book review template. These help the reader decide whether this is the type of book he was looking for. If not, let him go to some other book and not waste his time reading the rest of the book review. These include:
- Book title and subtitle.
- Name of the author and a brief introduction about him if he has some exceptional qualification or trait that relates to the book. For example, Pulitzer Prize/ Man Booker Award/ Nobel Prize won by him; his post-doctorate degree on the subject of the non-fiction book; his close association with the person in question, in case of a biography; his being part of the band on which the book is written.
- Publisher's details; price; availability; link to publisher/ seller's web page where the book is listed. If self-published, mention that. Also the number of edition or series if applicable. If your audience is international, give price in US Dollar; if it is local, give price in the local currency even if it is available through a foreign retailer.
- If the book has some special feature or achievement, mention that. Examples: book available in large text size to make it suitable for the elderly; bestseller status; an old book resurrected recently; whether it is a compilation/ anthology; whether it is based on some myth/ tradition/ world war scene; book not suitable for children.
You can choose to give this information in a box or a bulleted list at the top of the book review (price, publisher, availability, etc can come at the bottom), rather than including it in the main reviw paragraphs.
On good blog reviews, the book's content is briefly described, before detailed review.
There can be a dozen ways in which the book can be reviewed, but it helps if you first introduce the content. This may be in the form of giving the context or summary (non-fiction books) or a brief plot or storyline (fiction books) or the range covered (collections/ anthologies). You can talk about the genre, period of the book's setting and such details so as to further guide the reader whether this is the type of book he is intending to read.
Some book reviewers start with a punch line and talk about the content later. Some quote a line from the book or its blurb (= cover text), but if you are not an established blogger, you should not make such an experiment - because you are likely to mess up the summary with analysis. Moreover, such a style can be seen as influencing the reader rather than giving a balanced and objective book review.
Do not make the introduction part too big. It should, generally speaking, not be bigger than one paragraph, or 200 words in an 800-word review.
After you have 'described' the book in brief, come to the actual review. That includes analysis and recommendation - the two most important determinants of what makes a good book review.
How to write book reviews that readers like?
There are some general tips on what makes a good book review:
- It is better to specialize in a particular type of books, not books chosen randomly. The range should not be too narrow as you may not find many books and readers, but if your range is too wide, you will not be able to specialize. Well, you can keep adding more categories as you establish yourself.
- Give time to review the book. Don't publish the review in a huff just after you finish reading the book. It is a good idea to write the first draft soon after finishing the book. Edit and polish it one or two days later and only then publish it.
- Choose books of different quality standards. As a book reviewer, you should not just read the books you'll love to read. Reviewing both good and bad books will make your website/ blog look balanced - not with all five-star ratings.
- Do not give extreme views. Even if you are completely floored by the book or you are put off from the first sentence, be moderate in your views in the book review. Do not use expressions such as "This book is a trash" or "The author is a crack-pot" or "I have not read a book like this one in my life" or "This book deserves Booker Prize, no less". You may respond to this suggestion by saying, 'I must give my honest opinion.' Yes, you must. But that does not mean your opinion represents all readers on the earth. Please realize that the same book gets very good as well as very negative reviews because different people like or dislike it depending on a hundred factors. Your opinion is one of the opinions, not 'the best opinion on the earth'.
- Don't let the book review be influenced by your own strong likes and dislikes. If you don't like people of a particular race or country or political leaning, you may be put off finding that type of character dominating the scene. If you are a fan of a public figure, you may not like him being lampooned or abused. If that is the case, either you overpower your strong like/ hate while writing the review, or don't review the book.
- Analyze the book; don't be carried away by the author's or publisher's reputation. A fiction book published by Random House need not be better than a self-published book; one by a newbie author need not be worse than that written by a well-known author. Similarly, don't care for celebrity endorsements. As said in the point above, if you are likely to be influenced due to your bias about a particular type of person, and the author happens to be one of them, be extra careful.
- Don't be influenced by others' reviews. Don't think that if many readers have given 5 out of 5 rating to a book and you don't like the book, you should still give it a top rating. But if your rating is too diverse from the majority rating or the book has won a grand prize, give your reasons for rating it low.
- Do not give a general, fleeting, analysis but be specific. Tell what you specifically liked or disliked; what makes the book a good or bad or average book; what is that you would have liked. You can quote from the book - but quote a very impressive passage. In a poetry collection, quote a highly emotive stanza and not just one picked up randomly. Do not quote more than one or two small passages. However, you can quote more liberally when you write a long review on scholarly books, which demands illustration of specific points (e.g. a book by a country's ex-Prime Minister on the current incumbent in a controversial way; an economic hypothesis that disproves the way central banks are run).
- An image is a must, but do not use images from inside the book - just cover. If you want to use images from the book, either take permission or give just one or two to draw a point but reduce the quality and pixel-size of the image before publishing it on your website/ blog.
- Caution the reader if the book has too much violence and gore, use of expletives, nudity and graphic detailing of adult scenes, hateful expressions, etc. that may offend sensitivities of some or majority of readers.
- If you disliked the book, precede your criticism with some good words, even if just a few. You might have at least liked the book title and cover, its third chapter, unusual local expressions, playfulness of a minor character, frankness (in a non-fiction book), or something else.
- If you are a book blogger, proof-read your book review thoroughly before you press the publish button. A review with grammatical and proof errors or with sub-standard composition immediately loses the appeal, however good the analysis may be.
- If you are a new book blogger and want to become a professional-grade book reviewer fast, make a book review template so that you do not miss out elements that are essential for making a good book review. The template should have a structure as given in the image here. You can keep it that simple or add reminders inside each section.
Remember, fiction and non-fiction books need different treatment in book reviews. Let me give some tips specific to each of these categories:
Tips on writing a good fiction book review
- Don't reveal more than required. Fiction book reviews by amateur reviewers tend to expose the book's twists, intrigues, ironies and ending. When you reveal these to the prospective reader, you have already spoiled his reading pleasure. In case of suspense and whodunit books, never even give a hint of the resolution. As a general principle, don't reveal the storyline beyond the middle or so.
- Don't go to the other extreme so as to hide the key strengths and weaknesses and flow of the novel. Do not talk in circles or use confusing expressions or tell half-truths. These sleights of hand leave the reader confused. Describe the overall plot, tell about the locale, time, characters' backgrounds and so on to establish the context in which the fiction is based. If the narration is from first-person point of view or has been treated in an unusual way, tell that.
- Though the book review will give an overall impression about the book, talk about specifics too. The specific points to be noted and analyzed include: the characters, conflicts and ironies (without exposing them too much and without telling how they were resolved), the language and its flow, some specific instances when you felt strongly about something... Think of some passage that illustrates your point about the language, moral stand of a character or something striking. Quote such passages or dialogues in the review. Do not use big passages in the quote, do not edit the quote and do not use it out of context (e.g. do not use half of a sentence in a way that the meaning changes).
- Share the emotions you felt while reading the book. On a horror book, did you get chill down your spine? After reading a paranormal one, did you start feeling like you were floating in the air? Did you cry when the lover breathed her last just when he had overcome his deadliest obstacle a hundred miles away and reached just a few feet from her, in the romance novel? Did tears roll down your cheeks as you started laughing uncontrollably?
- Do not use heavy literary jargon. Words such as 'dystopian', 'fantasy bordering on para-normal', 'magic realism', 'denouement' and more such expressions might have become part of your vocabulary but all readers may not be exposed to them. Some may have their own notions about these words that are not exactly the same as yours. You may still want to use some of these terms, but be conscious that you do not overuse jargon.
- Compare. Compare this piece of fiction with a similar one; compare its writing style with another author's; compare the novel with a previous one in the series (= prequel). If the reader has read the other author/ book, such comparisons help him make a decision about the present book.
Tips on writing a good non-fiction book review
- On non-fiction book reviews, you need to reveal the book's content as much as you can. Many book reviewers do not read the entire book and base their book reviews on the table of content and reading one or two chapters. That is being dishonest with the review - and there is a likelihood of missing a very significant or controversial expression in the book.
- Unlike fiction books, the authoritativeness or expertise of the author may sometimes matter a lot. A book by a political commentator who has himself been in politics or had been writing columns in a reputed daily for a decade will need to be weighed against his own actions/ views known to the public. A book exposing a scandal will also be judged by the way the author exposed scandals earlier.
- Tell about excellence or lack of it on a number of parameters - and these will depend on whether the book is a research treatise or an autobiography or a cookbook. The parameters can include language appropriate for the subject, quality of resources used, editing and proofing standards, correctness of facts, referencing and use of footnotes, objectivity, presence (or lack) of illustrations to explain the hypothesis or photos as evidence, etc.
- If the book solves problems of a specific group, say that to help people in search of such solutions. If you plan to review books on remedies, DIY (= do-it-yourself), cooking, exercises, etc that should have correct information and tips lest it should harm people, be sure that you have the basic knowledge about the subject and how the suggested things work. Be even more careful when the suggestions are about alternative systems of medicine, mystic beliefs, psychic healing, etc about which a lot of misinformation floats around and people tend to trust the claims made in books.
How to write the best recommendation in the book review
In the ending paragraphs, give your recommendation. In some ways, the final recommendation is what makes the book review worth it. Some readers look just at this part of the review.
Take care of these in your recommendation:
- Sum up your thoughts in the recommendation by making a value judgment: whether 'the book is an outstanding read' or 'overall, it is a masterly work from an able craftsman' or 'I had expected a much more engrossing and cohesive storyline in this historical novel' or 'those wanting to know about Hinduism from a Muslim perspective will feel short-changed'.
- Do not bring a new element in the ending paragraphs - that will look like an afterthought.
- Give recommendation to read the book, not buy. Though both might mean the same thing, a buy recommendation is not in good taste.
- Use a rating scale. The most used scale is 0-5. (Don't' just give your rating as '3' but tell it is '3 out of 5' or '3/5'.) It makes good visual impact if you use golden stars for displaying the ratings.
How to get paid to review books
If you love reading books, book reviews can be a source of earning. The money from book reviews is not handsome unless you become an established book reviewer with hundreds of books reviewed and thousands of people visiting your website/ blog every month. However, if you keep churning good book reviews for years and you promote your website/ blog well, you are likely to gain good traffic and loyal followers. Book publishers and authors may start contacting you for book reviews. The least you get is the book for free, and you can demand money for book review as you get more popular.
Let me suggest some ways you can make money from a book review blog/ website:
- If you want to establish yourself as a professional book reviewer, open a self-hosted blog, not a free blog on Wordpress.com or Blogger. Though you can earn a few bucks by freelancing on Online Book Club, Reedsy, Kirkus and other book platforms, their payments are small and you don't have the freedom to write reviews the way you like. However, once you have established yourself as a book reviewer, publishers/ authors may approach you to write reviews on such websites and pay you for that.
- Specialize in reviewing a particular type/ genre of books. Initially, that should be the type of books you love to read or the ones that are written on professional subjects you deal with (e.g. medicine, technical matters, arts, politics). If you love fiction, narrow down the niche to 'romance', 'young adult', etc so that readers of that type of books come to your blog. You can later expand the range of books that you review.
- Open an account on Goodreads and be active there. Occasionally, you can write book reviews on Amazon, Reedsy, etc. Note that book reviews on such platforms are usually short and need to be written in a format/ template provided by them.
- Be committed to fairness and high standards in all your reviews. Do not be influenced by money or free book that you might get for reviewing a book. Do not be influenced by others' reviews. Do not give less time to a review of an ordinary book as compared to an exceptional book or one written by a Nobel laureate.
- Do not discriminate between reviews that you publish without receiving money/ free book and those for which you get money.
- Promote your book review blog on social networks and social sharing sites. Cross-post your book reviews on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Use a 'subscription form' to let people subscribe to your book reviews on their emails. Use GoodReads to network with authors and other book readers/ reviewers.
- On your book review blog/ website, make a web page (or keep a widget in the side column) telling your terms for reviewing a book. It should tell books of which genre you will review, how do you want the book to be delivered to you, how long you usually take for book review, payment terms if you charge for book review, etc. Also highlight that payment received for reviewing a book will not influence your recommendation and the book's ranking.