How to Write a Helpful Book Review* (with 2 examples)

Image of typewriter with a book review being typed

*When you’re not a professional reviewer.

Out of 62-plus million reviewers on Amazon, I’m ranked 5958th. That puts me in the top 0.000096 of all reviewers. For every review, I have more than double the amount of “helpful” votes. So I feel confident in writing this post.:-)

An easy formula

I use the same format for almost all my reviews. If I were a book blogger or wrote reviews for Kirkus, I wouldn’t be so formulaic, but my reviews are aimed at potential readers who are just browsing. The formula I use is:

1. A short sentence or two that orients the reader.

Don’t copy the book blurb. Readers can and probably already have read the blurb.

2. State positive things you liked about the story.

Don’t give away spoilers. A potential reader wouldn’t want to buy a mystery story if you tell them whodunit. (I’ve seen that, and ugh, it bothers me!)

3. Respectfully state negative things you didn’t like about the story.

Don’t complain about the pages being wrinkled, the book arriving two weeks late, or other things out of the author’s control.

4. Close with a sentence or two that expresses your overall impression.


Keep reviews short in case potential readers are in a hurry. You wouldn’t want to give them any TLDR ideas.:-)

Allow lots of white space rather than big, block paragraphs. Snippets of information surrounded by white space allow people to easily scan your review.


Yeah, but WHAT do I say?

You don’t have to sound elegant or anything; just make it sound like you’ve read the book. Think about what you remember after you finished reading. I liked this book because it’s set in my hometown of Springfield, Oregon.

or because:

  • the little boy in the story is a lot like my son.
  • it’s really bloody, and I like a gory story.
  • the romance is realistic.
  • the style of writing is easy to follow.
  • the author makes the dog a big part of the story.
  • it’s got a lot of zombies, and zombies are cool.
  • it’s scary with an eerie ghost.

But not, Oh my God, I loved this book so much. It’s the best book ever! (That doesn’t tell the reader anything about the story. Sadly, I’ve seen too many reviews like this, and they make me wonder if the reviewers actually read the book.)

Likewise for the negatives, pick something you remember from the book. I didn’t like this book because there are way too many characters to keep track of.

Or because:

  • it is too long, and the story could have been told in half the words.
  • the author uses a lot of fancy words.
  • there is too much dialogue and not enough action.
  • I got distracted by all the typos.
  • it’s yet another vampire story with no new spin on the genre.

But not, This book was a waste of my time. (That tells potential readers nothing about the story to help them decide whether or not to read a book.)

Okay, as promised, here are two examples:

Whiteout by Ashton Macaulay
Whiteout is the first book in a Nick Ventner Adventure trilogy. In Whiteout, Nick hunts the Yeti!

PROS:
Nick is a greedy drunk, but I found myself cheering for him anyway. I’m sure it’s hard to write a lovable-despicable protagonist like Nick, but Macaulay pulls it off.

Kudos to Macaulay for describing the Himalayan setting so well. In a few of the scenes, I actually felt chilled while reading.

The scenes with monster violence are gory and tense. (And the Yeti isn’t the only monster!)

CONS:
The visit to Shangri La about two-thirds into the book is over-the-top for me. Maybe it’s because the brand new setting and all its dreamlike descriptions delay the impending “final battle.” I wanted to skim past the Shangri La stuff and get back to the monster on the mountain.

OVERALL:
Whiteout is a fun, bloody, exciting book. Four stars.

The Unsuitable by Molly Pohlig
Set in Victorian England, this novel is about a spinster, Iseult, and her hateful father, Edward. Literary, Gothic, full of psychosis (or is Iseult actually haunted?), and self-mutilation with dread on every page . . . I loved it!

PROS:
Iseult’s solitary musings are incredibly real and full of pain. I found them captivating in a voyeristic way, like peeking into her private diary.

I was puzzled by the scissors on the book’s cover at first because Iseult isn’t a seamstress or anything. Then about 20 percent into the book, I understood the cover art. It’s genius.

The absurd courting rituals and quirky potential husbands for Iseult provide comic relief in an otherwise bleak story.

This book has the vibe of other fabulous stories like The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, and The House on Cold Hill by Peter James. If you like any of those, I think you’d enjoy The Unsuitable.

CONS:
If you don’t care for slow burns with disturbed characters and little action, this isn’t the book for you. (On the other hand, if you like character-driven stories full of rich, poetic language and symbolism, you’ll love this book.)

OVERALL:
Five brilliant, captivating stars!

One last thing

It’s okay, really it is, to leave something other than a four- or five-star review. If you’ve listed the reason(s) why you don’t like the book, it may be another potential reader’s favorite kind of book. For example, if a reviewer says they didn’t like a book because it was told from the viewpoint of a crazy person, I’d want to get my hands on that book. (I love me some unreliable narrators!)

As always, happy reading, happy writing!

Feature image by Markus Winkler on Unsplash.

Over 62 million Amazon reviewers: https://www.twincities.com/2019/06/03/meet-the-small-town-north-dakota-man-who-is-amazons-no-1-reviewer-he-gets-a-lot-of-free-stuff/

79 thoughts on “How to Write a Helpful Book Review* (with 2 examples)

    1. Thanks, Tammy. I think it’s different when you’re writing a review for a blog where people go to see more in-depth reviews, like your recent Chaos Reigning review. I’m glad you popped by!

      Like

  1. “When you’re not a professional reviewer.”

    I loved this sentence because this gives me permission to write reviews for the books I’ve read. Often I’d want to share my thoughts on what I’ve just read, but I feel like I don’t really have anything to contribute because I don’t look up the author’s history or the era in which the book was written, and am also oblivious to themes and underlying messages.

    Maybe I’ll go write a review now with these pointers. Thanks for sharing, Priscilla!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think honesty is important, too… and it is okay to NOT like a book as long as you have a good reason and specify whether the dislike is a personal preference reason or a technical/craft one… while it may be hard to not alienate a writer hoping for a better review, as a reviewer the audience of readers needs to trust you to tell the truth. To do otherwise does no one any favors.

    Wonderful post, by the way!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I wish I’d had your formula when I was starting out, I couldn’t find anything helpful on it’s own – I cobbled together points from lots of different ones.
    I’ve seen reviews that consist solely of the book blurb……..seriously, That is NOT a review!!!
    Also agree on the too long ones, you almost may as well read the book!!
    I very rarely go past the middle of the book in terms of story to avoid spoilers.
    Lastly, I hate with a passion those that mark the author down because the seller sold them a grubby book, or that it was delivered late. I have been known to report them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, repeating the book blurb as a review is silly. It’s not helpful, no new information, no opinion expressed . . .

      It’s not fair to the author to knock the overall rating down when a reviewer gives a bad review based on a late delivery or something. Yes, irritating.

      Thanks for adding your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a really excellent look at writing reviews, Priscilla. Very concise, and hitting on the pros and cons of how to present one. As many reviews as I’ve written, I still struggle now and again when it’s time to put my thoughts together.

    I think the biggest hurdle with reviews is that many readers put them off until later–then skip them altogether because they end up with a backlog of several piled up and waiting. I’ve found it’s better to write them as soon as I finish a book, when the story is fresh in my mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Good advice. I always go for longer reviews, but I think I write the reviews I’d like to read. There are so many books on offer that I try to make sure there is something in the book I’ll enjoy. I totally agree with how unhelpful some reviews can be, as they could be written by somebody who hadn’t read the book (and sometimes are) and they say nothing about the book itself. Sometimes the things we don’t like about a book can be the reason why somebody else will love it. Keep well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re a book blogger, so I think people go to your site to read the longer, more in-depth reviews. I aim for an audience that’s just window shopping. And oh, I totally agree that things we don’t like a bout a book can help another person decide to read that book. Thanks for commenting, Olga.:-)

      Like

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