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. This is excellent, Priscilla! I wish all book reviewers would follow your formula. And by the way, thank you so much for taking the time to review “Running in Heels: A Memoir of Grit and Grace.” Cheers.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I enjoyed your formula for writing book reviews, Priscilla. I also write a lot of these. One for nearly every book I read. I review famous books and classic books as well as Indie books so that Amazon can [hopefully] see the spread and not get difficult about any individual review as I have heard they sometimes do. I takes me at least an hour to write a book review. I must admit mine tend to get rather long but I think that benefits the author if they read it and a lot of readers like to know more about the book. I love reading other people’s reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you write wonderful, thoughtful reviews! If I were posting solo reviews on my blog, I’d make them longer. My reviews are generally aimed for folks shopping online. Thanks for stopping by, Robbie!

      Like

  3. I write reviews all the time and I love that you have all these tips for people who want to support authors by writing reviews on Goodreads, Amazon or other places. We love supporting our authors we enjoy ❤ Such a good resource!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What do you do when you’ve said you will do a book review for an author but you fall asleep every time you true to read it? Its just not keeping any interest for me. Do I keep trying to finish it anyhow?
    Thanks ahead of time.
    Christine

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve never had so much trouble reading that I actually fell asleep, but I have read a couple of books that were so bad (junior high grammar problems, English as a second language problems, illogical chapters, etc.) that I contacted the author and explained why I didn’t feel comfortable leaving a review. I followed up with specific references to sentences, chapters, and stuff. Good luck with whatever book it is you’re trying to get through!

      Thanks for stopping by, Christine!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Priscilla. I tend to include the synopsis from goodreads. I agree with your formula. The length of my reviews tend to vary depending on my enthusiasm for the book and how much time I have to review! But yes a few short well thought out words are better than screeds of meaningless. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Thanks for posting this. I think a lot of people could use these tips.

    I think in general my reviews are kind of similar to your format, though I do rant from time to time if I loved/intensely disliked a read.

    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This was so helpful! Thanks very much. Btw, I love your blog! I’m trying to start a blog myself, do you have any advice you could give me? I would really appreciate it.✨ Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Lujjy! Starting out, don’t expect a lot of follows because you’ll be new. Keep everything simple (don’t install a lot of plugins or have a ton of different website pages or links) until you’ve done enough blog posts that you’re sure of what style/subjects you like. Good luck!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Great guidance, Priscilla, and easy to follow. I’ve considered the pro/con approach as it’s so easy to read, but recently I’ve tried to lighten up and have fun with them, adding personality to make them interesting to write and read as well as informative. I totally agree about being honest and giving specifics to guide someone who may be considering picking a book up.
    Now, on the receiving end, I’ll take an incomplete phrase from a reviewer. Lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I do enjoy different styles of book reviews. I think after awhile I expect something intellectual, or something light, or something very detailed, depending on the book blogger. So I guess I’m developing my own style. Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Priscilla!

    Today, I am making changes to my blog and Facebook accounts and visiting friends’ sites and then I ran across this post of yours. I am saving this!

    Your information is so helpful, especially since I find it uncomfortable to write reviews and they turn out less than informative. This will truly help me with the upcoming five books I have promised to review in the very near future!

    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s