Reviewing Books Like a Boss: A Guide
So you’ve decided to write a book review. First of all, let me offer my condolences. I’m kidding, book reviews can be fun and valuable, if you approach them with the right attitude. They can inform and entertain. They can also be a terrifying chore. The difference lies in your approach.
Let’s start with the basics: why do you want to write a review in the first place?
- You liked the book want to promote the author?
- You liked the book want to promote the book?
- You hated the book but feel obliged to promote the author?
- You want to make people laugh and get internet Brownie points for delivering clever snark?
- You hated the book and want everyone else to share your suffering?
These are questions worth asking. Some motivations are more suspect than others, but I will not expound on their relative worth here. The main thing is, have your intent in mind when you sit down to write your review, because your content should reflect said intent.
If you want to promote a fellow indie author, slagging it at length and then giving it five stars is not a rock-solid approach. Neither is giving a glowing, breathless review and then giving it one star because you couldn’t be bothered to realize Amazon has a star rating system. (Seriously, I’ve seen both these things happen. “LOVED IT! BIG FAN! ONE STAR.”)
So now that you’ve established why you’re writing your review, let’s take a brief look at why other people read reviews.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but personally, I read reviews for clues on whether or not I’d like the book. I know, pretty revolutionary. But finding a good review can mean sifting through a lot of crap. Generally, no matter what the book, a bunch of people will 5-star it and proclaim it the best thing since breathing. Others will 1-star it and proclaim it the work of Hitler, Satan and Rob Schneider combined. Thing is, praise or condemnation by itself doesn’t interest me. What I want to know is why that praise or condemnation is there.
And that, to me, is the key to a good review: tell me why.
By this, I don’t mean make your praise more colorful or enthusiastic. Things like “I couldn’t put it down” or “I didn’t want it to end” don’t actually tell me about the book. They tell me about your experience reading the book. And I’m happy for you, but since I’m not telepathic, I don’t know what you value in your prose. Did the plot keep your attention? Did the book contain a mystery you were dying to see solved? Did you love the characters and their interactions? Every bit of information you include in this area will give me, as a reader of your review, something to look at and decide whether we have that in common. Writing the review in all caps with your balled fists, on the other hand, does not.
The same goes for the negatives. Now, I enjoy a good sarcastic slagging as much as the next person, but most one-star reviews are some of the least informative reviews imaginable. I hated it. It was torture. So boring I read half the dust jacket, threw it at my cat, and sat down to write this five-paragraph polemic on why it sucks. This book made me punch my baby sister. I would rather have the webbing between by toes devoured by PCP-addicted marmosets than read it again.
All very colorful, but your BDSM fetishes are your business. A chronicle of your suffering doesn’t inform me of anything but your penchant for hyperbole. If you truly loathed a book, tell me why: irredeemable politics. Hateful characters. Ludicrous plot holes. Turgid prose. Crushing boredom. (That last one is highly suspicious, since I enjoy a lot of things other people find boring, but I’ll still take it over comparisons of the prose to root canal or being branded with a cattle iron.)
If you want to be funny or creative in your review, by all means do so. But personally, I don’t go to book reviews for open mic night at the Improv. If you want to be witty, do it by being informative in witty ways, not by seeing how closely you can compare your reading experience to the Bataan Death March or whatever. And I swear to Vonnegut’s ghost, if you write “I wish I could give it zero stars” I will punch you right in the karma.
In closing, I’d like to bring this back around to the question of motivation. Reviewing books becomes a tricky endeavor when indie authors are involved. If you yourself are an indie writer, and make a habit of reading the work of others, you will inevitably meet a book you hate by a person you like. It’s just how it goes. So you may well find yourself in the position of having to review a book you didn’t care for and risk hurting the feelings of the person involved. So what do you do?
In my opinion, you be honest. And note that “honest” is not a synonym for “cruel.” Honesty does not give you a free pass to be as hurtful as you can to another indie author. If you’re going to take time out of your life to express your displeasure with a novel, make it constructive. List the problems and why you felt they detracted from the story. Detail your expectations and how they were not met. In short, give the author something they can take away from the review.
Every writer is always looking to improve — give them your take on how their next book could be better. Don’t set out to crush their spirit. If you truly hated the book and need to work off your frustration, then consider just not spending any more time with it. Go play a game or work out instead. Everyone will be happier.
Sturgeon’s Law is well in effect when it comes to book reviews — a lot of dross and a few gems. Do readers (and writers) a favor and be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
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Connect with Daniel Swensen (aka Surly Muse)