How to write a review
Good book reviews are for readers, to tell them:
- Title, author, publisher, year
- What this book is about
- How it compares with similar books
- How well it works as a book, and why.
Here’s how to write a good review
1. Get started! Get reading, and give yourself plenty of time to read the book, take notes, perhaps read it again, and think, before you begin to write.
Read with purpose
Read the book somewhere free from distractions and take notes as you read – about the book itself and your response to it. Some reviewers make a point of reading a book twice, once quickly to get the story and a second time to “see how it was done.” Even if you don’t read the book twice, you will certainly need to read bits of it twice. Use post-it notes to mark places in the book you might want to quote from, or bits of information you might need to explain what the book’s about, or pieces that remind you why you responded in certain ways, or where you find an interesting or memorable (or confusing) passage. If you have been sent a new book to review, it now belongs to you, so it is up to you whether you write in it or not.
2. Sort your notes into headings and decide which you want to write about.
Shape an argument
There are lots of things to say about every book, and you can’t say them all. Choose the headings and ideas which seem to link together, to help you make an argument about the book, rather than just a list of disconnected points.
Consider your word length and think about how much you can fit in (this gets easier with practise). Make every effort to stick to your required length: it is not an editor’s job to cut your 1200 word review to 500 words, so think carefully about how much you have been asked to write.
3. If you read reviews by experienced reviewers, you will probably find that their opinion of a book is saved for the last couple of paragraphs. The rest of the review will try to give an account, in as fair a way as possible, of what the book is about – its characters, story and setting (both time and place). It may also discuss the author’s style and the way the story is structured, as well as comparing the book to others by the same author, or to other books of that genre.
Things to think about:
What it’s about
- What’s the story? (Avoid plot summaries.)
- Where and when is it set?
- Who are the important characters?
- What are the themes, ideas, arguments?
Who the writer is writing for
- Who’s likely to want to read this book – how old, what are their interests?
- Does the reader need any specialist knowledge to understand the book?
How the book is written
- How has the writer put the book together so as to tell the story and get their ideas or themes across?
- How are the different characters shown? (Both fiction and nonfiction can have characters, and they can be human or animal, or even a particular place.)
- Who is the narrator who tells the story?
- What point of view do they use (eg, first person, third person, omniscient, retrospective)?
- What opinions or perspective do they hold that might affect the way they tell the story?
- Do they talk to the reader directly, or tell the story to themselves or other characters?
- How does the story or plot unfold? (Even nonfiction always has some kind of plot.)
- What’s the tone of the book (eg, confident, dreamy, focused)?
What kind of book it is and how it fits with other books on similar topics or themes
- What genre(s) does it belong to? Genre defines expectations against which a book may be measured and judged.
- What is its context (eg, historical, political, cultural, social…)?
- Is it fiction (novel, short stories, fantasy, science fiction, crime…) or nonfiction (biography or autobiography, science, nature, cooking, self-help, politics…)?
- What style is it written in (eg, real and gritty, poetic)?
- How does it compare with similar or related books, or other books by the same writer?
- Is it covering new ground? Does it build on other writers’ ideas, or argue with them, or take a different approach?
7. Now for your opinion. Your opinion or rating of the book is an argument: this is what I think, and this is why, and these are the aspects and parts of the book which led me to think this.
What you like/don’t like about the book – and why
It is important for the integrity of the reviewing process that you show due respect both to the author of the book and to readers of your review. So, you need to do justice to what the book is about and how it is written before you give your opinion (although you can hint at it earlier on in the review).
Don’t be afraid to use the first person voice to express your opinion: it’s much stronger and more persuasive to say “I found that…” than it is to say “a reader might feel that…”.
Your argument about the book should use persuasive language, be backed up with evidence, and be structured with an introduction, body and conclusion.
- Does the writing hook you in – make you want to read on – hold your interest? Why – or why not?
- Do you relate to the characters and want to know what happens to them? (This is different from whether you like them or not.) Why – or why not?
- Does the story or plot work well? Is it convincing? Why – or why not?
- Are the themes or ideas understandable, relevant and interesting? Why – or why not?
- Overall, do you recommend this book? Why – or why not?
You can wholeheartedly endorse the book, or praise parts of it, even if you didn’t find it entirely successful. You could say why you liked a character, but that you found that the plot twist toward the end was unconvincing. Or that you found the constant use of flashbacks confusing to begin with but as the book progressed you could understand why they were important, even if they slowed the story down a bit.
Heaping praise or criticism on a book doesn’t tell anyone anything. Everything you say must be backed up with reasons.
11. It’s probably a good idea not to read other people’s reviews of the book while you are writing yours, unless you feel particularly confident of your opinion. Never, ever plagiarise from another reviewer.
Plagiarism, copying, or using others’ words
In English classes and for assessments you do many different kinds of writing –
- Creative writing – poetry, short-stories, monologues, narratives, descriptions
- Formal writing – opinion pieces, reviews, speeches
- Writing about texts – novels, plays, poetry, short-stories
Sometimes you’ll need to read what other writers think, or get opinions from other people. How do you use this honestly in your writing?
Don’t plagiarise: don’t pretend that what somebody else has written or said is your own thinking. This may be paragraphs, or just a sentence. Don’t lift another writer’s story, or poem, or opinion, change the tense or the name of characters, and hope no-one will notice. It’s dishonest to lift writing from somebody else’s work and include it as if it was yours.
Don’t use patch-writing: this is when you steal somebody else’s writing, but change it round a bit. This happens particularly in book reports, where it is tempting to look up what other writers or reviewers say and then incorporate it into your report. It’s another form of plagiarism, but sneakier.
So — cite the work properly with a footnote, or use an expression like “As Harold Bloom said when referring to Hamlet…”. All the material on this website is licensed under a Creative Commons 3.0 New Zealand Attribution Licence. That means you can use this material, make changes to it and even use it commercially, but that you must always credit the individual author and/or Hooked on NZ Books He Ao Ano.
Again – always give credit to the writer. You can still quote them, and give your own response to what they’ve said. This shows that you are thinking critically, and not just mindlessly copying someone else’s opinions.
12. There is no one right way to do this and one of the pleasures of reviewing is seeing what other people say about a book you have read. Enjoy yourself – it’s not often you get a chance to have your say in a public forum! Write with your personality as well as your intellect.
Revealing the reviewer
A book review can tell the reader almost as much about the reviewer as it does about the book.
Most reviews are quite short, but some review journals (such as New Zealand Books Pukapuka Aotearoa and the London Review of Books) commission long reviews of thousands of words. This kind of review becomes an essay in which the writer can give a lot of background to a topic. They may not even mention the books or books being reviewed until half way through. Often this kind of review is written by someone who knows as much about the topic as the writer of the book. The risk is that they criticise the book for not being exactly as they’d have written it. A good review assesses a book on what it sets out to do, not what the reviewer thinks it should have done.
As a reviewer you need to be honest and fair. If you don’t understand the book, is it because it’s badly written, or because of a gap in your own knowledge? Is it really the worst book you’ve ever read, or do you not like this writer or this kind of book?
A review is always just one person’s opinion, but a good reviewer is as objective as they can be. If they have a bias, that should be made clear in the review. What can you tell your readers that will let them know enough about you, the reviewer, to let them know whether they’re likely to agree with your opinion?