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How to Write Great Reviews

As a librarian, I am constantly thinking about book reviews. I use them to select books for my library’s collection, as well as to decide which titles to hand-sell to my patrons. I review for Booklist and read reviews critically. I see a review as a tool – something to help people make decisions about a book before reading it. And it’s cool to give back to the reading community by creating those tools after I’ve enjoyed a book.

In my writer-life, it’s different. Reviews of my own work make me cringe. I cannot open the Goodreads pages for anything I’ve written. Better to remain in la-la land.

Because here’s the thing – reviews are for readers.

And every reader will have a subjective opinion. Whether you’re indie-published, trad-published, or in some little hybrid land like I am, your reviews are not all going to be five stars. Even Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the highest-rated book on Goodreads, has 4.62 stars. 

In library terms, we call that 1. Every book its reader and 2. Every reader their book. These are two of S.R. Ranganathan’s five laws of librarianship. Some readers will resonate with your work, and others will loathe it. That truth cannot be avoided, and it means that as writers, we must become comfortable with reviews that we don’t like.

OK. Now that you’ve sat with it for a while, we can get back to the task and art of writing reviews of other people’s work.

Some writers will give the advice that you shouldn’t review other people’s work at all. That’s a perfectly valid choice, and it’s your boundary to set as a writer. For me, it’s not feasible. First, because I’m a librarian, and second, because I just can’t stop reading books. Seriously. It’s an addiction.

So I have some Very Particular Rules for how I review and blurb. I generally do not rate anything lower than four stars. I figure, if the book was worth my time to read and I enjoyed it, it’s worth four or five stars. If I am sent a book for Booklist that I cannot review under this criteria, I decline to review it. But, like the decision to review or not review, your star-code is yours to set. Readers vary widely over this – some readers will give one star even if they read the entire book! This is another reason why the stars are so subjective.

A few other general tips:

  1. Don’t use the review as a platform.
    1. Remember – the review is for readers. Now, if you have some connection to the book, you may certainly state that. But the reader is not interested in what you have to say about your own work. They are trying to figure out if the book is worth their time investment. Also, this is not the time to be using writerly jargon, being overly critical, or give feedback the way you would in a writer’s workshop. The book is published. That time is over.
  2. Do comment on the very specific strengths of the book.
    1. What sets this book apart? I like to think of myself as writing a query letter for someone else’s book every time I write a review. I’m helping the author sell the book by pointing out its strengths. 
  3. Do focus on the appeal factors.
    1. If you are not familiar with appeal factors – brush up! We librarians use them to help match readers with books. These are the juicy characteristics of books which entice readers: plot, character, language, setting, and so forth. Here is a fabulous crash course which I use in my readers’ advisory classes for librarians (thanks, Molly At the Library!) 
  4. Do be mindful of the star rating.
    1. “But, Cari, you just said the stars don’t matter!” Yes, I did. But the overall star rating will impact how readers receive your review. I’m not saying you should change anything based on it – stick to your star-code. Just know that the star rating is there and it’s part of the package.
  5. Do acknowledge the author’s hard work.
    1. A thoughtful review helps the author know that it was worth it for them to put that work out into the world. Help keep the good karma wheel spinning.
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Cari Dubiel
Cari Dubiel is the Head of Editing for Writing Bloc. She juggles writing, librarian-ing, mom-ing, and bassooning in Northeast Ohio. Her novel, How to Remember, is in production with Inkshares. She is a past Library Liaison to Sisters in Crime and the co-host of the ABC Book Reviews Podcast.
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