How to Write a Great Book Review
by Joe Walters
There are so many ways to write a great book review.
But it all starts with careful and attentive reading.
Read every word on every page, and if you don’t understand something, read it again. Back in college, I read things I didn’t understand but continued moving forward because that’s what I did in high school, in grade school, in class all the time. You’re taught to use context clues and follow along.
You have my permission to stop doing that. (Tell your teacher to blame me).
If you don’t understand something, read it again. If you still don’t understand it, try writing down what happens in each and every scene. A scene could be a full chapter, a paragraph, or a few paragraphs. I had to do this with Le Morte D’Arthur when I was in school, and I actually ended up loving it by the end, regardless of the hard to decipher Olde English spellings.
Just because you’re a slow reader doesn’t mean you’re a bad one.
Before you learn how to write great book reviews, understand this…
People write book reviews for different reasons. Sometimes they want to publish their writing in a publication (like a newspaper, magazine, or Independent Book Review). Sometimes they have to write a book review for school. Sometimes they want to build a platform on Goodreads, or they want to support indie authors by leaving the review on Amazon.
If you’re writing a book review for school, my first recommendation is to combine this treasure trove of a blog post with the specifics of what your teacher is asking you to do on their rubric. They may want analytical points that go beyond the 50% marker because they don’t care for spoilers, while reviewing for publication might want it to be spoiler-free.
The kinds of reviews I’m talking about? These would put you in a good position to publish your book reviews on blogs, magazines, and platforms like Goodreads or Amazon.
Your first big question:
Should you take notes while you read?
Maybe? Probably? It’s up to you in the end, but I’d recommend it, especially if you’re just starting out.
If you take notes while you go, you can not only pinpoint comments in specific locations in the book regarding how you’re feeling about it (so that you can write about it later), you can also highlight some of your favorite quotes in the book.
Adding quotes directly from the text can add some intrigue (and length) to your book review. It’s one thing to hear that the book has great prose; it’s another to see it for yourself.
After reading the book
Sleep on it. Not literally (unless it’s comfy, I guess?).
The main point here is to just give yourself some time to stew on it. How is it sitting with you now that you’ve read the ending? Now that you understand what the author really wanted to do?
Then, imagine a scenario where you are talking to another reader about it.
How would you start the conversation? How would you set the story up so that they understand the characters and the plotline and where it goes from there?
The good news is that you’re not just babbling to your friend about it (although that’s cool too). Unlike a conversation, with a review, you will have time to revise and edit instead of just spouting out all the things you have to say.
But still, it’s good practice. You will figure out what is most important to talk about simply by imagining this friend’s perspective—wait, did I tell them about the revolt yet? The love interest? They’re gonna need to know who the hell Puck is before I get to why it’s so good.
How do you write great book reviews without reading some examples first? You can’t. So check these out before you go any further: Book Review: Rock Gods & Messy Monsters and Book Review: The Devil Pulls the Strings.
How to write a first draft of a great book review:
“Some people call it verbal diarrhea. I just call it word shit.” – Wanderlust (2012)
Regardless of what you call it, let the words spill out. Write about what happens in the book, how you feel about it, and why. Just write.
If you start out with the skeleton of a structure, it could be even easier to draft. Here’s what we share with our reviewers for our 400+ word reviews:
- Tagline: Mention a little of what the book is about as well as one of the book’s positive points in a short catchy phrase
- “An evocative psychological thriller that explores the influence of trauma on the human mind and soul” – Robyn-Lee Samuels, Book Review: A Cabin in the Woods
- “A tender, inventive memoir that grapples with the unexpected loss of a child” – Tucker Lieberman, Book Review: An Ambiguous Grief
- “The laugh-out-loud antics of three unlikely pilgrims headline this poignantly told humorous novel.” – Frank Pizzoli, Book Review: The Jesus Nut
- Part 1: Introduce the characters & goals of the book early on.
- Part 2: Write an enticing summary up until about the 50% marker
- Part 3: How the author/book succeeded. Be specific & use examples. If you said that it has great characters, tell me who they are and what’s great about them.
- Part 4: What you did not like about the novel (if applicable). If not applicable, use this paragraph to indicate another thing that the author/book did well.
- Part 5: Closing comments, recommendation, and overall feeling about the novel.
Self-editing your book review
You’re not done yet. I’m sure you’ve already written a great book review, and everyone else in the world would applaud you for it, but—wait, actually, no.
No you didn’t. Not yet.
I have not read it obviously, but I feel pretty confident in saying your first draft can be improved upon. Please read your review from the top to the bottom, asking yourself questions like:
- Did I write in present tense to describe the happenings in the plot?
- Did I italicize the book title but use quotation marks for stories or essays within the book?
- Does this sentence communicate exactly what I am trying to say in as few words as possible? Are there filler words that could be removed without impacting the clarity of the sentence?
- Do I avoid cliche and speak honestly and originally about this book?
- Do I tell the story in a linear fashion up until about the 50% marker?
- Did I accidentally include any spoilers?
- Are the words I use to praise the book really saying anything? Avoid empty words and phrases like “interesting” and “relatable”
- Do I have a good mix of summary, praise, and (if applicable) criticism?
- If I added a quote from within the book, would it help make my case or entice readers into buying it?
- Do I use evidence to back up why I am saying this character is so great? Evidence for why the pacing worked?
- How’s my last line? Is it as catchy and clear as it could be? Am I leaving the reader with some of my best work?
What I love about great book reviews
They don’t always follow the rules.
I edit book reviews for a living, and I share tips like the ones I’ve shared here with my reviewers, but sometimes, they write reviews that look far different from my guided outline and are about as wonderful as I could ask for. They are clear, they are honest, they are poetic, they are so many things at once.
Reviewing is an art form. It’s important to know the foundations of a great book review, but like great art, sometimes it takes writers stepping out of boundaries to really do something amazing.
Here are a couple examples of reviews that threw my outline out the window but absolutely nailed the execution: Book Review: Obit and Book Review: Anthropica.
Thanks for checking out our tips for how to write a great book review! If you would like to apply to write for IBR, fill out the submission form on this page.
About the Author
Joe Walters is the founder and editor-in-chief of Independent Book Review and a book marketing specialist at Sunbury Press. When he’s not doing editorial, promoting, or reviewing work, he’s working on his novel and trusting the process. Find him @joewalters13 on Twitter.
Thank you for reading Joe Walters’s blog post “How to Write a Great Book Review!” If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.
Cool. Thanks. Working on one for the Catholic Worker as we type.