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Writing Reviews That Help Readers AND Writers

As an author, it can be hard when approaching the concept of reviews. You know that other authors need them, crave them, but it’s also terrifying to sit down at a keyboard and actually type one up. What if you insult them and burn a potential networking connection? What if you say the wrong thing? How can you be the right blend of informative and not soul-crushing?

At least, that’s my process when I start thinking about reviewing a book.

This is why I came up with a slightly formulaic approach to writing reviews. It allows me to feel a little less like I’m just pulling star ratings out of a hat and feel more like authors have honestly earned the ratings I give them. It also gives my reviews a nice consistent feel, which is good for readers and friends who may actually trust my opinion.

I always see the occasional post by someone who is intimidated by reviews asking, “What makes a good review? How do I do this? Help!” So, I figured I would share my own approach, cultivated from several different methods. It works for me. It may or may not work for you, but at least you’ll have seen a different approach.

So without further ado, here are my steps to building the perfect review:

Notetaking While Reading

First and foremost, I make sure that I always have a notepad at least somewhere in reach when I’m reading a book that I plan to review. Sometimes I skip it because I want to just read for pleasure without thinking about it too much, but I usually try to have at least post-it notes on hand. Why? Because it’s inevitable that when I go to write a review, I’ll be stuck going “I know I thought the beginning was clunky, but why did I think the beginning was clunky?” Notes help me avoid that awkward situation.

This also helps me to get out some of that livetweeting inclination without potentially hurting the writer. I can sometimes be very cruel in my base things about a book. That’s just part of the way humans are, really. When we speak without thinking, it can sometimes come out… wrong. This lets me get out my thoughts honestly so I can attack the review with a clear head.

And finally, this also helps me avoid the “There were typos but I don’t know where or how many” problem. Just stick a post-it on the page with the typo, and done. Then I can even contact the author privately and make it that much easier for them to fix. At least, when it’s indie authors. Good luck if I find a typo in The Cursed Child.

 

Star Rating

This is where my impartial system has been the absolute most help. I have five categories, and each one is worth a star. If a writer ends up with what would be a two or one rating, I can contact them privately to ask their preference. This is most important if I was planning on featuring the book on my own blog, since I’m of the opinion of that negative reviews can actually be quite helpful to have on Amazon/Goodreads. Sucky, yes, but helpful. But if you’re concerned about the whole “burning bridges” thing I mentioned above, this is your way out. It has certainly made me feel safer.

The five categories I use are:

  • Concept/worldbuilding
  • Plot
  • Character/dialogue
  • Prose
  • Conflict/resolution

Each one is then rated based on how satisfied I felt with that aspect of the book. A full star is completely fulfilled. Half a star means that I was a little disappointed, and it could have been better, but I was overall still satisfied. No star means I was completely unsatisfied, maybe even a little angry at how this aspect was handled.

Now, this means that I sometimes end up with 3.5 star ratings, and Amazon and Goodreads only allow full star ratings. This means you have to either round up or round down. For a while, I toyed with the idea of rounding up on Amazon and down on Goodreads, since Goodreads tends to overall be a little harsher than Goodreads. In the end, I decided against it, because I’m just too nice. And I’m more likely to not have the dreaded 2 and 1 star reviews that way.

 

Review Content

Now on to the actual meat of the content. I have four basic points I try to hit in my reviews: basic summary, what I liked, what I disliked, and who would enjoy the book. I’ve found this to be the most important and best balanced parts of good reviews.

Basic Summary: This is tricky to do because you don’t want to give spoilers. It’s a little like trying to recreate what the author would put on the back blurb. It seem unimportant, but this can actually be enlightening to an author. It shows them what the story is being perceived as when it’s read as compared to how they see it in their head. I’ve found some glaring flaws in my own writing just based on this feedback.

What I Liked: This is your chance to gush about the book. Talk about how you wish character A and B would just kiss already, how beautiful the setting was, how lyrical the prose. Were the characters deep and real and engaging? Did plot twists take you by surprise without coming out of left field? Did you laugh? Did you cry? Did you stay up all night with a flashlight just to finish?

What I Disliked: This is the hard part. Usually here I try to cover anything that knocked the author down a half or full star in the rating part of the process. The key part here is to not just voice that you disliked something, but explain why. It’s one thing to say a book bored you, it’s another to say that you just had a hard time really connecting to the characters and they felt flat and it made you not interested in their conflict. Make sure that anything you criticise has some meat to it about why. This way, it will feel less like an insult, and more like you honestly talking about a book and how it read. This is much more helpful to authors, even if it stings.

Who Would Like This Book?: Don’t think too hard on this. Does it appeal to the category it’s already in? Are there people in other genres who might actually be interested in this book despite it being outside their usual genres? Are their fandoms who would connect to this book? Are you the target audience for this book?

 

Creating Longer Reviews

Usually, the steps I outlined above are plenty to be considered a “long” review on Goodreads and Amazon. But sometimes I have a lot to say about a book, or I might even want to feature it on my blog. I then have a couple other topics I add to the review. First, I might add an author introduction, because if I’m trying to promote an author, then it’s really important that my readers know what kind of author and person they are. Second, I like to add a section about how the work may have impacted me personally. How did it make me look at certain topics? Did it personally speak to me or change me? Does the book have social implications? How could this book change the world? I think this sections adds a really nice perspective on why I would choose to feature it. And finally, I like to add my opinions on the book layout and cover as well. I avoid this in shorter reviews because it isn’t any actual reflection on the writer, but I like to include it in longer reviews. It definitely impacts the sales and reader base the author is able to attract. Since I’m also a graphic designer, I usually feel pretty strongly about a book’s cover and interior formatting.

 

Creating Shorter Reviews

Okay, this is all great, but what if you don’t want to spend that much effort on a book? How do you cut all this down to a review that’s still effective? The simplest way I’ve found is to still use the star rating system, and then simply state your favorite part about the book. It doesn’t have to be in depth. Something simple like “I absolutely adore the main character, Jane. I relate to her so well and feel like I’ve known her since childhood!” is fine. Any author I know would be thrilled to get that.

You can also keep it brief by keeping each section limited to only a sentence, rather than going into depth and possibly ending up with a paragraph. That’s four sentences, which would be a reasonably long length, but still would only take ten minutes to write, tops.

 

Conclusion

This process is one that I’ve cultivated over a year of reading indie books and seeing how other authors review fellow authors. It can seem like a delicate balance, but I feel like I’ve found a nice stable system in my process. You may want some of my method, you may want all of it. Do what works for you!

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