Today’s readers are fortunate to have more books to choose from than ever before. The combination of an ever-increasing pool of writers, improved distribution, and the rise of self-publishing has created countless opportunities for authors and readers alike.
The only downside to this wealth of options is having to actually choose among them as readers! Of course, that’s why we have book reviews. A well-written book review tells us which books are good and which could use some work, which ones are to our taste and which aren’t, so we can select only the best for our reading piles. It’s also why, as a book reviewer, you have to advocate for your favorite titles — and clarify which ones are best left on the shelf!
But how can you get readers to listen to your recommendations? Well, that’s what this article is for. Here are five tips on how to write a book review that readers will love, no matter what sort of book you’re reviewing.
1. Give your honest opinion
If there’s one thing the top-rated reviews on Goodreads can tell us, it’s that a review doesn’t have to be effusive to appeal to readers; most of them value honesty over all else. So give each book exactly as many stars as you feel it deserves, whether that’s five or zero, and share what you genuinely thought about it.
Of course, as any good book reviewer will know, there’s an ocean of difference between “honest” and “merciless.” If you didn’t like the book, don’t go into excruciating detail about everything you hated. Cover the major elements, the things that stood out to you, and use a few concrete examples to justify your opinions. Also, do note if a book you disliked wasn’t in your preferred genre, or the story wasn’t what you expected, even if you think it was legitimately bad. This will help prospective readers judge for themselves whether they still want to give it a try.
On the other hand, if you absolutely loved a book, that still doesn’t give you license to gush incoherently and use an obscene number of exclamation points! Yes, you should relay your enthusiasm — but you can do this, again, by talking about what really stood out to you and citing examples.
By the way, if you can’t find examples to back up how you feel about a given book, you may want to reexamine your opinion. It’s okay to post a subjective review that’s based more on feeling than fact, but (one more time for the people in the back) be honest about those opinions. If they come from a place of personal experience or emotion rather than what’s in the text, you owe it to readers to explain that in full.
2. Quote from the source
On the topic of examples: remember how your high school English teacher made you quote from the book in all of your literary essays? That’s because using quotes is one of the best ways to demonstrate a book’s most important themes… and in the case of reviews, quotes can also give readers a tantalizing taste of what’s to come.
A review quote can be anything from a single line to prove a point to an excerpt that provides a sense of narrative and/or tone. For example, in this list of the best true crime books of all time, I made sure to include a quote in my brief review of Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore: “you’ll go inside the house where murder is born.” Doesn’t that quote just send shivers down your spine — and make the book itself seem practically irresistible?
Quotes can also be a life-saver when you can’t quite express the nuances of an author’s writing. Basically, if you can’t find your own words, it’s fine to use a few of theirs (better, even, as it’s usually more concise). As long as you’re not falling back on quotes too often, they’re a strong, compelling way to supplement your reviews and make them stick in your readers’ minds.
3. Draw comparisons to well-known titles
Another good way to make a review “stick” is by comparing the book to titles that readers already know. This gives them helpful, easy-to-remember reference points and is also just a creative way to summarize a book’s essence: “This book is American Gods meets The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
This strategy is actually taken from standard query letter practice in trade publishing, as authors often use comparative titles to pitch their books to agents: “It’s [Title X] meets [Title Y].” The idea is to make a brand-new book sound immediately interesting and suggest that it has an existing audience (a major selling point with agents). Authors typically use one lesser-known title and one mainstream title, sometimes from different genres to keep things fresh.
As a reviewer, you obviously don’t need to sell this book to an agent, so mention whichever titles come to mind — and as many as you feel are relevant. For example, you might say, “This new release has all the morally gray intrigue of A Song of Ice and Fire, with the classic fantasy resonance of Lord of the Rings. The writing, reminiscent of early T.H. White, is sharp yet subtle and effectively turns character archetypes on their heads.” This combination of comp titles (and authors) grabs the reader’s attention and paints a vivid picture of what this book will be like.
4. Structure your book review carefully
We’ve talked about a few things that you should definitely include in your review: your honest opinion, quotes and examples, and potentially a couple of comp titles. Now let’s talk about how to structure it in an intuitive way.
Many reviewers begin with basic info about the book: title, author, genre, and a brief summary. Having a brief “About the Book” section is a no-nonsense way to begin a review, and most book review blogs introduce their subjects like this. Assuming you don’t skip over this info, the next thing you should have is a hook — a confession of your true opinion, for example, or a description of a striking moment in the book.
From there, you can expand on all the points you’d like to cover, which will vary from book to book. Focus on a handful of things that the author did particularly well (or poorly, if you’re writing a critical review) and avoid giving a comprehensive overview à la SparkNotes. Not only is this tedious, but it also discourages readers from actually picking up the book, since they’ll already know everything about it!
Finally, try to transition smoothly between your points, so that your reader’s train of thought doesn’t get jostled or derailed. For instance, if you’re discussing pacing, don’t suddenly switch to characters in the next sentence without some sort of segue.
5. Keep it short and sweet
Perhaps the most important part of writing an enjoyable book review is knowing when to cut yourself off. After reading a 300-page book, it’s only natural to have several pages’ worth of thoughts on it… but the truth is, readers don’t want a review longer than a thousand words (if even that).
So keep it to the bare essentials: what you thought, why you thought it, and bits from the book to back up your claims. This is why it’s so important to read critically when you’re planning to review a book! You can mark scenes that you liked, or that felt consequential to the story, with Post-Its and make notes about what you might say in your review. This makes it so much easier to structure and write a good review when the time comes; if you start to go on a tangent, you can look back at your notes and remind yourself of what you really want to say.
And indeed, this should be at the heart of every book review you write: something meaningful to say that readers will appreciate knowing. If you can approach every review with that kind of earnest reflection, you should have no trouble writing reviews that readers enjoy and remember.
Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy Discovery, a book review blog and social platform for independent authors and intrepid readers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction, writing short stories, and occasionally leaving strongly-worded Goodreads reviews.