There are two types of book reviews. One is formal, academic, and perhaps somewhat stuffy. The other is creative, stylish, and popular. Here we’ll teach you how to write the second type. Even if you never get to write for the New York Times, you might still learn how to leave a stellar review on Amazon or Goodreads.
Reviews are not essays. You have plenty of freedom in how you structure your ideas. Sure, you’ll want to summarize and assess the book, but you don’t need a rigid thesis developed over the course of successive, closely connected paragraphs. Nor do you have to provide page numbers and citations when quoting from the book under review.
A review is more about sharing an experience. What is it like to read this book? Why would anyone bother? Think of yourself as persuading a close friend to adopt your point of view. Just be honest and direct. You can start by sharing your final thoughts or you can save them for the end. You can introduce side issues (level of realism, an interesting minor character, a powerful scene) before returning to your main point. A review is much more choppy and digressive than a regular essay.
However, a review should still have a certain “feel” to it. Strong reviewers create a consistent tone and style and provide an overall impression that ties together the somewhat eclectic observations made over the course of the review. In short, the structure of a review may be more organic, but the final result still feels coherent.
Good reviewers care about readers. Even if you personally know the author, you have a duty to say what’s on your mind. Of course tact is good, but you should never gloss over what you really think. Figure out quickly what your final verdict is (good, bad, or mixed) and then explain how you came to that conclusion.
If you’re reviewing a novel, you should give some idea of the plot. However, you should do more than provide a bland summary of events. Try make an argument about why the narrative is interesting or compelling. For instance, if you were to review James Joyce’s Ulysses, you might reflect on whether the plot is as epic as the title implies:
Though modeled on Homer’s epic The Odyssey, Joyce’s Ulysses describes just one day in the life of Leopold Bloom. Nor are the events particularly impressive. Whether Bloom goes to the toilet, attends a funeral, or returns to Molly (his faithless Penelope), we feel that the classic hero no longer has a place in modern fiction.
So make a point about the plot. If it’s a murder mystery you might discuss who the suspects are, and whether it’s easy to follow the clues. If it’s a science fiction story you might frame your plot summary by comparing the story’s universe to today, or by assessing just how dystopian the events really are.
Whatever you do, though, think twice about sharing too many spoilers. Particularly if you’re recommending the book, you want to leave the reader with something to look forward to.
What can you talk about in a book review? Anything really, but here are some question you might answer:
- What is the genre of the book?
- Does the author convey a message, a worldview, an agenda?
- Do you find the author’s point of view beautiful, racist, scary, persuasive, etc.?
- How does the book relate to our culture, or to the past? Does it teach anything?
- What is the intended audience?
- How much of the book is fiction?
- How does the book compare to other works of literature?
As you answer these questions, avoid being overly moralistic. Try not to simplify the book to some simple lesson (e.g., pride goes before the fall).
Always write your review so that it’s eminently quotable. Make sure you include a phrase or passage that captures your impression of the book in language that is dramatic and evocative. This is especially important if your assessment is generally favourable, for it’s possible the publisher may want to use an excerpt to promote the book.
Here are some examples of quotable quotes:
Stuart Little is much more than a children’s book: it is a profound reflection on the human quest for beauty and meaning, and Stuart’s comical attempts at heroism in the face of constant failure are both tragic and touching.
Blue at the Mizzen is our last voyage with Aubrey and Maturin, and it is a fitting farewell to arguably the greatest historical series ever written.
After I finished the The Sense of an Ending, I sincerely wished I had never begun.
Be aware, though, that people may quote your review out of context. Take, for example, the following blurb found on the back cover of the Canadian publication of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas:
“Mitchell is, clearly, a genius. He writes as though at the helm of some perpetual dream machine, can evidently do anything, and his ambition is written in magma across this novel’s every page.”
Now compare the actual paragraph from Tom Bissell’s review in the New York Times:
“It is a devious writer indeed who writes in such a way that the critic who finds himself unresponsive to the writer’s vision feels like a philistine. So let it be said that Mitchell is, clearly, a genius. He writes as though at the helm of some perpetual dream machine, can evidently do anything, and his ambition is written in magma across this novel’s every page. But ”Cloud Atlas” is the sort of book that makes ambition seem slightly suspect.”
Sometimes publishers have no scruples about quoting very selectively!
When reviewers become personal, it’s usually to make a point. Consider the opening to David Sexton’s scathing review of The Luminaries:
You know what it’s like when you find a book you really can’t put down? One that seems so urgent to stay with you carry on reading when you should be sleeping or working or remembering your Tube stop? A book that seems more compelling than life itself? Such a great feeling!
Well, Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker-winning 832-pager, The Luminaries, is the opposite — in my experience, anyway.
I first tackled it in the summer, taking it on holiday. I was looking forward to getting into a really long book without pressure on my time. But I read about 150 pages and gave up in exasperation at its conceit and verbosity and got someone else to review it.
Sexton goes on to say that he gave the book a second try, only to find his first impressions confirmed. This self-conscious focus on the process of reading has its place in a review, but only if it relates to some larger argument. Otherwise we really don’t need to know how many pages you can read in a day.
Writing a book review is above all a creative act, so focus as much attention on style as on substance. In fact, if your writing style is witty and charming, people are more likely to accept your opinions.
Don’t think about what a review should “sound like.” Pick appropriate adjectives and avoid the following kinds of expressions:
None of these words are forbidden, but often a less hyperbolic variant will do (e.g. clever, ingenious, masterful).
Good reviews use colourful metaphors and similes. Here’s a great example from a review of John Le Carré’s novel A Legacy of Spies:
Le Carré hauls out his greatest creation, the Yoda-like spymaster George Smiley, a cameo appearance, as if he were taking a ’60s-era Lamborghini long kept in the garage –Smiley’s last appearance was 27 years ago, in ‘The Secret Pilgrim’–for a jaunty Sunday spin.”
Even though the reviewer mixes Star Wars with James Bond, the language is colourful and appropriate. By contrast, you want to avoid clichés such as the following:
edge of your seat
roller coaster of emotions
Try use metaphors and analogies that are fresh and clever without being bizarre or confusing.
In a book review you can use a conversational tone. A good test is to read your review out loud and see if it sounds natural. Another strategy is to vary your sentence length. Good reviewers create drama by inserting a number of short, snappy sentences. So don’t be overly personal, but do write with personality.
- Avoid long quotations
- Connect your paragraphs through subtle, clever transitions.
- Avoid cumbersome phrases like “I will argue” or “In conclusion”
- Use a creative title that relates closely to the point you make in your review
While sometimes a scathing review is called for, don’t waste people’s time nitpicking over tiny details. Alexander Pope once described a good reviewer as someone who reads with generosity and understanding: “A perfect judge will read each work of wit / With the same spirit that its author writ.” That’s a tall task, but it’s one worth striving for.
Ready to get started? Download our Review Template.
Bissell, Tom. “History is a Nightmare.” Review of Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. New York Times, 29 Aug. 2004. https://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/29/books/history-is-a-nightmare.html.
Garner, Dwight. “George Smiley and Other Old Friends Return in John Le Carré’s ‘A Legacy of Spies.'” New York Times, 28 Aug. 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/28/books/review-john-le-carre-legacy-of-spies.html.