How to write a book review without making the writer cry

A while back I wrote a blog about how to request a review which led to an avalanche of review requests in my inbox (I’m still sorting through those!). But what about the other side of the coin? How do you write a review? And who cares anyway? It’s your opinion so why do there have to be any rules? I don’t think we need to have hard and fast rules, but there should definitely be some guidelines. In this age of instant communication, feelings get hurt because everyone is hurrying, hurrying, hurrying. People shoot off text messages, Facebook posts, and tweets without thinking about grammar let alone how their writing may affect others. Common courtesy doesn’t seem to matter in the digital world.

I had a law professor who I didn’t like one tiny bit, but I always remember his advice. It sounded something like this: Everything you write, whether it’s an email or a note in a file or a court document, is admissible in court and can be used against you. Best. Advice. Ever. Although I’m no longer practicing law (YEAH!), I still practice his advice everyday. I don’t send e-mails or messages until I re-read them and make sure I’d be happy with that message being made public. This applies to reviews I write as well. Of course, I’m a writer so I understand how hurtful a review can be and I can’t help but take this into consideration when reviewing.

Here are a few of the rules I try to follow when writing a review:

Re-read before pushing the publish button. Don’t just shoot off a review without taking a moment to pause. Personally, I always wait a day after finishing a novel before writing the review. I take extensive notes while reading so as not to forget any important issues I want to mention in my review. Immediately writing a review often leads to a review founded solely upon emotions. For example, I finished a book for review yesterday and I hated the ending. I mean HATED THE ENDING. I slammed my Kindle shut and immediately added ending totally sucked to my notes. If I had written the review at that moment, I probably would have given the book 2 stars based solely on the ending. That’s not exactly fair. One of my books, Life Discarded, has a not particularly happy ending. Although the ending is happy in its own way, most readers don’t experience it that way. I have gotten a ton of bad reviews based on the ending of the book alone. So please take a moment to pause and let the entire book sink in before writing that review.

Always, always say something nice. No matter how horrible a book is, if you managed to finish it, there has got to be something positive to say. Search for that positive and mention it. Just because a review is online and you are therefore anonymous shouldn’t mean you can be nasty. If you wouldn’t dare to say it to the writer in person, why do you think it’s okay to write it?

Judge the book written, not the one you believe the author should have written. I don’t know if other writers experience this as much as me, but I’m often judged by the book the reader believes I should have written instead of the book I wrote. I’ve written serious novels, but my most recent books are light, cozy mysteries with a wallop of humor (okay maybe just a dash of humor). Because one of the heroes of the novels is gay, many readers have criticized my lack of including the perils of being gay in America. Well, folks, that’s not the book I wrote. Is it really fair to criticize a writer for not writing the book you wanted to read?

Make it clear that the review is your opinion. Just because you didn’t like a novel, doesn’t mean that no one in the world is going to enjoy it. All-encompassing comments sound very judgmental and aren’t very helpful for the writer.

Write a review, not a critique. Unless the author has asked you to write a critique, review the book instead of critiquing. What’s the difference? A critique is a critical analysis. As critical is defined as tending to find fault, a critique is almost always negative (or at least it feels that way to a writer). A critique looks for problems in a novel whereas a review gives a reader’s opinion of the book and whether the reader enjoyed it. Critiques are great tools for helping a writer learn her craft, but they aren’t reviews and shouldn’t be used as such.

What rules do you have for writing a review?

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  1. I really appreciate your post on how to write a book review. I write lots of reviews and they can’t all be 5 stars but you’ve given me some ideas of how to make a 2 star review less harsh. Thanks.

  2. Reblogged this on Author Matt Bowes and the Dog's Breakfast and commented:
    Hey, saw this and it’s totally on point for the recent discussion we’ve been having about reviews, and my admonishments to all y’all to leave a blinkin’ review for all the books you read, good or bad.

    And D.E. is so right about being… well, not cruel. Be nice. Review the book, not the author.

    For me, it’s a bit harder, because I think that if a book has been out for a while, the cosmetic stuff should have been fixed– typos and homophones, for one thing–and such like that. I think it reflects on an author if they choose to issue revisions to fix junk that is just errors. Then we can move on to looking at the content, not the stuff that keeps annoying me enough to stop my mental process of reading.

    Also, that stuff your law prof said about written/typed/recorded stuff is spot on. Those private emails? Aren’t. Those notes in the file for personal use? Aren’t. Everything is discoverable, some is more discoverable than others.

  3. I always review the day after I’ve finished reading. The book’s ‘feel’ is still fresh in my mind but I’ve also slept on it and can think in a less emotional way, although I have to admit I do write my reviews with some emotion. If I leave it too long to review a book I forget parts of it and my review wouldn’t be so good

    I always seem to find the positives in the book.When it comes to negatives I do list them but they are never so negative that a writer or reader would be put off. I believe that with books even if I don’t enjoy them and ‘criticise’ certain things, it doesn’t mean another person wouldn’t like the book.

    I like your tips for reviewing. Especially to never criticise the author or over critique their book.

    1. It’s true that just because I write a critical review doesn’t mean someone else won’t enjoy the book. For example, a lot of reviewers complain about instalove but I’m a huge fan of instalove. I just ignore their comments. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. These are great, and especially helpful to hear from someone who not only writes reviews – but books! I’ve only started with book reviews, but my helpful thing to keep in my head is to imagine the author reading the review I write. I picture myself emailing the review to them, which makes it feel way more personal than just a post on a blog.

  5. This is *exactly* what I needed for a book I just finished! I was talking to a friend of mine and was saying that I didn’t know how to write a review for a book I didn’t enjoy when I do know the author (digitally, not in person, but still). Thank you so much for putting your thoughts together and putting this out there. My problem was I was looking at it more like a critique than a review because I was expecting a different book, so I now I know the points I need to change in it.

    1. I think we readers tend to automatically start writing a critique when we don’t like a book. It’s often easier to point out why we didn’t enjoy a read than to pinpoint the reasons why we did love a book.

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