Writing Reviews: Some Guidelines and Suggestions (There are No Absolute Rules)

A woman with long dark hair and a thought bubble that says your text goes here I was probably supposed to change it but this is about you saying what you think after all.When I announced the 2013 RITA® Reader Challenge last week, MissB2U asked:

I would be interested in any pointers from you or other reviewers here on the basics of writing a review.  New skillset!  Yea!

I am a little embarrassed that I haven’t discussed this before, especially since we’ve been doing the RITA® Reader Challenge for years now. So, without further ado: reviews! Guidelines and suggestions only, because I don’t think there are any firm and absolute rules about writing reviews. Everyone’s opinion is different, and therein lies the rules and reasons for reviews.

There are many kinds of reviews, and they vary according to the forum for the review, the product being reviewed, or even the type of review for a specific kind of product. Book reviews vary as well. Some are evaluations of the romance as an argument: does the reader believe that the main characters have earned and will sustain a happily ever after, till big misunderstandings, sequels and random acts of villainy do they (temporarily) part? If the answer is yes, then the review might articulate why. If the answer is no, same thing. If the romance’s goal is to make you feel, and make you believe in the emotions and the HEA of the main characters, then the review can, if you wish, evaluate whether that enterprise was successful.

My reviews are usually a discussion of what I liked, and what I didn’t, lodged firmly under the umbrella (-ella -ella -ella) of how I felt when I finished the book. Sometimes I have a dialogue with the text of the book, and talk back to it, like I did with The Billionaire Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable Girl. Sometimes I get mad and exasperated at myself and the book, and yell at us both in my review, which I did for my review of the Sweet Valley High book Dear Sister.

And sometimes all the reasons I loved a book try to exit my brain at the same time, and I worry that I’m only semi-coherent, like for my review of Tessa Dare’s A Lady by Midnight.

Most of the time, however, when writing a review, I try to translate the feeling I have for the book in the middle, and at the end, into a grade and a narrative.

My Two Guidelines For Writing Reviews

My personal “two rules” for review writing, though I maintain that there are no rules for reviewing that apply to absolutely everybody in every circumstance, stem from my goal of translating my feeling into text.

1. The text of the review should match the grade.

If my grade is revealed at the end, it should not be a surprise that is unsupported by the review text preceding it. If the grade is at the top of the review, it should be a consistent leadoff that introduces the review logically. It would be jarring to see a C- and then read a first paragraph that begins, “Oh, my gosh, I LOVED this book.” It would be logical, though, to read, “Oh, my gosh, I LOVED this book until….”

The exception to my desire for consistency around here is the F+, which is a grade I try to reserve for books that are brimming with crazysauce, that fall of the end of the “bad” spectrum and circle back around past good to “outstanding fun” because there is totally an audience for crazysauce romance, and I am in it. “Good” is subjective, and I think more of a mobius strip than a linear evaluation.

2. Give reasons.

I didn’t like ____ because ____.

I loved _____ because ______.

Reasons make a review useful to the person reading the review. If you disliked a heroine because she was brash and mouthy and cussed out the hero a lot, there are many whose reading catnip signals will go off because they love heroines like that. They learn nothing if all the review says is, “I didn’t like the heroine.”

The hardest type of review to write for me is the review for a book that made me think, “Meh.” The best kind of reviews that I enjoy writing are the ones for books which made my brain go all Jiffy-pop with ideas. I love explaining what I thought about a book, how it made me feel, if it made me laugh, and whether I recommend it. I like trying to organize my list of reasons why a book made me mad or disappointed me.

Recommending books is a very personal thing to do, and writing a review, for that reason, can feel very personal. You can learn a lot about yourself, and the filter of your experiences, when you process exactly why you adored this book and loathed that one.

Things to Keep In Mind While Writing Reviews

Your job in a review is to tell other readers honestly what you think of the book so that they can filter your review through their own experience and decide if they want to read it, or if your reaction matches their own. Your job is not to make the author, publisher, cover art designer, copy editor, typesetter or the dude who uploaded the file feel better about themselves.

Your response and reaction to a book are your own. Your experience with the book belongs to you. This can be alienating and a challenge when you’re the only one who liked a book that everyone else is screaming about, or if you abhorred a book that everyone else seems to wrap in flannel and cuddle with at night. But your experience is between you and the book, and it belongs to you. Your articulation of that experience influences how you shape your review.

If you get stuck trying to write a review, draft it as an email. Open the email program, even, and type in a friend’s name in the To: field, and start an email to that person explaining the book. It’s kind of amazing how an email or instant message window can unlock words that refuse to emerge from your brain when you’re looking at a word processing screen.

Audience is important. If you think of a target for your review, a person or persons to whom you are speaking, it’s often easier to explain yourself, your reaction, and your grade. I receive many email messages from people who want to rant about a book, and directed the rant at me personally because they assumed (very correctly!) that I would understand their feelings. And thus, Book Rants were born.

Books, and especially romances because they deal with emotions and empathy, can make us really, really mad. REALLY mad. That is ok. I think it’s important and very cathartic to identify and explain to someone what a book did to make you mad, and why it made you so angry. I usually feel better, anyway.

So if you’re stuck trying to write a review and your audience is the entire internet, focus on a person or a small group. I often imagine that I’m in a big cushy living room with all of you (not in a creepy way!) and I’m trying to explain the book. I try to talk to you as people I know, not as a nebulous “they” whom I don’t know. I also write reviews in email messages, or in sticky notes to try to boil down all my reactions to the absolute minimum, and then I expand on that. If I’m really stuck, I make a list: 3 things I want you to know about this book. 3 things I’d warn you about before buying it. 3 reasons you’ll regret it if you don’t buy this right freaking now.

But as I said, my goal when I write a review is to say, This is what I thought. This is the grade, and this is why. This is how I felt.

The second most powerful tool after your own honesty is quotes from the text of the book. Your reaction alongside quotations for the book can go a long, long way to persuade a reader to buy that book. Whether it’s an F+ with ample crazysauce for chicken finger dipping, an A+ that made you squee so hard you went hoarse, or a C that was chock-full of meh, the text of the book can back you up, and provide another tool for the reader to make her own evaluation.

A good review, as you know, isn’t always positive. A good review is always useful. A good review is a gauge of your tastes against that reader’s taste, a shopping tool for our entertainment consumption. It can be intimidating to think that the author and everyone else who had a part in creating that book are reading what you wrote. I completely understand that. But there are readers looking for your honest opinion, and that is whom reviews are for.

I asked Carrie S, Elyse, and RedHeadedGirl for their tips and suggestions for writing reviews, and here is what they had to say:

Elyse:

I highlight as I read and leave notes for myself. The three points I try to hit on are character development, plot/pacing and what makes the book unique or different in its genre.

I also highlight anything that really hits me emotionally (good or bad) or anything that makes me say WTF.

I take a couple of days to a week after I finish a book to write a review. I need processing time.

 

RedHeadedGirl:

 I just vomit words out and sometimes they make sense!

It kind of depends on my goal- if I am reading this shit so you don’t have to, then I’ll do a full summary. If I want other people to read the book, I’ll try to be a lot more circumspect.

Then I talk about what worked, what didn’t, what didn’t work for ME (those aren’t always the same thing), and, if applicable, what I think could have made it better….but then I’m not known for my succinctness.

 

Carrie S:

I would say: write like yourself.

When I started, I was very self-consciously trying to be funny.  Now I hope some humor comes through, but all I’m really trying to do is explain, in my own voice, as specifically as possible, what about the book did and didn’t work and why.

I second RedHeadedGirl that sometimes what works in general and what works for a specific reader aren’t always the same thing.  Romance is an emotional, personal genre so don’t hesitate to explain why something did or didn’t work for you, specifically, and why you think it might or might not work for other readers.

 

So, MissB2U, and everyone else who signed up to read and review a book for the 2013 RITA® Reader Challenge, I hope that was helpful. (If you’d like to join in, there are certainly spaces still available – have a look at the spreadsheet.)

Please feel free to ask questions, if you have some.

And, if you’d like, please share: what do you do when you write a review? What tips do you have to offer? What’s your favorite review that you’ve read or written?

Categorized:

Random Musings

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  1. 1
    kim heimbuch says:

    Great post. As a reviewer, I have adapted a 5* approach to all bookssince I read across genres. -
    Books
    1* for Cover appeal
    1* for Character Building
    1*for Environment
    1* for Story line
    1* for Writing

    Of course this is just a basis and each book will slide in between my own rules, but both of my daughters also review and this formula helps them give a more defined review rather than just ,“Yeah, the book was great. I’d read it again.” I despise these reviews, especially when I see them on Amazon or Goodreads…and don’t get me started on B&N. If you ever want to waste some time, go start reading reviews over there, especially on kid lit. They’re not even reviewed. They are 5* OHHH I want to read this so bad!!  Well hello! This affects the overall rating of the book people!!!! GRR lol (sorry about that)
    Sometimes I find I simply cannot pull enough from a book to even right a full review, and other times I can right a full review in 175 words.

  2. 2
    MissB2U says:

    Thank you!  This is exactly what I was looking for.  I could also use a few more words of wisdom concerning plot summary.  Some folks make it look so effortless, incorporating it into the first paragraph or two of a review without beating me over the head.  Now I’m off to read some reviews to get my brainwaves going.

  3. 3
    SB Sarah says:

    @MissB2U: The summary can be the hardest part to write sometimes, especially when you’re trying to explain what happens in a book without giving it all away, and when you have Big Giant Feels, positive or negative, about the story. This is why, for the RITA® Reader Challenge, you don’t have to do the summary. I just incorporate the cover copy into the entry format.

    For me, writing the plot summary is really challenging most of the time. One trick I use is to give myself three or four bullet points to try to explain the story, or imagine telling the most impatient person I know what this book is about. Everything can be shrunk down to a few bullet points – with some effort. I hope that’s helpful!

    I think this was a really good question and I’m so glad you asked it. Thank you.

  4. 4
    Judy says:

    I started writing reviews to help me remember what I read. For a while I was reading 1 to 2 books a day. I have found that if I start writing my review while I’m reading the book it helps. I don’t think my reviews are in depth as you describe here but I believe I get the point across.

    I also try to rate the book more on the author’s talent rather than my opinion. There may be something in the book I don’t like on a personal level, I don’t feel that I should condemn the entire book because of that.

    Thanks for writing this.

  5. 5
    Jessica says:

    The only thing I’d add Sarah is I often add where I got the book. How the book was recommended to me or came to me can make a huge difference. 

    Recently, I reviewed a narrative non-fiction book about nannies. I read the book because there was a lot of talk about nannies on the local NPR station when The Help came out.  Knowing that was the angle I came from shaded my reading and analysis. 

    I also have an opinionated friend who gives me books.  Her recs always start with – please take this crap from me before I throw it at somebody.  Knowing that, I come at those books in a completely different way.

  6. 6
    SB Sarah says:

    @Jessica: Yes! Absolutely. If I can remember where I got a book, or why (and sometimes I’m baffled when it shows up on my reader and have no idea how it got there), context helps frame the review.

  7. 7
    azteclady says:

    I wish this bit:

    A good review, as you know, isn’t always positive. A good review is always useful. A good review is a gauge of your tastes against that reader’s taste, a shopping tool for our entertainment consumption. It can be intimidating to think that the author and everyone else who had a part in creating that book are reading what you wrote. I completely understand that. But there are readers looking for your honest opinion, and that is whom reviews are for.

    was written in stone (virtual and physical) everywhere readers and author gather.

    There is one thing I would highlight and that’s spoilers. While romance novels come with the expectation that the protagonists named in the back cover blurb/cover copy will end up together at the end, the road they take is what makes each novel either special or meh. For people like me, spoilers can take away about nine tenths of my enjoyment of a novel (which is one of the reasons I have hated some cover blurbs—and probably why there are no protagonists named in the cover copy of the upcoming Psy/Changeling novel)

    Of course, avoiding spoilers while reviewing is its own challenge—see that “summary writing” bit.

  8. 8
    SB Sarah says:

    @azteclady: Yes, spoilers are a challenge. I usually white them out so they blend into the background, allowing people to choose if they want to highlight and read. But it’s tricky to even decide if you want to include the spoiler-y material, because there has to be a good reason to do so (e.g. “This book was kicking along wonderfully until

    < spoiler part >

    happened and it ruined the whole book for me.”)

  9. 9
    PamG says:

    I really enjoyed this post because this is the first time that I’ve attempted a review for the Challenge.  I’m relieved that what I’ve done up to now is not so far out of the envelope that it’s broken the shredder. 

    I especially appreciate Carrie S’s advice: write like yourself.  I am completely charmed by all the reviewers who write for SBTB and whose writing styles reflect conventions nurtured in a digital environment and fertilized by some truly exotic (to me anyway) slang.  My own writing is often ponderous, perfectionist, and firmly rooted in an early 60s Catholic school education.  But it is my own.  Still, it’s hard to be shackled to grammar when you long to casually paddle a douchecanoe….

  10. 10
    LoriK says:

    Good review writing is a skill, and I admire people who have it. I’ve accepted that I’m not one of those people. I write notes for myself, mostly so I can keep track of what I’ve read and which authors to seek out or avoid, but also to work through my thoughts on what works for me and what doesn’t. I’ve given up on writing reviews for other people to read though. The only time I really have much to say is when I hated the book and even then it’s often impossible for me to say why I hated it without giving away too many spoilers. Recent examples—-I have almost a whole page of notes on Whiskey Beach, which I hated because the female lead was such an annoying bundle of clichés she made me want to hit something and the suspense plot needed at least one more trip through revision, and like 4 sentences about the last Mercy Thompson, which I loved. No one else wants to read that.

  11. 11
    Keishon says:

    If you get stuck trying to write a review, draft it as an email.

    Excellent post/advice. It’s funny when you tell someone about the book in email or in person, the words rush out but when you are blogging and trying to write a review, you get stalled. Thanks for the advice. I like doing a little research on the writer especially if it’s relevant to what they wrote/message conveyed in the novel. I also read over interviews to get an idea of where the writer is coming from just for my own edification. As for spoilers, you never know what’s spoilerish to someone else but then I read a study where a lot of people don’t mind spoilers (that would be me) but I tend to have people around me who absolutely hate spoilers. Go figure. Thanks.

  12. 12
    EliG says:

    “Reading catnip signals”. This absolutely describes a completely involuntary reaction I have with certain storylines.  It also probably in part describes my affinity for cats.  Such a simple explanation that even non-readers can wrap their head around. I will use this on my sister soon and will be sure to give you the due credit.

  13. 13
    Mina Lobo says:

    Thanks for this. I signed up for the RITA reader challenge review-a-book-whatsit and this is the first time I’m writing something up for all the Smart Bitches out there. I tend to focus on things I liked/didn’t, wasn’t sure that would be enough for this project, but am relieved to know I’m on the right track. The tip about posting text to support my thoughts is a great one, too. Rock on.

  14. 14
    Lea says:

    Thanks for this. I write up reviews on GR because it’s where I go to get more truthful reviews and I feel like I should return the favor. I’ve always admired your reviews and am glad to have these tips, even for the few sentences I write on GR and when recommending to friends.

  15. 15
    Dawn says:

    Thanks for this post. I want to start writing reviews and was looking for some sort of guideline for doing so. This post helps a lot!

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