Making Book Reviews Part of a Healthy Writing Habit: Getting Started

While there are many tools in an author’s toolbox, book reviews are an often overlooked treasure-trove when it comes to developing a writing platform and routine. Not surprisingly, writing thoughtful, detailed reviews helps authors to build a platform with solid content, but that’s just the start. The tasks required of a reviewer help them hone necessary skills, build community, and develop their own craft. So what are you waiting for?

Before we get into the why you should and how you should, let me say that even a one- or two-sentence review on Amazon or Goodreads can make the difference for a book’s success so all readers should incorporate at least a simple review into their reading routines. We all know that getting a book reviewed is an integral piece to an author’s success, or at least we should (here is a fantastic article on how book reviews impact an author, and another detailing even more benefits).

As a reader, reviews offer a way to deepen reading and gain more from the experience. The job comes with some pretty awesome perks, like getting to know your favorite authors better, becoming a part of the writing community, and getting your hands on advanced copies of upcoming books. Readers are seldom surprised when I urge them to start writing formal reviews. Authors though, especially aspiring and debut authors, are often caught off guard when I tell them that the best place to start practicing the writing life is through reviewing.

As an author, writing book reviews for others can be equally as important as getting those reviews. In her craft book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says, “What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.” Books also show us how to write. As an author, you should be a reader first, and as voracious as possible. But reading alone isn’t enough. You need to think critically, to dissect, to learn. Writing reviews offers a natural process for engaging with a book at a deeper level. The commonality among all great writers is that they read. They read widely and critically, and often, they write about it. Don’t believe me? Look into your favorite authors, independent and traditional, and odds are they are reviewing what they are reading in some manner (here are examples from a couple of my favorite indie and traditional authors). Okay, now that you are totally convinced and ready to start writing, let’s talk about getting started.

What makes for a good review?

Don’t worry, you don’t have to have loved the book to give a good review of it. You can dislike it and still leave a useful review that respects the author and benefits other readers. Kaisha and I got into this in detail during a recent Read.Write.Repeat podcast episode, but here are a couple of basics to consider–

  • Understand and own personal preference, style, and taste versus real issues with the writing, plot, and narrative element. I LOVE descriptive books. Other people? Maybe not so much. If a book doesn’t have enough description to suit me, I will say that, but I own it as a personal preference. It has nothing to do with the merit of the book.
  • Understand the cultural and linguistic differences of an author and don’t attribute those to grammar, spelling, or concept errors. A little research goes a long way! For example, don’t grade a UK author on American grammar or vice versa.
  • Remember that the work you are reviewing is someone’s heart and soul and treat it with respect. Be nice.
  • Remember that every piece has some redeeming quality. Always mention positives, even if you weren’t a fan of the book.

Writing reviews is just like anything else, reading prime examples and identifying what you like and don’t like is a great way to hone your skills. With that in mind, here are a couple of examples to emulate. These are all Goodreads reviews on Nick Dybek’s When Captain Flint was Still a Good Man.

  • This is a superbly written positive review by Jaclyn Michelle. Notice how she give some specific details about her experience. And bonus points for infusing a bit of humor into her description. One note, you need to quote! She has a good excuse for not doing it. You should always keep track of a few of your favorite and/or least favorite lines.
  • This is a well written negative review by Zarina. She’s specific and mentions positives, even though she didn’t like the book. What would bump this review up to the fantastic level is if she’d pulled in a few quotes or gave examples. Another polishing item would be to embed the summary in the review, rather than having it as the first item one sees. Think of this like you would any other piece of writing–you want to hook your reader immediately!

Tomorrow I’ll provide some tips and tricks for writing your reviews so that you can be efficient with your time and get the most out of the practice!


Photo by Lauren Mancke on Unsplash