How to Write a Review of a Book: accuracy, opinion and kindness

This week:

  • I divide reviewing into two parts
  • I reveal my podcast-listening habits
  • People can actually write accurate reviews!

We’ve all read those reviews of books that are obviously written by somebody who hated the book and wants to rant about it.

That’s fine.  You’re allowed to do that.

However, it’s not necessarily kind.

And it’s not necessarily constructive.

Accuracy, opinion and kindness

I have subtitled this blog post ‘accuracy, opinion and kindness’ because I believe those are the three things you need to write a good review of a book.

Accuracy is important because you, as a reviewer, don’t want to mislead your own readers by writing things that simply aren’t true.  Sometimes it’s hard to see where the boundary lies between being truthful in your review and still giving an opinion.

My own rule of thumb is that, if I didn’t like a book, I don’t review it.  Obviously, some people want to review books they don’t like (either to prove that they read them, to vent about their feelings of being ripped off, or to warn other people away from that particular book).  That is an individual choice.

My personal guidelines take into account the way I review books.

I’ll go into that below.

Essentially, though, if I don’t like it, I don’t review it.  I don’t want to promote it, even accidentally.  If the only things I can think to say about a book are that it exists and I didn’t enjoy reading it, I feel it’s a waste of my time writing about it and it’s going to be hurtful for the author to read that review.

And it’s not kind to slate somebody’s work unless there is a reason for you to do that, like if it was actually harmful to you (and that can happen).

Why you are writing that review is something you should consider very carefully.

Writing reviews is for:

Telling people what you think (the same way you’d just tell a friend-of-a-friend down the pub because you’re really excited about it and want to share it).

Warning them about harmful or controversial content.

Promoting the book.

Supporting the author (cheering them up with positive feedback).

If you’re not writing your review for any of those reasons, take a moment to reconsider whether you need to write it at all.

Consider:

  • Are you gaining anything from this?
  • Are you helping anybody else?
  • Are you going to upset somebody who hasn’t actually harmed you?

Below is my own personal system for reviewing a book, whether that is simply to file it away in my own mind or to write about it in a public place.

It’s a system that promotes accuracy and opinions.  You can decide yourself about the kindness.

There are two things to consider:

  1. Is this a good book?
  2. Do I like it?

These two things are DIFFERENT.

The first is about whether it conforms to reasonable and accepted standards of published works, and the second is about whether you are a fan of that particular book.

Think about it like this:

If I order a dress online, the parcel arrives and I open it, I am looking to judge that dress on two things: 1) is it a good dress? 2) do I like it?

For the first one, it is about quality: is the material good quality; is it well-tailored; does it wash well; does it hold its shape?

For the second one, it is about whether that dress suits me personally: does it fit me; does the colour suit me; does the style suit me; is it appropriate for me to wear it where I want to wear it?

If I buy a dress and it is good quality, well-made, and exactly what it said it was, only I look awful in it and feel uncomfortable and it turns out this backless ball-gown isn’t suitable for the office after all, is that a bad dress?  No, it’s a good dress, only it’s not right for me.

If it is cheap material, sewed together badly so the hems aren’t straight and the seams are coming apart, it doesn’t matter whether it’s my colour or not, it’s a bad dress and I can’t wear it.

That is the difference between the quality of the product and whether you like it.

Is this a good book?

By ‘good’ I do not mean do you like it, I mean what is the quality of the story and the prose.

To judge whether something is good, you must consider it by every reasonable, accepted standard in the industry.

Things that you need to consider:

  • Grammar – does it conform to acceptable standards of grammar?
  • Spelling – are there typos and spelling mistakes or is everything generally spelled correctly?
  • Punctuation – are there punctuation mistakes or does the punctuation help to structure the narrative and make it easy to understand?
  • Syntax – do the sentences make sense and are they easy to read?
  • Plot – does this have a coherent plot, with related events, and conform to a standard plot shape for the culture in which it was created?
  • Character – are the characters believable, interesting, clearly defined and not promoting anything harmful?
  • Character development – do the characters change from the start of the book, according to the experiences they have been through?
  • Themes – what are the themes explored, are they explored in depth and from multiple angles and are they universal or current topics?
  • Purpose – does this book have an obvious purpose, does the authorial voice overpower the narrative, does it conform to the accepted shape of that genre or form?

Do I like it?

This is where you get to have your say.

Some things will just be to your taste and other things won’t be your cup of tea.

It’s actually ok to write in a review that you didn’t like a book, as long as you’re clear that it’s an opinion.  If you can back that up with reasons (from the factual list above), then you’ll add weight to your opinion.

You can write a negative review without being offensive to the author.  Saying that something is not your kind of thing is fine.  I tend to choose not to do that, but that’s a personal choice.

Of course, you can always say that you did like it.  And, just because you liked it, doesn’t mean it was perfect.

Can you answer yes to one and no to another?

You can absolutely answer ‘yes’ to one of these questions and ‘no’ to another.

That is the beauty of this system.

It means that I can have intelligent conversations about a good book, even if I actually hated it.

Consider it this way:

A wine connoisseur can tell the age of a wine, the region, and all the subtle flavours that blend together to produce that particular vintage.  They can tell a quality wine straight away.  They don’t, however, love every single one.  They have a personal taste and they enjoy some wines more than others, even if the quality of the wine is the same.

It’s the same for books.

Some books, no matter how well-written, just aren’t for me.

I can tell you whether I think a book is good quality or not.  And I can tell you whether I like it.  And sometimes those two things are different.

For example:

I happen to think that Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles is one of the greatest books ever written in the English language.  I can wax lyrical about the language, debate the themes that are explored, and argue passionately that Tess is not the passive heroine people think she is (she really isn’t).

I don’t actually like the book.  I find it interesting.  I think it is good quality.  I don’t like it (I know, I know, I can’t help it, I just don’t – it’s too depressing for me and I don’t sympathise with enough of the characters to pull me through it.  Angel Clare?  Don’t get me started).

So I have divided my review into two parts: it is a good book, but it is not to my taste.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is Rocky Flintstone’s Belinda Blinked.

[As a small disclaimer, I am writing this rather scathing review because it has been aired on the podcast My Dad Wrote A Porno and the author apparently takes criticism in good part.]

[I suppose another disclaimer is that this is a self-published erotica novel, so judge me how you will.  I suppose, tagged on the end of this, I want to add the disclaimer that I am not snobby about self-published novels, I am just stating a fact here.]

To answer the question ‘is this a good novel?’ I would have to say ‘no’.

This novel (and I very nearly put that in inverted commas) does not conform to conventional standards of writing.  There is no progression of plot, only a series of events.  There is little to no character development.  Famously, in one chapter, the character of Bella is suddenly referred to as Donna because the author forgot her name and clearly didn’t proof-read his manuscript.  The syntax is often difficult to read and understand.  There are consistent grammatical and punctuation errors throughout.

You’ll agree that this is not up to the reasonable, expected standard of a published novel.  It is poor quality.

However, to answer the question ‘did I like it?’ that is a resounding ‘yes’.

Admittedly, I like it because it is so badly written, and that is hilarious.  I enjoy the complete madness of it.  I admire the strange innocence of it (and, yes, I know that sounds like a strange thing to say about an erotica novel but it has a certain naivete).  In short, it is a book very much to my taste.

If I were to review this book, I would say: it’s poorly written, but thoroughly enjoyable.

How to put accuracy and opinion into practice

You can see from this, that you don’t need to be cruel about a book just because it is not to your taste.

If you want to warn people away from the book because it is poor quality, state that in your review.  But don’t confuse quality with you not liking it.

Some of the best reviews can be one-star reviews, if they are done well.

If you read a book because it sounded good, and then you read it and hated it, it stands to reason that you were expecting something else from it.  And, if you picked that book up because you wanted what it said it was offering, then it might be fair to warn others that the blurb is misleading.  But that can be a statement of fact, not a rant about how awful you think the author is because they didn’t write a book specially for you.

I recommend dividing your reviews into two: an accurate representation of the book, and your opinion on why that worked or didn’t work for you.

Accuracy

Think about:

  • Was the book what it said it would be?
  • Does it mesh with other books in the genre?
  • Were there grammatical or syntaxial errors?
  • Did it read like a standard story, or was it doing something new or strange with structure?
  • What kind of humour did it have, if any?
  • Are there any factual or historical inaccuracies that are important?
  • Is it, reasonably, going to be considered offensive or harmful to a person or group of people because of misrepresentation, stereotyping or lack of research?

Opinion

Think about:

  • Did you enjoy it?
  • Was it similar to other books you have enjoyed?
  • Was it the genre, type or tone you were expecting from the blurb?
  • Did it follow the conventions or tropes of the genre?
  • Did it have something new and interesting to say, a new take on an old trope or something you’ve never seen before?
  • Did you, personally, sympathise with any of the characters?
  • Were there any things which offended, upset or triggered you that you want to warn others about?

If you divide your reviews into these two sections, you’ll be able to write articulately and thoughtfully on the quality of the book, whilst still sharing your opinion and recommending it or warning people away from it.

Let me know what you think

Let me know what you think about my reviews, who your favourite reviewers are and what they do well!

If you have any tips for writing top reviews, share them in the comments section below.

See you next time

Come back next time when I’ll tell you exactly how a one-star review convinced me to read Kings of the Wyld.

One thought on “How to Write a Review of a Book: accuracy, opinion and kindness

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: