For years I found myself visiting a particular author’s website over and over again.
Why? Because I liked his movie reviews. We had similar tastes in movies, and if he didn’t like a movie, I figured I wouldn’t either.
Authors often ask me, “What should I talk about in my email newsletter?” or “What should I blog about?” I recommend writing book reviews and movie reviews. Reviews provide helpful information for your readers. As readers agree with your tastes, they’ll feel connected to you, and you’ll build credibility with your target reader.
While reviews make great content for all writers, they are magic for unpublished novelists.
When you write reviews on books and movies in your genre, you develop your taste, voice, and audience. Writing reviews keeps you reading and forces you to read with intent.
Readers don’t want to read your blog post on how to write romance novels, but they do want to find out what you thought about the popular romance novel everyone is talking about. Your reviews help readers find new books to read. Over time, your readers will view you as a reliable source of book recommendations, which is really helpful when it comes time to recommend your own book.
But there is a catch to writing book reviews, and two Novel Marketing listeners called in wondering about it.
How do you write a good, helpful book review?
Two Kinds of Reviews
Before you write a review, you need to decide what kind of review you want to write.
There are two kinds of reviews.
Standard Reviews (Discovery)
A standard review helps readers answer the question, “Is this the kind of book I would enjoy reading?” Readers typically seek a standard review before they read a book they’ve already heard about.
But readers also discover new books through standard reviews. They may not have known about the book until they read your review, and after reading and learning about the book, they’ll decide whether to read it.
Spoiler Reviews (Understanding)
I asked listeners on AuthorMedia.social whether they read book reviews after they’ve finished the book, and most of them did! Sometimes people read reviews to understand the book better after they’ve completed it.
Spoiler reviews give readers a sense of community and a place to discuss a book. Readers are curious to see whether anyone else noticed that the author got the horses all wrong.
Some readers like spoiler reviews because they can read the full review and skip the book altogether.
For instance, some people say, “I want to be able to talk about Thinking Fast and Slow (Affiliate Link) without actually having to finish that book.”
Or, “I don’t want to read Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life (Affiliate Link), but I want to be able to argue with people who like Jordan Peterson. So what do I need to know about it?”
Why Most Reviews are Boring
If the person writing the review is unskilled or doesn’t have a strategy, their book reviews can be painfully dull.
Reviews are usually boring because the reviewer lacks:
How do you write interesting reviews? You develop those characteristics.
Your duty is to your reader, not the author of the book. Don’t water down your opinion just because you are afraid you will hurt the author’s feelings. A courageously negative review may actually sell more copies of a book than a boring milk-toast review.
Why? Because no one reads boring reviews! And if few people read the review, then fewer people will discover the book. And if readers don’t know about it, they can’t buy it.
The more you care about the book (or what the book could have been if you didn’t like it), the more your readers will enjoy reading your review. Enthusiasm is infectious. Apathy is noxious. Your enthusiasm for the genre will make your reviews more fun and convincing.
Good reviews address the specifics of what you liked and didn’t like. You can be specific without spoiling it.
For instance, I loved the characters of Avatar the Last Airbender. I loved how each of them changed, and I loved how they interacted with each other. By the third season, each character had undergone a transformation, but you will have to watch the show to find out why.
Most reviewers begin by reading other reviews about the same book so their thoughts will be similar. Don’t do that. You can read the other reviews, but you must say something new. Tell us what you thought, not what you think society wants you to think. There is enormous pressure to conform. The only way to stand out is to resist the pressure.
Pick an Angle
One way to quickly make your reviews more popular is to pick an angle for your reviews. Your angle not only makes the reviews more interesting to readers, but it also makes them easier to write. Instead of reviewing the whole book, review just one aspect of the book.
You can choose any angle, but here are a few to get you thinking.
One common way to review books is through a persona. View the book through the lens of one aspect of your identity. For example, you might title your persona review “A Homeschool Mom’s Review of The Shack” or perhaps, “A Texan’s Review of The Dark Tower Series.”
The popular YouTube Channel called Girlfriend Reviews provides an excellent example of how persona reviews work. She talks about video games, but she doesn’t review the game itself.
She talks about what it’s like to live with someone who plays the video game. For instance, she’ll discuss how annoying the game is to listen to from the next room. Persona reviews can be extremely entertaining and useful, as the channel’s 1.26 million subscribers would testify.
Content reviews answer questions about whether a book is rated R rated or PG. The reviewer reveals what types of objectionable content the book includes.
Different readers find different kinds of content objectionable. Some readers are offended by bad language and sexual content, but they are fine reading graphic violence. Other readers object to violence of any kind but accept the profanity.
When you write a review, you’re forced to know and address the issues your audience cares about.
Content reviews are in high demand, but very few reviewers are writing them.
Readers want to know whether a book will line up with their worldview. They want to know if a book secretly advocates for communism, feminism, capitalism, environmentalism, conservatism, liberalism, etc. Every ism has an audience who wants to know whether the book will match their worldview.
When you review a book through the lens of a particular worldview, you help readers decide whether the book is one they want to read.
Some people use book reviews as a chance to crack jokes and make readers laugh. Mathew Pierce writes comedy reviews, and he titled one recent review, “I Did Not Read Girl, Wash Your Face, but I Am Outraged By It.” While that blog post could technically be considered a review, it’s more of a platform for the author to write social commentary and make jokes.
If you have an area of technical expertise, you can review the book’s attention to pertinent details. For example, if you know a lot about guns, you can detail how the author got the guns right (or not). If you are a historian or a scientist, you can validate or argue certain aspects of the setting, events, or plausibility of the science used in the story.
Just because a book is published by a Christian publisher doesn’t mean it has good theology. Additionally, each reader has a different understanding of what constitutes “good theology.” Christian readers often read reviews to determine the theological underpinnings of a book before they read or buy it.
What to Include in Your Review
Open with a line that sparks curiosity.
Your reader is asking, “Why should I care about this review?” and you must begin by answering that question.
Mark Twain brilliantly sparks curiosity in his review of James Fenimore Cooper by titling his essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” Twain opens with quotes from literature professors claiming that “Cooper is the greatest artist in the domain of romantic fiction in America. “
Get your popcorn, ladies and gentlemen! We are in for a fight. What will Mark Twain say to these luminaries?
There are many ways to pique curiosity. You don’t have to be controversial, but you do have to make people curious somehow.
If you are writing a comedy review, open with one of your best jokes.
If you are writing a technical review, make people curious. “Is The Expanse really hard science fiction, or is it secretly a space opera? Let’s dig into the science and find out.”
Answer these Questions:
- What did you love?
- What did you hate?
- Who would like this book?
- Who would hate this book?
- How does this book compare with similar books?
The more specific you can be with your answers, the more helpful your review will be.
Close with a summary.
If you shortened your book review into a Rotten Tomatoes blurb, how would it read? Closing your book review with a summary is an excellent way to practice making punchy and truthful statements with only a few words. And if you can say it in less than 280 characters, it’s also tweetable.
5 Tips on Writing Better Reviews
Tip #1: Pick a goal and an audience.
Who are you writing your review for? The answer to that question will shape your review.
- Is this a spoiler review for readers who have already read the book?
- Is this a critical review for people who have no intention of reading the book?
- Is this a review for potential readers who haven’t decided if they will read the book?
- Is this a review for moms wondering whether this would be a good book to buy for their children?
Having a consistent goal will help you develop your reviewer voice and provide consistency.
Tip # 2: Make an argument, then provide evidence.
“Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” by Mark Twain is a good example of how to argue and prove a point. Fenimore Cooper was the author of The Last of the Mohicans and several other popular books during the first half of the 19th century.
In that review, Mark Twain laid out 19 rules for writing romantic fiction, and then he showed how Cooper’s writing in The Deerslayer violated 18 of those rules. One of those rules is still commonly quoted today: “Use the right word, not its second cousin.”
He concludes with this:
“Now I feel sure, deep down in my heart, that Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language, and that the English of “Deerslayer” is the very worst that even Cooper ever wrote.”
Twain got away with that scathing summary because he first gave evidence to back it up. If you write fiction, I encourage you to take a few minutes to read his essay.
Tip # 3: Write both negative and positive reviews.
Positive reviews build your audience, demonstrate what you like, and develop relationships with other authors. If a positive review is the playground of fun reading, a negative review is the fence around the playground.
Negative reviews build your credibility, demonstrate your reading tastes, and develop your courage.
Writing both negative and positive makes reviews familiar with your tastes. They’ll be able to predict their own enjoyment of a book based on your negative or positive review.
Tip # 4: Establish a creative scoring system.
If you plan to write a lot of reviews, you might consider establishing your own scoring system. For example, Rotten Tomatoes is the “home of the Tomatometer, the most trusted measurement of quality for Movies & TV.”
When it’s done well, a scoring system provides context for your reviews and makes them more fun to read. The more creative you are, the better. Avoid a five-star system, especially if you plan to give every book four or five stars. This is not a helpful scoring system.
Howard Taylor has three categories in his scoring system:
- Cleared the Threshold of Awesome
- Not Awesome, Not Disappointing
- Fell Below the Threshold of Disappointment
He also ranks each movie against the others. Each year you can see what his fifth favorite film was for that year. This scoring system gives his reviews plenty of context.
You could also score various elements of the book. For example, “The plot and characters get a thumbs up, but the setting gets a thumbs down.”
Tip # 5: Study Craft
If you find it difficult to write reviews for the books you are reading, it may indicate you haven’t read enough books on the craft of writing.
Here are some craft books you should consider:
- Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell (Affiliate Link)
- Getting into Character, by Brandilyn Collins (Affiliate Link)
- The Story Equation, by Susan May Warren (Affiliate Link)
How to Craft Excellent Blog Posts
Your blog is a key element for building a platform, establishing your expertise, and gaining a loyal following. In this special video course, Thomas Umstattd Jr. helps you craft the kind of blog posts people want to read and share. Whether you are writing articles for someone else’s site or crafting posts for your blog, this course will help you take your blog to the next level.
When it comes to blogging, Thomas Umstattd Jr. knows what he is talking about. His two blogs have several million page views, and he has also coached authors all over the world who collectively get millions of visitors each year.
Jon Shuerger, author of The Exorcism of Frosty the Snowman
In the frozen north, children link hands in a ritual circle and sing a song they never learned to summon a primordial enemy they never knew existed. Frosty is just a fairytale, they say. They are wrong.
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