How I Write Book Reviews

Discussion Post

As someone who enjoys to write, I like to think about the rhetorical choices authors make.  My own formal writing education has been limited; instructors often seemed to expect me to intuit the conventions of a genre and the rhetorical moves I should make in my own writing.  This meant I had to read others to learn how to write.  To continue perfecting my craft, I still pay attention to what others are doing.  What does the structure of their work look like?  What word choices do they employ?  What kind of tone do they use?  And what are the results of each of these choices? Do they give the writing power or take it away?  Do they make the writing engaging or dull?  Do they make it clear and approachable, or does it seem written for an elite few?

In this post, I discuss my own approach to writing reviews.  I recognize that each author possesses their own style and that each other will adapt their writing for the purposes of their own blog.  Still, I think it can be profitable for us to discuss how we make rhetorical choices when we write–and why.  Only when we begin to have an awareness of what we are doing can we work to improve it.

The Structure

Though many bloggers write more informal reviews of books, perhaps excitedly squealing that they think they could be friends with the protagonist or humorously remarking that they thought the love interest was dull or ridiculous, I tend to think of my reviews as papers in miniature. If I were writing literary criticism for publication, I would write a clear argument that I would then support with textual evidence.  I do the same with reviews because this seems to me to be more useful for readers wondering if they should buy or borrow a book.  A review that says “I hated the protagonist because her name was Victoria and I know too many mean Victorias in real life” is relevant to the original reviewer, but not so much to readers.  Should I or should I not read this book if I have no aversion to the name Victoria?  I am not sure.  (Of course, such a review may still have entertainment value for the blog followers and may even resonate with fellow Victoria-haters.)  I prefer to read reviews that seem more objective, so those are the kind that I write.

Such a structure does, of course, have limitations.  A more informal review might sound like the conversation you’d have with a friend if discussing your latest read.  You can jump around from how the protagonist was annoying and the love triangle unexpectedly laughable but the prose was beautiful.  If you are writing a more formal review, however, you have to keep referring back to the original argument, even if you do not do so as rigidly as you would if submitting to an academic journal.  This means some information about the book may have to be left out as it does not fit into the structure.

The Evidence

Since I think of my reviews as papers in miniature, I like to make sure that I point to specific textual moments that support any claims I make about the book.  Maybe I did find the protagonist annoying–but now I have to explain what she did that made me think so.  Maybe I think the prose was beautiful–I might want to add a specific quote from the text illustrating why.

I may not be as detailed and rigorous in doing so as I would for a formal paper, but evidence is still important in a book review because not every reader reacts to a story the same way.  One blogger may think a protagonist was stupid and naive and so dislike a story; another blogger may believe the protagonist acted nobly, even if that meat things turned out badly.  Only if both bloggers explain what the action in question is can their readers determine if they (potentially) share the blogger’s opinion.  If a reviewer simply writes, “The protagonist is silly,” readers will not know if this is true or not, and thus will not know if it’s an opinion that should affect whether they pick up the story.

The Tone

I write more formally than many in the blogosphere, I think, simply because it seems more in keeping with the way I want to present my work.  I try to do some real literary criticism and offer valid critiques of the books and whether I think they achieve what they want to achieve.  A more formal tone is, quite simply, still considered to be a real sign of the value and weight of a piece of writing; you see very few academics writing informally (though some are just so well-regarded that they presumably realize they can get away with it without damaging their reputations).  You may think that the tone of a work should not influence how seriously people take it, but the reality is that tone does affect a work’s reception.  I like to use that knowledge to my advantage and vary my tone to try to influence reader reaction.

I would also note here that there are varying levels of formality.  I do use the first-person in some reviews, for example, and many would consider that more informal.  I also sometimes write more personal reviews than critical ones (though I try to note when this is occurring.)  Such reviews can still be considered more formal than not, however.  On the more informal side would be reviews with words or sentences in caps-lock, reviews with excessive exclamation points, or reviews that rely mostly on personal reaction to the book (ex. “I hated that character.  She was so mean to her friends and reminded me of this girl I went to high school with!  Ew!”).  The persona one wishes to project and the reception one wishes to receive will determine where a writer falls on the formality spectrum.

The Length

I don’t have a strict length limit set for myself, nor do I try to do something so horrendous as follow the infamous “five-paragraph essay.”  However, I recognize that this is the Internet and people like to skim.  Sometimes I have more to say, but the review is starting to feel long, so I cut it off.  I don’t think that’s intellectually problematic because I believe that when you write, you are trying to communicate.  And when you communicate, you do what it takes to reach your audience.

In Conclusion

There is no one “correct” way to write a review or to run a blog.  However, I do find it interesting to see what rhetorical choices others are making and how that affects the way I perceive them and them and their reviews, the types of followers they gain, the types of comments they receive, etc.   What rhetorical choices do you make when blogging–and why?

Krysta 64


28 thoughts on “How I Write Book Reviews

  1. Emily | RoseRead says:

    Nice post! I like to think my posts are informal enough so that anyone can read them, but I have little bits and pieces of literary knowledge/terminology scattered throughout so that they have depth/substance. I won’t review a book unless I have something insightful to say. I also like using humor and exaggeration because that’s just part of who I am and the image I want to present.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Humor is always good! I don’t think I’m particularly funny when I write so I don’t try to be funny– I don’t want it to end in disaster. So I always appreciate people who can have humor come across in their work!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. theunbookreporter says:

    I organize my posts into sections. First paragraph introduction, then about three sub-headings where I write about a certain element in each- for example the plot, or the characterization, or the villain, then I finish with a conclusion that may include a few comments on things that didn’t fit into any of the other sections.


  3. luvtoread says:

    Great post!
    I don’t know that I’ve consciously thought about this topic before. I just sit down and write, and see what happens. Sometimes I’ll sit down and if I don’t have much to say about the book, I’ll make a “mini review” out of it. And I go back and forth on who to cater the review to – ie, someone who has read the book already and therefore spoilers are fair game, or for those who haven’t read the book yet and therefore I must be more vague.
    I’m more of an informal, almost conversational, writer I think. I really don’t have any formal writing training, just what I learned in high school and a bit of college. I’ve never truly analyzed literature before and had to defend my thoughts other than the brief reports in a general literature class.
    I like blogs that utilize headers in their reviews (like yours), but I haven’t yet incorporated that into my own blog. No good reason why, I instead just bold certain text that I think can be skimmed and people will still get the gist of my post. Haven’t quite settled on a format yet.
    How we write our reviews is so personal! And I love how we all format the reviews differently and write differently.
    Anyways great post – you’ve given me a lot to think about!


    • Krysta says:

      I usually begin by sitting down and writing–I never know what’s going to come out until it’s on the screen! But I edit as I go along. If a thought doesn’t flow or doesn’t fit, I cut it and then keep going.

      I think headings can be useful guidelines for readers, but reviews without them often work very well, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. jlg42 says:

    Hmm, formal/critical vs informal/personal is something I’ve been considering lately. When I started blogging it was just to keep track of my own thoughts on a book. Now I’m starting to think about starting a MLIS degree, and I’m wondering how much more of a critical tone I could/should adopt, as in the future I’ll be thinking as a children’s librarian rather than just considering my own enjoyment of a book… Good points about evidence. I completely agree there.


    • Krysta says:

      I think most patrons are more concerned with finding books on their children’s reading level or that their children will enjoy (like more books with unicorns or more historical fiction). If you read widely and are familiar with what’s available in the library you’re pretty much set.


  5. anhdara13 says:

    I sometimes intersperse my reviews with my own twitter reactions – because when i’m reading, sometimes I just have a thought that i have to put out there in the world. Not all the time, but some of my reviews are definitely peppered with screenshots of my twitter haha.

    But yeah, I definitely prefer a little objectiviting in reviews. Yes, I do have an informal approach to writing reviews, but I try to be objective. I try to have both my positive thoughts – and the why I thought that way – as well as my negative thoughts (if any strong ones) written out.


  6. Liam @ Hey Ashers! says:

    I admire and aspire to your ability to not write at length about everything you find significant in a book. That’s a skill I need to learn–though I’m doing better about it than I’d originally thought I would. Like you said, most of the people in the book-blogging community don’t want to read forty-page-long academic papers, even if there are those of us who are eager to write them. *Coughs.*

    Balancing my love of analysis and my audience’s attention span/patience is an ongoing struggle for me. I’m still trying to decide what’s more important: writing what I want, or not boring my readers to death. Of course, there will always be at least a few readers who genuinely enjoy the longer-form reviews, so I’m not killing off all my readers at once, but…

    Great discussion topic! It’s interesting to see how other people think about and construct their reviews.


    • Krysta says:

      You could always do multiple posts and run a series. You’d be able to get a lot of content without having to read more books (if time to read is a concern, which I suppose it always seems to be for those of us who love books!).

      I think you can find readers who like more in-depth content, though. I’d rather read a long article with something to say than a short one with little to make me think.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Liam @ Hey Ashers! says:

        Actually, the original conceit of my blog was three-part reviews (one for each of the three acts), written as I read the book instead of after. I kept that up for maybe a year and a half before throwing in the towel and switching over to single-post reviews. The way I’d structured them, the three-part reviews didn’t feel as cohesive or engaging as I wanted. (I eventually went back and combined all those three-parters into single posts. Those are the weakest of my posted reviews, for sure.)

        I’ll have to give series posts more thought, though. My first attempt was awful, but there are really neat possibilities out there. Thanks for the advice and encouragement! =)


  7. Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight says:

    This is such an interesting topic! So, I thought when I started reviewing that I “had” to be formal- at least with review books from authors and/or publishers. But it wasn’t “me”, and I think it showed. So now I basically do whatever I want? I mean, within reason, and as kind as possible, but yeah. I am not the type who likes to follow a strict set of parameters, and I don’t think I’d have the first clue how to accurately critique anything. Frankly, I think I am unqualified to offer that, so I don’t. No one is coming to my blog to read anything serious, most of the time. I will be snarky, but not mean; informal, but hopefully not annoyingly so. But at the end of the day, we all have to review the way that works best for us. And it’s GOOD! Because there are times where I absolutely want to read a more formal review- and I am glad we have bloggers who do those. And then there are times where I want a snarky or flippant review, and I am glad we have those, too. This is a fabulous post, very thought provoking too!


    • Krysta says:

      Yes, it’s nice to have an array of reviewing styles to choose from! Each has different strengths. I’m not particularly funny when I write, so I don’t normally try, but others are–and I appreciate that they can do that and that they share it with us!


  8. TeacherofYA says:

    I tend to write like a narrative: I’ve never been great at academic writing, but do my best to get the high grade. I praise you for your ability to keep it like a “real” review: one that perhaps could be found in a literary journal.
    My blog is my escape from academia, so I guess mine would be the informal approach…though I haven’t known any Victorias in my life, so I cannot judge their personalities as a whole, lol. 😂
    Love this post. Excellent idea to explain your blogging style and I applaud you for it! 👏👏👏


  9. Beth Gould says:

    My reviews are pretty informal, but sometimes I have more analytical comments that I have to leave out because of spoilers. I am not sure how to do spoiler tags on my blog, but I suppose that would make it easier.

    I follow a few academic blogs, and they tend to have a more informal style than academic papers (the linguists at Language Log, for example).


    • Krysta says:

      For spoilers, I usually just write “(SPOILERS!)” and hope that covers the situation. XD No one’s said it hasn’t worked, so I guess I’m good.

      Oh, yeah, definitely! I sometimes think of academic papers as having their own language. You could say, “The sky is blue” or you could write two paragraphs saying it in a complicated way that makes you sound “smarter.” When writing for class, I used to play a game with myself where I would try to write as much academic jargon as possible but still make sense. It made reading the stuff other people were writing bearable.


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