I’ve experienced it first-hand: writing reviews for a fellow writer may sometimes feel awkward. We’d like to write a positive review, of course, to help boost sales. But we also want to be honest, which should be our chief goal whenever we write anything. And sometimes, being honest clashes with the ‘positive’ aspect in the review.
So we end up not writing the review.
Which is something I feel equally uncomfortable about? Writing reviews is probably the greatest support we can give to a book and I hesitate to take it away from a fellow writer.
I avoid writing reviews only when I don’t finish a book. It does happen, though not very often. If a story manages to demand any kind of attention from me, I’ll still try to write a review. It will probably not be what we normally consider a ‘positive review’, but I’ve found that it may still be a good one.
Why the helpful review is better
We all know how to write glowing reviews. We don’t need to do any effort to write those.
But even when we can’t do that, we should still offer our opinions about the book. And we don’t even need to write a negative review.
In fact, I think that we should never aim at writing a negative, or even a positive review. We should strive to write the most helpful review we can offer.
Helpful means that we will try to give the most organic impression of the story, pointing out the strong elements and the weak, giving them equal attention.
It means that we’ll elaborate our opinions beyond the ‘Loved it’ or ‘Hated it’. Sure, we can hate a story, and we can say so, but we should also say why that story didn’t work for us, trying to focus more on objectivity than on personal likings.
If I say that I didn’t like the story because it was stuffed with recipes and I hate cooking, how is that helpful? Nobody can argue my dislike for cooking. But if I say that I didn’t like the story because it’s stuffed with recipes and that slows down the rhythm to a point that I couldn’t sustain it anymore, that may be a good pointer for the author and for the reader as well.
The author may consider whether the rhythm of the story might be improved, and the reader may consider whether they care more for the rhythm or for the recipes and decide whether the book is for them or not.
How can a review be helpful?
When I sit down to write a review I never think about whether it will be positive or negative. I always try to include both aspects in my review and make it as balanced as possible.
How to Write Helpful Book Reviews
They have become common currency in today book marketing, and as such, they are often just fluff. Let’s go back to…
Balanced reviews, I find, tend to be more useful and for more people.
For the author:
I do believe that book reviews may be helpful for the author almost as much as critiques. I’m not saying we should write a critique into a public book review. Book critiques belong to the working stage of the book and they are meant for the author only.
Yet, if something really didn’t work for us, we can mention it in the review of a finished book and it may be good pointers for the author all the same. For an author, knowing what touches the reader and how is always good information that can be used to enhance involvement in future stories.
Besides, helpful reviews that are thoughtfully written will likely attract attention from other readers and therefore will help to raise awareness about the book and the author. I find that thoughtful reviews may seldom be considered truly negative, even when they are not positive.
For the reader:
Reviews are for readers. Readers are the main actors in everything regarding book reviews. We write reviews as readers addressing other readers. Discussing a book is half the pleasure of reading.
In this era of online sharing, book reviews are excellent discussion starters. It isn’t about us. It isn’t even about the author. It’s about the book and the experience.
Besides, when we read a book review, we don’t want to know whether the book is good or bad. Who can tell us whether we’ll like it or not? But through a thoughtful review, we can judge whether the story is the kind of story we like the most, whether the themes are interesting for us, whether the style of the author agrees with us. A helpful review can tell us a lot more about whether the story is for us than the mere blurb can say.
Where can we find these kinds of reviews? Not in the reviews section of online bookstores, apparently. The reviews appearing there are often of the ‘very positive’ or ‘very negative’ kind, which is suspicious in itself. Also, it’s hardly helpful. One-liners are also very common. I’ll be honest, I stopped reading those reviews long ago.
But reviews are still the main reason why I decide to read a book. Reviews from friends are the most influencing, as it may be guessed, and they are often not a formal book review. But I also listen to reviews posted on reading groups. Book bloggers are also resources I often look up when I’m trying to decide whether I want to read a book or not.
You’ll notice these resources all have something in common: they are meant to fuel constructive discussion.
Thinking Outside Our Box: Writing Useful Book Reviews
We can get so much more out of writing book reviews than just expressing our opinion.
For the reviewer:
Because book reviews may often be discussion starters, they offer us opportunities to delve deeper into a story. When we write a thoughtful review that goes beyond the mere ‘I liked it’ or ‘I hated it’, we let the story speak to us in a deeper way. Away from the eagerness of the reading, we can really think things out.
It’s happened to me countless times that I realized things while writing a review that I only intuited while reading. These reflections deepened my understanding and my enjoyment of the story. The review, then, became a service that I did to myself as a reader, as well as to my fellow readers and possibly to the author.
If we are also writers, what we write in a review may fall back onto our writing. If we try to truly be helpful for the author, we’ll try to elaborate our every issue. This will make us more sensitive to that issue, and next time we’ll write our own stories, we will be careful not to fall into the same pit.
Next time a fellow writer will ask you for a review, don’t get scared. Don’t think you need to write an absolutely positive review. Think instead of how you can help your friend and their readers.
The helpfulness of the book review is very powerful and reaches very far. It doesn’t’ take any headache to be helpful.
Sarah Zama wrote her first story when she was nine. Fourteen years ago, when she started her job in a bookshop, she discovered books that address the structure of a story and she became addicted to them. Today, she’s a dieselpunk author who writes fantasy stories historically set in the 1920s. Her life-long interest in Tolkien has turned quite nerdy recently.
She writes about all her passions on her blog https://theoldshelter.com/