book reviews / writers resources

How NOT to Write a Book Review

14450840 Man writerI read a lot, on average three books a week (based on my Goodreads Reading Challenge numbers). I live the maxim that writers must be readers. Because I love writing, I review many of them for one of my three blogs. When Amazon asked me to be a Vine Voice, I was flattered and wanted to understand why my reviews caught their eye. I spent time reading a wide selection of reviews and came away with a framework of what all critics included:

  • a brief plot summary
  • an overview of characters
  • a discussion on the theme/plot/goal and whether it’s well-delivered
  • the reviewer’s evidence-based opinion
  • an appealing voice

Reviews I didn’t like often covered these critical areas, but got lost in the ‘personal history’ weeds.  Unless the reviewer is Michiko Kakutani or James Wood (both listed among the top ten most feared literary critics), I’m ambivalent to a reviewers’ personal opinions.

As a result, I’ve developed a template for what to avoid in my reviews. See if you agree:


Book reviews aren’t opinions; they’re factually-based summaries. Sure, many books include the author’s opinion. A reviewer’s job is not to disagree with the opinion, rather discuss how the author rolls it out. Do they provide evidence? Is their argument well-developed or gratuitous? Do readers find themselves nodding in agreement or fuming in anger? They should feel the reviewer is even-handed, neutral, and an arbiter of the discussion rather than a participant.

Narrow perspective

The author writes from their personal experience. True, the reviewer’s personal fable is as unique–and likely different–as the author’s, but that isn’t what’s being reviewed. Show how motivation/theme/goals connect to a vast swath of readers even as the character/plot/setting are fresh and unique.

writers‘This isn’t my favorite genre’

Not only do I avoid that phrase, I hate hearing it as an excuse why the critic has her/his opinion. In fact, it tells me to ignore everything they’re about to say. If this isn’t the reviewer’s genre, research it. For example, literary fiction delves into characters; thrillers focus on plot. I wouldn’t down-star Ted Bell’s Patriot for the lack of Lord Hawkes’ personal thoughts.

If the reviewer isn’t willing to understand the book’s genre, stick with traditional traits like a compelling voice, developed characters, and well-paced plot.

Takes too long to get to the point

Reviewers should be pithy and laser-focused. Sometimes, they’re neither. Often, that happens because the reviewer isn’t sure of what they’re saying and hopes to throw enough words on the page to hit the bullseye for most people. Long reviews should be stuffed full of meaty information, not fat.

Conclusions without evidence

I love hearing a conclusion I may not agree with because it means I’m about to learn something. I feel cheated when that conclusion lacks evidence. Unless the reviewer is part of my inner circle (people who I tend to accept at face value), please cite sources–multiple sources–and give me linkbacks so I can verify statements.


Reviewers aren’t there to judge writers, rather evaluate. A debut novel is  different than the tenth in the series, and a young thriller writer should not be compared to Lee Child. Critics offer advice to inform the reader’s decision on whether they should read more of this author. That’s a weighty responsibility. Approach it with respect and humility.

For more on this topic, check out Adam Kirsch’s article (he’s considered one of the top ten reviewers by some). To see the review of what might be the most famous review ever (on John Keats), click here.

More on critiques:

7 Reasons For and Three Against Critique Groups

25 Take-aways from the Richard Bausch workshop

10 Tips from Toxic Feedback

Writers Tip #52: Join a Writers Groups

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her book at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.

62 thoughts on “How NOT to Write a Book Review

  1. Great guidelines here. The worst reviews are from readers who pick apart the author personally, and those who don’t like the genre of the book. So why read it? And why give a low rating because of their personal choice? It happens too frequently.

    Liked by 1 person

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  4. Hey Jacqui,

    Excellent advice on reviews. I need to do more of these, and will be keeping these tips in mind. I know this is great advice, because I always find it frustrating when my books are reviewed and this wisdom is not followed. Writing a book is quite the process, and respecting the review process is an excellent way to honor the author. Even less than positive reviews, when done respectfully and tactfully, can be incredibly helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great advice, Jacqui. I often get carried away when I’m writing a review, especially if I love the book – I tend to gush. I know what I’m supposed to do, but it often goes out of the window! It’s good to have criteria to work with – a check list to enable me to rein myself in😀

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jacqui, these are all very sensible criteria and ones that should perhaps be followed by more reviewers. It’s always great to get a bit of personal input into the reviews, as you do in yours. When you feel excited about a book I can sense your enthusiasm on the pages.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Very helpful Jacqui. Of late, I have started putting reviews of the books I read, on Goodreads. On reading them again, in some cases, I feel like cringing. From your suggestions, I think I can see some of the issues with my reviews. To better book reviews…all authors deserve them🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I went through that early on, too, Ankur. I realized I liked longer reviews, that shared details and avoided the issues above with a short conclusion about my opinion (based on evidence). So, mine are always a bit longer than Amazon likes, but work nicely for me!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Reviewing writing to me shouldn’t be based on my personal attitudes. There is certainly an argument to be made why it should, but for me–I would rather concentrate on flow, plot, semantics, and that sort.


  8. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I used to do a lot more bookreview than I do now, but I try to stick to what you outlined above.
    I think many people don’t realise reviewing a book isn’t just venting your feelings about the book. There should be something youc actually ahve to say, something that – as you stressed – needs at least some evidence.
    A lot of reviews on social media aren’t like this, and i wonder what they do to the author.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You make an excellent point. To me, book reviews aren’t venting about my feelings and likes/dislikes. I want to provide feedback to the author for his/her future writing, and insights for readers to see if this book would interest them. My opinions have little to do with either of those.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. With respect to genre, I don’t think anyone should review a book within a genre they don’t like. In fact, I wonder why they would be reading it in the first place. If I don’t like a book at all I would not review it because, like Carrie, I don’t like being negative.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you, Jacqui, for a succinct list of what to do or not when reviewing a book. You do it well. I value your reviews and often consider reading a book based on what you’ve written, especially when your enthusiasm stems from the points you’ve listed.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Great article. I think formal reviewers would be wise to stick to these principles. For my own informal reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, I don’t include all these elements. I try to keep them short and often do insert my personal opinion, because that’s what I like to see from my Goodreads friends’ reviews too. Almost like a book club vibe to it. It’s always fun to see what a friend thought of a book you read. But were I to write a more formal review, I’d keep the personal opinions out. But I never get too negative. Some of the reviews out there are almost attacks on the author him or herself. That’s not necessary.

    Liked by 2 people

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