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What Do You Look For in a Book Review?

17 November, 2008 Posted by Joanna As Book Reviews

I’m introducing a new (occasional) feature at Confident Writing: reviews of books that I think will be relevant to your work as writers (and bloggers).

There’s a few reasons why I’m starting this just now.  For one, ‘experimenting’ month seemed like the right time to add in something new.   Plus I’ve got a whole pile of books sitting here that I want to talk about with you.  And last, but far from least, the books I’m going to review are linked in some way or another to the support you’ve given me here over the last 18 months.

One is a book that I’m involved in: The Age of Conversation 2, written by a network of bloggers, marketers and social media enthusiasts that I could only have met through the interwoven links that flow in and out of this blog.

One is a book that I bought with the proceeds of my sales commission from Amazon.  Like many bloggers and website owners I have an affiliate arrangement to Amazon (which means if you purchase things after following the links from this site I get a small % of the sale).  To be honest this has never really amounted to much, though I am trying to do a bit more to publicise my recommended books for writers, and I stick with it because… well because I love books I guess.  And when I got enough the other month to buy a book that had been on my wish list for a little while, it was a good feeling.

The other book is a review copy that’s been sent to me by a publisher.  I’ve had a few offers from authors and publishers to send me books to look at and where they’re relevant to the work I’m doing here (which means I can pass on the information to you) I’ve said yes.  The first one to arrive in the post last week is a beauty.  As a book lover it seems like a wonderful bonus to get books sent to you as a result of this blog, these pages, these words,  your loyal readership.  So thank you.

In return I want to write reviews that will be useful and meaningful to you.

So What Do You Look For in a Book Review?

As I sat down to start writing the reviews this weekend I looked back at some conversation around ‘best practice’ in the art of book reviewing at Joyful Jubilant Learning.  There’s a celebration of books once a year at the blog (A Love Affair With Books) and before we got going this year there was a discussion about what we look for as readers (and consumers) in reviews.

I liked this simple schema suggested by Tim Milburn:

When I read a book review, I want the following:

a) Thumbs up or Thumbs down.
b) Tell me what the four, five, six, or twenty one main points are in the book.
c) Tell me how the book helped you grow, get better, or left you wanting.
d) Give me some quotes that capture the author’s intent in writing the book.
e) Tell me one thing the author could have done to improve the book (this helps me know the reviewer actually read the book).
f) Show me a picture of the cover.
g) Give me a link to Amazon or Barnes & Noble so I can quickly click through if I want to purchase (or read other reviews).

Ultimately, I read book reviews because I want to make an informed decision about investing in a book or bypassing it. A good review will pique my interest in a book or throw up red flags.

That sounds pretty comprehensive to me, and covers most of the things that I look for as a potential reader.

I know there are some expert book reviewers out there so if you’ve any tips and suggestions on what to include (and what to leave out) it would be really useful to hear them (nudging Brad and -Deb…)

But mainly I’d like to know what you’re looking for, and what it would be useful for me to share with you.  Taking the list above as as starting point, what else would you find it useful to know?

Joanna Young, The Confident Writing Coach
Because our words count

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Categories : Book Reviews

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CarlaNo Gravatar November 17, 2008

As someone who is not a professional writer and has never even taken a writing class before (yet), I would like to know if a particular book would speak to someone like me: an
amateur writer and beginner blogger. That, and the quote from Tim Milburn is all I need to know. :)
Carlas last blog post..Holiday Gift Ideas | Reduce the stress and clutter

JoannaNo Gravatar November 17, 2008

Carla, that’s a good point. I think I’ll add a section on ‘who the book would be good for’

But rest assured, amateur writers and beginner bloggers are precisely who I’m writing for here.

Thanks for stopping by!

Jim MurdochNo Gravatar November 17, 2008

I hate reviewers who try to say it all in 250 words and, if they include any quotes at all, it’s a sentence or two. To my mind a book review should be a portrait and not a pencil sketch.

Jim Murdochs last blog post..All writers are Martians

Anthony LawrenceNo Gravatar November 17, 2008

What I do NOT want is everything I can find out at the Amazon link. I don’t want a chapter listing or a duplication of the publisher’s blurb.

I want to know why you liked it or disliked it. I want to know who you’d recommend it to, where you thought it was weak or strong and whether the writing is good.

Brad ShorrNo Gravatar November 17, 2008

Joanna, Interesting post and comments that will help me write better reviews (and I do write scads of them, though I would not claim to be an expert). The link you included to my podcast is the best contribution I can offer to this conversation - thanks for including it. One thing I try to do in a review is mention what type of reader might enjoy the book. Is it for a novice? An expert? An entrepreneur? A corporate exec? I think quotes are good for the reason Tim gives, as well as for giving readers a taste of the author’s style.

What’s bizarre is today my Word Sell post is a book review - a rare blog topic for me since I review on Amazon usually.
Joanna, we must have been separated at birth. :)
Brad Shorrs last blog post..Use the Economic Slump to Retool for Success

MeghnaNo Gravatar November 17, 2008

Hi Joanna,

I would like to know to whom it is targeted and who can benefit by reading the book (as Brad said above).
A little overview of the content is fine; but I do not want the entire plot be revealed, (if it is something of a storyline).
A very interesting article!

Meghnas last blog post..The Modern Punishment For Students

Karen SwimNo Gravatar November 17, 2008

Hi Joanna,

What a wonderful gift to be able to write a review. When I read book reviews I want a sense of the storyline or if non-fiction the key teaching/information points. I love select passages that allow me to experience the words. I want to know why the reviewer thinks it’s good or bad - is it thinly drawn, is it too long, does it make beautiful use of language? For online reviews I also want a link so that I can buy the book. I am really looking forward to this new feature and hope that we can help to get you more books in the post. :-)
Karen Swims last blog post..First Snow

JoannaNo Gravatar November 17, 2008

Jim, I hope my reviews won’t be too short for your preferences. Having the attention span of a gnat I probably err on the short side. We’ll see…

Anthony, thanks for those clear pointers. Likes/dislikes, weak/strong, what the writing is like and who you’d recommend it are helpful additions and fit with my ’simple schema’. Thanks for taking the time to leave the feedback.

Brad, I think the question about what kind of reader would enjoy the book is probably key - many of the other points flow from that.

It’s most strange that you’ve got a review on your site today. We do think alike don’t we :-)
PS Thanks for teaching me yet another new word. ‘Scads’ is a new one on me.

JoannaNo Gravatar November 17, 2008

Meghna, thanks, good point about who’d benefit from reading the book.

I don’t think I’ll be reviewing fiction but rest assured I won’t be doing any plot spoilers if I do!

Karen, agreed - but I don’t know if I’ve the gift yet! You can let me know later in the week… Thanks for the promise of help getting more books in the post. Truly it is one of the most delicious benefits of blogging.

Tyler (Man of Depravity)No Gravatar November 17, 2008

I think a big key is to not approve a book. To many people do book reviews and talk up every book. There is no way each book is equally good. So I look for someone who can actually say some books didn’t jive for them.

Tyler (Man of Depravity)s last blog post..Homosexuality Will Divide Christians

JoannaNo Gravatar November 17, 2008

Tyler, you’re right. Books can’t all be good. Making clear who a book might be good for is one solution, but being willing to be honest is important if your readers are to take what you say seriously.

Best wishes


Gavin HeatonNo Gravatar November 17, 2008

This is a great checklist … I don’t really have a formula for book reviewing, but now I think I should. It makes sense to provide your readers with a framework - so that they can gauge your real interest in each book.

But at the end of the day, I think it is important to draw a line in the sand. If we are reading your review, then we want your opinion. We want to know what you thought and whether you liked it and why. And, if we trust you, then we will probably buy it.

But, I have a rule of thumb - I never recommend books that I wouldn’t give away to a friend.

Gavin Heatons last blog post..Mainstreaming Social Media

Lillie AmmannNo Gravatar November 18, 2008

This is a timely topic for me. Today I am hosting a blog book tour guest on my blog—the author of The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing. I got to put what I learned from the book into practice in writing the review, which was my first “reviewer review.”

The book explains the difference between a “reader review” like those at, which follow no set structure, and a “reviewer review,” which follows a set structure.

One of the interesting sections of the book is about the controversy among “professional” reviewers about reviews on blogs.

All of the points mentioned here are important elements of a good review: summary of the plot (without spoilers) for fiction or description of the material covered for nonfiction, opinion of the book based on objective factors such as the quality of the writing and research, and honesty combined with and tact.

Something else mentioned in the book (which is written by two very experienced reviewers) is an opening hook. Just like a book or a blog post or an article needs a good hook to capture the readers’ attention, so does a review.

The author, Mayra Calvani, is answering questions in comments on my blog post, and I invite anyone interested in reviews—writing them or finding them for your own work—to stop by and ask your questions.

Lillie Ammanns last blog post..Book Review: The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing

tim November 18, 2008

Hi Joanna:
Thank you for including my quote in your article. It is interesting to read the other comments. I think this shows that people have varied opinions on book “reviews” as much as they do on the books themselves.


tims last blog post..When Heroes Are Born

JoannaNo Gravatar November 18, 2008

Gavin, thanks. I suppose the formula is a way of giving some structure that’s new to me - but also a way to give readers some sense of consistency.

The line in the the sand point is key, and that’s where our ability to be honest comes in - together with respect for our readers.

Lillie, there must be something in the book reviewing air this week (Brad had one up too). Thanks for the invitation to ask questions of the authors of the book on reviews - I’ve just been over there and put mine now

tim, hi, and thanks once again for providing such a useful structure for me to work from. Although there are differing opinions I guess the one thing we all want as potential purchasers is an honest assesment, and your willingness to share your opinion.

We’ll see how it goes anyway. At least it’ll give me some good practice for ALWAB next year!


Catherine @ Sharp Words November 18, 2008

The only thing I’d add to the suggestions already made is an extension to Carla’s comment: it’s helpful to have a paragraph saying ‘if you like X or are interested in Y, then this is the book for you’, to make it clear who the book is aimed at and also to give /your/ impression of who it’s for.

JoannaNo Gravatar November 18, 2008

Catherine, hi, and nice to hear from you again. I agree - that addition will help to make the whole thing clearer (I hope!)

Mary Ann November 19, 2008

In non-fiction reviews, I appreciate comments on unique aspects of the text, factors that distinguish it from similar titles or previous editions. I also like to see one or two passages from the text to give me a feel for that elusive quality of readability.

JoannaNo Gravatar November 19, 2008

Mary Ann, hello, and thank you for those comments. The unique aspects of the text - that’s interesting, and something I’ll need to think about harder.

‘That elusive quality of readability’ - yes, you’ve hit the nail on the head there!

Karen PutzNo Gravatar November 20, 2008

I always appreciate the reviewer’s reaction to the book after they’ve finished it-is this a book they’ll return to time and time again? A book they’d lend to their family, friends, co-workers? What moved them while reading it, etc.

Karen Putzs last blog post..A Neat Gift: GiiNii Digital Picture Frame

JoannaNo Gravatar November 20, 2008

Karen, I agree - especially if you’re familiar with the reviewer and can guage what the response means (I don’t know if you saw Meryl’s post yesterday but she made a good point about overly gushing reviewers!)

--DebNo Gravatar November 24, 2008

Hmm, I’ve actually covered this one!

The most important thing I think you need in a good book review is a sense of what the book is ABOUT. Who would like it, and why. The trick is reviewing a book that’s good but that isn’t to your taste!

-Debs last blog post..Pondering

JoannaNo Gravatar November 24, 2008

-Deb, thanks for the link, it does add some interesting dimensions to what you’d need to cover.

“The trick is reviewing a book that’s good but that isn’t to your taste!” - that’s a great way to think about it… though could I make myself finish said book…?

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