One Way To Write A Review (one of the six and sixty ways to do a tribal lay)

by Michael D. Barker

Okay. I’m not saying this is the only way to write a review, that would be silly. But if you are fretting about what to put in a review, here’s some ideas about how to tackle it.

First of all, think about what you want to see in a review. That’s what you want to put in your review.

Second, what would you tell a friend about this book? That’s a good place to start.

All right? So basically, you are going to put down your opinion about the book. Some of the things you might like to include? How about:

1. Who would like this book? Who wouldn’t like it? And why, naturally.
2. What’s it about? Main character, plot, setting, genre, all that stuff. But avoid spoilers, just tell us enough to get us interested and give us a taste of the book.
3. What’s it like? Be cautious with this — I find it unlikely how many books are just like famous books, but it is a quick way to indicate what sort of book this is.
4. Warnings. Seriously, if there’s something that may bother people, explicit sex, overdone violence of the bloodsplatter type, or whatever, warn people.

One caution on the plot summary. I know some Amazon reviewers seem to think that giving a complete plot summary is a great way to do it. But too often, they include the final reveal or climax as part of that school book summary. Don’t do it! You’re just teasing us to read the book, not giving a book report for the teacher.

Incidentally, you might consider Orson Scott Card’s MICE: milieu, idea, character, event. Or setting, idea, character, and plot, if you will. The key notion here for reviewers is that books often have something outstanding in one of these four areas. You may want to pick out which one is most important for this book — great characters? Fascinating plot? Mind boggling ideas? Or maybe the setting is wild and wooly? Tell us what makes this book outstanding!

I suggest that you go ahead and list your ideas and comments, any which way. Then go back and think about the right way to present it. Consider that everyone is not going to read all the way through your treatise, so you want the most important points right up front. Organize it somewhat in journalistic style, most important stuff first, then trailing off.

You may also want to take a look at various writers’ advice columns about writing the premise or pitch. There’s a lot of advice around about how to take a book and put together a short pitch. That’s the kind of thing you should be doing for your review — give us a taste of the book, and leave us wanting to read it!

You may want to put a hook at the beginning, something to get the reader’s attention and interest. What happens when Martians land in a Kindergarten?

Oh, and consider ending with a nice, snappy statement of the whole thing. If you haven’t laughed in a while, buy this book. And enjoy a good belly laugh!

What about negative reviews? Personally, I suggest that if you don’t like the book, don’t review it. Yes, if the book has a flaw, something that nags you, you can include that. But as my grandmother used to advise, if you haven’t got anything good to say, don’t say anything at all. You don’t have to review every book you read. Worry about the good ones, and help guide other people to those.

So. Tell us who would want this book, and give us a good solid hint as to why. Don’t worry about it being perfect. As the saying goes, any review is better than none!

So now go ahead and write that review.


  1. And it’s not homework! No grades, no required length. And don’t sweat a bit of criticism, we authors do read the reviews, even if we don’t admit it. For instance, I get “ARG! Too much horse! Too many horse show details!” fairly often, so I do consider this when writing. Honest. Just couldn’t avoid it in Olympian.

  2. A snappy title helps, too – one of my reviews (which got some favorable comments) was “Nancy Drew Does the London Blitz” – which actually pretty much summed up the book itself in six words.

    1. Great point! Yes, the title is the first thing (and sometimes the only thing) someone skimming the reviews sees. Something that grabs their attention and leads into the rest of the review is great!

        1. From your comment alone, I had no idea if it was a 1- or 2-star review or a 4- or 5-star review. I could easily see the title “Nancy Drew Does the London Blitz” appearing above a glowing review, after all.

  3. Wish the people who say they ‘loved your book’ would actually attach their name – and a few reasons why – to their name in the public forums for that purpose (Amazon, GoodReads,…). There is nothing more encouraging for an author (do you want the next book?) than getting a bit of praise and 4* or 5* reviews.

    Being the proud possessor now of a 1*, a 2*, and a 3* review of Pride’s Children, I am not so sure I want to encourage ALL people who read (or don’t) to review. Even though negative reviews supposedly give legitimacy to a book, and often prove actually helpful to those people who are considering reading the book, they are not encouraging to the author – and disproportionately bring down the rating. Disproportionately, because if you have, say, a 4.5* average rating, and not many reviews, a single bad review requires many 5* reviews to balance. I could do the math for you (were my brain on this morning), but will simply say it’s a lot harder to get readers to give you 5* ratings – for some reason, all the people on the fence like handing out 4* ratings. And readers want the books they read to have at least a 4* average. And reviewers who give you 4* ratings are actually bringing down the average BELOW 4 (if 20 people give you 4* reviews and one gives you a 1*, your average is below 4).

    I realize the above is a bit incoherent (those sleeping brain cells), but with 3* listed in the negative reviews column on Amazon, there are TWO positive ratings, not three. I don’t really care what people do, but realize that a 4* rating is in the ‘damning with faint praise’ category, and very often given when what the reviewer would rather do (even to the point of saying it in the review) is award 4.5* or 4.8* or some other fractional rating that doesn’t indicate the perfection of a 5*. Round up, if this is your intention, and mention the thing which you didn’t like in the review. I’m starting to hate the reviews which award 4* ratings and end with ‘”I can’t wait to read the next book!” HATE.

    Anyhoo. Yes, review. Be generous. Writers, especially those who aren’t selling much right now, need encouragement.

    1. reviewers who give you 4* ratings are actually bringing down the average BELOW 4

      That’s awfully obvious in hindsight. I shall revise my rating policy and leave more 5s.

    2. Thanks for this. There’s a book I’m working up a review for. It has some flaws and I hadn’t been willing to give the guy a 3 because the book’s too good for that. I had been waffling on what to give it. This helped me figure it out.

      1. Don’t be like the little old lady (apocryphal?) who gave the book and EXTRA gold star beyond the one she was going to give it initially – because it was extra good.

        Stay with the majority – the rating is meant as a signal to exactly that majority. Even against everything else: remember, it’s Amazon that puts a 3* on the critical review column, not readers. I’d call it neutral, myself, but that’s not what readers in general call 3* reviews – they go with it being a negative review.

        1. I would disagree that an individual rating is supposed to reflect the majority. The individual rating is supposed to reflect the individual’s assessment of the book. The overall rating is supposed to reflect the consensus of those individual assessments.

          1. If I said that (brain wasn’t on), I meant the individual rating is a general signal to the average reader, when averaged with the rest.

            Most people don’t read the reviews. More people look at the average rating number.

            Individuals can and do use the rating they assign to signal to other readers; I was just pointing out that the law of unintended consequences applies. If you think of more options, your ratings will represent better what you’re saying.

    3. Hmmm. Don’t have any reviews on the shorts as of yet, but I have to say that I’m going to be rather suspicious of a rank much over a 3.0.

      There is a problem with the Amazon “star” system, Alicia – it’s somewhat like most “teacher’s colleges” these days, where a B+ actually means you truly are so much of a failure you can’t even soak up their weak curriculum.

      But I don’t think the way to fix it is to go along with it – it’s to agitate for a change, and to stay honest in the meantime.

      Sigh. My two cents there – and as a writer it may just be aiming at my own foot and pulling the trigger.

      1. It doesn’t matter what a few of us think – it’s what the vast majority act on.

        I’d suggest working with the system meanwhile – instead of voting for the candidate who hasn’t a chance. Princeton tried getting rid of grade inflation; I believe they gave up – it wasn’t working to insist on a better distribution.

  4. What frustrates me about trying to review and recommend books by folks like Tim Powers is that you want to convey the sensation they caused you, but that sensation came from revelations that came out in the course of reading the text.

    1. Talk about the sensation. I got goosebumps reading this, I had to stay up all night to find out who did it, I couldn’t put it down… Those are all good for the review. Do skip telling us that “when the bad guy jumped out of the trunk of the car and stabbed all the football players, I was shocked,” because that really ruins the shock for the reader, though. Just tell us that there were things in this book that made your hair stand on end. And if we want to know what, we’ll have to read the book.

  5. “But too often, they include the final reveal or climax as part of that school book summary. Don’t do it!”

    This. This a thousand times. I never had a problem with reviewers giving away the ending until my latest book. The very first reviewer leaves no doubt, at all, about an extremely important event at the end of the book. His review title was worse (“Sad, sad book”). He gave it five stars, but if you don’t read the review, you probably think he just clicked the wrong number of stars. If you read the review, he gives away a big part of the ending.

    Several more reviewers either felt the same way about spoilers (no warning, either) and also gave away the same major event. Despite having readers tell me it’s my best book, its sales are about one third of the sales my fourth novel had after three months. I can’t say for sure those reviews hurt sales, but I can’t believe they helped.

    And, yes, I appreciate that the people took the time to post a review and, with one exception, the reviews with spoilers were quite favorable. I just wish they’d kept a major resolution point out of their reviews.

  6. I think that at least for some people, reviews are becoming a problem similar to thank-you notes: the feeling that you’ve got to be *perfect* has made it such a locus of stress that people end up avoiding actually doing it. They know they ought to, and they really *mean* to do it, but the thought of actually putting butt into chair and producing words creates such dread that they find a zillion other things to do first, telling themselves they’ll get the review or the note done right afterward — but afterward never comes, because there are always more things to do to avoid the task.

    Really, an imperfect review is better than none at all. Don’t stress it like you’re back in grade school, writing a thank-you note to Aunt Agatha whose idea of a good gift is a little *strange* and who likes to nitpick. Just write that review and get it up there, especially if it’s the work’s very first review on that venue. That first review is always the hardest to get, so please don’t let your anxiety make the process even harder.

    1. ^^^^^ THIS ^^^^^

      I have it on my absolute must find time for and stop procrastinating list to get caught up on reviews. At least for Amazon. I won’t be getting that first review up on the latest offering, what with the financial issues, but can at least push one closer to that “magic fifty.”

      And I think that both yourself and Pam pegged one of the reasons for the hard time in getting reviews out of people – those hated book reports in school. I know that those left a permanent scar on MY psyche, one that is getting close to a half century old now…

      1. It’s not *a book report” it’s just your reasoned approach to why the heck an interested reader should spend their money and time reading the darned thing. Tell them why, or why not. Being amusing while doing so is agreeable as a option, but not required as an absolute.

        1. Imagine your buddy said, “Hey, I’ve got a couple extra bucks. Should I buy this book?” What would you tell them? Why put their money into this book?

          Maybe we should quit calling them reviews? Recommendations, buyers’ blurbs, buy this book because…

  7. I generally describe how it begins and then give a random list of things that will occur, generally out of order, never with any hint about how they connect. I try to make them intriguing.

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