Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Welcome Guest Blogger, Tori Alexander, editor Dactyl Review!

How to Write a Book Review

The Dactyl Review has received several emails asking for some general pointers for writing reviews. Most requests have come from readers who want to post their first reviews on, GoodReads or LibraryThing. So here is some guidance that (we hope) will help you write the kind of review that will be useful to readers and writers alike, no matter what you think of the book. (These tips are not intended for Dactyl Review writers, by the way, who, being licensed literary fiction writers themselves, can pretty much shoot from the hip.)

A good review is not necessarily one that is full of praise. Your tastes, the writer’s tastes, and potential readers’ tastes may vary wildly. So saying you liked the book is pretty much useless information. Just give it the appropriate number of stars. If you feel the urge to pass further judgment, be specific about the kinds of books you generally like, so that readers understand something about the criteria you are using when you give it the thumbs up or thumbs down. If you like “Romance” novels and the book you are reviewing is “experimental fiction,” or vice-versa then your thumbs down on the book might actually convince readers to buy it rather than not.
The objective of any review should be to help readers make their own decisions. Therefore, a good review is specific and provides examples from the writing to support the opinions offered. Of course, to be fair, the examples should be more or less typical of the style. Don’t quote the worst sentences if they are not in keeping with the rest of the book. All good reviewers read with pen in hand and mark passages that stand out so that they will be able to go back and choose lines to quote. Never rely on your general impressions of a book. Always be prepared to back up what you say.
Apparently, most reviewers have been told as students to “say what you liked about the book and didn’t like about the book.” I can just see schoolmarms all over the country writing this down on blackboards and students diligently copying it out. These days too many reviews, even in professional publications, seesaw their ways through their analyses in a grotesque parody of “unbiased” reporting. If you don’t have anything bad to say, don’t bother or at least don’t bother too much. Whatever you do, don't try to make the "good" and the "bad" points equal in length.
Take less than half of your review for a synopsis. You are writing a “review,” after all, not a “report.” In general, it’s a good idea to summarize the initiating event, explain what the main character does in response, and, if appropriate, say whether the response worked out for the character or not. Then pick a crucial scene and/or favorite aspect to focus on. Some novels may not have “initiating events,” but they will likely have something similar, e.g. initial conditions that either change or stay the same.
Most importantly, never assume that the writer fails. Too many reviewers judge books according to their own expectations. If you like happy endings and the book ends in disaster, resist the temptation to say “the ending wasn’t very good.” Don’t say the “pace was off,” assuming the writer meant to keep the pace to your liking. Don’t say the writer failed to make the main character likable when this may not have been the intention. Whatever the effect of the book, assume, for the sake of the review, that the writer intended this effect, then show how it was accomplished. For example, if the main character is not a likable person, quote lines that show the character doing/ saying/ thinking offensive things. I cannot stress how important this piece of advice is for writing good reviews. It shows respect for the writer, and it will help prevent you, the reviewer, from seeming like a pompous ass.
You also might want to say something about whether or not the writer sticks to the conventions of the genre he or she is working in. This, of course, assumes you know for certain the genre and are very familiar with its conventions. And here again be careful not to assume failure. The book might be a parody of a genre or the writer might be intentionally breaking convention. You can compare the book to others like it in style or to previous books by the same author. Again support your assertions with quotes. In the end, say something that seems to sum up your review by confirming the points you’ve made throughout.
Your review will not be “objective” if you follow this advice. It will still be subjective, but all your opinions will be substantiated by quotes from the book. Good luck and remember to always review responsibly.

–Tori Alexander, editor Dactyl Review
Victoria N. Alexander, Ph.D.
Dactyl Foundation
64 Grand Street
New York, NY 10013
212 219-2344

The Biologist's Mistress: 
Rethinking Self-Organization in Art, Literature and Nature  
available July 2011

Article originally appeared on
Dactyl Review


  1. Thank you for this! I've been looking for a concise post on how to review books, and here it is. I have to say that my knowledge of book reviews does come from school days. I know I hope for something more sophisticated from reviews than "This was a good book. I liked it a lot."


  2. Thank you for this post and wonderful advice. Reviewing is something I'm beginning to get involved in and you have helped me greatly. :) Also a new follower


  3. Good general pointers. I don't do a synopis most of the time, since the places my work goes like short 200 word reviews as a general rule, unless it's a featured review, then they let you have a generous 400 words. Doing these short reviews has honed my reviews down to the essential point or two, there's no room for deep ruminations on what makes the book good (or bad.) Basically, though I have to think up new ways to say it, it's well written or it's not, in my opinion. If I have a few words to spare, I'll try to say why I think so, but that's not easy in such a short piece. I don't always manage it, but I always try to get a SHORT quote from the author, but that's often nearly impossible, when they talk about their "Babies" they tend to get long winded like me. This piece is already longer than most review for these publications can be.

  4. Good article with some sound advice. I am by no means a professional reviewer, but I have a professional interest, so to speak, both as a novelist and as a journalist who likes to try his hand at reviewing. I shall certainly be taking note of the points raised in any future reviews I write.

  5. This was a very informative posting on how to write a review. Thanks!

  6. We love this! Keep 'em coming.

  7. Thanks for this article. I think there is a scary preconception that an author has to accept a negative review and keep quiet about it no matter what. I find that very disenchanting. I am not talking about a negative review from a buyer, but from blog sites and reviewers that accept a free copy of the author's work in exchange for a review on their site, especially if that review is cross-posted to selling venues. As an author, I would never question a negative review if it was provided the way your article explained. I know that negativity is easily taken to heart, but this is something the reviewer also has to keep in mind. A review is not only an expression of the reviewer's opinion, it is also a powerful tool that can affect the author's sales. If someone purchased my product and hated it, then I have to accept their verdict, since they have bought the right. However, when the work is provided for free in exchange for exposure, the reviewer has to be held a little more accountable for their actions since the exposure is working for both parties. The author benefits from the extra audience/income the reviewer may bring, and the reviewer benefits by receiving a free product and content to share with others. As an author, I guess I am a little biased.

  8. Silvano, don't be afraid to be is your work that is being evaluated. There are many reviewers, such as me, who will not post negative reviews (normally those which we would give rankings of 1 and 2) For those, however, most of us also go back and explain to the requester/ author why we refuse to read/review the book. I think my bias might be even stronger than yours, if possible... No matter whether I got the book free or bought it, I feel strongly that a negative review must be backed up with specifics...and I think the author has the right to question posted negative reviews. As Tori mentioned, whether we like a book or not is not the primary reason to provide a review. If we don't like it personally, why tell the world? I watched one of the many realty shows last night where individuals across the US decide to "eliminate" an individual. I have yet to find that I agree with the choice finally made and I watch for enjoyment, but never vote. When are we going to accept that all of us have unique likes/dislikes and that sometimes we make a bad choice in book buying and simply do not want to read it. So what? If you feel you've not gotten your money's worth, then take the book back to the store...that's assuming that you really didn't like the book and didn't read/mark it up, right? Take pride in your work, accept constructive criticism if given in the right spirit, but use it for the future... working to constantly improve and refine your talent... Never allow purely personal opinion to get you down! Here's hoping you don't have to face too many reviewers who do not "review responsibly." Hey, send them a link to this article...might help!

  9. I review books for Breakthrough Bookstore, and it is my choice to only review books that rate at least a 5.0 on my 10.0 scale. I prefer writing positive reviews, which is why I am particular about the books I review.

    In regard to self-published books, which are the only ones I review, I feel that giving even bad publicity to books that need serious editing is not the right thing to do. Instead I choose to seek out the books that deserve the publicity. If everyone did this, then the authors who are not getting attention because of egregious errors would eventually upgrade their work or stop writing.

    I also believe that reviewers should consider that what they say today in public about even a few errors in a book will remain public record long after the author has fixed those mistakes. Unfortunately, the reader won't know whether the errors have been fixed or not. This is just another reason to have private correpsondence with the author or just not review the book.

    Good information, Tori!

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