Skip to main content
26 April 2022

The heart of the matter: how to write a book review (and how not to)

Avoid retelling the story

It’s easiest to begin with what to avoid when writing a review, so I’ll start with a personal bête noir: please avoid retelling the story.

Are you fascinated when people regale you with their holiday itinerary, in blow-by-blow detail? Is your interest piqued when your friend begins a conversation with ‘Oh my God, I had the most bizarre dream’? Perhaps you don’t mind the monotony of someone telling you the entire plot of a film they just saw, but most readers don’t want a summary. If they want the full story, they can pick up the book.

However, you do need to give a flavour. Sketch a little of the outline, evoke the atmosphere of the book, without getting out the sledgehammer.

Convey the heart of the book

Often you won’t remember exactly what a book was about years later, but you will remember how it made you feel. Ask yourself what lies at its heart — and how to convey this — without stopping it beating. How did the book affect you, what questions did it provoke, what lasting images remain?

Talk about the writing — the language, style, narrative structure, whatever makes it sing.

Aim to write clean copy, including correct punctuation; I could opine about misplaced semi-colons but it might take over this blog post.

Avoid author comparisons and clichéd descriptions

It’s easy to spot a lazy review. Two things will often happen: the first is a comparison, like ‘Jane Austen meets Donna Tartt. Avoid comparing one writer with another unless it’s meaningful, and you can say how and why. I’ve lost count of the number of ‘new Sally Rooneys’ I’ve read about recently. It’s dispiriting to writers who like to cling to the illusion that, while we might be influenced, we are all unique. However, if you’re examining themes, for example how the dystopia of Atwood might speak to Ishiguro, then this opens up your text and lets it breathe.

The second thing is something which led Paraic O’Donnell to create book review bingo. Some examples include: ‘haunting and lyrical’; ‘unputdownable’; ‘at the height of her powers’ — and, my personal favourite, ‘lingers long after the last page’. It’s the old joke about writing ‘a heart-breaking work of staggering genius’ — probably best to avoid these clichéd descriptions as the words have lost any real currency.

Bring your own voice and style to the review but remember that the book is the focus, not your own work or soapboxes.

Good, tasty quotes are a godsend. However, check you are reading from a proof you are allowed to quote from: if in doubt, ask. Having said this, don’t overquote: it’s not a Google Books sample. 

Writing online reviews – keep it short

For online reviews, keep your sentence length in mind; often online articles work better with shorter paragraphs, and perhaps will have pull quotes interspersed: if you’re going to write five-line sentences — a little like this one — which, although coherent and with a perfectly acceptable rhythm, bear in mind that it might make your editor’s job a little trickier. So change it up.

Use tact and sensitivity

Writing a critical review takes sensitivity and wisdom. My reviews are usually so short that I’m not obliged to get involved in any tearing-apart-of-dreams, as there isn’t space for a balanced article. As a writer, I’m acutely aware that the fact any work of fiction has got to publication is a minor miracle; who needs me to say I found it obvious or dull, or that ubiquitous term, ‘overrated’? The subject has been beautifully examined by Kevin Power in his essay for The Stinging Fly.

However, readers want to know if they should click ‘Buy’ on their local bookstore’s website. They are asking the same question as those in Facebook reading club groups: ‘Is this any good?’ How long is a piece of string? One way you can frame criticism is by engaging with what the author aimed to accomplish, and perhaps examine how they have — and might not have —achieved this. It’s a tricky one, as social media has its share of writers scorned, so a degree of caution is advised. Truth, yes, but also tact.

But to end — as many reviews will — on a good note, when you get to talk about a book you really loved, there is nothing quite like it. Here, you say, look, this is something that brought me transcendence, or melancholy, offered insight or laughter — I hope you find it too.

Ruth McKee

Ruth McKee writes short reviews for The Irish Times, is the editor of and a researcher for RTÉ Arena.

Follow her on Twitter @RuthMcKee.

Gain practical tools to write copy that inspires, persuades and sells with the PTC’s virtual course Copywriting for Publishers, or the self-study course Creative Copywriting for Publishers.