How I Review Books: 7 Steps to a Killer Book Review

2.28.2020


I love to read and review books. As my website has changed with me since I started it in eighth grade, enduring different name changes, designs, and topics of discussion, book reviews have remained a staple.

As I transitioned from middle school to high school, and more recently, high school to college, my writing and my methods for tackling book reviews have changed a lot. Today I wanted to share my current method for reviewing books, both to compare with fellow book bloggers (hey guys!) and offer some tips I've learned throughout my journey.

1. Active reading. Before I can compose a review, I have to read the book. Active reading, or reading with the intent to understand, is critical because my annotation during reading is sparse. I don't often annotate my books when I am reading for enjoyment, but I will jot down any noteworthy quotes or particularly stand-out moments in my bullet journal. 

2. Brain vomit. After finishing a book, I will dedicate 10-15 minutes to writing out my immediate impressions of it. I try to complete this step as soon as possible while the details of the story are still fresh in my mind. I give the book two pages in my bullet journal. 
  • On the first page, I write a brief summary of the story, names I may forget in the future, and my favorite quotes from the book. I'll also include a star rating, from one to five, based on my first impulse. 
  • On the second page, I write whatever elements of the story I found important: plot, setting, characters, symbolism, writing style, etc.
My notes at this point are messy, and I expect them to be. Here, I try to capture my first thoughts: raw and honest. My notes will range in quality from what I would consider somewhat well-written to completely casual, random, moody, and fangirl-y. These are a few lines I pulled from my review spreads as examples of this range (from most to least sane):
  • "My question after reading this book: how do you solve the issue of polarization when we are locked into a system that ignores objective truths?"
  • "Writing style creates the impression that someone is just dictating to you, which was charming."
  • "I finished this at 12:30 am and I am still awake because of the ending."
  • "Actually WTF was the last 35% of this book."
While I appreciate the sentiments behind my (usually late-night) brain vomits, I want my reviews sound a *little* more put together. So next:

3. Consider the themes. Typically, this step takes the longest but proves to be the most beneficial. Before I start to write, I use my notes to identify significant themes within the book. I think about what the author was trying to accomplish
  • Sometimes, an author's purpose can be difficult to discern. To find it, I'll consider the questions:
    • What about this book made me angry/frustrated/happy/excited/sad? 
    • What ideas from this book are applicable to my life? To the world?
    • Did this book change my mind about something? Why or why not?
    • What questions am I left with after reading?

4. Ask lots of questions. Using my notes, I reflect on the book's devices and elements and ask myself questions to evaluate how these elements were used to communicate what the author was trying to accomplish. These elements could include:
  • Characters (dynamic or flat? gray or morally decisive? realistic or unrealistic?)
  • Plot (slow-moving or rapid? simple or complex? easy to follow or confusing?)
  • Writing style (direct or flowery? easy to read or full of advanced vocabulary?)
  • Perspective (first, second, or third person? Is the narrator reliable?)
  • Symbols (what tropes, colors, weather, objects etc. were repeated throughout, if applicable, and what message could they be communicating?)
Next, I consider how well the author used these elements and whether I liked how the author used the elements.  Here I start to develop my personal opinion beyond my initial reaction. 
  • Were the characters well-developed? Did I find them interesting?
  • Was the plot slow-moving because the author was developing something for later, or because I found it boring?
  • Did the author's writing style further the message they were trying to communicate? Did I like it?
  • Did the perspective communicate the story in an understandable manner? Did I like it?
  • Was the integration of symbols gentle or heavy-handed? Did I like it?
As I answer these questions, I remember that their answers are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It is very possible for me to appreciate what an author was trying to do while personally disliking the book.

5. Answer the biggest question. Once I have evaluated the elements of the story and my own opinion of them, I synthesize all of my thoughts to answer a final question: how effective was the author in communicating the theme or message that I first identified? The answer to this question determines my final rating of the book.

6. Structure the review. Once I have thought about what the author was trying to say and what I have to say about it, I will block out my review. It usually follows this format, although I deviate from time to time:
  • A brief summary, ending with what I think the author was trying to convey
  • The book's major successes (how specific elements communicated the author's message well)
  • The book's major flaws (how specific elements communicated the author's message poorly)
  • Final thoughts
  • Star rating
When I struggle with writer's block, I first write my review in bullet points. Making this outline allows me to collect my thoughts and make later writing more efficient. I can even copy and paste lines around in my outline if I decided certain points would flow better in other areas. 

7. Actually write the review. At last, we've made it! Finally, I start the process of translating my gibberish bullet points into more formal writing. I am generally a slow writer, but how long this part takes can dramatically vary based on my mood. 

Hooray! I had a lot of fun writing this post. How do you like to read and review books? Are there any elements that make or break a book for you?

13 comments :

  1. I love this breakdown of how you write a review! It's so smart to dump everything onto a page right after you finish reading something.

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    1. Thank you! It's been a huge help to me when I sit down to write reviews, and something I just enjoy doing to destress with my bullet journal in general.

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  2. Great tips! This is very close to my process for writing reviews. I use the “brain vomit” method. I get my thoughts down as quickly as possible and then try to organize them into something that people can actually read.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

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    1. I'm glad you liked them! Haha yes, brain vomiting is a tried and true method

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  3. You have a very professional approach to reviews! I do take them seriously, but I'm more istinctive. Apart from the head of the review - where I give a brief summary of the pros and cons of the book, warnings etc. - the most structured thing I do is divide my reviews in three, sometimes two sections (with headlines) and use the first one for the things I liked (most). I tried taking notes while reading, but it ruined my reading experience. But I usually read my books twice before I review them, which helps me a lot with clearing my head and making up my mind about the rating if I'm wavering.

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    1. I'd say reading through the books twice before reviewing is a definite commitment! I waver with how much I take notes while reading depending on the book. For academic reading I'll note a lot of specific details, but most time when reading for enjoyment I'll only write something down during the process if a particular quote jumped out at me.

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  4. This is a really nice and detailed guide, Claire! I don't have a reading journal, but I usually brain-vomit on a note taking app :D It can be hard to do this when I'm really engrossed in the book and just speeding through it, but even the smallest notes can help me recall my impression really well!

    Tasya // The Literary Huntress

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    1. Thanks Taysa! I think whatever method works best for you is wonderful :) I tried using an app for a while, but after I started bullet journaling I found that there was just something about being able to look back at my written thoughts that I really appreciated.

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  5. I love this post so, and I think I will try to use at least some of these steps in the future. I rarely write reviews anymore, because I just never seem to be in the mood to write about one book - I'd rather share more than one in a post, either in a list-like post, or mini review post. I'm trying to change this, though, we'll see if I can.

    Love this post so much. :)

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    1. Thanks Veronika! I'm glad that you found this post helpful. I also tend to be a mood reader/reviewer-- I don't review all the books I read, and I don't have a particular rhyme or reason to why I review the books that I do over the ones that I don't. Changing up the format with lists and mini reviews can be a great way to mitigate that though, I might give that a try too :))

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  6. Great post. I love seeing how other bloggers approach book reviews. I know that I need to start writing down my thoughts more often as I'm reading, or right after I finish a book. I tend to go from one book to another really quick, so it's easy for me to forget things or points that I wanted to make note of in my review. I like your set up - it sounds like you really give a lot of thought to the book and what you want to share about it.

    -Lauren
    www.shootingstarsmag.net

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  7. This is a wonderful breakdown and approach to book reviews and I applaud you for sharing it! I love seeing how others read and interpret/review books. I enjoy taking the time to mull over my thoughts before writing a review. Sometimes it takes time for the content to really sink in. Great post!

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  8. Hi Claire! I'm new to your blog as I've just discovered it. I've been book blogging since 2014, however, stopped last 2017 because of undergrad thesis and board exams. So far, your steps on reviewing a book has been the most detailed yet. My reviews back then was just out of spur after reading the book. This is very helpful as I'm slowly coming back to the community. Thank you very much!

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