Thoughts On: Reviewing Books

“Thoughts On” is a feature where I give my (often rambling) thoughts on a topic relevant to reading, literature, or the book business. To see previous topics, click here.

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to review more books, but I’m still having trouble defining exactly what a “good” review means. Is it written immediately after I finish, full of typos and gifs because I can’t even? Is it long and beautifully formatted with fantastic tags? (Hey, Shealea!) Or maybe just something in between? I don’t dislike reading short reviews, nor do I particularly avoid writing them, but I seem to subconsciously aim for something longer than the book’s summary. (Perhaps to avoid the post looking lopsided? Idk.) But then the longer word count means I have to write more, which means I feel like what I do write has to be “good.”

I read about 40 books a year while posting about 36 reviews–so every book I do read has to “count.” But I also like to vary the format I review (featuring a nonfiction book in between two fiction) and also avoid reviewing sequels (what if they haven’t read the previous books??). So this further narrows the potential books I can review, and if I take longer than a week to finish something, I don’t have anything to post. So then I comb through Goodreads for something I haven’t featured here… but if I only added a review to GR, that probably means I thought it was too short to be considered as a “blog review,” so then I spend more time beefing up the review so that it feels long enough. (But why did I make these rules? 🤷‍♀️)

I constantly feel overwhelmed trying to read enough “appropriate” books to garner enough content, but I also feel like if I don’t post, I’ve somehow failed. I used to switch up the books I read, alternating between a fiction book and a nonfiction one in the hopes that the change in format would give me more time to write out a review, but it’s really hard to do that now when all I want to read is fiction. (Y’all, new books are so enticing.) I then tried to wait myself out, not starting a new book until I wrote a coherent review of the one I’d just finished, but I would continually drag my feet on writing and lose precious reading time in the interim. I scribble down notes now, comprised of keywords I hope will spark a memory later on, but these aren’t always helpful because it’s easy for them to lose context… or I just don’t find anything in the text on which to comment. (But somehow I still lag on writing reviews??? UGH.)

Then, on top of everything, I’m also, like, super negative sometimes and hate shitting all over a book–but what if I really didn’t like it? A negative review still counts as a review (and thus a post), but, as a consumer, I don’t like reading something that amounts to “this sucked” without a why attached. So I try to articulate the reason so that someone else can make their own informed decision about whether they want to read the book. (I mean, my annoyance may be their go-to.) But all of that work takes time, and what if in the end I’m still just being mean?

So… what? Is a review good because I wrote it? Because I think it’s good? Because someone else does? I honestly don’t know. Every thumbs-up on Goodreads or like or comment here reassures me that I’m doing something right, but I also have to remind myself that this blog is a hobby and if deadlines and word counts don’t help, it’s okay to ditch them.

So tell me…

  • Do you struggle against your own preconceived notions on what to post and when? What makes a review “good” over “good enough”?
  • Do you prefer to write a lot of little reviews or an info dump? Does this change when you’re the one reading reviews?
  • Is there a difference between a “blog review” and one on Goodreads? What about Twitter or Instagram?

Thoughts On: Book Reviews

“Thoughts On” is a monthly feature on thewasofshall where I give my (often rambling) thoughts on a topic relevant to reading, literature, or the book business. To see previous (and future) topics, click here. To participate, scroll all the way down.

Writing and giving really good book reviews is hard. You have to figure out exactly what you liked (or didn’t like) in a story and then articulate that clearly enough so that others fully understand your reasoning. You have to get across your idiosyncratic pet peeves even if this is the only review a person is going to read.

In short, you basically have to let that person into your head using only words. And that’s hard, man, really really hard.

Of course, good book reviews come with practice. You read a heck of a lot of literature and figure out those pet peeves. You understand to what degree something irks you, how language affects your reading experience, and how important the ending (or the slow beginning, for that matter) is. You can give reason to the most specific degree possible. You’re able to explain, in the most detailed (yet fluid) words, exactly what was wrong or right in a story and why that thing either annoyed you or made you fangirl. And then, after all that, you actually start writing or recording reviews, honing your language, format, and thought breaks. You learn to take notes while reading, build a framework before writing, and then craft a cohesive argument around your points of discussion, using specific examples from the text to back up your thoughts.

Reading reviews is so incredible easy, though, and belies the actual effort it takes to craft them. As a reader, you skim the summary to see if you’ll even like the book being discussed. Then you might read the first paragraph of the review. If that seems interesting, you’ll either keep reading or just skip down to the rating or talking points. But what if the reviewer didn’t include a starred rating? What if they didn’t go back through their own review and pull out two to three main points of discussion? Doing these things is not for everyone, and it isn’t fair of a reader to expect these things to occur all the time in every review one reads.

If you don’t know, I run a (fledgling) YouTube channel where I post (rambling) videos of myself talking about the books I’ve read. Actually getting around to recording a video is hard, though, as it often happens weeks after I’ve finished one book and already started a second. I take notes while reading, but I don’t write scripts before I sit down to record, and the argument I end up making sometimes forms itself while I’m recording. I know that only a handful of people are going to watch these, but I still find them easier to make than traditional print reviews – even if I’m covering the same information and it’s more work to record and edit a video than it would be to write and format a review. I use a starred review system, and do my best to end my videos with the main tenets of my argument, but I don’t provide summaries of the novels about which I’m speaking. Viewers, thus, have to already know the plot of the story AND sit down to watch the whole video or else skip around and risk missing information (from my experience, there’s no good way to paragraph-break a video).

As a reader, though, I like to read book reviews. I like to start with a summary of the book in question, find a starred review somewhere near the top, and then read through bulleted points – whether before, within, or after the review itself. What helps even more is if I know the reviewer’s go-to books for each rating they offer. In a best-case scenario, I can see how they rated a specific book vs. how I rated that same book, which gives me perspective on whether I should even trust what they like or didn’t like within a story. What if their pet peeve is my narrative kryptonite?

Which begs the question – are book reviews for readers or reviewers? Is the way in which you read reviews different than how you write them? Do you find yourself relying on the same one or two review sources – even if you haven’t read any of the books they recommended or actively disagreed with their opinion?

Have your own thoughts on book reviews? Share them! Post them to your blog, link back to this post, and then comment letting me know!