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How to Write a Helpful Book Review

I’ve been talking recently about ways to support your favorite writer. Last week, I encouraged you first and foremost to write book reviews.

But that suggestion inevitably elicits the same response:


It’s a fair question. Readers aren’t necessarily writers, and maybe you haven’t tried to do something like this since that book report you wrote in fifth grade.

The goods news is, it’s really not hard to write a helpful review. It’s not even as hard as a fifth-grade book report.

A customer review doesn’t need to be an essay. It doesn’t need to be pages long or strongly argued. All it needs to do is communicate your experience with the product.

The Critique

From the author’s perspective, there are two ways to write a “helpful” review: You can provide a critique, telling the author what he did wrong to help him improve his craft; or you can provide a recommendation, encouraging other readers to buy the book (and telling them why).

Now…I’m a writer and a businessman. My family’s financial situation depends entirely on the number of books I sell. That does bias my opinion here, but there’s an easier way to keep the conversation in perspective.

I’m not trying to describe the perfect book review technique. I’m focusing specifically on ways you can support a writer (in this case, with a book review).

So! With that established, I hope you’ll allow me to say that a public critique is far less useful than a recommendation. I’m unlikely to make significant changes to a book that’s already published, though, even if you provide a detailed and compelling list of plot problems in the customer comments. (And if Idid make those changes, your published critique would become out-of-date and confusing.)

So publishing a critique can’t help the book you’re commenting on. It can only hurt sales. That’s not so say you should keep all your meany-pants opinions to yourself!

I’m also a writing coach and student, and I always want to see writers improving their craft. But these days, it’s remarkably easy to get in touch with writers directly. If you want to provide literary critique of my style, I would love a comment at my author website or a message through my contact form.

As an author, I take all critiques seriously (even the offhand comments in a 4- or 5-star review). In fact, it’s often the critiques buried in recommendations that impact me most.

And as a final caveat (in case I haven’t been clear enough), I’m not claiming negative reviews are useless. If you post saying everything that’s wrong with a book, you should be doing that to help other readers (buyers) avoid making a purchase they’ll regret.

That’s a legitimate service. But it doesn’t help the writer at all. It only hurts his paycheck.


I’ve spent more time on that topic than I wanted to, but maybe it’s for the best. This is what you’re here for–how to write a positive review–and the main thing I want to convey on this topic is that it’s easy.

Here’s the whole guide:

  1. Tell the world what you enjoyed about reading this book.

That’s all. That’s how to write a helpful review.

If the story was exciting, say it was exciting. If you got lost in the narrative and missed out on a night’s sleep (or a day’s productivity at work), say so. If you loved getting to know the characters and you kinda miss spending time with them now that the book’s over, mention it!

You don’t have to summarize the plot. You don’t have to break down the elements of story or convince an English teacher you really understood the symbolism and themes. Just say what you liked, and you’ll be helping other readers judge whether this book features the things that are important to them.

Was the story fast-paced and short, so you could finish it and move on to another book? Was it immersive and deeply developed, so you felt like you spent years of your life in this place?

Either comment can be far more useful than “It was pretty long,” or “It was kinda short,” and either comment can be seen as a pro or a con depending on the buyer. If you focus on saying what you liked about the experience, you’ll automatically provide the most useful information within the most useful context.

And in the process you can let your favorite writers know what you want to see more of. That might end up helping you out, too.

2 Responses to “How to Write a Helpful Book Review”

  1. Aaron, thanks for this! I’ve been having similar thoughts of late, so I appreciate hearing your perspective. I’ll be writing my own post on reviews soon, so this will dovetail nicely. ; )

  2. Dave Doolin says:

    That is stupendously useful advice: write what you enjoyed about the book.

    Funny thing about negative reviews is I almost always read them, but I almost always check up on the reviewer as well. Far more often than not, a 1 star reviewer can’t find much to like about anything. Or their 5 star reviews indicate an extreme sort of tastelessness, of the sort reserved for philistines and the like.

    Warning shot: I’m considering doing a month of blogging in early spring. A month of full-on. My long tail organic search results are holding very nicely, which is highly motivating. Expect to hear from me at some point.