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Writing Book Reviews

All good and serious writers are readers too, and writing reviews of good books is one way to gain experience, contribute to the writing community, be a good literary citizen, and begin establishing yourself as a writer. Even if you don’t yet have links to published writing on your website, you can include links to your published book reviews to begin building a writing portfolio and to give readers and prospective publishers a glimpse into the way you think and the way you write.

How Do I Write a Book Review?

Before you start writing your first book review, and ideally before you even start reading the first book you plan to review, do your homework.

I suggest you start by educating yourself about how to write a book review. John Updike’s 6 Rules for Constructive Criticism is a great place to start learning “[h]ow to assess other people’s work graciously and fairly.” Especially important is to include at least one extended passage from the book to give readers a sense of the author’s style, but be careful not to quote from the book too much. Fair use allows reviewers to quote from books because it’s for educational purposes, but limits the amount a reviewer can pull from the book. Also important: Don’t review your friends’ books. Maintain some distance and objectivity.

Equally important is to learn How Not To Write a Book Review. Writing for Slate, Robert Pinsky dissects two early 19th century reviews of John Keats’s work. He notes that the reviewers were not objective and were more interested in looking smart or irreverent than they were in providing an honest review of Keats’s work. But their failings went beyond those things: “[B]oth reviewers are undone not simply by their own meanness or eagerness to shine or unfairness or social or political prejudices—nor by blindness to the genius of Keats. Their self-wounding failure is more fundamental than that: Both reviewers fail to fulfill the three golden requirements for book reviews.”

Pinsky then goes on to discuss what those three golden requirements are:

1. The review must tell what the book is about.
2. The review must tell what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.
3. The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.

Some things to keep in mind: Book reviews are not synopses or summaries. Readers want your analysis of the book. They want to know what you think about it. They want to know what recommends the book and the writing so they can decide if they want to read it. Don’t give away the story. A good rule of thumb is never to include any plot or details that are more than halfway through the book. Sometimes, you don’t want to go even that far–use your judgment. You can write about the ending in a vague way that doesn’t spoil the book for readers, e.g., was the ending satisfying to you as a reader?

Here’s an example from my review of Kristin Arnett’s novel Mostly Dead Things for The Coachella Review. Notice that I write about the ending without telling readers anything about how the book ends:

Arnett writes about a landscape and people she clearly knows and loves. She gives readers the gift of letting us see them too. Mostly Dead Things is insightful and is full of the beauty of the commonplace, even the ugly. The ending is hopeful, but not overly so. It doesn’t give away the realism that Arnett successfully worked so hard at crafting throughout the book, and it leaves room for the reader to imagine what comes next, which is something I always appreciate in a story.

Next, read book reviews. Read a lot of them from different but good sources.

Here are some of my favorite places to read book reviews:

The Los Angeles Review of Books (literature section)

The Los Angeles Times (books section)

The Rumpus (book reviews section)

The Coachella Review (book reviews section) (note: this is where I got my start reviewing books)

GXRL (books section) (note: I am the books editor for GXRL–pitch me!)

How Do I Find Books To Review?

Literary journals, magazines, and newspapers are all markets looking for reviews of books coming out in the future. You’ll want to pitch reviews of books that are coming out in several months in order to give the market time to approve your pitch, to give yourself time to read the book and write the review, and then to allow time for you to work with the publication’s editor to polish the review. Look at the websites of the markets you want to pitch to see what they have to say about the kinds of books they would like to see reviewed.

Sign up for NetGalley to not only browse books that are coming out in the next several months, but to request copies for review. Do internet searches for lists of the most anticipated books coming out soon, like Lit Hub’s Most Anticipated Books of 2022Vulture’s 49 Books We Can’t Wait to Read in 2022, Bookriot’s Most Anticipated Books of 2022, and Oprah Daily’s The 50 Most Anticipated Books of 2022.

How Do I Get Copies of Books To Review?

NetGalley: NetGalley is a great place for new reviewers to get started. Their whole thing is to connect readers with e-copies of books to review. Once you have a few reviews under your belt, you’ll find it easier to be approved for more high-profile books. Be sure to review every book you request and receive in order to establish your credibility. (So be careful not to request more than you can review within a reasonable time frame, hopefully by the book’s publication date.)

Book Publishers: You can request an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), which is just what it sounds like–an advanced copy of a not-yet-published book to be read by readers who wish to write a review. You can request an ARC from the marketing department of any publishing house. Go to the publisher’s website and find the appropriate person. For example, if I wanted to request a review copy of The Pink Hotel by Liska Jacobs, coming out on July 19, 2022, I’d do a search to find out which publisher is publishing her book, I’d end up at the MacMillan Publishers website, and I’d dig around and find, under contact info, the company’s instructions for requesting review copies. If you’ve already received approval to review the book for a specific market, be sure to include that information in your email, as well as some information about you and links to any book reviews you’ve already written.

Markets That Publish Book Reviews: Some markets already have particular books in mind that they’d like to have reviewed for their publication. If you’ve already established yourself with a market or have links to other reviews you’ve written, you can ask that they assign a book to you to review. Some markets will add you to an email list of prospective reviewers and let you know when opportunities to review books arise.

How Do I Read for a Book Review?

Depending on where you get the ARC, you may get an ebook version, which you can read on an app like Kindle. If you request a book from NetGalley, you’ll get an ebook and have several options for how and where to read it. If you get a book directly from the publisher, you will likely get a .PDF emailed to you or a paperback ARC sent to you in the mail.

Make notes as you read. I used to highlight, which you can do in the physical ARC or with tools in an ebook or .PDF. I no longer highlight. Instead, I’ve started keeping soft-bound reading journals to record my thoughts as I read, write down short quotes with the page numbers, and write down the page numbers where I can find longer quotes. I find this works better for me–once I’m done reading, I refer to the notes in my reading journal, and the bulk of the review writes itself.

What kind of notes do you make? We all have thoughts as we read.

  • Ooh, this is a beautiful sentence!
  • I really love the way the author does this.
  • I’m not sure I like the way the author does that.
  • I like the way the author incorporated this idea into the book, or describes places, or lets us inside the characters’ heads.
  • I was expecting something different at the end of the book, but the ending was a pleasant surprise.
  • I was expecting something different at the end of the book, and I felt cheated.
  • I’m seeing a specific theme emerge here.
  • I think I see what the author was trying to accomplish here.
  • I think I see what the author was trying to do here, but I’m not sure it works well.
  • This section of the book is really evoking some specific feelings or memories.

We have these thoughts as we read, but when we’re reading to write a review,  or keeping a journal for any other reason, we write these thoughts down. Readers want to know what you think about the book, what you think about what the author is trying to accomplish, and whether you think the author was successful.

Where Do I Publish My Book Reviews?

There are endless markets looking for quality reviews of upcoming books. You can use services like Duotrope and Submittable to find literary journals and magazines that publish book reviews.

Most markets will ask that you pitch them first, rather than send a completed review. Some markets accept complete reviews. Read the market’s guidelines carefully and follow them.

As I mentioned above, NetGalley is a good place for a beginning reviewer to get started. You can publish a review on NetGalley even if you aren’t going to publish it anywhere else and get some credits. If you are going to pubish the review elsewhere, I suggest you include an excerpt of a line or two on NetGalley with a link to the full review. That way, you get credit with NetGalley for posting the review and also promote the review, but you don’t plagiarize yourself and create duplicate internet content that competes with the market that published your review.

IMPORTANT: Consumer reviews on Goodreads and bookselling websites are helpful to authors if done in the right way, but can cause authors harm too, if not done with care. No, it isn’t your job as a reviewer to boost an author’s career, but neither is it your job to show off or be snarky and tank a book’s Goodreads score. Approach those reviews with the same professionalism and respect as you would for any book review, as set out below. As a writer yourself, you know how much work, blood, sweat, and tears go into writing a book. Don’t give a book a poor rating because it’s not the kind of book you enjoy or because it’s too many pages long or because you don’t like the author or because the book arrived with a damaged cover. Write the review with the same respect and consideration you’d like reviewers to give to your books.

More Book Reviews!

I learned most of what I know about reviewing books from Heather Scott Partington, who is also on the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics’ Circle, an organization you may want to join if you are serious about reviewing books. Heather is my go-to person when I want to see how it’s done right, so be sure to read some of her reviews.

Here are a few of my favorite writers and friends who also happen to write book reviews:

Amy Reardon

Jackie DesForges

Matt Ellis (click on “Literary Reviews” in the top menu)

Ioannis Argiris

Trey Burnette

Laurie Rockenbeck

Collin Mitchell

I also write book reviews. You can find a list of mine here: Leanne Phillips (scroll down to “Book Reviews”)

WRITER TIP: I’m going to repeat something I already said because it bears repeating and is usually ignored by readers who come to me asking how to write a book review. If you want to write a book review, read good book reviews. Read lots of book reviews from lots of sources to see how they are structured and what kinds of things they include and don’t include. The reviews you read will all be different from one another, and as you develop your own style, yours will be different too. But do your homework before you dive in. Learn the basics, and think about what kinds of books you want to review and what kind of reviewer you want to be.