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So, you might have the basics of writing book reviews down already. You’re familiar with the classic 3-step review structure, and you’ve worked out how to constructively criticize a book - now, what’s the next step? How do you take your reviewing skills to the next level and make sure your readers get the most out of your review? Here are five tips to make your reviews stand out from the crowd!

1. Put the book in the context

A great review doesn’t lose the bigger picture. While close evaluation of the plot and prose itself is crucial, you can go even further by situating the book on a shelf of similar stories, so to speak.

One way to do that is to compare it to books that belong to the same genre and are similar in topic or setting. After all, it wouldn’t be much help if you reviewed a romance novel that focused on mental health and said that it follows in the footsteps of George R. R. Martin because it looks at the motivations of characters! However, a relevant fantasy novel studying power dynamics would benefit greatly from comparing A Song of Ice and Fire.

Literary novels and non-fiction books particularly tend to exist about other works in their respective genres: building on previous works, entering into a dialogue with each other, and forming a chain of influence. If you can detect these inter-textual conversations and point them out, your review will really shine.

2. Make it personal - but not too much

Like books themselves, reviews are narratives! Each review is the tale you tell of becoming acquainted with a book. Sharing personal experiences can result in strikingly intimate reviews that really immerse their readers.

For example, if you take a look at the Goodreads reviews for C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, you’ll see reviewers sharing the personal stories of bereavement that led them to pick up the book. We’re all human, and if you’re able to share the personal circumstances under which you read this book and how it affected you, the person reading your review will deeply appreciate the honesty. Does the book remind you of your childhood? Did it help you get through a difficult period? Use your storytelling skills to draw upon these experiences.

However, a word of caution: exercise careful control over the length of personal anecdotes. The review’s focus shouldn’t be the book’s impact on your life, but the book itself. Reread your draft and consider whether the term ‘personal essay’ would fit your piece better than ‘book review’ as a label. If so, you’ll have to edit ruthlessly and bravely to get it into reader-worthy shape.

Finally, bear in mind that different platforms are appropriate for different levels of personal exposure, Make sure you know what kind of review suits each platform by reading through some examples, as personal stories are generally more common in blogging then, say, newspaper reviews.

3. Describe the reading experience

You may not have discovered the book in a Parisian bookstore the day you serendipitously met the love of your life. Not all stories about how you came across a book will be worthy of mention, and that’s okay! Fortunately, even if you don’t have a personal anecdote or story to share, you can still humanize your review by vividly describing your reading experience and response.

Did this book have you laughed out loud on public transport? Did the plot twist make you so mad you threw the book across the room? Did it leave you sobbing for days? If the book has had a strong emotional impact on you, your reader will want to know.

Of course, books aren’t read in a vacuum, so you can also place them within the wider framework of current affairs (similar to how you might position them in a literary context). If you read Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year while living in quarantine, or a historical novel about pre-WWI tensions between nations at a time of contemporary political turmoil, linking these books to the present will help orient your reader.

4. Examples, examples, examples

Just like you’ve arrived at an opinion about the book, your readers will form their own about whether they agree with your review - which is why any respectful reviewer owes it to the author to ground their opinions in quotes and examples. After all, it’s hard work getting a book published; you can criticize someone’s writing while still acknowledging this truth.

So if you’ve just said that an author's writing style is far too lavish and had you rolling your eyes, provide an example. Your reader may agree with you, in which case you’ve helped them identify a book that wouldn’t be to their taste. On the other hand, they may absolutely love it. The particulars of the example you cite will help them decide.

The important thing is to give the writing a chance to stand on its own merits, respecting the work that went into the process of editing a book, while still freely expressing your own thoughts. It’s only fair!

5. Have fun with it!

If you love reading enough to want to review books, writing one will be naturally fun. The key is to choose books that are likely to speak to you. So be selective about what genres you review - you don’t want to have to force the words out, and it wouldn’t be fair to the author either to intentionally review the kind of book you don’t enjoy.

Basically, if you’re hoping to become a book reviewer; you’ll know the best reviews are a joy to read because they were a joy to write. Be honest, be bold, and don’t underestimate the power of humor.

And now you’ve got all the skills you need, it’s time to find a home for your reviews. You can start your own blog, write for Books Charming, try Reedsy’s Discovery platform, Goodreads, or other literary websites - there are loads. Then you can grow your portfolio over time, find titles you’re passionate about, and be their critic or their champion. You’ll figure out which it is one page at a time!

Written by Desiree Villena

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