Writing Helpful Reviews

Write a Book Review That Helps, Not Hinders—Part 2

Reading widely and writing book reviews either on your blog or at online bookstores serves your career and your colleagues well.  But have you ever read a book review that was totally unhelpful?

Certainly you’ve seen some of those posted on Amazon that have never been clicked as “helpful.”  Why unhelpful?  Think about these review comments:

“I thought this book was going to be about X. It was about Y. I was disappointed.”  (Such a comment reveals nothing about the book!  It merely states that the reviewer had the wrong idea before he/she bought the book. The reviewer may have misread the title, misread the jacket copy, or failed to read the book’s description, purpose, and table of contents.)

“Everybody could benefit from being more organized. This is a must-read book. Highly recommended.”  (Not particularly helpful with specifics when there are 357 books on being organized)

So if you plan to write reviews that get read, consider these tips offered from my experience as a book reviewer for the Houston Chronicle (long, long ago). (Last week’s blog covered the “Do’s” for book reviews.)

Review Don’ts

  • Don’t confuse a review with a jacket blurb.
  • Don’t write the review as if you’re the author’s best buddy. For centuries novelists have commented on the work of their peers—both privately and publicly. But your review should be written from a professional point of view.


  • Don’t write such a lengthy review that the reader has no need to buy the book. Your goal is to give your opinion about how this book differs from others in the field, to point out what key information it might provide a reader, and to help a reader decide whether to buy it or not.


  • Don’t reveal the ending of a novel or a key story in a nonfiction work.


  • Don’t slam a book. (Admittedly, this last “don’t” is my own personal philosophy because I like to get a good night’s sleep.) Dorothy Parker must have been having a bad hair day when she wrote these two comments about books by her contemporaries:


“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”  “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.”


Here are a few other famous putdowns that have lived on as part of the author-reviewer’s reputation:


––Mary McCarthy about Lillian Hellman: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”


––Truman Capote on Jacqueline Suzanne: “She doesn’t write, she types.”


––Gore Vidal: “The three saddest words in the English language are Joyce Carol Oates.”


My guess is that you have more positive ways to build your reputation.  Look for the best in the book—or find a better book to share with your colleagues and friends.


Note:  For Review “Do’s,”  see “Write a Book Review That Helps, Not Hinders—Part 1”

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