How to Write a Review that Engages Readers

– Jean Spraker

Jean Spraker is an American expat living in Seoul. But, some say her soul is truly Indian. She is currently writing her first novel inspired by her life in India. She blogs at jeanspraker.com.

This guest post from Jean Spraker is a part of the Review Ramblings series.

When Neil approached me to guest blog about writing reviews, I said, “Sure! I’d be happy to do it!” I had recently written a review for Ravi Subramanian’s The Bestseller She Wrote that’s received high praise—even from Subramanian himself. That makes me an expert now, right?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RP4abiHdQpc

That about sums it up, don’t you think?

About 30 seconds after I agreed to write this post, I thought, “Ah crap! How DO I write a review? What makes my reviews work? Why was the response so positive for this review? What makes it different? What tips can I give potential reviewers? Have I completely lost my mind agreeing to a guest blog two days before #NaNoWriMo? Why do I think so damn much?”

Whew!

Clearly, my head is a dangerous place. Someone should really post a sign.

Overthinking

The truth is that I don’t have a secret sauce for reviews. If I did, I’d bottle it and sell it. A writer has to earn a living somehow. Clearly, royalties aren’t the pot of gold at the end of the writing (or reading) rainbow.

So, what tips can I offer?

Enjoy reading the book

It sounds simple, but it isn’t. Too often, I see readers taking a snobbish approach to the books they review. Judging the author for every typo and plot hole. Look. I’m not saying we shouldn’t judge those things. Typos on every page and plot holes the size of Maharashtra or Minnesota annoy readers. Reviewers should assess those issues. But, do it with respect. I get it. Everyone plays armchair quarterback. “I could have written Half Girlfriend or Fifty Shades. That book sucked,” you say. But, you know what? You didn’t write either book. That book is someone’s baby just like that half-finished manuscript you’ve been working on for the last year and a half is yours. Would you kill someone else’s baby? No. Of course not. So, why are you wasting my time writing the most intensely evil and useless review of a book you hate? I spotted your hater tendencies in the second sentence and moved on. I wrote you off. And so should the readers and the author, quite frankly. I have only written a 1 star review once, for a book that I was given as a review copy. It was bad, and I felt obligated to review it honestly. Otherwise, I would not have made it past page 10. But, truthfully, these bad reviews often serve little purpose to the reader. There’s always someone to disagree.

Balance the good and the bad

On the flip side of the hater review, we have the lover review. The person who has nothing but rainbows and stardust to blow up the writer’s butt. That person who is either related to or connected directly to the writer. Or who just loves every book, no matter how bloody awful. Even the best books have flaws. Take Midnight’s Children. The Booker of Bookers. A book so good that it won a Booker twice! Once by popular vote. Seriously. If you haven’t read it, you should. It will change your life and challenge everything you thought you knew that you didn’t actually know until you knew it.
But, even Midnight’s Children has flaws. Maybe you thought the mango pickle factory setting was cliché. Maybe you didn’t get that whole weird shower story. Maybe you just don’t like how Rushdie punctuated the book. Whatever it is, that criticism should be there, too. Not just the praise. Not just the “You’re so totally awesome!” Always give at least one positive and one negative aspect to the book. My reviews are structured with the good, the bad, and the verdict sections to maintain that balance.

Give the reader a sense of the book, but dont give anything away

If you are reviewing a thriller or mystery, please, for the love of God, don’t tell us who did it or what happens in the end. Yes, I know this might make your review vague, but the readers will thank you for not ruining the book—and so will the writer. Trust me.

Be honest with your bias

I was so heavily involved in the final stages of Ketan Bhagat’s Child/God that I am in the acknowledgements. I am constitutionally incapable of speaking even one negative thing about the book publicly. Which is why when I reviewed the book, I admitted that and instead gave you a straight-up sales pitch. I recently saw the editor for a book review said book on his blog. No mention was made of his role in the book. And, to me, that’s wrong. As long as he’s up front about it, his review holds water. But, the minute you find out he helped shape the book, but didn’t tell you, his opinion holds less value, doesn’t it?

Know thyself

Say you’re a blogger, and someone asks you to review a romance novel. No really. Say it. “I’m a blogger and someone asked me to review a romance novel. Are they nuts! I don’t read romance!” you bellow. That’s a problem. Are you going to do the book or yourself justice? Probably not. This is the best time to refer the person to another blogger in line with their interests.

Provide context

I learned this trick in grad school. As part of my coursework and prep for my prelims, I regularly wrote book reviews. I always had to place the book within its historiographic context. Always. If the writer was a Marxist, that was contextualized within a discussion about class. Sometimes context is simple. Maybe it’s saying that Ravi Subramanian normally writes thrillers. Maybe it’s explaining the marketing mayhem around Half Girlfriend. Relating a book to other books can really help the reader understand if he or she would enjoy the book.

Follow the 3 Es of Ashwin Sanghi

Entertain. Educate. Enlighten.

I learned more about writing for an audience in those three words than I have learned in seven years as a tech editor sitting in branding meetings. Sanghi is absolutely right. Keeping your audience entertained is the key to success. Let’s face it. Attention spans are shrinking, but book inventories are expanding. If you want to capture an audience, you must entertain. Sorry. Your review has to be more entertaining than Candy Crush. Truth hurts. I know.

Incorporate multimedia

When possible, I try to bring in multimedia. As a former Creative Services Manager, I know how important it is to connect to users on multiple levels. Sometimes, that’s as simple as bringing in the Scion of Ikshvaku’s book trailer; sometimes it’s bringing in tweets or completely unrelated YouTube videos.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StTqXEQ2l-Y

Multimedia is Awesome! Isn’t it? You get the idea. If you have a blog, you should be able to figure out how to copy and paste the YouTube embed code into your site. WordPress has made this easier with the Add Media button. Just copy and paste the YouTube link, and presto! Video!

Be a fangirl or fanboy

It’s OK. Really. Pay attention to the buzz around the book. Follow the author on Twitter or Facebook. See what he or she says about the upcoming release. Use that in the review to give the reader a better sense for the flavor of the book. It’s OK to go gaga over a book as long as you balance that with real criticism and don’t lose sight of the fact that your review is meant to help a reader decide whether to buy the book. Or not.

Write well

Proof those reviews, people! Run spell check, damn it! A poorly written 5 star review could do more damage than a well written 1 star review. No joke. No matter how insightful your commentary, if your review contains tons of typos, no one will pay attention to it. Not the potential reader and certainly not the author. I recently admitted on Facebook that I don’t read Amazon reviews. Poor writing is the biggest reason why.

Now that you know how to write a great review, you can do the minion dance! Gangnam style! So long from Seoul!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVrrdyqfpSM