How to Write Respectful Reviews

Writing book reviews is always a hot topic with writers. We realize reviews can make or break book sales, but as reviewers there are times we just can’t offer a glowing recommendation. What then?

Do we stay mum? Or write honestly and hope for minimal fallout?

Heather and I have always embraced the write-an-honest review stance; and we support other authors who strive to do the same thing. Today we are sharing some of our tips for turning a lackluster review into a helpful commentary about storycraft and not something that makes the author feel like we knifed them in the back.

how-to-write-respectful-low-star-reviews

1. Make opening a dialogue your primary goal:
Book reviewers understand they must entertain; if they don’t, people aren’t going to read their blogs. But for some reviewers, the mission to entertain overrides common courtesy. Their negative reviews are fodder for insults in the name of writing amusing copy. When you perceive reviewing as a form of discussion, you approach the process differently. You try to make the review about something bigger: the book’s role in society, the way the writer uses language, how the writer tackled a plot twist, or if they made you think about something differently. These are all valuable aspects of literary culture and worthy of discussion even when a book doesn’t live up to your expectations.

2. Use specific examples:
If you have a point to make, make it! Don’t skirt the issues with indistinct chatter. If the story feels too derivative of another famous story and that made it impossible for you to remain engaged, say that! Don’t say that the book was “boring” or it “put you to sleep.” These comments are too vague and don’t convey what your real complaint is. Besides it’s likely someone reading your review will love retold stories, and they will jump at the chance to read the book you didn’t enjoy. That helps turn your review into a potential sale for the author. Best of all, you stayed true to yourself and your honest opinions while doing it.

3. Distinguish between writing mechanics and your opinions about those mechanics:
Both aspects are important, but one is objective (the book has typos or it doesn’t) and the other is subjective (typos throw you into a whirlwind of revulsion). I can enjoy and even rave about a book with some mechanical issues; however, too much data dumping makes me crazy! Break the two issues apart. Describe the mechanical problem and then give your opinion of how prevalent and disruptive the issue was to your enjoyment of the story.

4. Fact check like your life depended on it:
If you want to comment on any emotionally charged topic (race, religion, etc.), make sure you can support your claim with some hard data. When in doubt, stop writing and start researching. If you don’t have time to learn more about the subject, talk about your impressions in an open-ended way. Ask questions of your readers and invite someone closer to the topic to comment. You might learn your interpretation was correct, or that you were dead wrong. Either way, you have opened a meaningful discussion about the subject, and perhaps that’s exactly what the author intended by broaching a challenging topic.

5. Never make it personal:
A book review is not about the author. Never speculate that the author’s real life is bleeding onto the page, or attempt to make the actions of the characters a reflection of the writer’s state of mind. I know many wonderful people who write ghastly horror stories with high body counts; yet I can assure you they are not secretly planning to do anyone harm. Except maybe Stephen King. I’m sure they would love to take a great big bite… out of his bank account.

6. Back away from rebuttals:
When you write a low-star review, someone might come gunning for you. This someone might be the author, or the author’s fans. The best policy is don’t engage. You have written your review, let it stand. If you feel you must say something, thank the person for reading your review and leaving you a comment expressing the wide range of opinions a book can generate. Even if the person comes back and does their level best to drag you into a fight, don’t do it. If you stay silent, the angry person should eventually move on to the next reviewer.

You didn’t think your bad review was the only one, did you?

7. Link with caution:
You took the time to write a review and you want people to read it. That’s normal, and I bet you drop blog links everywhere you go. But stop for a moment and think. How will your link look to other people? When I go on Amazon or Goodreads and see a rating with a solitary sentence (usually something overly sensationalized) with a “read this review at my blog” style link, I immediately dismiss the review as link bait. Any links on Amazon or Goodreads should include at least a paragraph to show the review is genuine.The absolute worst possible link is the one that looks like the review was written to boost the reviewer’s book sales. Be mindful of reviewing any books in the same genre as your own work. Any negative reviews might be perceived as unfairly running down the competition.

8. Don’t review a book you haven’t read:
Every so often this situation crops up in force. It often revolves around a book some group wants to ban and I consider it a form of reviewer fraud. No matter how much you know  you will hate the book, or how many people have told you unpleasant facts about the book, stay away from rating or reviewing the book. That’s not to say you can’t review a book you didn’t finish, you absolutely can, as long as you’re clear about where and why you put the book down.

9. Avoid reading books you suspect you’ll hate:
I read reviews all the time, and I’m just as likely to be put off by positive review as I am caustic one. That’s because I look at the reasons the reviewer cited, not the number of stars. I know my reading taste and I understand what factors will bother me. I take care to avoid reading those books. Just as you shouldn’t review a book you haven’t read, why bother reading a book you’re sure will disappoint you? Just so you can write a negative review? Take the higher road — life is too short to be that reviewer.

Honesty is the best policy when reviewing, but it’s not the only consideration. Show respect, and be polite, especially when the review isn’t packed with praise.

Do you write reviews of books you didn’t like? Let’s hear your thoughts (pro or con) in the comments.

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, an educator and historical consultant. She writes dark young adult fiction, with diverse characters. She's currently querying a novel, and working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813) or on Twitter @robinrwrites. However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

16 thoughts on “How to Write Respectful Reviews”

  1. I have read quite a few blog post about this topic and there are so many different opinions about writing reviews. I am often torn and don’t know what to do. I actually wrote about this during the A to Z challenge under letter R (sadly all my comments were lost during my blog makeover), but if anyone is interested in reading it you can find it here:
    http://www.melissasugarwrites.com/2016/04/the-truth-about-amazon-reviews-how-to.html?m=1

    I would never want to write a negative review and after learning from my indie published friends how difficult it is to become ranked or to get your book noticed on Amazon without four and five star reviews, I stopped writing reviews for books that I felt warranted less than four stars. But, this is completely different than how I used to review. I often gave three and four star reviews, but I reserved five stars for the cream of the crop, best of the best. I mean if all my reviews are five stars then how can someone judge what I truly find to be an exceptional book. But, as a writer, who hopes to become published and will one day need reviews, I want to support my fellow author friends and those who I don’t know, but who are just getting started. The problem and question becomes, what do you do when the book is just not up to your standards. I’ve been in the uncomfortable position of being asked for a review when the book was just plain terrible.

    For the most part I give four and five stars so that I do not hurt the author’s career on Amazon, but I write the substance of my review in the actual review and I never say anything ugly or cruel. My biggest pet peeve is when people give one star , mean, nasty, negative reviews and then give a reason like, “The characters weren’t likable.” When it was obvious that the author purposely created flawed characters who were very believable, complex and multi dimensional. I really hate it when someone give someone a negative review on a thriller and says, “This book was too dark or had too much violence.” Perhaps they are reading the wrong genre.
    Great tips. I enjoyed your article.

    Melissa Sugar
    http://melissasugarwrites.com

    1. Hi Melissa,
      I think it’s important to treat your friend’s books differently. I wrote another post that deals just with that issue, and it’s a very complicated topic. Mostly because Amazon has such hard and fast rules about it. You can read more about that here: Reviewing A Friend’s Book on Amazon. If you’re reviewing a lot of books for people you know, look over the Amazon guidelines ASAP. Amazon has been known to act swift and mercilessly when they suspect friends are reviewing books.

      We all must do what you think is right, but I tend to agree with your old approach. I would rather see only the best books get five stars.

  2. Great post, Robin. This is something I’ve talked about with other writers from time to time, and everyone seems to have different comfort levels when it comes to writing book reviews. Your pointers are spot-on, btw, especially #s 5, 6, and 8. I heard about what happened recently with an up-and-coming YA author’s unreleased book – it’s awful what lows people will stoop to today.

    I used to write negative reviews, but last year I stopped writing them for any books I’d rate lower than a 3 out of 5. (In other words, the Thumper attitude – “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”) It was partly because… well, I’m a writer, not a book blogger. I’d rather tell people about books I love or enjoyed. So I didn’t see the point of spending time and energy on negative reviews anymore.

    When I do write reviews, I try to balance highlights with critiques, and honesty with fairness. If I didn’t like a certain aspect about a book, I’ll explain it so other people understand the issue I had, but I’ll word it carefully. It’s almost like I’m treating it as a beta-read for a fellow writer. I’d never be caustic or disrespectful to them, so I might as well treat published writers the same way if I like their work for the most part.

    1. Hi Sara,
      I loved your negative reviews, they were so honest and never mean. Funny you should mention treating reviews like a beta-read, I’m much more critical as a beta. I assume things can still be fixed at that stage. I dig deep and mention all the little flaws. I would never be that detailed in a review. I think it would come off as mean.

      I’ve come to the same conclusion, I don’t plan to be a book blogger. I don’t mind reviewing, but I’m not going to spend the bulk of my time doing it.

  3. Some great points here! Writing reviews is tough — you have to be honest, but being honest can sometimes hurt people.

    I don’t often end up writing negative reviews, because I usually only read books that I’m sure I will like. Sometimes, though, I strike out. In that case, I still write a review, but only on Goodreads and not Amazon. And, of course, if the author asks me to take it down I will be happy to oblige.

    PS. I wrote a similar post focusing on negative reviews here: http://www.elliefirestone.com/2016/08/how-to-write-negative-book-reviews.html

    1. Hi Ellie,
      I just read your post. I could relate to your point about American Vs. British spellings. It’s fine for a reader to prefer one way over the other, but not to rate the book lower for it. It’s amazing the things some reviewers will lock onto when leaving a negative comments.

  4. Before I started writing books myself, I wrote a book review blog. The thing that was the beginning of the end of the blog reviews was the receipt of a book in the mail after only an email from an author telling me she was going to send it and no other correspondence. I accepted it and I tried to read it but it was beyond awful. It was meant to be a play but it was written as a book with only the dialog. Most of the stage direction had been removed and all of the setting information was missing (if it had ever existed). There was no context for anything. Much of the time, I didn’t even know who was speaking.

    I just couldn’t write a review about that book that would mean anything meaningful to anyone other than to say that it was terrible and not to bother with it. I couldn’t do that to the author so I didn’t review it on my site or on Amazon. The author was relentless. She emailed me once or twice per day asking me what I thought and why I hadn’t reviewed it and then, when I told her why I hadn’t and wouldn’t be, she was deeply offended that I “completely misunderstood” her book. My reviewing ‘career’ only went downhill from there.

    I do write Amazon reviews from time to time now but under a pseudonym and never divulging that I am an author too. I won’t rate a book less than four stars without speaking to the author first. Most authors have been accessible. On my own author website, I don’t post reviews at all…even of my own books. On social media I’ll often post reviews of other people’s work from sites I trust. I like to support other authors but, for me, based on my experiences, I’ve had to set limits.

    1. Hi Anne,
      Yikes! That sounds like an awful situation. I’ve often wondered about blogs that let authors submit books. I don’t think I would ever want to do that myself and for just this reason. I can understand why you took a step back from book blogging after this experience. I’m glad you’re still reviewing, even if (for comfort sake) it needs to be under a different name.

  5. I review for a review team and only pick the books I fancy, but sometimes those books might disappoint, if they are not well written. We won’t review a book for which we can’t give at least 3*, and try to use the ‘sandwich’ approach – a postive paragraph, then the negative, then end up with the positive. But there is no point in the book blog if all books have good reviews, whether they’re honest or not. And if people submit a book to a review blog, they must take the rough with the smooth; the owner of the blog clearly states on the submissions page that good reviews are not guaranteed! Doesn’t mean she hasn’t had some pretty harsh comeback, though….

    1. Hi Terry,
      I love the sandwich method, it’s important to find the good and highlight it.
      I’m sad to hear your blog gets harsh remarks from some of the authors. It used to be that 3 stars wasn’t considered a bad rating.

  6. Great guide for how to review without stinking up the room, with plenty of practical ways of incorporating a criticism without lynching an author. I know several bloggers who won’t review unless they can fairly assign at least 4 out 5 stars – in my opinion, another way to avoid a noose.

    1. Hi Sharon,
      I know avoiding the issue works for many reviewers, but I don’t see the review’s role as just a star dispensing machine. I like to read reviews with some substance.

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