What Makes a Thoughtful Book Review?

October 21, 2020 Uncategorized 16

For at least the past year, one of my main blogging goals has been to write more thoughtful reviews. Tracking my goals every month has made me realize I need to better define what this even means. I know there are many bloggers I follow whose reviews I consider thoughtful, so to answer this question, I considered what features they have in common. I also thought about commonalities between my favorite reviews that I’ve written myself. I’ll share the qualities that I look for in a thoughtful review below, but I’d also love to hear what you think makes a thoughtful/good book review in the comments.

From my own reviews, I know that more thoughtful reviews take more time to write. For reviews where I just give a brief overview of my reaction to a book, I usually take 30 minutes. For my stronger, more in-depth reviews, I typically spend about an hour.

When I say a review is thoughtful, one thing I mean is that it covers more than just a summary of the plot and/or the reviewer’s subjective response to the book. A thoughtful review should give specific descriptions of what worked and what didn’t. For example, I would consider a review more thoughtful (and more helpful!) if it described an author’s writing as ‘lyrical’ or ‘precise’, instead of just ‘great’.

I also appreciate when a review engages with the content of a book. Instead of just describing the quality of the writing, a review like this also addresses the substance of a book. I mostly imagine nonfiction when I’m thinking about this criteria. A reviewer engaging with the content of a nonfiction book might share whether they found the author’s points convincing. This can definitely be done with fiction as well though, perhaps talking about themes in an author’s work. I think I manage to include these elements in my reviews some of the time. I’m also generally aware of whether or not I’m doing so.

Last but not least, I’ve noticed that thoughtful reviews often describe the context in which a particular work was published. This may include things like descriptions of who the author is and what they’ve written previously or descriptions of other books that are somehow related. I very rarely do this in my own reviews, but find the additional information it provides to be useful for understanding a particular book. It’s something I’d like to try to do more often. I hope it will continue to become easier as I read more books that are related to one another.

What elements would make you describe a review as thoughtful? Or are there other qualities common to the reviews that you admire?

16 Responses to “What Makes a Thoughtful Book Review?”

    • DoingDewey

      I haven’t especially been thinking about these points while in the process of reading myself, but your comment makes me think I might like to. I think that could help me get more out of the books I’m reading, since I’d also probably be reading more thoughtfully 🙂

  1. Helen Murdoch

    All good points. I often feel that I am rushing through book reviews, commenting on the writing, characters, and plot (without giving any spoilers), but not going much further for fiction.

    I think nonfiction needs something a little different. It’s not like we’re going to spoil the story, per se, but there are different things to consider.

    Thank you for these thoughtful ideas.
    Helen Murdoch recently posted…Review: To Tell You the Truth by Gilly MacMillanMy Profile

    • DoingDewey

      I’m the same way! I typically give my reaction to the writing, characters, and plot, but if I don’t work at doing more, that’s as far as I’ll get.

      I do find the fact that it’s harder to spoil nonfiction can make it easier for me to write a more in-depth review. Even themes for fiction can be too much to share.

  2. Jenny @ Reading the End

    I agree with all of this and I VERY much agree with Monika’s point that it’s often harder to review nonfiction than fiction. I’m not sure why (especially given that I review nonfiction for Booklist and therefore am obviously capable of doing so hahahah), but I am definitely less likely to write a proper review of a nonfiction book on the blog. I think it may have to do with the fact that like — either someone’s interested in the content of that book or they’re not! So I don’t feel like my review is as useful, maybe? (Which is silly because I love reading other people’s nonfiction reviews to get a sense of the style of the book etc.)

    • DoingDewey

      Interesting! I actually find this easier to do for nonfiction, in part because, as Helen mentioned above, you don’t need to worry as much about spoilers. When I try to write more in depth reviews of fiction, I sometimes start to feel like I’m in an English class where I don’t know what I’m doing. Should I look for metaphors? Am I missing important themes? Death of the author theory or no? I just don’t know.

      Like you, I definitely find reviews of nonfiction helpful. There are some authors who can make any topic interesting (I’d read anything by Mary Roach, for example) and some authors who can ruin a perfectly good topic for me, so the topic isn’t the most important factor in what I’ll like 🙂

  3. Lisa @ Reading, Writing, and Random Musings

    You’ve given me some food for thought with this post. I am definitely going to be more reflective than I have been in my post writing! I think I have definitely been a bit more superficial in my reviews (partly because I also prefer brevity in the posts that I read myself), but I think I can probably find a better balance overall.
    Lisa @ Reading, Writing, and Random Musings recently posted…Book Review: You Know I’m No GoodMy Profile

    • DoingDewey

      I don’t mind reading a longer book review, but I do sometimes feel uncomfortable writing longer reviews myself. I’m less certain other people will want to read long reviews and I start worrying about whether my font is annoyingly small! I think you’re right that it’s a balance 🙂

  4. Louloureads

    I like these points a lot, especially about engaging with the way the author presents their information – I hate it when I feel like the author is relying on lazy, easy heartstring-pulling moments (like putting a child in danger just to amp up the tension and not for actual plot or theme reasons), and I appreciate it when reviewers point that out. I also like reviews where the blogger acknowledges the context in which they themselves have read the book – do they have expertise in the area, did it use a particular trope that they personally dislike, etc. I have read negative reviews that very fairly pointed out why a book wasn’t for a particular blogger, and had those negative reviews actually sell me on a book! I think that’s a sign of a thoughtful review.
    Louloureads recently posted…Death Has Deep Roots #indiechallengeMy Profile

    • DoingDewey

      Oh, I love your example of engaging with content in fiction. I also dislike it when I feel an author has written something sad just to try to pull some emotion out of the reader and that’s something I’d like to hear about in a review.

      I also think you make a great point about personal context. The points you mention about expertise and personal preference are nice to know. Sometimes I even feel like I need to share what mood I was in, since that can make me dislike a book I might have enjoyed at another time.

  5. Lory

    This is a good question and I like the points you bring up. Nonfiction book reviews challenge me to write a thoughtful review, because kind of by definition nonfiction calls on my ability to think. I would consider nonfiction that is too much about feelings and opinions to be polemical and biased.

    In a review I want to clarify and share those thoughts in an organized way, so that takes some work. Fiction certainly inspires me to think as well but not necessarily in such a focused way.
    Lory recently posted…Am I an e-book convert?My Profile

    • DoingDewey

      You make an interesting point about nonfiction being more about thinking and less about feelings to begin with! I know I do find it easier to write thoughtful reviews about nonfiction and I think this might be part of it. I’m a little more likely to have by really thinking and actively engaging when I’m reading nonfiction, which probably helps when I go to write my review.
      DoingDewey recently posted…Nonfiction FridayMy Profile

  6. Aj @ Read All The Things!

    The reason I stopped writing reviews is because they take forever to write if you want to do them well. I like when reviewers look beyond the story. What is the book saying about our world? What did the reader learn that can be applied to people’s real lives?
    Aj @ Read All The Things! recently posted…The Sunday Post #247My Profile

    • DoingDewey

      It’s true, there’s definitely a time cost to doing that sort of review and I can’t always convince myself to take that extra time! I’ve decided I’m alright with some portion of my reviews being less in-depth though and that keeps the total time within a range that’s working for me.

  7. Gina M

    Your post really hit home for me. In my review posts, my book blogging program lists all the book info including the synopsis and an author profile. I simply add my thoughts on the book and graphics. For some books, I just add a few quick paragraphs about pacing, setting, characters, who I think would enjoy reading it, etc. If a book really resonated with me, I go more in-depth and discuss why it captivated me. Overall I keep my thoughts fairly short. I usually don’t enjoy reading long reviews of a book. I like just enough info to let me decide whether or not to check out the book.

    (Coming to you from Jenny’s Twitter thread)
    Gina M recently posted…Christmas at Aunt Elsies by Emily HarvaleMy Profile

    • DoingDewey

      Thanks Gina! I’ve found that lately I’m drawn to longer book reviews (longer than previously, still probably most reviews I read are a max of 5 paragraphs), but I know this is a matter of taste. There’s definitely something to be said for being able to express your thoughts concisely too though! I love that you add graphics to your posts. That’s not something I’m willing to take on very often, but that I really enjoy in other blogger’s posts.

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