Tuesday, April 16, 2024

A Beginner's Guide To Reviewing Books

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Recently, I met a person, and this conversation happened:

Her: "What did you study in college?"

Me: "My BA is in English literature. My MFA is in children's literature."

Her: "So you like reading?"

Me: "Yep. I read books and talk about them on the internet."

Her: "I like books, but I sound stupid when I talk about them."

Me: "Me too, but that's never stopped me."

The conversation made me wonder what goes on inside my head while I'm writing a book review. What do I look for in fiction? What do I say in reviews?

I decided to make a list of everything I think about while I'm judging a book. I even used the literary terms website to find official definitions of the stuff I'm talking about. (Apparently, fancy terms are how you sound really smart.) It's like high school English class all over again.

The list of stuff I think about while reviewing books is surprisingly long. I'm shocked I have this many thoughts. Hopefully, my list will give you some ideas for how to talk about books.

🕮  How To Talk About Books On The Internet And Sound Really Smart  💻


First, what's the point of reviewing books on the internet? Have you ever walked into a bookstore or library and felt completely overwhelmed by choices? There's too many books and too little time! That's when book reviews are helpful. An overwhelmed bookworm can scroll through reviews and quickly discover the best and worst elements of a book. It's the reviewer's job to identify those elements and write about them. Basically, you're trying to convince someone to read or avoid a novel.

Oh—before we make ourselves look silly—the word "novel" is not a synonym for "book." Not all books are novels! According to the dictionary, a novel is "an extended work of narrative fiction usually written in prose and published as a book." In this post, I'm mostly discussing works of book-length fiction. (AKA novels.) Nonfiction books are not novels. Poetry and short story collections are not novels. Plays are not novels.

Okay. Moving on: what should we mention in a review that will help someone decide if they should spend their money?

Authorial Intent

"Authorial intent is the way an author desires readers to understand their work." (Source)

If an author is good at their job, then the author's intent and the reader's reactions will match up. The reader will understand the message that the author is trying to deliver. The reader will also react to characters and events in the ways that the author wants.

Some reviewers aren't great at figuring out authorial intent and assume that every character in a book is a mouthpiece for an author's beliefs. That's why there are so many reviews of horror novels that say, "This author is clearly a psychopath!"

When determining authorial intent, you have to look at the whole text. If an "evil" character has their actions challenged or punished, then the author probably isn't promoting bad behavior. The author is showing that bad behavior has consequences.

Sometimes authors suck at their job and don't get their intentions across to the reader. Have you ever felt like an author was trying really hard to manipulate your emotions, but it just wasn't working? That might be a failure in communication between the author and reader. The author could have the coolest intentions ever, but they won't mean anything if the author can't communicate.

When reviewing a book, it could be helpful to consider an author's intentions. How do you think the author wanted you to react to a book? Did you have the intended reaction?


Believability. An English professor once told me that the only difference between fiction and real life is that fiction has to make sense.

A few years ago, I attempted to read a dystopian book. There's a scene where two characters are tied to opposite ends of a long rope. They're running along a cliff to escape from bad guys. The male character falls off the cliff. The female character arrests his fall without even breaking stride. She doesn't get yanked off her feet when he hits the end of the rope. She doesn't even comment on how uncomfortable it is to run along a cliff with a 250-pound friend swinging from your waist like a pendulum. He climbs back up the rope while she's wearing it as a belt! She just sprints along and defies the laws of reality.

Do you know how many real-life mountain climbers have died in similar situations? I closed the book and chucked it in my donate box because I suck at suspension of disbelief. Some books require too much of it.

"Suspension of disbelief is the avoidance—often described as willing—of critical thinking and logic in understanding something that is unreal or impossible in reality, such as something in a work of speculative fiction, in order to believe it for the sake of enjoying its narrative." (Source)

Think about a book you want to review. Could you suspend your disbelief well enough to enjoy the story? Did you find the plot events believable? Did the characters' choices make sense? Even fantasy worlds should have rules that govern them. Did you understand those rules?


Characters are the most important part of a novel (in my opinion). The characters preform the actions, speak the dialogue, and learn the lessons. A novel (probably?) can't exist without them.

The characters don't need to be likeable, but they need to be interesting. They need to do something. Tom Ripley and Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov are both insufferable humans, but I was happy to read about them because they're not passive characters. They don't wait for the plot to happen to them. They take action and drive the plot. I love a character with a strong personality or a narrator with a unique voice.

"In literature, the voice expresses the narrator or author’s emotions, attitude, tone and point of view through artful, well thought out use of word choice and diction. A voice may be formal or informal; serious or lighthearted; positive or negative; persuasive or argumentative; comical or depressed; witty or straightforward; objective or subjective—truly, voice can reflect any and all feelings and perspectives. A work’s voice directly contributes to its tone and mood; helping the writer create the desired effect he wants his words to have on readers." (Source)

In addition to voice, there are lots of vocab words we can use to sound smart while discussing characters.

The most important characters in a novel are called main characters or major characters. Main characters are protagonists or antagonists. The protagonist is the character that the story revolves around. They're impacted by the story's conflict. The antagonist causes the conflict. (It is possible for a character to be both a protagonist and an antagonist.)

All the other characters in a story are called minor characters or background characters. They're less important, but they should still have a reason for existing. Unnecessary characters suck!

A dynamic character is one who changes over the course of the novel. They may learn a lesson, or their life circumstances may be very different by the end of the book.

A static character is the opposite of dynamic. They're the exact same person at the beginning and the end of the novel. No lessons learned. Nothing gained or lost.

A stock character is stereotypical or predictable. Think of the damsel in distress, the bad boy, the funny sidekick, the wise mentor. They're clichés.

A round or well-developed character is one that has depth and realism. They have strengths, flaws, opinions, interests, relationships, backstories, and more.

A flat or one-dimensional character is the opposite of round. These characters are usually good or evil. The reader doesn't learn much about them.

Foils are two characters with opposite traits. The antagonist is often the foil of the protagonist. They have opposing ideas. (An obvious example would be Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy.)

Okay, now think about the characters in the book you're reviewing. Did you understand their feelings and perspectives? Did they drive the action, or did they just react to events that happened? Were some of the characters unnecessary? Were they static or dynamic? Flat or round? Most importantly: Did you find them compelling to read about? No one wants lackluster characters!


Conflict is what builds suspense and holds the reader's attention. If the characters get themselves into a big mess, I'll keep turning pages to find out how they fix it.

"A conflict is a literary device that presents the struggle between two sides due to a disagreement in values, desires, motivations, etc. It doesn't necessarily need to be man verses man, but can be man against nature, man against society or even man against themselves." (Source)

"Conflict" doesn't always mean "argument between characters." The conflict is whatever problem the characters are trying to overcome.

Good conflict is essential! How the characters respond to conflict is what makes readers love or hate them. For example, have you read a book by Andy Weir? He's not a brilliant writer (in my opinion), but I love his books because of the optimistic and innovative ways his characters approach conflict.

Conflict should be multi-sided, interesting, and not have an obvious solution.

What makes conflict interesting? That's up to each individual reader. An uninteresting conflict might be the miscommunication trope. Bookworms are unimpressed when the conflict can be fixed with a single conversation. However, I'm sure there's an author somewhere who has pulled off miscommunication in a satisfying way.

What's the major conflict in the book you're reviewing? Was it complicated enough to hold your attention? Did the characters respond to it in believable ways?


Dialogue is anything the characters say to each other. Dialogue can be realistic or not. Most books fall in the middle of the realism scale.

Truly realistic dialogue is annoying. Have you ever read a computer-generated transcript of a real-life conversation? There's lots of "ums" and sudden subject changes. People interrupt each other constantly. They go on tangents. This stuff is fine when you're participating in a conversation, but it's unpleasant to read. That's why most novels don't have truly realistic dialogue.

The majority of authors shoot for "realistic enough." Each author has their own idea of "realistic enough."

Authors such as Mark Twain use dialect in an attempt to make their dialogue as realistic as possible.

"dialect (pronounced DIE-uh-lect) is any particular form of a language spoken by some group of people, such as southern English, Black English, Appalachian English, or even standard English. In literature, “dialect” means a form of writing that shows the accent and way people talk in a particular region. Because of this, it can sometimes risk being offensive to the people you’re imitating, but lots of great authors have used dialect in their work, and if you do it carefully it can give a lot of color and realism to a novel, poem, or story." (Source)

Some authors don't bother making their dialogue realistic. Shakespeare's dialogue isn't realistic because people don't intentionally speak in iambic pentameter. Or have you read The Fault In Our Stars? My friends and I didn't speak like that when we were teenagers. We used fewer metaphors and more swear words and sexual innuendos. 

Authors sometimes swerve around the realism problem by not using quotation marks in their books. Quotation marks mean that the words are a direct quote. They're the exact words the character used. Leaving out the quotation marks could mean that the narrator doesn't remember a character's exact words. They only remember the important bits of a conversation.

When writing a book review, consider how the author uses dialogue. Is it realistic or unrealistic? Is it offensive or accurate? Did the dialogue impact your enjoyment of the book?

Genre Conventions And Comparative Titles

Genre conventions and comparative (comp) titles are great to mention in a review because publishers love to mis-market books. I'm pretty sure mis-marketing is publishers' favorite hobby. Remember when every young adult book was compared to Twilight, even if the two books had nothing in common except teenage love? Yeah . . . that's annoying for readers. We demand better comp titles!

For comp titles, think of The Catcher In The Rye and The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. They both have first-person narrators who are similar in age and have similar voices. The themes of both books are similar. Both books are slightly over 200 pages and have slow pacing. If a reader enjoyed one of those novels, they might like the other. Mentioning comp titles in a review can help a book find its audience.

"Intertextuality (pronounced in-terr-text-yoo-a-lih-tee) is not a literary or rhetorical device, but rather a fact about literary texts—the fact that they are all intimately interconnected. This applies to all texts: novels, works of philosophy, newspaper articles, films, songs, paintings, etc. In order to understand intertextuality, it’s crucial to understand this broad definition of the word “text.” Every text is affected by all the texts that came before it, since those texts influenced the author’s thinking and aesthetic choices. Remember: every text (again in the broadest sense) is intertextual." (Source)

Books are going to remind you of other books because art doesn't exist in a vacuum. If you see the threads connecting two novels, then they're probably good comp titles.

In addition to screwing up the comp titles, publishers love to slap the wrong genre label on their books. If you pick up a science fiction novel, and there's no futuristic science, you'll probably be confused. If you buy a romance, and the main characters don't end up in a relationship, you might be disappointed. Readers have expectations for the genre they're reading. The only way to become familiar with genre conventions is to read a lot of books. You'll start seeing similarities between books from the same genre.

"Literary conventions are the features of a literary work that define its genre. These elements can be tropes, arcs, clichés, or certain devices that help distinguish how your audience will classify your literary text." (Source)

Does the book you're reviewing adhere to genre conventions or subvert them? Is the book being marketed correctly, or does it need a different genre label? Does it remind you of other books you've read?


Narcissism. I regret to inform you that this whole blog post is based on a lie. I don't talk about books on the internet. I talk about myself refracted through the lens of books. Books are just an excuse to talk about me! If you've been on this blog before, you've probably seen my stupid anecdotes in the middle of book reviews. I'm always talking about myself.

Some books leave massive impact craters on your brain. Other books leave ripples, but they all leave something, even if it's fleeting. Did the book remind you of your own experiences? Did you learn a new fact? Did you have fun reading it? Is it the worst thing you've ever read?

The only difference between your book review and a thousand others is you. It's okay to deviate from the script. This isn't a high school book report, and you don't need to treat it like one.

Narrative Structure

Narrative structure is what I wrote my grad school thesis about, so I have opinions. Too many of them. It was a very long thesis. It used to be available on some pretentious academic website, and you could pay your hard-earned cash for the misfortune of reading it, but it's not available anymore. (No one is sad about that.)

But anyway:

"Narrative structure refers to the way in which a story is organized and presented to the reader or audience." (Source)

The most common narrative structure is linear. The plot events are told in chronological order. The story feels like it's always moving forward toward a climax and conclusion.

The second most common narrative structure is nonlinear. The plot events are told non-chronologically through flashbacks and flashforwards. If you listen to children or trauma survivors tell stories, they often use this structure. Linear time can be murky for them. They might not know the exact order of events.

Then there's circular structure. Do you remember the "Record Scratch Freeze Frame" meme from years ago? That's circular structure! The story opens with a predicament and then circles back to explain it.

There's also parallel plotlines. This is common in epic fantasy like A Game Of Thrones. There are a butt-ton of characters, and they're all on separate journeys. The author bounces from character to character. Events often happen simultaneously in different parts of the world. The plotlines converge, and break away, and converge again.

We can't forget choose your own adventure! The reader is given options and chooses what happens next.

Okay, that's enough. This is just the surface of narrative structure. When it comes to book reviews, ask yourself why the author chose a particular structure for their novel. Did it build suspense? Did it show you something about the characters? Was it funny? Was it hopelessly confusing? (I'm looking at you, William Faulkner.)

Other Reviewers

Other reviewers. It's not cheating to look at other people's book reviews! (But plagiarism is cheating. Don't plagiarize.)

"Plagiarism is the act of using someone else’s ideas, words, or thoughts as your own without giving credit to the other person. When you give credit to the original author (by giving the person’s name, name of the article, and where it was posted or printed), you are citing the source." (Source)

I rarely look at book reviews while I'm reading a book, but after I finish the book and have my opinion, I go on Goodreads to check reviews. I read the 5-star and 2-star reviews. For some reason, those are the most helpful. I want to hear from people who love the book and people who are critical but not haters.

Why do I read reviews? Because other reviewers might see something I missed. Sometimes, I have very little in common with the characters in a book. Other times, I'm not an expert on the book's topic. Instead of pretending to be an expert, I can boost the voice of a reviewer who actually knows what they're talking about. I can either cite them in my review or share their review on my social media accounts.


Pacing is how quickly the action moves in a novel, and it often depends on the book's genre.

"A genre is a category of literature identified by form, content, and style. Genres allow literary critics and students to classify compositions within the larger canon of literature. Genre (pronounced ˈzhän-rə) is derived from the French phrase genre meaning 'kind' or 'type.'" (Source)

Thrillers have quick pacing. They focus on plot twists, fights, chases, and snappy dialogue. It's all very external.

Literary fiction has a slow pace. Those books tend to have a descriptive writing style and focus on complex relationships, psychological questions, and philosophy. It's all very internal.

The pacing of most books falls somewhere in the middle.

You can actually judge the pacing of a book just by looking at it. Flip through the pages. If the pages have lots of white space, it (probably) has fast pacing. If the pages have lots of text, it (probably) has slow pacing.

Some books have disastrous pacing. Have you ever read a novel that takes forever to build up to an action scene? Then the long-awaited action is over in a few pages? Then you're just . . . confused and disappointed? That's a pacing issue that you could note in your review.

How's the pacing in the book you're reviewing? Did you think it was fast, medium, slow, or uneven? Saggy middles are a big problem in books. Did you get bored in the middle because there wasn't enough happening?


Plot is all the events that happen in a story. It's hard for me to write about because I love books that are "no plot just vibes." I wouldn't call myself a plot expert! If the characters and setting are interesting enough, I don't need much action.

Plot can vary a lot from book to book, but it has some basic elements that can be found in most novels:

The beginning exposition happens at the beginning (obviously). It introduces the setting and the main characters. It may also hint at the conflict.

The inciting incident introduces the conflict. That's when the plot really gets going because the characters now have a problem to solve.

Rising action is where the problem gets complicated.

Climax is the most suspenseful part of the story. The characters are forced to make decisions, confront fears, and (maybe) solve the problem.

Falling action is where the pace slows down, and the author ties up loose plotlines. The characters have to deal with the consequences of the climax.

Denouement is how you say "ending" when you want to sound really smart.

"The denouement (dey-noo-mahn) is the very end of a story, the part where all the different plotlines are finally tied up and all remaining questions answered. It happens right after the climax, the most exciting point in the story, and it shows the aftermath of that climax, giving the reader some hints as to what will happen next. The denouement is usually the very last thing your audience sees, so it has to be well-written or the story will seem unsatisfying." (Source)

How's the plot of the book you're reviewing? Is it unpredictable or cliché? Is the book plot-driven with a lot of action? Or is it a character-driven book that barely has any action at all? Is there a satisfying denouement that answers most of the reader's lingering questions? Were the plot events believable?

Point Of View

Point of view. Have you ever read a story that was told from multiple characters' points of view? Did you love some of the viewpoints and find others tedious? In my experience, that's pretty common. I almost always like one character more than others.

"Point of view (POV) is what the character or narrator telling the story can see (his or her perspective). The author chooses “who” is to tell the story by determining the point of view. Depending on who the narrator is, he/she will be standing at one point and seeing the action. This viewpoint will give the narrator a partial or whole view of events as they happen." (Source)

If a novel is told from multiple points of view, it will almost always have the characters' names as chapter headings. That's a quick way to see whose head you're in.

One of my pet peeves is when the characters' voices sound too similar. I don't want to flip back to the beginning of a chapter to remind myself whose perspective I'm reading. I want the characters to have unique ideas and ways of expressing themselves.

Usually, stories that are told from multiple points of view are written in third person. The reader is watching the characters like a spectator. The author uses "he/she/they" when referring to the characters. For example, "He went to the store. He bought more books." Third person is like watching a movie.

With first person POV, a character (who's called the narrator) is telling the story to the reader. The narrator uses "I" to refer to themselves. For example, "I went to the store. I bought more books." First person is like listening to a friend.

Second person is rare because it's annoying. You are the character in a second person story. "You went to the store. You bought more books." Second person is like having your body hijacked by the author.

How is POV handled in the book you're reviewing? Could you easily tell the characters apart? Did you enjoy some perspectives more than others?

Setting And Atmosphere

Setting and atmosphere are vitally important to me. I (usually) won't give a novel 5 stars unless it has a strong sense of place. I'm a believer that humans are a product of their environment. If you were born in a different time and place, you'd be a very different person.

When I'm reviewing a book, I note where the book is set, especially if the setting impacts the characters' behavior. I also ask myself if the author uses descriptions of the setting to create atmosphere. (Is the story set in a spooky mansion or a bright, cheery cottage? That's atmosphere.)

"Atmosphere is the overall mood of a story or poem. It’s usually something readers can’t quite put their finger on—not a motif or a theme, but a “feel” that readers get as they read. It’s very difficult to define, but you know an atmosphere when you read it. Atmosphere mainly emerges through description rather than action—it’s not what people do that creates an atmosphere, but the settings and environments that stage what they do." (Source)

There are two types of settings. The kind I hate is backdrop setting. The author is vague about the story's location and time period because they want their book to be timeless. The author wants the reader to get the sense that the plot can happen anywhere, anytime. These books usually aren't atmospheric.

I prefer integral setting. The reader knows where and when the story is set. Often, the setting impacts the plot. Most historical fiction has an integral setting because the plot is shaped by the technology and culture of the time period. These books are often atmospheric.

While we're talking about historical fiction, let's talk about anachronisms. I recently read a book set in 1906. A character uses the phrase "shell shock," which wasn't invented until WWI. Unless it's done deliberately to be funny, historical inaccuracy will pull the reader out of the story and send them to Google.

"Anachronism (pronounced ah-NACK-ruh-nism) is a Greek word meaning “backward time.” It’s what happens when an author, deliberately or accidentally, puts historical events, fashions, technology, etc., in the wrong place. This could include simple things like a historical film putting the wrong type of weapon in the hands of the soldiers, or it could be extreme inaccuracies such as having cavemen fight dinosaurs. The point is that the story shows something happening at a time when it would be impossible, or at least extremely unlikely, for that thing to happen." (Source)

What did you think of the setting in the book you're reviewing? Did the setting add to the story, or was it just . . . there? Was the book atmospheric? Did you catch any anachronisms?

Suspense And Intrigue

Suspense and intrigue grow out of a story's conflict and motivate the reader to keep reading. How does the author hold a reader's attention? It might be with nonstop action and plot twists. The author might end every chapter on a cliffhanger, like in The Hunger Games. The author could ask an interesting question and make the reader wait for the answer. Or the characters could be so loveable that the reader doesn't want to let them go. All of these things make a book suspenseful and/or intriguing.

The intrigue could also come from less obvious places. Maybe the reader and the character are similar, and the reader enjoys seeing their real life reflected in fiction.

Or maybe the reader finds the story cathartic.

"Catharsis, meaning 'cleansing' in Greek, refers to a literary theory first developed by the philosopher Aristotle, who believed that cleansing our emotions was the purpose of a good story, especially a tragedy. Catharsis applies to any form of art or media that makes us feel strong negative emotions, but that we are nonetheless drawn to—we may seek out art that creates these emotions because the experience purges the emotions from our system. We can feel something intense, then walk out of the theater feeling better afterwards. Catharsis is roughly synonymous with the idea of 'blowing off steam.'" (Source)

If a book is boring, it might not have enough suspense or the right kind of intrigue for you. If you can't stop thinking about a book, you might ask yourself what's so intriguing about it. How did the author catch your attention and keep it?

Target Audience

Target audience. I once saw a review that said, "This book is stupid. It's for kids." Um . . . the book isn't stupid, Susan. You're just not a child. You're not the book's target audience!

The dictionary says, "The target audience is the intended audience or readership of a publication, advertisement, or other message."

Not every book is for you! You're not always the intended audience! This is especially obvious with nonfiction. Some nonfiction books are targeted at beginners and provide an introduction to a topic. Other nonfiction books are targeted at experts and skip all the introductory stuff. The author assumes you know it.

It's also obvious with international translated fiction. Sometimes, an author casually mentions a historical event or famous person that I know nothing about. The author doesn't bother explaining because the book's intended audience already knows the background information. The book has been translated into a language I can read, but the book wasn't written for me. I have to keep that in mind when I'm reviewing. I might be confused, but the target audience isn't confused.

Different genres of books have different target audiences. A horror book and a romance book might not appeal to the same person. Remember when we were talking about genre conventions and how publishers love to mis-market books? If you buy a novel from the horror section of the bookstore, you expect it to appeal to horror lovers, but sometimes it doesn't. Maybe it would appeal to fantasy lovers but is being mis-marketed.

Now think about the book you're trying to review. Who's the target audience? Do you think the book is being marketed incorrectly and therefore not reaching an audience that would love it?

Look for reviews written by members of the intended audience. Do they like the book? Maybe you can amplify their voices on social media to help the book find the right readers.

Themes, Motifs, And Symbols

Themes, motifs, and symbols. We're really going back to high school in this section. Remember themes? Those confusing things your English teacher loved to ramble about? Most books have themes. I used to think all books had themes, but then I was introduced to BookTok smut and had to reevaluate my entire education.

"One of the first questions to ask upon hearing someone has written a story is, 'What’s it about?' or 'What’s the point?' Short answers may range from love to betrayal or from the coming of age to the haziness of memory. The central idea, topic, or point of a story, essay, or narrative is its theme." (Source)

What message does the author want you to take away from the story? What's the point of reading the book? Some books have subtle themes, and you need to use your critical thinking skills to find them. Other authors smack you in the face with the theme. They state it outright. Usually several times. Their story has Important Things To Say™, and they won't let you miss it.

Are you struggling to figure out a book's theme? Try looking for symbols and motifs. They might point you in the right direction.

"A symbol (pronounced SIM-bull) is any image or thing that stands for something else . . . . A tree might symbolize nature. Einstein symbolizes genius in our culture. Anything can be a symbol, if we make it one. In literature, symbols are often characters, settings, images, or other motifs that stand in for bigger ideas. Authors often use symbols (or “symbolism”) to give their work more meaning and to make a story be about more than the events it describes. This is one of the most basic and widespread of all literary techniques." (Source)

"A motif is a symbolic image or idea that appears frequently in a story. Motifs can be symbols, sounds, actions, ideas, or words. Motifs strengthen a story by adding images and ideas to the theme present throughout the narrative. The word motif (pronounced moh-teef) is derived from the French phrase motif meaning 'pattern.'" (Source)

Here's an easy way to remember the difference between symbol and motif. A symbol can stand alone. A motif is a symbol that's repeated. If an author mentions something multiple times, it's probably a motif and a clue to the theme.

How does the author handle the theme of the book you're reviewing? Did the author make you see the world in new ways, or did you roll your eyes so hard they almost shot out of your head? Were there any symbols or motifs that you thought worked well? Did the author harp on the story's moral so much that you got irritated?


Worldbuilding is something I criticize often in science fiction and fantasy. If a story doesn't take place in my world, I need to be educated about the story's world. However, I don't want to be bored. No infodumps, please. I'll skim them and then complain about them in my review.

"Worldbuilding is the process of creating a fictional world. For writers, this means thinking about and devising various aspects of their fictional universe. This includes geography, society, culture, ecology, science, and even language—from mechanics to how characters interact with the environment." (Source)

One of the reasons I struggle with speculative fiction is because I don't feel settled in the world. I can't concentrate on characters and plot if I'm confused about the setting. I especially struggle with magic systems. If a character has magic, I want to know how it works, how much the character can influence their surroundings, and the consequences of using magic. Not every author tells me these things! It's frustrating.

Worldbuilding isn't just for speculative fiction. If a story is set in a real place, I'd still like to see the geography, culture, language, etc. Those things could give me a better understanding of the characters.

How is the worldbuilding in the book you're reviewing? Did you understand the rules? Did the world feel like a real place? Were the characters shaped by their environment?

Writing Style

Writing style is a personal preference for readers. Some readers like writing that draws attention to itself. They enjoy highlighting and underlining their books, and they want authors to articulate ideas in ways they've never seen before. They enjoy poetic language or wordplay.

"Wordplay (or word play, and also called play-on-words) is the clever and witty use of words and meaning. It involves using literary devices and techniques like consonance, assonance, spelling, alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhyme, acronym, pun, and slang (to name a few) to form amusing and often humorous written and oral expressions. Using wordplay techniques relies on several different aspects of rhetoric, like spelling, phonetics (sound and pronunciation of words), and semantics (meaning of words)." (Source)

Some readers can't stand flowery writing. Those people want the writing style to be a window with flawless glass. They don't want to see the glass. They want to see the characters and the action on the other side of it. The writing fades into the background and gets the job done. It's straightforward and not poetic.

Most books fall somewhere between flowery and straightforward.

It's helpful to talk about writing style in a book review because some readers love one style and can't stand the other. If you highlighted any beautiful or memorable lines, share them in your review. A quote can give readers a glimpse into an author's style.

That's everything I think about while I'm reviewing a book! When I write the review, I don't mention every single thing I wrote about in this post. I just pick a few elements that stood out to me the most (in good or bad ways). I might talk about plot and characters but not mention narrative structure or pacing because there wasn't anything interesting to say about them. Every review is different because every book is different.

Talk to me about book reviews! What do you think about while you're judging a book?


  1. Lol! Look at you pretending to sound stupid when you talk about books and then going on to write a whole long essay for talking about books that sounds smart as hell! My book reviews consists on just interchanging exclamatory words like; incredible, fantastic, amazing, beautiful, breathtaking, and etc. I might need to add a few more similar words to my vocabulary soon! 😂

  2. Oh my goodness, such an amazing and thoughtful post about what we do on a weekly basis. I don't put nearly that much thought into my reviews (and, it shows). I think about setting, characters, did the plot work or are there too many glaring gaps, and (let's be honest) did the book work for me.

  3. This is wonderful but why did I read it just after posting three book reviews. Of course, only one is a novel, but is it really a novel. I do like your honesty in the narcissism section. Yeah, books are ways we talk about ourselves. I find myself recommending too many books to friends and folks I've just met.

  4. Another great post. It's both informative and amusing. I do talk about myself in reviews, even if it's just how the book made me feel, I am sort of always talking about myself. I never thought of it that way.

  5. What a well-thought-out post! I agree, there is some element of "narcissism" when it comes to writing a review, because at some point it is about how I felt about the book personally. And sometimes things are just a "me" issue that I need to explain.

  6. Cackling at "Second person is rare because it's annoying." how trueee. Also love the narcissism bit because honestly that is so TRUE. Especially because it is obviously all so subjective. (Except for people who like the miscommunication trope, those folks are factually wrong.) Like- we just want to make people listen to our opinions on stuff right? I mean I sure do heh. Also objectively, this post is everything.

  7. What a thoughtful and comprehensive post, Aj! You've certainly got me thinking about what and why I include in a book review.

  8. This is certainly a very comprehensive post! When I began reviewing, I wrote very long reviews, writing about nearly all these points. Now I have a more direct and "gut feeling" approach and write mostly about what the book made me feel, about the characters, the writing and sometimes the pacing as well. I noticed that I don't read long reviews anymore and I think most people don't either so what's the point really? Bit occasionally, I'll be so amazed by a book that I will write a long (and often disorganized) review.

  9. Since my reviews are now pretty much always bite-sized, I don't capture all of these things anymore, but these are still the building blocks of pretty much any review! Love this list!!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction