How to Respectfully Write a Critical Book Review

The first thing you might be thinking is: why write a negative book review at all? Why not just put the book down and let it go?

But wait. Do you read reviews before you buy a product? I am a massive fan of the review section. Does that travel mug leak like a sieve? Thanks for helping me save my money and my car’s upholstery. Is this Airbnb next to a train that runs on the hour all night, shaking the walls and everything inside them? My beauty sleep thanks you for the warning. Was that author’s latest book a slow-moving, description-heavy, plotless trudge with too many characters and a painfully obvious twist? I might read something else instead, or I might read it and form my own opinion, but I certainly appreciate the heads-up.

You may have noticed (if you’re one of my regular readers) that I only review books here at AlyWrites that I have loved. The book review section of my site is named Books I’ve Loved for a reason. I view these reviews as recommendations to my valued readers. I’m sharing something with you that I have enjoyed. This blog is not a forum for negative reviews. However, I do feel that it can be valuable to leave an honest review of a disappointing book—only if it is done respectfully.

What if you belong to a book club, and expressing your opinion, whether negative or positive, is what it’s all about? Or maybe you are an ARC reader and, as such, feel obligated to leave a review. That can be a challenging situation. You’ve been given a free advance copy of the book in exchange for your honest opinion. Of course, they’re never hoping that your opinion will be negative—that’s not going to help sell books. Or perhaps you want to explain what was disappointing in order to help other potential readers make an informed decision. Maybe you’re thinking of the author themselves and how some polite, constructive criticism might help them improve their craft. It could be that you’ve had a book recommended to you and then been asked what you thought of it.

I found myself agonizing over this subject recently, and I gave a lot of thought to how to leave a review that was both respectful and honest. What follows are some helpful suggestions if you find yourself in the same boat.

  1. Don’t attack the author. This shouldn’t have to be said, but you’re reviewing a piece of writing, not the human who poured their heart and soul into it. Focus on your experience, make your review fair and honest, but never make it personal or nasty.
  2. Be specific about what disappointed you. Explain what you expected and what let you down. Use concrete examples, rather than just flat-out saying things like: “The plot was no good.” or “The characters weren’t interesting.”
  3. Keep your review as free from spoilers as you can. Regardless of your opinion, others will still want to read the book. Let them enjoy it. That leads nicely to the next point.
  4. Remember that your opinion of the book is subjective. Just because you didn’t enjoy the book doesn’t mean other people won’t. Consider what readers might enjoy it.
  5. Mention the good things. There is always something positive to say. Keep your review balanced instead of going on a rant—if you can’t find anything positive to say, maybe don’t leave a review.
  6. Present your review as constructive criticism about what didn’t work for you as a reader. What could have made the reading experience better? Exploring the answer to that question adds value to your feedback.
  7. Be sure to explain the basis for your review. Don’t just leave a poor rating with no explanation why. Be specific about what made you give it a low rating.
  8. In writing your review, especially if you are a fellow author, remember that someday you will write and publish something, and someone will dislike it.

As a side issue, for writers, feedback is so important. It’s unhealthy to surround ourselves with nothing but fans and yes-men. We need honest people who will gently help us see the flaws in our work. False praise from friends and family who are too kind to give us the truth will never help us improve, keep developing, or get our work up to the standard we hope for. Do yourself a favour and find a couple of brutally honest beta readers you can trust. Take the criticism they hand you with a grain of salt, but do take it.

Now that might be a whole other post of its own.

Tell me: Do you leave a critical review when you’re disappointed by a book?

Published by Aly Writes

I bake. I write. What goes better together than a good story and a delicious fresh-baked pastry? Nothing. And I can give you both. Grab a hot cuppa and join me.

2 thoughts on “How to Respectfully Write a Critical Book Review

  1. Thanks for this! Sometimes it’s so hard to leave a negative review that doesn’t get edited out by online software even if you are being respectful. I do tend to leave reviews that I feel strongly about – either positive or negative. Especially ones that I feel an obligation to the community of people who are most likely to read it. Mostly that’s with nonfiction, but sometimes with fiction too. The most likely reason I’m going to post a negative review is either because the representation of the population or community the character belongs to is done poorly or disrespectully (these are usually fiction books), or with non-fiction books, if there are multiple factual errors in the book (sometimes some very fundamental ones that should never have made it past the first edit).


    1. What an excellent comment! Thanks for sharing the reasons you would leave a negative review. I agree, factual errors and/or misrepresentation would definitely be factors in deciding to leave a negative review.

      Liked by 1 person

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