How to Write Helpful and Engaging Book Reviews

I’ve been reviewing books for over a decade now. In addition to published reviews in journals and magazines, I review online for the Gospel Coalition Reviews, Discerning Reader, RPM Ministries, Everyday Christian, Amazon, CBD, Lunch, and a few more I’ve likely forgotten. 

Here are a few quick thoughts on writing fair and balanced, helpful and engaging book reviews. 

1.   If you totally hate it, don’t review it.

I know that’s not everyone’s policy, but it is mine. You know what your Mom told you, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all…” If I think a book is all bad, I’m not going to write a review. I just don’t have the stomach to be that critical. 

2.   Think of the author—she or he is a person, too.

As someone who has authored five books, I know what it feels like to “birth” a book. It is one’s creation. So, when you do point out weaknesses, do so graciously, fairly. Quote the author in context. Don’t question the author’s motives (who made book reviewers God?). 

3.   Contact the author before and after the review.

I’ve started doing this, especially for major reviews (in terms of the significance of the book, the length of the review, where it will be posted, etc.). When I first start reading and reviewing a book, I’ll send my thoughts, impressions, and questions to the author. I’ll ask if I’m “getting it right,” and if they have any response or clarification. After the review is published, I’ll send it to the author and encourage them to engage in an ongoing conversation about the book. 

4.   Follow the SSWE principle.

I’ve created something of a standard book review format: SSWE. By the way, this doesn’t mean you use this like a straight-jacket. And it doesn’t mean you have these “four sections” of your review. Rather, weave these following four aspects into every review in a conversational style. 

S:   Summarize the Book: 

Help the reader know what in the world the book is about. If the book is in a “technical” field, translate the jargon to the everyday language of the common person. 

S:   Strengths of the Book:

Every book (I review) has some strengths. Give snippet illustrations of those strengths and highlight how they relate to life and ministry. 

W:  Weaknesses of the Book:

No book is perfect. But again, when sharing weaknesses, do so fairly, graciously, kindly, and gently. 

E: Engage the Book:

This is perhaps the missing ingredient in many/most book reviews. Everyone does summaries, strengths, and weaknesses. But this is not a book report for your middle school teacher. This is a book review for real people who want to know if the book is worth reading. Interact with the book. Write as if you are having a conversation with the author—stretch the author, probe, ponder. Ask questions. Wonder out loud. 

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