The NetGalley community loves shouting from the rooftops about books they’ve enjoyed, but it can be tricky to find the right words when talking about a book critically. We want to help NetGalley members craft the best reviews possible, so first, we shared general tips for writing book reviews and audiobook reviews, and now we’re following that up with advice for writing critical book reviews. Where glowing reviews are filled with praise, more often a reviewer will share elements that both did and didn’t work for them as a reader. A critical review isn’t necessarily negative, but rather a valuable source of feedback. Being critical doesn’t have to mean criticizing—the most helpful reviews will critically encourage, with specific details and concrete analysis. Even the “best books” are critically acclaimed because they have been analyzed, flaws and all, and there is still much to celebrate. Read on for our tips and share yours in the comments!
Make your opinion clear
This might seem obvious, but if you’re new to writing critical reviews you might be tempted to beat around the bush. Don’t be afraid to be open and honest and say that this book wasn’t for you.
Explain your critiques
Once you’ve shared your opinion, it’s time to share what helped inform it. Writing “I didn’t like this” isn’t helpful to fellow readers if it isn’t supported. Whether it was the plot, characterization, or pacing, tell your readers specifically what didn’t work for you, and what could be improved. Spend time considering why, and be as specific as possible.
Readers are sometimes concerned that critical reviews may impact their chances of requests being approved in the future. But publishers learn a lot about what readers want from both glowing and critical reviews. In fact, in our interview with Cynthia Shannon, the Senior Marketing Manager of Food and Lifestyle at Chronicle Books, she shared a story about how critical early reviews of a cookbook helped to change her team’s marketing plan! Read about it here.
Don’t go negative
In a critical review, the goal should be to outline the elements that didn’t work for you and why. We’ve all read (and maybe written) a rant review, but our goal as NetGalley members is to craft reviews that are valuable to the publisher, author, and fellow book advocates. Be thoughtful and respectful about the work and the author. Aim for meaningful, not mean. Focus on the merits of the book, rather than the author as an individual.
Talk about the positives
A critical review helps to express your view of a book. It’s a way to help the right reader discover the book, but also a way to let readers who have similar tastes as yours know they can steer clear. Make sure you highlight any elements that you did enjoy, big and small.
Make a sandwich
When formatting your review, think about a sandwich—a little cushion on the top and bottom with the meat in the middle. Start with a short summary of the book, then share your thoughts and critiques, and finally end with anything you did enjoy and a consideration of the types of readers who may be a good fit for this book.
Imagine the alternatives
It’s helpful for publishers to hear what elements didn’t work for readers, but also to see how readers felt the book could’ve been improved. Were there simply too many POVs where one would’ve sufficed? Did the characters feel flat in an intricately built fantasy? Share your expectations for what the book could have been.
Steer clear of spoilers
It can be a challenge to explain your critiques without spoilers, but there are tricks for getting around it. For example, instead of ruining the twist ending, you could talk about how it felt rushed, involved too much suspension of disbelief, or wasn’t satisfying. Respect your fellow readers by staying away from spoilers, because even if a book didn’t work for you, they may decide to experience it for themselves.
Consider your audience
Are you a bookseller considering a title for purchase? Are you a librarian who recommends books to patrons? A teacher building your classroom library? A blogger sharing your latest read with your followers? As an influential reader, your review should reflect the audience you’re writing it for.
Recommend to the right readers
Reading is a personal experience. A five-star read for you could be a DNF (did not finish) for your closest friend. Reflect on the book you’ve read and decide if you believe this book would be better suited for a specific reader. For example, a 2-star fantasy that didn’t work for you due to the level of gore might work better for fans of Game of Thrones.
On the other hand, if you believe the book contains problematic content that could be harmful to all readers (for example books that perpetuate racism, homophobia, or ableism), be sure to share that in your review. Including potential trigger warnings can also be valuable.
Professional reviewing platforms like NetGalley provide readers with a pre-set rating system. When crafting your review, consider how your critical thoughts impact your rating so that your message is clear and consistent. A critical review paired with a four star rating may be confusing to the publisher, author, and fellow readers. Find a balance that accurately reflects your opinion.
Remember the value of critical reviews
On NetGalley, your reviews help shape a publisher’s idea of who you are as a reader. In our interview with Forever publicist Estelle Hallick, she spoke about the importance of reviews of all kinds: “I want our reviewers to be honest. Giving a book a critical review won’t mean you aren’t qualified to receive other books for review; if anything it makes it easier for us to understand what kind of books you do enjoy.”
While a critical review of an ARC or galley may not always directly impact change in the finished book, your feedback can still help to shape the author’s next work, the sorts of books a publisher acquires in the future, the style of covers, and more. Critical opinions are just as valuable as positive ones.
Proofread, proofread, proofread
Reread your review after you’ve finished writing it. Then reread it again. Be sure to check facts or quotes you share, the spelling of character and author names, and any pronouns used. This way everyone who reads your review can focus on the message you’re sharing, rather than getting hung up on distracting typos or grammatical errors that hurt your credibility.
As a NetGalley member, sharing reviews is second nature. Don’t forget that the target audience for your reviews are fellow readers. In addition to submitting your feedback via NetGalley, tagging the publisher in a review is a great way to show them your appreciation for the copy they sent you, but don’t tag the author in your critical review. It’s common practice on social media to tag authors when recommending their books, but most prefer not to be tagged in critical reviews, since that is a direct (and very public) communication. Let publishers decide which critiques should be passed along to the author.
Writing reviews takes time. Transforming your thoughts, emotions, and notes into a thoughtful review is no easy task. Don’t be afraid to take a break and come back to writing when you’re ready. Remind yourself why you love reading and reviewing, and don’t be too hard on yourself.
This is an extremely helpful article. Sometimes you come across a book that needs help, and I blame the Editor, Proofreader, never the Authors. This article will help me focus on what specifically went wrong, and how to convey that to the publisher. I appreciate these types of articles from Netgalley.
A very good overview of writing a critical review. The lowest rating I give is two stars for the author’s effort. Thank you bookish.
“Focus on the merits of the book, rather than the author as an individual.”
I agree that we have to always remember that we are reviewing the book and not the author. Sometimes, though, I do acknowledge the author’s merits as well, especially when it’s obvious that the work went through thorough research and study. Merging facts into fiction is tricky if you don’t know what you are talking about.
A helpful article that will help me to convey to the publisher where a certain book might need help.
How do you tag a publisher? When I review for a Netgally book, it says it goes to Amazon and Barnes and noble. I never post on any other site.
This is very helpful. I find it is tricky to give critical reviews, but I feel that I must be honest, as that is the point of reviewing books. I keep in mind that the author has spent many long hours writing their book, so I do try not to be overly negative. It is useful to know that publishers welcome this approach, and I will continue to try to be kind, accepting that a particular book may not be to my taste, but will appeal to other readers.