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Feb 1, 2012

How to write a Great Review by Francine Howarth

Posted by Wendy Ewurum  |  at  4:13 AM

There are blogs I just always regret not stopping by more often and Francine Howarth's writing blog is one of them. She's not only one of the most creative and talented writers but is also an accomplished writer in one of my favourote genres', period romance. I love historical romance set anywhere between the Georgian and Victorian era but especially the very brief Regency period. You can quite safely blame Austens of the world for that. So I invite you to please head on over to Francine's blog after reading her post here. I'd also like to encourage you to by a Kindle book either here or on her blog Serious Writer Blog to support an incredible writer.
Today however Francine's not talking about her writing per se, although I hope she'll want to come over and do that in the very near future. In this post she chats about a matter close to mine and many fellow bloggers' hearts: Book Reviews. 
I found out when I posted How To Not Handle Book Review Rejections that she also has a notch on her belt as professional book reviewer for the magazine of a newspaper. Th eopportunity was to good to pass so I asked her to come over to share her wisdom and expertise. So without further ado, ladies and gentleman help me welcome the oh-so-magnifiscent Francine Howarth.


Many moons ago I became a paid freelance rookie book reviewer for a well-known magazine, and the first thing the editor said to me, “All reviews are to be written within designated word count per magazine issue. Any personal slant re like or dislike of book content will be subject to editorial censorship. You are not employed to criticise books or authors”

I took the above advice verbatim: wise guidelines in how to keep on the good side of an editor and do my job correctly.  He expected moral codes of professional output from his team, and I still admire him for his stance on professionalism. My job as a reviewer was therefore to provide brief summary of a book’s overall content, which meant no plot spoilers, no personal input, and to this day I follow the above guidelines in promotion of books in general.
With the recent explosion of book review sites and places such as Goodreads, Smashwords and Amazon etc., a plethora of self-professed book reviewers are now giving vent to personal opinions on books, and in doing so are either purposefully or unwittingly giving away spoilers, and in some cases criticising authors. Worse still, one sees on Amazon forums not only deliberate “spoiler posts” but readers who wrench apart plots and impart how they might have written it: better! 

By slamming a writer, established author or not, it is a slight upon their good reputation as a writer, and sometimes one book may not be as good as others by that same author (in one's personal opinion). However, personal opinion is just that, personal opinion. Even within the worst of books there are usually redeeming qualities of sorts, but it does seem to me, that imposing personal opinion on others has become more important to self-professed book reviewers than that of reviewing a book in general terms.    

But of course, these self-professed reviewers are apt to praise or slam books because they are, in the main, anonymous, and they naturally have cop-out statements in the vein of  “I give honest reviews” - “If I like it I say so, and if I don’t I give my reasons in a constructive way”.  Ah, so constructive is the new rule of thumb for shredding a novel?   

But, there are bigger questions: if you didn't like the book why pass comment in a public arena? Why read it? Why not put it aside and read a book you do like? After all, the one you like someone else might think it a load of rubbish. The one you disliked might rock their boat!  Which brings me back to the issue of "to review, or not to review" and responsibility for one’s printed opinion.  

So, here’s my advice for book review sites. The mark of a good professional book reviewer is to inform publishers/authors "that due to vast the numbers of books submitted for review and limited openings (per issue for online mag), not all reviews will make it to publication" This then provides for the putting aside of books that just don't make one's personal grade as readable!

Personally, and this is just my slant on book reviews at Amazon etc., firstly I no longer read them so the reviews are neither, promoting or putting me of said book. I make up my own mind on a purchase or not based on the book’s blurb and the “look inside feature”.  Why do I say that? Because the ones I stopped to read in the past invariably gave away the whole plot and why purchase a book when I know the beginning, middle and end. The star ratings on Amazon I regard as naff and unnecessary, and plethora of amateur reviews per book annoying. What purpose do they serve but to display someone’s personal opinion? Again I say: one man’s meat another’s poison!
Of the books I enjoy for reasons of personal taste I retain. I have no desire whatsoever to pick-apart or discredit books that I dislike, I just give them to a charity shop and will not post a review, for I really believe the biggest questions all reviewers need to ask themselves, is why am I doing this?  What is my motivation?  Am I doing this to recommend books I enjoyed reading?  

The following is an example of one of my reviews:
Set in 1780, Ranulph Lord Charing, is the ideal hero. Tending arrogant, a man of means with a mistress to boot, of hawkish good looks and superb horseman, he suddenly finds himself attracted to the delightfully charming Celeste Armitage. Torn between duty to a long-standing mistress and desire for young Celeste, he commits the unthinkable in wild moment of rash indulgence. News of his interest in Celeste soon stretches beyond the confines of Hazeledene House, and listened to with vindictive intent by his mistress. Forced by circumstance of a dead man’s debt and his mistress’ cunning, Ranulph has no choice but to sacrifice his own happiness and that of Celeste’s. And, without spoiling the plot, I can tell you there are twists and turns aplenty as truths come to light and debts settled, though not without heartache and much soul searching as Ranulph sets out to counter his mistress’ hold upon him.  

Wendy's Note: I am guilty of many of the "sins" Francine has mentioned, one way or the other and will share my opinion soon  in the comments about the said transgressions but I'm also dying to hear what your opinion or stance is on this. So please, let's here it.

remember to visit Francine's blog or be even more magnanimous, purchase one of these on Kindle. 

For more guest posts please click HERE.

About the Author

Most know me as the author to Fabulosity Reads and in actual fact, that is the previous name of this blog. I have since then moved my books to a Wordpress self-hosted blog so that I can have a place to show a different side of me which I am equally passionate about and that is marketing and personal development. I hope you will love being here, watching me grow as I share and learn. My highest hope is that we will grown and learn together in all disciplines affecting our lives. I'd LUUURRRVE to hear from you, so don't be shy...


  1. Very interesting post. I agree with lots of what she said - especially the stars and spoilers! But when I read a review I like to hear things like how well developed the plot is, if there are editing issues, etc. And I also like to hear if a book doesn't live up to the hype. I have found blogs that I trust - bloggers that I trust - and I like to hear their opinions. Sorry, this turned into a post in itself. I can't wait to read other coments.

  2. Interesting post, Francine, with lots to mull over. In my reviews, I'll say what I like about the book and what I didn't like. I'm careful to stay away from saying how I'd have done things since the book isn't mine.

    Very rarely, I'll put in my two cents worth, as in a novel I was asked to review that had a segment which takes place in Jamaica. I couldn't help but point out gently that though this is a third world country, none of our health facilities resemble what was conveyed in the book.

    If I don't think I'll like something I'm asked to review, I won't say yes. By the same token, if I buy a book and it's awful, I don't review it as most times I can't finish it.

    Sometimes, as you pointed out, there are specifications to doing reviews. I was reviewing for an outfit that had questions they wanted answered in each review as in, how the book was different from others and whether it offered anything new to readers, how I viewed the characters, etc.

    As to reading reviews, I accept that each reviewer has a different style and there's something I appreciate about each blogger I follow. I like a meaty review, but not something that has a whole lot of spoilers.

  3. Thanks, Francine, for sharing your knowledge about book reviews on Wendy's blog. I have a hard time writing book reviews and haven't written many. I can't write a review on a book I didn't like. I had no idea that a professional book reviewer isn't supposed to include a personal slant as far as liking or disliking the book. The example you shared here is great. This gives me an idea of how to go about writing reviews, although I think it would be mighty hard for me to keep my personal opinion to myself if it's a book I LOVE!

  4. I think a review is suppose to provide an critical analysis or evaluation on the quality of the story, significance of the book and its meaning without spoilers. Its not a retelling of the story. Of course everyone has different opinions but for me and my books I want to know how a reader felt about the story line oppose to a reviewer writing a small summary (short retelling) of the novel.

  5. There is a difference in approach when you are part of a book review program and when personally reviewing books out of pleasure/pain. In the former, there are set guidelines on the points to be covered and you cannot help but keep them in mind...personal review can be, more or less exact -what that book meant to you as a reader(never write from a writer's point of view)without being hostile about a book badly written.

  6. I agree some of Francine's points such as that a review should not be vindictive and never say how I could have done it better because it really is not my book.
    However, Sidne and Rheka's opinions are ones I share and identify with. When I started reviewing it was for personal reasons and those included discussing books I came across and read, be they good or not. Certainly its evolved because so many writers ask for reviews as I pointed out last week but I like to think that when they do they know exactly what they'll get as they have looked at previous reviews and like the way I do things. Most mention this too.

    When I put a link of this on my Facebook wall I asked: Do I do book reviews or offer critique_ now I'm thinking there's a difference.
    Shannon Dearing had the following response:
    Yeah, but a review can reflect a critique, which can only bebeneficial to a writer... its the writer who needs to be open and develop the ability to know the difference between critique and criticism... good luck ;-)

    I think Shannon has a point too. If the writer expects me buy their book then surely they expect me to form an opinion.
    I do think I have to be more conscientious about making sure I do not have spoilers although I have never had this complaint. Its always better to err on the side of caution. I’m one those people that want to know how other readers experienced a books and before I blogged I relied on The NYtimes and other prominent review sources reviews and sales staff at book stores. I’m just one of those that needs to know more than summary but I realise i have to keep in mind that that’s not everyone else does.
    These comments are turning into posts Dana but I love each one. LOL

  7. Many thanks to all who've stopped by to comment.

    The base line is that I won't review a book I didn't like, therefore my reviews are a recommendation in themselves to a worthwhile read! ;)


  8. This is interesting perspective from Shannon: Yeah, but a review can reflect a critique, which can only bebeneficial to a writer... its the writer who needs to be open and develop the ability to know the difference between critique and criticism...

    I think the above counts in the pre-publish stage but once it's gone to press most best-selling authors have little interest in what a few readers have to say about their work. These authors are published and have fans worldwide, so they must be doing something right.

    For me, I'm lucky to be treading both lines: self-pubbing and that of conventional publishing. The self-pubbing purely experimental.

  9. Most reviews I pay the most attention too are those from friends, and they're always opinionated. I want a review to give me hints as to whether I'll like it, not just a summary because I can get that off of the back of the book.

    But I don't want spoilers. Those are awful.

    I have a mini review site myself, mainly just a way to keep track of what I read, and I try to be rounded, mention one good point for every bad. I also use a lot phrases to indicate that it *is* an opinion I'm expressing. I try not to do spoilers, and I actually spend time mentioning the quality of the read as well as the plot. Was it fast paced, accessible, wordy, a struggle to pick up, or very vivid? I try to get into the experience of the read.

    I totally understand that even a mention of a book in a magazine or book can be a positive recommendation, but there are so many other books out in the world that don't get attention. What if I don't like a book, don't review it, and miss introducing it to a person who could love it? Thus, I try to review most books I read, fully aware that what's for me might not be for others and the other around as well. I want to help authors (my review blog does focus on media with little recent press) gain an audience, and try to review everything I can, balanced and unheated of course.


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