Writing a “bad” review

Thumbs-down-smiley2You’ve read the book. You’ve taken notes. Your cursor blinks accusingly at you, waiting for the first line of your review. But here’s the thing: you didn’t like the book. Maybe you even hated it. How do you say that, knowing that your name will be in the byline?

This is an issue that every professional reviewer will encounter at some point in their reviewing life. And unlike some journals in which the reviews are unsigned, we at SLJ print bylines for every review. Most of the time, that’s a point of pride. But when you need to say something deeply critical about a work, it can prove intimidating. Here are some tips to keep in mind if you are faced with writing a “bad” review:

  • The “bad” is in quotes on purpose. First, try to break away from simple categorizations like “bad” and “good.” The vast majority of books are not all-bad or all-good. They are a mix of elements that worked and elements that failed or didn’t live up to their potential.


  • Just as it’s not helpful to simply gush over a book and say “It’s wonderful!” without clarifying why, it’s likewise not helpful to simply say “It stinks.” Our readers want to know why it stinks—specifically.


  • Keep in mind the intended audience. Just because a book didn’t work for you doesn’t necessarily mean that it wouldn’t be a solid read for an eight-year-old. We want to keep our standards high—but always in the service of the reader, not our own preferences.


  • It can be tempting, when writing a critical review, to use equivocal language in order to soften the more harshly critical statements. While this is sometimes warranted, the end result can come across as unclear. In the end, we want our readers—librarians—to clearly understand whether we are recommending the title for purchase—or not.


  • Which leads to the most important part: when writing any review, keep the end-user in mind. It can be tempting to consider the feelings of the author or the publisher. But that’s not who we are serving. Our reviews serve librarians, the majority of whom have tight budgets and rely on our assessments to help them make crucial decisions about how to spend those dollars.

Having trouble writing your review? That’s why we’re here. Reach out to your editor at any time and we’ll be glad to help guide you.