This is going to be a two-for-one post because my reading journal is also where I keep my notes for book reviews. I’ll first share how I keep my reading journal and then I’ll share how I write my reviews.
There’s a billion ways I’ve seen people take notes. Some folks keep it all in their heads. Other folks write in margins of the book and tag pages with book darts or tabs. Even further, other people just take notes on their phone. The first step is to find the best way for you to organize your thoughts.
I love having the book journal because I like having all my notes in one place. I also love being able to go back and see all the books I’ve read. Granted, I also have a spreadsheet to keep track of all the books I read, but I also love reading how I felt and what the books were about.
First off, the tools:
- Notebook: Leuchtturm 1917 dotted notebook. They come in various colors!
- Pens: I’ve tested so many pens in my life, but my favorite have to be the Uni-Ball Signo 0.38mm and Zebra Sarasa 0.5mm in Vintage colors. I also love the gel pens from Muji.
- Markers: I use a combo of the Mildliner and Crayola Supertips
- Stickers: all my stickers are either from Etsy sellers or mochithings.com. You can also buy sticker subscriptions from Sticky Kit.
My philosophy when it comes to journaling is use whatever materials you like. Journals are made for you, so design them however you want to design them. Make them feel good for you because you’re the one archiving your thoughts into a physical place.
I write my notes in two separate columns; a plot side and a thoughts side. The plot side is riddled with spoilers and points from the book. This side is mostly for me so I’m reminded of what happened in the book and can reference that in my reviews. I don’t include the spoiler parts and if the plot would spoil the book, then I try to avoid adding them to my reviews.
The thoughts side is where I put down…well, my thoughts. Characters I like, how I think the book is going, and some dislikes. Glaringly obvious issues that made me cringe or questions I asked myself. I really love writing this stuff down so when it comes to review time, I can easily recall those points. I hate it when I write a review and forget something I wanted to add, then have to go back and add it in. Usually I forget to add it in.
I also like to start each page with a few notes to myself. For example, I note if the book is a reread or if I’m doing a buddy read with someone or how I came across the book. I really like making my reviews more personal by adding a little about why I started reading this book or if I’m doing a specific challenge. I just think it gives my reviews a little more of a personal touch than facts.
The best part about this is that it fosters more thinking and thoughts. For example, if I write a note saying I read a book for a reading challenge, then I might be inspired to write about the challenge later on. Inspiration comes from anywhere, so writing down my inspiration inspires more!
For decorating my book journal, it’s really all over the place. I love working on my handlettering skills by writing out the title of the book with marker. Sometimes I decorate the page and sometimes there’s too many thoughts for me to sacrifice that space. I like using colorful pens to match the book cover colors. This is really just me doing what I like and you should be inspired to do the same!
As for writing reviews, I like to think of readers when I’m writing a review. What information will make it easy for the reader to read and understand if the book will be for them? For me, that’s writing style, characters/plot, and overall feelings.
How is the writing style? I always think of this one first. How was the overall reading experience and did the writing get in the way of that? Think about the pacing, the perspective, and other little attributes of the author’s writing. Does it read quickly? Does it drag in the middle? Is there representation and did it do it properly?
How are the characters/plot? Is it riddled with tropes? Is it based on actual events? Providing some plot or points in the plot that you loved or hated will help. Which characters did you love? Which characters made you seethe with hatred?
What are your overall feelings? Would you recommend this book? I feel like everyone has an overall feeling about a book even if it’s short or just the rating. If you were to elevator pitch this book to a friend, what would you say?
I also like to get inside the author’s head. What were they thinking when they wrote a specific section or why they wrote a character a certain way. I like to figure out where the author was when they were writing the book to help better understand what I read. Here’s some more things I like to keep in mind:
Only include a summary if the synopsis doesn’t do a good job explaining the book. I hate being in the dark about a story and I most definitely dislike vague synopses. I like sharing a little bit of the story I read so that other readers can get a good idea of it too. I get wanting to create buzz about a book, but it doesn’t help readers make the crucial decision on whether to actually read it. However, I avoid including synopsis if it will spoil the book or if the book is so long I can’t condense its plot into a few sentences.
Avoid bashing a book. I don’t know what it is about the Internet and opinions, but people love expressing them online especially if they’re a negative opinion. I don’t have any problems with negative reviews. I don’t mind if books didn’t work for someone or it made someone feel uncomfortable. I don’t mind if the book did have a great plot or you didn’t resonate with the characters, but please don’t continuously talk about how terrible a book is. These kinds of reviews really help no one with understanding if the book is worth their time. It’s also really unproductive to just hear someone complaining without resolve or reason. Usually if I see a Goodreads review riddled with eye-rolling gifs, I just scroll past it. Bashing a book means you’re going through special means to make sure the author feels terrible for writing their book. I never know if I should read a book when the review just stomps it into the dirt.
Include content warnings for sensitive readers. In 2020, we all have our thing. I don’t think there’s a human in the world that isn’t going through something at this very moment. I have my thing and because we all have our thing, we should be mindful that some subjects may warrant bad feelings. When I’m reading reviews, I want to know if there are certain triggers included in the story. This allows me to either prepare myself for the content of the book or make me reconsider reading the book all together.
There is a belief that including content warnings are a spoiler. I don’t believe that. I don’t think you’re spoiling a book if you note there’s a rape scene or the content deals with suicide. If anything, it makes the reader more aware and prepare for the scene if they choose to read the book. I would much rather know what I’m getting myself into than blindly go into it and trigger myself.
You don’t need to be a cunning writer to write reviews. I see a lot of folks go through a lot of work to sound like a professional book critic in their reviews. I love the eloquent writing, but I don’t think it’s a per-requisite to writing good reviews. Good reviews allow the readers to understand the book better. What did you like and what you didn’t like will help make up the minds of other readers. You can write it in a very professional style, but I love reviews that read like I’m talking to my friend. And of course I take friend’s suggestions over a professional reviewer.
But generally, just share your thoughts! They don’t have to be the most erudite things. Honestly, reviews should be written not only for the reader but for yourself. If you have thoughts and need to share them or write them down, go for it! There’s no hard and fast rules, but I do hope that the points I mentioned help give you some sense of what goes into writing a review. Be honest. If you didn’t like the book, share why you didn’t like it. If you loved the book, share that too. No one should find fault in either of these kinds of reviews and if people disagree, then people disagree.
The big takeaway in all of this is that books aren’t made for everyone. It’ll either be a hit or a miss and that’s just human nature. Make the reviews for you and what you’ll find is that others felt the same way.