In Memoriam
Favorite Fiction of 2021

5 Things I've Learned From Reviewing Everything I've Read For Almost Three Years


Toward the end of 2018, I started putting together my lists of favorite books for the year and realized I had a problem. Writing reviews had largely fallen off my radar that year for multiple reasons and I'd reviewed less than half of what I'd read as a result. I didn't like that.

There I was, scrambling to write reviews so I could publish my favorite book posts. I wanted to figure how I could do better. 

I decided I would try to review everything I read for a year. "Short, timely reviews” became my motto. That took any self-imposed pressure off the table. By reviewing every book, novella, and short story, I would have a better record at the very least.

I never could have guessed I’d still be at it almost three years later. It quickly became habit and no one is more surprised than me. I've written a little over 1000 reviews in that time and I’ve learned some valuable lessons along the way that have hopefully made me a better reader, writer, and bookish citizen. (You can find my book reviews on Goodreads. Anyone is welcome to follow my reviews; friend requests are limited to real life friends.)


1. The more you review, the better you get at reviewing and critiquing. 

Before this, I was mainly reviewing for myself. If people found benefit from my reviews, then great. Now I want people to walk away having an idea of whether a book will be right for them. 

Writing review after review gave me a lot of practice for figuring out what readers want to know, like specific content warnings (more below) or how a plot choice was handled. I consider representation and seek out reviews from people with lived experience. When applicable, I mention the lens of my own perspective and any relevant experience (e.g. former medical social worker, history of depression). I'm sure I still miss problematic things—I'll be working on that for the rest of my life—but I pick up more every year. That’s the on-going work.

Critiquing isn’t limited to problematic aspects. It also means recognizing books that are exemplars of the genre and noticing interesting structure, dialogue, and characterization. Critiquing is a closer examination of both what worked and what didn’t. It’s made me more appreciative of my favorite books, as much as it’s helped me point out flaws in others.

Even though I gave myself the out of shorter reviews, they haven't tended to be all that short. With the pressure off, I find I usually do have a fair amount to say but I'm also fine with only a sentence or two. 


2. Systems help.

As an admin, it isn’t altogether surprising that I thrive on systems. But I hadn’t really considered what systems would help my reading/reviewing life.

I’ve tried a few different things over the years but I fine-tuned it in the past three. I have a small journal for taking notes about the characters, reactions to the plot, and content warnings. I have an ongoing untitled document where I write my reviews—this has turned out to be crucial because I don’t write reviews in any order. Right now I still need to write a review for a book I finished 4 days ago but I already wrote the one I finished last night. That document reminds me what reviews are still in progress. Sometimes I’ll draft a few thoughts while I’m still reading the book so I won’t forget later. Drafting in a doc also means I won’t lose a review due to an internet or Goodreads glitch. 


3. Content warnings are a much-needed service.

I’ve learned so much about content warnings since I started tracking them. Prior to this, I added them sporadically and with a pretty limited understanding of what that entailed. I’m so grateful to Corey Alexander who led by example, as well as Mel To The Any. Their content warnings provided so much guidance for me.

Early on into this project, I decided I'd start tracking CWs for everything since I was already going to be reviewing everything anyway. This has probably been the most instructive piece of this whole experience. I think about language choices differently, as well as what purpose the content serves, especially when it comes to, say, a traumatic backstory. It also helped me think about the best ways to convey said information and the most succinct terms. I cannot confirm or deny I started a spreadsheet to keep track of my preferred terminology.

Content warnings help prevent readers from reading a book that would ultimately be triggering or they prepare them so they can go in forearmed with that knowledge. That’s why I do it. While there’s certain content I prefer to avoid myself, whether due to professional background or preference, I don't have triggers so I'm well positioned to include this information. Providing content warnings doesn’t cost an author, publisher, or reviewer anything. It's the smallest way we can look after our fellow readers. People who don’t need them can easily skip that part of the book or review, whereas those who need them will be protected. I hope they’ll become more standard.

There's so much more to say about this topic that I'll probably write a post about it eventually.


4. Reviewing takes up a whole lot of time.

It takes time to take notes while reading (lots of frequent pauses), time to gather thoughts, time to write and format the review. There’s often not much external payoff. Unless someone Likes or comments on my Goodreads review, I have no idea who has seen it or whether it helped them. Liking a Goodreads review is such an easy thing to do for your favorite reviewers or any review that helps you decide whether to read a book or that affirms your opinion after you read it. The feedback isn't why reviewers do it but it is nice to know people see what you do.

Reviewing everything probably means I read less. It forces me to take a breath and consider the book I just experienced. Sometimes I think I should use that time to write essays or fiction instead and that day will come. But for now, it feels like time well spent. Mostly because of this last point.


5. Having this extensive record is amazing.

This was my greatest hope in starting this endeavor. Because of the amount I read, it’s hard to remember the particulars of every book or even how I felt about it. Being able to pull up a review from the past three years immediately brings back those memories. I’m glad to have my thoughts and opinions preserved. 

This habit might drop off eventually. (I’ve wondered if writing this post will jinx me!) I can’t say whether I’ll want to review everything I’ve read for the rest of my life. Regardless, I’m grateful for the lessons of the past few years. I’m a more thoughtful, intentional reader and that’s the best result of all.