Sunday, March 28, 2010

How I Write a Review: Instruction Manual

Recently the editor of a newsletter asked me for help with their book reviews. I have written reviews for several newsletters (work and WNBA) but they didn't want to have to rely on me exclusively, not to mention I'm not even on the newsletter committee. So a month ago I wrote up these guidelines. Then I thought I'd let them percolate to be sure they were complete and full. And so now I share them with you all!

There are basically two kinds of reviews, personal and impersonal. Impersonal reviews are the ones in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, etc. They tend to have a sentence of opinion at the very beginning and very end and the whole middle is plot description. This type makes sense for A) organizations that are supposed to be impartial B) reviews of books no one has heard of before (pre-publication). But we don’t need to be impartial for our newsletters, and mostly are reviewing books already available to the public, and therefore widely reviewed. I think personal reviews are more interesting. Also they acknowledge that everyone is different, and while I might dislike a book, others will like it.

I start off talking a bit about why I read the book and what my expectations are. Was I forced to read it for book club? Was I eager to read it because I’ve loved previous books by the author? Was I worried that it was over-hyped and would be disappointing? Was I worried that a beloved childhood classic wouldn’t live up to my memory? Then I answer that question briefly.

Next, I do a brief summary, being careful to not give away any spoilers. Now some things that seem like spoilers might not be, such as if the book is so widely known (like the time traveling in Outlander), or if the spoiler is already given away on the back cover (although it's not always necessary to perpetuate that kind of reading crime.) Sometimes it’ll be really hard to do because a huge momentous event happens very shortly after the start of the book and you don’t want to give it away, but then there’s nothing left to talk about. You’ve got to use your judgment here. I only go for 4-5 lines. If I’m doing the review in Goodreads where the full description is right there, I don’t put any description in my review at all, but I do on my blog and for newsletters.

Third, I’ll talk about what I liked or didn’t like. I try to be specific, to point to particular passages and scenes. If I was skeptical or worried going in to the reading I’ll address those concerns directly. I’ll mention what I connected with in the narrative, what I found off-putting, what was pertinent, and when I thought the author went off the rails. If characters are two-dimensions, events seem implausible, historical eras feel false, or the writing is overwrought, all these are things I’d talk about. These are the main structural pieces to look at: character, plot, setting, pacing, accuracy, dialogue. But anything that strikes you is fair game. As a former editor, this is likely easier for me than most, but I also tend to be more critical than a typical reader. I know writers don't always like to hear criticisms, but they're always meant to be constructive.

Then I’ll try to finish it up with a conclusion. Sometimes I’ll have a lot of niggling issues with a book but still like it overall. Sometimes the book will be technically well-written but feel soulless. I try to pull all the details together into an overarching opinion. Obviously, you don’t have to like everything. In fact, the world would be amazingly boring if that were the case.

So those are my own personal guidelines for book reviews. I'm sure they won't work for everyone, but I hope they could be helpful for people who find review writing daunting.


Danielle Zappavigna said...

i think they are great guidelines, and personally, i find these types of reviews most useful for helping me to decide if i want to read a book or not. i'm just an amature reviewer, and this is also very close to my format so that's good confirmation for me that the way i do reviews is probably ok!

Stacy at The Novel Life said...

there's an award for you on my blog...a very well-deserved award =]



great ideas. I'm now going to take a look at my reviews!

Cath said...

I love this! A very handy reference indeed.

The Book Mole said...

Thanks for these great guidelines, Carin! I am very new to blogging and reviewing and your ideas will help me a lot.

Rebecca Chapman said...

Thats very much how I write my reviews - why I decided to read it, the plot summary (sometimes if its hard to summarise I will quote the back of the book), what I liked and disliked and finally my summing up. Obviously how I do all that in the review depends on the book, my mood and how I felt about it, but thats the general gist.