Confessions of a Part-time Reviewer

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Tips for Review Writing April 19, 2010

Top 10 Tips for Writing a Book Review:

In no particular order, here are some suggestions when approaching the task of writing your own book review.  Looking back, these are all skills I either implemented, or wish I had implemented, in my own writing. 

1. Read the selection through once as if reading for purely recreational reasons. This reading will give you the same fresh perspective your audience will have after reading.  You want to be able to capture the initial reactions you have to the book.  The aspects of characters and plot that stick with you after this first reading will be integral to the focus and content of your review.
2. Read the piece as an active reader.* Try reading through the book a second time, this time in the mindset of a reviewer.  Reading while focused on the text as a thing for inspection will differ significant from a reading of a piece that is being read for pleasure, or other reason.  As a reviewer you must make careful observations and hone in on the more subtle meaning and implications of a text.   

*Considering that a professional book reviewer is typically working against a deadline, there may not be time for multiple readings of a text.  In this case, being an active reader is key.  Keep in mind the important themes you want to discuss or significant reactions you had to the book.  You must learn to balance your critical eye to include the instinctive qualifications recognized from a recreational read. 

3. Take diligent notes while reading. This is a pivotal step in the book reviewing process.  When reading, it is easy to simply get wrap up in the story and forget some of the minute details along the way.  By underlining or highlighting important passages, writing notes in the page margins, taking notes in a journal, or marking pages with Post-it notes, it becomes easier to refer back to the text when preparing your review.  Going back and looking over your initial notes will help remind you of the most important part of the text and assist you in organizing how you want to frame your review.  
4. Consider who and what you are writing for. Knowing your purpose and your audience are two vital pieces of information when approaching any writing assignment.  For book reviews, both bodies can range substantially.  In general, a book review is meant to introduce an audience to a text and provide a brief, critical summary that will allow a reader to decide whether or not they want to read it.  The type of book you review and the organization for which you review it for greatly determines the stylistic guidelines and audience of your piece.  So, before you begin writing consider: who are you writing for (both audience and publication-wise); what is the expectations these groups have; what do you want to say; and what is the most effective way to say it?
5. Speak your mind.  Strictly speaking a book review is an opinion piece, and in this instance you are the authority on the subject matter.  Not all readers will agree with what you say in the long run, but your words will be a motivator to actually consider a text.  Readers of book reviews don’t necessarily want to read a straight summary of a book; they also value thoughtful critics on an author’s style and storyline.  As a book reviewer, you are responsible for giving your audience a reader reason to read or not to read a particular book.   
6. Value objectivity in your piece.  While a review does give you a chance to express your own thoughts about a book, it won’t be particularly exciting or helpful to read if all you do is gush (or rip apart) a title.  It’s all right to express your like or dislike of a book, but even an opinion piece must retain a degree of objectivity.  Every reader will have a unique reaction to a text, like and dislike different things.  Even if you love a book, chances are there will be some aspects of it you won’t enjoy.  Similarly, if you hate a particular story there has to be at least one thing an author does well.  Make sure to draw your readers’ attention to these characteristics.   Including critical analysis of a book will show your audience that you have thoroughly read and connected with the text.
7. Be concise. Most professional book reviews range between 250-400 words.  The length largely depends on who is publishing your piece.  But overall, readers want to be able to get a taste of a text without having to read thousands of words about it.  Make it your mission to create the most telling, accessible composition in the fewest words possible.
8. Balance your priorities. Books can be lengthy beasts, scores longer than the review you produce.  It’s virtually impossible to reference every character, every plot point, every twist, and every theme present in a book.  And doing such isn’t the real point of a review.  It is you job as a reviewer to present a text to a potential reader and provide them a frame of reference for the text.  As such you need to decide what aspects of a book are most important and what you want to say about them.  Because you can’t logistically include everything, you must learn how to select your most important priorities and bring them to the forefront of your review.
9. Leave yourself plenty of time. No matter how fast you think you can read reading with writing a review in mind will always take longer.  Although it is beneficial to read through a text with multiple passes, time doesn’t always allow for such comprehensive reading.  When preparing to write a review you need to factor in all the different stages of the process.  It isn’t just reading a book and then writing a few sentences about it.  Review writing requires a writer to read, digest, analyze, write, revise, and polish a wide body of thoughts.  As a book reviewer you must adjust your schedule accordingly. 
10. Offer other recommendations. If a reader is propelled by your review to read a text and then ends up liking your suggestion, it is possible that he or she will continue to follow your advice.  By suggesting additional titles to read, you are offering opportunity to expand your audience’s reading sphere.  You are also opening up a ground for further literary discourse and discussion and giving yourself obvious material for future reviews. 

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