Notebook and Pencil

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I recently started writing a book review and found myself thinking that I have no idea whether I am doing it “right?”

What makes a good book review? What elements are essential? Is there a specific structure I should be following? I realised that I’d never studied the matter and there was an opportunity for me to learn something about writing here. So I did some reading and thought I’d share what I came up with here.

 

1. Dear potential reader

What is the purpose of a review? Seems like an obvious question, but I hadn’t given it direct thought before. Here’s some of the answers I came up with:

  • To inform a potential reader about what to expect from a book
  • To guide potential readers choices about what to read
  • To create or participate in discussion about a book by sharing your opinions with other readers or potential readers

The common theme is other readers, and you should bear that audience in mind when you are writing a review. You’re not writing to show you understood a book, or learned from it, or enjoyed it (okay, depending on context, maybe you are a bit). You might use those points in pursuit of your goal, but they are not the purpose in their own right.

2. 50 words to 5000

Book reviews come in many sizes, from a few sentences to a whole essay, but all of them are striving towards the same reader centric goals. Longer pieces will analyse the book in more depth, but short pieces can still achieve those goals by sticking to the bare bones.

3. The bare bones

While I was reading up on this I kept coming across the same formula for a winning review:

  1. Summarise the book (avoiding spoilers)
  2. What did you like about it / What was good about it?
  3. What didn’t you like about it / What was bad about it?
  4. Give an overall verdict/recommendation

Other common, basic, advice included: stay impartial, find something both positive and negative, give a rating if you want to, support your opinions with examples, and so on. Not so tough, right?

4. But is it any “good”?

I was really worried that this basic format I kept coming across left no room for analysis of the writer’s technique or choices (my favourite part of reviewing). Such analysis is, perhaps, of more interest to fellow writers than readers, granted. Then I came across this definition of a book review:

“A book review summarizes the book’s content, examines the author’s intent in writing it, and expresses the reviewer’s opinion about to what extent the author succeeded in conveying the intent or communicating a message.”

Mark Nichol, How to Write a Book Review

In essence, this challenges the reviewer to give their opinion on the quality of the writing, and its effect on their reading experience. So there is a place for it.

5. Other ways to blog about books

As with every rule in writing the bare bones structure is only a suggestion or guideline. Sometimes you might want to choose a specific aspect of a book to talk about, or to link several books with a common theme together and compare them, or create a list of recommendations. The standard “review” is only one type of article about books and you don’t have to stick to it.

Here’s one blogger who’s created a whole list of ideas:

Books Speak Volumes – Bloggiesta: How to Write More Creative Book Reviews

6. Checklist

There are a few essentials you do want to include regardless, so that your readers can find the book. Make sure you check these items off your mental checklist:

  • Title of the book
  • Author’s name
  • Publisher
  • Name of a stockist (or even better a link)
  • Cover art (if practical)

Here’s a few places where you can read more:

Daily Writing Tips – How to Write a Book Review, Mark Nichol
The Writing Centre – University of North Carolina – Book review handout
Book Trust – Writing Tips for Teenagers – Tips for writing book reviews
Writing World – How to Write a Book Review, by Bill Asenjo
Wiki How – How to Write a Book Review

 

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