In which I give step-by-step instructions on writing book reviews.
Writing book reviews can have all kinds of benefits for writers.
There’s nothing like reading a book and writing about it to help hone word-wrangling chops.
Different kinds of books can also expand people’s understanding of writing, especially varied styles. And, reviewing can help writers hone storytelling skills, vocabulary and clever turns of phrase.
I’ve experienced all this during my 5-plus years of book reviewing for publishers like Library Journal, Children’s Literature, and Chanticleer. Here’s what else I’ve learned in the process.
Some of you might be wondering how to obtain a book reviewing gig in the first place.
Like with any freelance writing job, it’s always good to think about what you can bring to the table. I obtained two of my review jobs by pitching to publishers on the exhibit floors of conferences, for example. The first was with Library Journal, and I was sure to scour their website to see what their review guidelines were and what they were looking for before I pitched what I could offer (in my case, it was my education background, along with my knowledge of music).
With Chanticleer, I was interested in reviewing fiction (I’d mostly reviewed nonfiction before then), and I asked a lot of questions regarding the scope and intent of their reviews to see which genres I could do the most justice to.
Always do your research, and know which niches you can cover. You can discover unexpected opportunities in areas where your specialties might intersect, too.
As a new reviewer, it was my inclination to make sure the turnaround was a quick and efficient as possible. While this is a good, it’s also important to pace yourself.
You might feel like you have to read a book instantly, but it’s better to retain the information in a meaningful way in order to make it digestible for those reading the review. Conversely, don’t throw all your energy into making one review perfect when you have ten other books waiting.
Most publications allow around 4-6 weeks to submit, so you can treat reading and reviewing like eating an elephant — by doing it a little bit at a time.
The review itself
Poorly written books have taught me just as much as well-written ones.
Whether I’m reviewing a fiction or a nonfiction book, I’ve found it helpful to take notes on each chapter so when I go back to complete the review, I can remember elements that appealed to me as a reader.
For nonfiction books, it’s good to read the introduction to determine the author’s intent in structuring the book’s content. This can also lead to the most important part of the review — figuring out what makes a book stand out from others in its category. This is also true for fiction, when notes can cover the gamut of dialogue, pacing, plot and character. The overall summary shouldn’t give too much away–just enough to give potential readers a taste, and entice them to pick up the book for themselves.
In my experience, this usually measures out to a brief summary of the book’s content, and then its big picture reaches–including which audiences are mostly likely to appreciate the content.
Sometimes, it’s really hard to be objective about a book, especially one without a lot of redeeming qualities. In these situations, I usually get my vitriol out in my notes first, and then cobble together a more objective way of stating my feedback. Those of you who have given and received regular critique are probably familiar with the sandwich method–criticism sandwiched on both sides with positives. Every book has its redeemable qualities and flaws, so it’s possible to give an honest account while remaining somewhat objective.
The best thing about writing book reviews is how word restrictions force writers to express the deepest ideas with the fewest words possible. There’s a middle ground, though, because eliminating too many words can sound robotic. Since book reviews tend to be conversational in nature, it’s better to keep the humanity intact.
Some review jobs are paid, and some aren’t, and it’s always good to be aware of what your options are. Regardless of circumstance, make sure that you are always updated on new information, whether regarding review policies, or new knowledge about writing.
It’s also important to maintain open communication with your managing editor, especially if you are encountering roadblocks in your reviewing process. For example, there was a book that I was set to review that had a lot of character and plot hiccups. I asked my editor how specific my critique should be, and she welcomed all of it, because she prefers honest reviews.
And I can see why. Not only do readers depend on reviews accurately portraying the books they want to read, authors do too. Every book has its reader, and not everyone will give the same level of discernment to the content they consume.
Even more importantly, the more we can give reviews for other authors, paid or unpaid, the more visibility we can give to necessary stories that need a chance in the spotlight. And that’s where the real benefits come into play.
What makes a book review stand out for you? What kinds of experiences have you had reviewing books, or having your books reviewed?
Outside her librarian career, Karen has written full-time since 2008, including reviews, book chapters, short stories, and an article for School Library Journal. She also maintains a blog, The Writer Librarian, where she interviews one author a week.