If you go looking for advice on how to write a book review on the web, you won’t be looking for long. There are hundreds of sites which provide such advice or offer courses on how to do it. Reviewing 101 is alive and well out in cyberspace. Much of the advice, though, is step-by-step – first choose your book – and seems geared to students needing to write book reports. However, recently, Musica Viva published on the web some advice for people who’d like to enter their concert review competition. The advice comes from music reviewer Harriet Cunningham – and you can read it here.
It comprises useful, mostly common-sense, advice in the form of Dos and Don’ts. In summary:
The Dos are (adapted slightly for book reviewers): “Really” read the book; Listen to yourself (to your response); Tell a story; Beware of adjectives! (good advice that I should heed more); Be accurate (the author will rightly take offence and ignore all else you have to say, and nit-picking readers will love you!).
The Don’ts are: Be mean; Be obscure; Be trivial (such as, focus on the work, not your pet!); Worry.
Hmm … funny how all the “Dos” work quite well as they are without the “Do” heading, while the “Don’ts”, well, don’t? In fact, they look like more “Dos”, don’t (ha!) they?
Anyhow, I think these are pretty self-explanatory, but there are a couple of comments I’d like to make about the don’ts.
First one is: Don’t be mean.
I’ll start by quoting Harriet verbatim: “Writing a review puts you in an unusual position – you are passing judgement on a performance you could almost certainly not do yourself. It is not about pulling your punches, but do always respect the skill of the artists and the long journey they have taken to get where they are. Most importantly, if their performance disappoints, try to analyse why. It might not necessarily be wrong notes or poor ensemble. What was missing?”
Hmm… I certainly agree with not being mean, but I think I would have worded it a little differently. Something along the lines of: Be critical and honest – this means analysing what you like and don’t like, explaining why it does or doesn’t work for you, but don’t be rude or insulting.
I agree we should recognise (respect) the skill of the person whose work we are critiquing but just because we may not be able to do it ourselves doesn’t mean we should feel we can’t critique it does it? Of course, those people critiquing modern art with “even a five year old could have done that” seem to think they are well-placed to critique! There’s a happy medium in there somewhere, which I’m sure was Harriet’s point.
The second one is: Don’t be obscure.
Her message is that reviewers shouldn’t dumb down, but neither should they get into erudite discussions that will lose readers. She is, of course, pitching her advice to lay reviewers writing for a general audience – which more or less describes most of we bloggers. However, this is an area where the ability to hyperlink helps we who review online: we can link to those more erudite points that we think might interest some of our readers but not others. Probably the best “rule” to follow here is: Know your reader, and pitch yourself at that.
This is all pretty obvious to most experienced bloggers, but you never know … Oh, and just in case, this hasn’t scared you off, the following may:
From my close observation of writers…they fall into two groups: 1) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review. (Isaac Asimov)