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How to write a (book) review!

March 21, 2010

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)

10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 21, 2010 9:12 pm

    Spot on, Sue, I reject completely the Musica Viva inane suggestion that because an artiste or writer has worked hard at something a reviewer should turn a blind eye to the mediocre.

    Concert tickets aren’t cheap, and neither are books. More importantly, we’re all time-poor and I like to think that when I review something I am honest and analytical so that people don’t waste their time and money on something not worthy of their investment. Readers get to know the blogger’s style and taste and if they share it, then they have a useful guide to finding what they like from the maelstrom of choices out there.

    There is an awful lot of dross being marketed and I think that one of the reasons independent blog reviewers are as popular as they are is because professional reviewers are sometimes compromised by the relationships they have with publishers, authors and the booklaunch circuit. (Of course if I ever get an invitation to a booklaunch I may change my tune about that LOL).

    Seriously, once an author turns pro (i.e. gets published and paid), they subject themselves to public opinion whether they like it or not. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians, tradesmen all try hard and do their best but that doesn’t make them immune from criticism – far from it!

    Having said that, there have been a couple of books I’ve read lately that were so cringeworthy that I could not be bothered spending my time writing about them. Alert readers of my blog know that when no review follows my ‘Currently Reading’ widget, it’s a pretty good indication that I’m restraining my heartfelt scorn!

    Lisa
    PS I *like* adjectives! Hemingway writes well without them. Most people don’t.

    • March 21, 2010 9:31 pm

      Yes, I thought you would react that way Lisa! I must admit I was a bit surprised at how she explained her admonition to not be mean!

      As for adjectives, I was thinking about them this am as I was reading Ransom – there’s a good adjective I thought, and there’s another one, and so on. But, he doesn’t overuse them and he uses them in such an evocative way. That’s my challenge – not to use those cliched terms like “great”, “wonderful”, etc. It’s a challenge sometimes … my daughter in her blog puts me to shame with her creativity! She’s funny, clever and original. (http://wayfaringchocolate.wordpress.com )

  2. March 21, 2010 10:42 pm

    One thing to remember also, but never seems to get mentioned in these “how to review” instructional pieces, is that you should never criticise the author, because that could land you in the libel courts. You can should restrict your criticism to the work only.

    A yachting magazine here in the UK found that out the hard way by critising a boat builder and not the craft they were supposed to be reviewing. A very expensive £1.5 million libel case ensued, which the boat builder won.

    • March 21, 2010 11:01 pm

      Oh, good point. It should be understood that we are focusing on the work but some do get carried away don’t they?

  3. March 22, 2010 1:36 pm

    I’m surprised by the large number of ‘fluff’ pieces that are passed off as reviews. After reading these, the reader knows no more about the work in question except that the writer likes it.

    • March 22, 2010 3:21 pm

      To be honest I read very few reviews, except those of my favourite bloggers – so I don’t have a good handle on this BUT I wouldn’t be surprised if you were right. It’s a bit of an art but really it mainly needs an ability to write and think and commonsense about what a review is – which is to examine, evaluate, critique NOT simply describe. The first review I wrote on a blog – my bookgroup’s blog – I forgot to describe what the book was about and got straight into analysing its themes, language etc. Fortunately, I had some good reviewers of my review and they put me straight!

  4. lithe lianas permalink
    March 22, 2010 9:12 pm

    Did Mr Gums read this post? Just asking.

  5. March 23, 2010 1:26 am

    For some reason I was surprised that there is so much “out there” about how to write a review. I understand the don’t be mean injunction but if I read a book and it is really bad and I elaborate on what a howler it is, is that being mean? As for adjectives and adverbs, I know what you mean. I resort to wonderful and marvelous too often, more from being in a hurry than from being lazy, but it is something to think about!

    • March 23, 2010 8:23 am

      Re being mean. I think we all need to come to our own decision on that. My view is that elaborating on the reasons it is a howler is not being mean. The last “really” bad book I read was bad because its plot was simple and predictable, its theme highly sentimental and, worst of all, its language cliched. To say that – with some examples – is not I think being mean but to insult the writer with derogatory language is mean or to call the book a name, like “this is c**p”, is not to me good reviewing. There are readers who liked that book – and I’d rather not ridicule a book in such a way that I also ridicule those who like it. But there’s a fine line there …

      And yes, I’m with you on the adjectives and adverbs: this is a wonderful book, she wonderfully evoked the setting; the characters were beautifully drawn. I have to try to get these outta there! I’m realising that the more I write here to more repetitive I will sound if I’m not careful!

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