How to Write Effective Book Reviews

One way to get your foot in the door with a community/magazine you’re interested in writing for is to write book reviews. The important things to remember are that you meet your audience’s and editor’s expectations when describing the virtues or challenges with someone else’s work.

Read the entire book

This would seem to be a no-brainer, but if you are being paid to review a book, the editor expects you to give the author the courtesy of reading the entire work. You are not required to enjoy the experience, but you should consider it a requirement to read the whole thing.

Literary difficulties aside, authors–fiction or nonfiction–might redeem themselves by the end. Or, by the conclusion, you will at last see what they were trying to accomplish. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, either, but again, read the whole thing or you’re not providing a review of the entire product. Another no-no would be to write your review based solely on other reviews already in the public domain. You might cite them, but the analysis of the book should be yours.

Know your audience

Before writing, it’s good to read a few issues of the publication and to ask your editor what particular “slant” or emphasis is expected in your review. You should be able to explain why a book would be of interest to your publication’s audience based on subject matter, style, or other attributes.

If, after reading the book, you believe that a) it’s difficult to write a positive review–this has happened to me a couple times–or b) it really does not relate to your audience, you should explain why to your editor. I made the mistake of having the discussion with my editor writing a review. My editor asked me why I wasn’t able to explain why the readers would find it applicable to them, and I said something like, “Well, it isn’t.” To which she replied (approximately), “Okay, I guess we won’t review this one.”

Structure your review around the book

My general book review structure runs something like a journalism piece:

  • Readers of all stripes are impatient, so it’s better to state the “bottom line” up front. Plus, your editor might use your opening sentence as the tagline for the review. My first sentence provides an explanation and assessment of the text that relates to my readers.
  • From there, I explain the structure or overall narrative of the book. If it’s nonfiction, I’ll generally provide a list of the chapter topics. If it’s fiction, I’ll provide a summary of the plot.
  • From there, I’ll start talking about what I liked about the book–what worked, what was new to me, how easy it was to read, etc. (See the next heading for a few more insights on this.)
  • If I have any gripes with the book, I’ll throw those in after I’ve said what I liked about it.
  • To wrap up, I’ll sum up the overall reading experience or the importance of the content (if nonfiction), and why the book should matter to the audience.

Be specific in your analysis

I’ve read books that just blew my mind with their beauty, poetic language, and insight. I’ve also read some that were so absurd, ridiculous, poorly executed, or just plain wrong that it was painful to finish them.

It’s not enough, however, to write a glowing encomium without explaining why. Provide examples: one or two lines that demonstrate the author’s virtuosity with language, background, characterization, etc.

The same could be said of negative criticism. (And here I would define criticism as different from feedback because in my mind feedback is given about a work still in progress, i.e., the author can still do something about it; criticism is an opinion offered after the work has been published). You can’t just say, in effect, “This book sucked.” You need to explain why it sucked, preferably without using words like “sucked” in your review.

Similarly, if you’re going to pick on an author for difficult-to-read passages, incorrect facts, or bad citations, make your comments clear and specific. And while I have yet to call out an author for lying about anything, I have probably (at some point–for pay or on my personal page) noted where the facts laid out in a text did not quite match the facts as they happened in the real world. I will use words like “difficult” or “unrealistic” because I’m generally not paid to use insults or destroy an author’s prose or reputation.

Besides, given that I work in the space business, the odds are better than even that I will encounter the author again in real life, and a bad review is a great way to ensure an awkward first meeting.

There can be a flip side to this, as when you know the author and still don’t like the book. I don’t change my assessment of the book, but I will keep my tone diplomatic. Or, on yet another side of the die, you might be friends with the author and really love the book. It can be tempting to overshoot and heap on even more praise than the work objectively deserves. In all these various cases, you can add a disclosure to my review indicating my connection to the author, then plow on anyway.

Lastly, a few business items

You might or might not get paid for a book review, depending on the publication or organization, but if possible, aim for paying assignments.Whether you’re trying to establish yourself or get in good with a group, one thing I’ve seen multiple published authors argue against is doing work for free. It sets a bad precedent and makes negotiating for pay more difficult later, once the expectation of gratis work has been set.

Next: make your deadline. You know how long it takes you to read a book, how busy you are, how long the book is, how many words you’re expected to write, and how long it will take you to write them. If, given those constraints, you know that you cannot make the deadline, inform the editor promptly, thank him or her for the opportunity, explain that you are busy, and ask to be kept in mind for a future assignment. That is not a case of screwing up; if they asked you to write something now, they’re most likely willing to ask again later.

Lastly: take your editor’s comments and suggestions seriously. They have a lot of other things to do besides argue with one author about word choices in a single book review. Editors are professionals unless you’re working for an all-volunteer publication. In either case, they want to see their publication put out a decent piece of writing, not destroy the prose of a productive writer. If you find yourself facing incompatible writing or working styles with an editor, finish your first assignment as requested, and then politely decline future work if it’s offered. Or, if it is offered, explain some of your concerns with the editor before accepting the assignment.

One side note I should add because it is one of the perks of the job, in addition for getting paid to read: book reviewing is a great way–depending on the publication–to get free books! So if you’re looking for a fun side gig, book reviewing is a good way to go.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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