Writing Online Book Reviews
Many of you are involved in the writing community, and as part of that, you write book reviews on your own blog or other websites. But writing reviews is not always an easy task, so I thought I’d offer a few tips.
1. Primarily review books you’d recommend.
There has been some debate about whether the purpose of online reviewing is to promote books (by giving positive reviews) or to give an honest opinion, even if you hated the book. My opinion is that because you are part of the writing community, the primary purpose of reviewing books online is to help promote them, which means you should choose to review books you’d recommend to your readership. The book review sections of most major magazines and newspapers (I’m not talking about the NYTBR) do exactly this: they choose a handful of books to review and recommend. They say nothing about the hundreds of books that came across their desks but didn’t impress them. Why waste valuable space just to trash a book you wouldn’t recommend to your readership?
Of course, there will be exceptions, but overall, I think you should “just say no” to reviewing books you don’t like. There’s no sense throwing a fellow author under the bus just to be different or to have the freedom to express yourself. Your review is a valuable promotional hit for the author of any book you feature; why not reserve this gift for the authors you appreciate?
Please note: I’m NOT saying you should only say good things about the books you review. I’m saying: only review the books you can honestly say some good things about.
2. Judge the book, not the author.
Many people might disagree with me on this, but I’ll say it anyway. I’ve noticed a trend, particularly in reviews of Christian books, where the reviewer trashes the book based on a difference in theological or doctrinal beliefs. Basically, the reviewer is judging whether the author has represented Christianity appropriately – according to the reviewer’s specific brand of belief. These reviews will say something like, “The character behaved in a way that opposes the clear teaching of scripture,” to which I say, “According to whose interpretation?”
If you’re going to judge the author’s beliefs, their morality, their theology, or anything else that is personal, give it context by saying something like, “This aspect of the book made me uncomfortable because it doesn’t square with my beliefs.” You might notice in the thumbnail reviews that Publishers Weekly does every week, there is sometimes a line such as, “More conservative readers may find some of the language offensive,” thereby acknowledging that there are different preferences among readers, as opposed to saying the author was “wrong” to use such language. I recommend you keep this in mind as you write reviews. Be aware of how your own beliefs and assumptions color your response to someone’s work, and be honest about it when writing a review.
3. When reviewing fiction, don’t give away the story.
It’s not okay to say “spoiler alert” and then give it away. It’s not fair to the author, and as a writer, you should put yourself in their shoes and remember you wouldn’t want someone to do that to you.
4. Acknowledge the author’s purpose and/or intended audience.
Every book isn’t going to appeal to every person. Make a recommendation as to who would enjoy the book. For example, you may not enjoy science fiction, but you can see that the book has some positives. You can acknowledge that “readers of science fiction should find this enjoyable.”
5. Concentrate on the most important questions:
–Did the book keep you turning pages? and
–Were you satisfied at the ending?
–Or if it was non-fiction, do you think the book accomplished its purpose?
Within this framework you can talk about the characters and whether you related to them; whether the theme was well-developed; if the plot was suspenseful and interesting; your thoughts about the author’s style; whether the setting was important and how it affected your interest in the story. For non-fiction, address how well the author made their point and how the book affected you.
These are just a few ideas for writing book reviews. Anybody else have advice gained from experience?
(c) 2010 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent