Tips and Tricks Tuesday: How I Craft a Book Review

If you’d like some advice about how to write a very formal and scholarly critique of a book, you won’t find it here. Please visit Purdue’s Online Writing Lab for a great article about that kind of book-reviewing. This is about the informal world of book-review blogging, and what I look for and aim to provide in a book-review.

So, to start: do you or don’t you take notes while you read? I don’t. I prefer to be absorbed into the story, and I can’t do that if I am constantly assessing whether the text or character or what-have-you is ‘jot-worthy’ or not.

I read the book, at whatever pace it demands, and then put it all–my thoughts included– on the shelf for a few days. After that I make a note of anything that still stands out to me: writing style, character development, a certain moment, a plot twist, anything. I figure if I’m still thinking about something after a few days, then it’s probably worth discussing in my review.

If nothing stands out, but I must write a review then my best bet is to go through a list of questions like this one from the Los Angeles Valley College Library and hope it gets the wheels turning in my brain.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

I don’t use a template for book-reviews. I shape each article individually. But while I’m shaping, I keep a few do’s and don’t’s in mind:

Don’t:

  • Stress about a comprehensive synopsis. Readers will go to Goodreads or Amazon for that. Most books already have dozens of synopses out there. Your personal opinions and perspective is the unique thing you can offer readers.
  • Be afraid to talk about plot twists, ending, or other surprise points. But be considerate, and warn those who haven’t read the book yet to stop reading your review if you are about to give away something important.
  • Think that a negative review will damage a book’s sales. Often times a negative review breeds more curiosity. If you want to deter readers from buying than don’t mention the book at all.

Do:

  • Read the entire book before you review it! This should be obvious, but for reasons unknown, some people don’t. You cannot pass fair judgment if you haven’t considered all the evidence. And as The Bloggers’ Bulletin suggests, you could end up with a foot planted squarely in your mouth if you make a factual error.
  • Mention the book title and author’s name in the first paragraph of your review. As Scholastic points out, no one likes to dig for that.
  • Express your opinions. As your reader that’s what I want from you. But if you’re reviewing a book about Mexican food, and if–due to a traumatic childhood incident involving avocados–you have an atypical aversion to Guacamole, it would be cool if you disclose that and acknowledge that your opinion may be colored accordingly.
  • Draw your conclusions and then explain why. The ‘why’ part lends credibility to your opinions and persuades your readers. Without the ‘why’ your review is just another rant.
  • Consider the author’s purpose in writing the book. University of Northern Carolina’s online writing center offers a great example of how skewed a review can end up, if the reviewer judges solely from their expectations and ignores the author’s intentions.

I usually sum-up by recommending the book to those that might find value in it, whether it’s a very wide audience made up of anyone who’s ever ridden in a car or a smaller crowd of moto-cross-loving grandmothers of Siamese twins.

So what about you? Do you take notes when you read? Do prefer the scholarly book-critique, or the casual, opinion-laden book-review?

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10 responses to this post.

  1. Wonderful post! I do take notes while I’m reading, especially if I’m reading late at night right before bed. My reading comprehension sucks, so it’s vital that I keep notes or else I’ll forget everything the next morning. I’ve found my reviews are much more clear if I’ve taken notes while reading.

    Reply

    • Thank you. It sounds like you are smart to take notes! You write beautiful reviews, so hopefully you’ve found the balance between reading for pleasure and reading for your review.

      Reply

  2. As we talked about last night (and how fun was that!) I prefer casual WAY over the scholarly. In fact, I often, usually, pretty much always skim/skip long scholarly reviews. I’m always looking for “what did they think” over anything that describes the book itself. Make sense?

    Reply

    • I absolutely agree. And I always want to know why they feel that way too. Whenever I’m considering a book purchase I always head to Goodreads and comb the site for reviews like that.

      Reply

  3. I pretty much skip long and analytic book reviews, unless I had a lot to say or think about a book. I don’t take notes, but I realized I do mark passages (with paper, not pen) that I liked. What a great post, by the way – lots of things to help me out with my book reviews 🙂 (It was so great meeting you yesterday – thanks for chatting with me!)

    Reply

  4. Great ideas Lyn! I take notes and write in my books a lot. (Unless they are borrowed) My notes are short and sweet. Sometimes, they are just a highlight or a star by a section I want to remember to include in my review. If I didn’t take notes, it makes it much harder for me to remember because I’m always reading about five books at a time. I am like you, though in a way. I like to take a few days to mull it over, and then write about it.

    Oh, and I’ll take personal responses and reviews over scholarly ones any day.

    Reply

    • Thanks. I have to admit, I’ve wondered how you could read more than one book at a time. Thanks for sharing your secret. 😉 To be honest I can’t read more than two or three at the most, at one time. But I usually try to stick to one at a time.

      Reply

  5. Lyn:

    Hi! Most of the time, I prefer to simply read a book and keep my mind open to whatever hits me. If I do a review, then I rely on what I remember the most. Usually, it’s what makes me laugh or feel sad that stands out, but lessons learned from the book stick too.

    I enjoy your book reviews very much because they come from your heart. You have a great mind, which is easy to see…but your heart seems to guide the book reviews I read on Barding Well. I definitely prefer book reviews that are more casual and less scholarly.

    Great post!

    Take care,

    Nora

    Reply

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