Wednesday, October 23, 2013

How to Write a Book Review - Laura J. Davis

What type of people review books today? Do you have to have certain qualifications? Should you charge for book reviews? Do I have to be a professional writer? These are questions I get asked all the time, and so I thought it might be helpful to share with you, on how to get a review started.

There are tons of people on the web today who review books. Some of them are professional writers, others are just people who have read a good book and want to tell everyone what they thought about it. Still, there are those who love to read and love to get free books and feel it is a way to give back.

Others find themselves in the unenviable position of having a friend ask them to review their "just released" book. They say yes, start reading and then find themselves in a pickle. Why? Because the book is horrible! What will they say to their friend? How can they break it to them gently without ruining their friendship? Some get so concerned about hurting an author's feelings that they give up reviewing books altogether. It doesn't have to be that hard. I have read books by all kinds of different authors, some of them I liked and some ... well ... they just weren't my cup of tea. But being afraid of hurting someone's feelings shouldn't put you off reviewing a book. You don't have to be mean about it and if the author you are reviewing is smart they will keep your thoughts in mind as they begin their next book. It is a wise author who can look at a review as they would a critique and learn from it. They may not be able to change the book just reviewed, but they can remember those suggestions and use them to improve their next book.

So, how do you start a review? I begin with the overall feeling I had when I finished the book. Did it move me to tears or laughter? Was I sighing with satisfaction? Or, was I just glad to get it over with? Very rarely do I find a book that I don't enjoy or learn something from. But sometimes I do come across books that leave me groaning aloud, longing for it to end. I will tell  you what I do in that situation in a minute. For now, let's concentrate on a book you have just finished reading. How did it make you feel? Did you learn anything? What was the major theme of the book? These three questions help me write my opening lines. Below are a few examples of opening lines to books I have recently reviewed, to give you a better idea on how I begin.

"Once again Ann H. Gabhart has blown me away with another great book. She never disappoints and Scent of Lilacs will bring you to tears, make you laugh and if you grew up in a small town in the 60's like I did, bring back fond memories."

"I review for several publishing houses, but once in a while I like to read something self-published, because I always find gems. Melody's Song by author Kathleen Friesen is my latest find."

"If you are new to writing, have a million questions and don't quite know where to go to get them - have I got a book for you! Duke the Chihuahua Writes, by award-winning author Donna Fawcett (and Duke the Chihuahua of course) is a delightful book for the beginning writer."

As you can see, all three of these books made an impression on me and so I try to convey that feeling in the first opening lines. As it is in writing a story, the same is true of reviews. You need an opening line. Something that will draw the reader in enough to keep them reading until the end. You do not want to jump in and start describing the story and characters right away. That comes next. The opening lines are personal. They should reach out to your audience as if they were in the room with you and you were discussing the book over tea. They should express an eagerness to share with the world the "gem" you just found. Also, please note the titles of books should be in italics and the author's name should be in bold. In addition, try to limit your reviews to no more than 350 words. Some newspapers require less than that. So be aware of your word count.

The next paragraph or two, will involve introducing the characters without giving away the ending. In other words, a general outline of the story. The following are examples:

"After losing her husband to cancer, the author began to chronicle her thoughts and experiences of what she was going through. She begins with the statement, "By the end of this month, I expect to know my own name." This sets the tone of the book and guides the reader along with the author on her journey to self-discovery. The result is a book that will bring much comfort to anyone who has lost a spouse - widow or widower."

"Melody Jamison has recently moved to Saskatoon. While her move was necessary (she could no longer keep up the farm after her husband died), she also hoped that the nightmares of her husband's tragic death would go away in a new setting. Unfortunately for Melody, changing locations doesn't work. In addition to the nightmares that plague her, she worries over her son Will, who left home determined to prove he didn't need his parents, God, or anyone else. As Melody tries to lift her concerns to the Lord, she begins to doubt her faith in God and demonic attacks soon set in. But God is bigger than Satan and He uses the people in her new neighbourhood to not only strengthen her faith, but confirm to those around her that God is real and loves them."

Both of these examples are very different. One is of a non-fiction book, the other is a novel. The first book impacted me so much, I wrote three paragraphs on what I learned (disobeying my own rule of keeping reviews to 350 words or less). The novel on the other hand, required only one paragraph to best describe what was inside the book. Sometimes, for novels, I may take two paragraphs in order to highlight the important characters.

The next part of the review becomes personal. Imagine you are in your kitchen having tea with a friend and you are expressing what you loved the most about a book you read and how it impacted you. Now write what you felt. This is also where you gently let the author know what would have helped the book if you were disappointed in it, what you found distracting, or to point out improper formatting, excessive typos, etc. This is not where you are mean. There is never any call to be mean. Pretend you are in a critique group and "sandwich" your review. In other words, start out positive then suggest areas that could use improvement - if it is necessary. Don't look for things to criticize, just to be critical. If you enjoyed the book then what is the point of telling the author she had a typo on page 258? It doesn't add to your review and makes you look petty. After you have made your suggestions end on a positive note.

You do not have to give glowing reviews everytime. Let's face it, some books just miss the mark. If you can't find anything good about the book, then don't write a review! Email the author and explain why you had a hard time with it and why you cannot post your review. If however, you are being paid to write a review then you have no choice. Please let the author down gently. You don't know how old they are - they could just be starting out. Don't discourage them, encourage them by focusing on what they did right and then suggesting what could be improved.

I finish all my reviews with a final line and a rating. For example:

With lots of romance and intrigue this is another Tracie Peterson book you will want on your shelf. I give it 5/5 stars!

I hope these examples help you as you write your next review! 

1 comment:

Peter Black said...

Laura, I appreciate your helpful and inspiring review hints, and thank you for freely sharing them out of your wisdom and experience.
Five out of five stars, for sure! :)

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