Tuesday, March 20, 2007

More than an Opinion: Writing an Effective Book Review

Some people think it is an easy thing to write a book review. They think all it means is to read the book and write down what they thought about it. You can do that, but that is not a review. It's a reaction. Unless you already have a following, the reader doesn't actually care much if you enjoyed the book or not. The reader looks to the reviewer to find out if he or she will enjoy the book. That is a significant difference.

The reviewer is an advocate for the reader. He or she provides the reader with enough information and analysis for the reader to make a buying decision. That means that the reviewer can't be concerned about the author's feelings, the publisher's reaction or even their own personal enjoyment of the book.

A book can be informative and well written and not be interesting to me personally because it is a genre or on a topic which is uninteresting to me, or the writer employs a style of writing that I don't like. Those are often matters of taste and preference. The reviewer has to move beyond personal taste and review a book on a fair evaluation of it’s merits.

Reading Like a Reviewer

To be a good book reviewer you need to analyze the book at a deeper level than you would if you were just reading the book for pleasure. This analysis means that you need to judge the book against a set of criteria. When reading you need to pay attention to these criteria, therefore if the book is fiction, you need to ask yourself questions like:

  • Are the characters believable?
  • Is the dialog natural? Is the pacing of the action appropriate to the genre and style of writing? Are the settings and descriptions engaging?
  • Does the plot move along naturally or does it seem forced in parts?
  • Is the style of writing engaging?
  • Is the work original or derivative?
  • Does the work capture the readers attention at the beginning and hold it to the end?
  • If part of a series, how easy would it be for a reader new to the series to pick up on the action?
  • What about the handling of controversial or potentially offensive elements such as sexuality and violence? Is it handled with subtlety within a proper moral context? Is it explicit? Does it have an implied approval of violent or sexual acts which might be contrary to the ethics of your readers?

For nonfiction books the questions include:

  • What is the target audience for this book?
  • Regardless of the obvious audience for this book, what group or groups of people would benefit most from reading this book. Which ones would benefit least?
  • What is the theme or thesis of the book?
  • How well did it serve the needs of that audience?
  • Was the information helpful?
  • Was the writing style engaging holding the readers attention even when discussing technical matters?
  • Was the format and organization of the book helpful to the reader?
  • How could the reader apply this to their personal lives?
  • Did the book focus mostly on theory or practice or both?
  • How did any illustrations used in the book support the subject matter of the book?
  • Was everything in the book necessary or did it seem that the author was padding the writing to reach a certain word count?
  • Is the information given accurate? Did you find any significant fact errors, misquoted scripture, etc.
  • Is the theology doctrinally sound?
  • Is the exegesis of scripture consistent with accepted principles of hermeneutics?
  • Were scriptures taken out of context or interpreted inappropriately?
  • What level of spiritual maturity or Bible knowledge is required to understand the concepts in this book?

You will note that some of these questions do not elicit answers which make a book good or bad, but rather give us information about aspects of the book which might make it more or less appropriate for specific groups of people or which might cause it to appeal to or lack appeal for certain tastes. It is important to go beyond a Good Book-Bad Book dichotomy in your review.
Of course, all of these elements that you considered in your reading won’t be covered in every review. Some of these elements are more important in some books than in others. Likewise, this is not a comprehensive list. Certain genres of writing have their own criteria for excellence. Learning about those genre-specific criteria is especially important if you choose to specialize in that genre.

Once you have a complete understanding of not only how you liked the book, but how the book was constructed and written, then you can begin to write your review focusing on those relevant criteria.

Elements of a Review

There are three basic elements to a good review: Summary, Critique and Recommendation.

Summary. Early in your review you need to give the reader a basic sense of the content of the book free of commentary. For a fiction book, this means giving the basic premise for the plot and maybe introducing the main characters. For nonfiction, it means to give the general theme of the book and a summary of the topics covered.

What you don’t want to do in the summary portion of your review is try to summarize the entire book. It’s a balancing act. You want to give the reader enough unbiased information to decide if the content is of interest or not, but on the other hand, having someone try to summarize the entire book gets boring pretty quickly. I tell my students when writing book reviews to limit this to no more than three paragraphs and aim for one.

Analysis and Critique. Obviously, the bulk of the review is critique. This is where you evaluate the book according to the appropriate criteria for that genre. This is where the notes you made while reading the book will come in handy. Use those questions we posed earlier as a guide for your evaluation. That will keep you from simply responding to a general impression which might be based more on your personal tastes rather than on solid literary grounds for critique.
In this section choose a limited number of specific items (3-4) author did well and tell why they are good. Be specific and use examples and quotes from the book whenever possible. Then focus on those things which were not done so well. Again, tell why you gave that judgment and present specific examples of where the book failed to fulfill its promise.

Obviously, if the book is a positive review, you will spend more time on the good points. If you found the book to be not so good, then you will spend more time on the negative points. However, to be fair, most books are not universally good or universally terrible. The worst books usually have one or two good points, and there is usually something in the best books that could have been done better. A balanced review acknowledges both the strengths and the weaknesses of the work.

Recommendation. This is usually the last paragraph. In it, you give your recommendation concerning the book. It can be an unqualified recommendation or a qualified one. An unqualified recommendation is one in which you state without reservation that the book is a "good read" (although that phrase has been somewhat overused) or that the book is not worth reading. Remember, before you give such a recommendation, that your reputation is on the line. Be sure you have given adequate reasons for this judgment earlier in your review so the reader can say, "Yes, I can see that."

You can also give a qualified recommendation. You might think that a book is generally good, but either it has some flaws or it may not be good for everyone. For instance, there is a popular secular book about healing from childhood abuse. It is an excellent book. However, the author says that it is not important to forgive the offender. She misunderstands the meaning of forgiveness and confuses it with excusing the abuse. So, whenever I have written about that book, I tell people it is good, but to ignore the chapter on forgiveness. That is a qualified recommendation.

Also sometimes the book is better suited to a particular group of readers. For instance, an "edgy" Christian suspense novel may have several violent scenes which might not be suitable for younger readers. So, you might include a warning about that.

At this point, you may be saying to yourself, "Wow, that’s a lot of work!" It is, but you will find that you will not only provide a service to others, but also enhance your own enjoyment of the books you read.

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Blogger Frank Creed said...

Great stuff!
Too many folks review by personal preference rather than criteria.


March 20, 2007 at 11:23 PM  
Blogger Freelance Writer-Mother-Wife-Veteran said...

Great stuff, thanks! I've bookmarked it for future reference as well.

May 18, 2007 at 7:07 AM  

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