Book Reviewing 101: Adding Some Depth to Those Reviews!

Friday November 26, 2010

There has been a LOT of discussion lately on Twitter and review blogs on the basis and validity of negative versus "book-bashing" reviews.  I think that a huge part of this lies in the fact that despite being a book lover,and avid reader, not everyone is experienced enough to provide a thoughtful, honest critical literary review. So, with that in mind (and of course being a teacher) I put together a lesson plan of sorts to help anyone interested learn the basics of writing a good critical review. I say this because not every blogger is interested in doing reviews somewhat formally, and I totally understand this. This info is to help reviewers who want to add some depth to their reviews.

This is not a comprehensive list and I am not an expert in writing book reviews. In fact, putting this post together has made me think about my own reviews and what they are lacking. I'm sure we all have those days when we aren't in the mood, so we hastily put together a review and post it, but I think one of my New Year's resolutions will be to make sure most :) of my reviews really stick to the guidelines below.

Book Review Helpful Hints and Guidelines...

Before we start here are some words of wisdom from the UNC Writing Center

  • Review the book in front of you, not the book you wish the author had written. You can and should point out shortcomings or failures, but don't criticize the book for not being something it was never intended to be.
  • With any luck, the author of the book worked hard to find the right words to express her ideas. You should attempt to do the same. Precise language allows you to control the tone of your review.
  • Never hesitate to challenge an assumption, approach, or argument. Be sure, however, to cite specific examples to back up your assertions carefully.
  • Try to present a balanced argument about the value of the book for its audience. You're entitled—and sometimes obligated—to voice strong agreement or disagreement. But keep in mind that a bad book takes as long to write as a good one, and every author deserves fair treatment. Harsh judgments are difficult to prove and can give readers the sense that you were unfair in your assessment.

With that in mind, let's begin!

First provide all the basic info like:
Book title
Book release date

You can also provide ISBN, links to purchase the book, links to the authors or books website and/or anything else you think would be helpful.

Next provide a basic summary of the book. Goodreads or the publisher website usually provides this. What is really important is that you don’t give away ANY of the major plot elements that will ruin the story for the reader!

By no means do you have to include ALL of the following in your review. These are just some elements for you to consider when writing it. Whether you liked the book or not, I think it is always a good idea to give supporting details. Instead of saying “I hated this character because she was so annoying.” You can comment on character development and vice-versa if you loved a character.

Looking at all the following questions will also help a reviewer in finding positive aspects of a book they didn’t love. For example, maybe you didn’t like the characters but the setting was detailed and enhanced the story.  

  • From what point of view is the the book narrated?
  • What genre would you classify the book? (Horror, Sci-fi, Dystopian) Find common genres HERE

  • Who are the main characters?
  • What is the author's attitude toward his characters?
  • Are the characters flat or three-dimensional?
  • Does character development occur?

  • What is/are the major theme(s)?
  • How are they revealed and developed?
  • Is the theme traditional and familiar, or new and original? Link to some common themes HERE
  • Is the theme moralistic, psychological, social, entertaining, escapist, etc. in purpose or intent?

  • How are the various elements of plot (introduction, suspense, climax, conclusion) handled?
  • What is the relationship of plot to character description?
  • To what extent, and how, is accident employed as a complicating and/or resolving force?
  • What are the elements of mystery and suspense?
  • What other devices of plot complication and resolution are employed?
  • Is there a sub-plot and how is it related to the main plot?
  • Is the plot primary or secondary to some of the other essential elements of the story (character, setting, style, etc.)?

  • What are the intellectual qualities of the writing (simplicity, clarity, conciseness, balance)
  • What are the emotional qualities of the writing? (humor, black humor, wit, satire, tragedy, empathy)
  • What are the aesthetic qualities of the writing? ( rhythm, illustrations, structure, time shifting, coincidence, dualism, imagery, fantasy, suspense, analysis, humor/cynicism, and thinking aloud)
  • Does the author use in specific literary devices that hinder or enhance the overall story? (red herring, analogy, poetic justice, irony) Find a complete list HERE
  • How effective is dialogue? Effective dialogue moves the plot forward. It deepens, or layers, characterization. It creates immediacy and intimacy, and it subtly conveys information and emotions capable of sparking reader empathy. Read more about dialogue HERE.

  • What is the setting and does it play a significant role in the work?
  • Is a sense of atmosphere suggested, and how?
  • What scenic effects are used and how important and effective are they?
  • Does the setting influence or impinge on the characters and/or plot?

This is not an absolute list of course, just things to think about when writing a review. If you have a comment or something you'd like to add to the list please let me know

If you think this list is helpful, spread the word!

I found bits and pieces of the basis of this list all over the web but I mainly referred to this website....


Library Gal said...

This was very helpful thanks! I have a friend in publishing who also metioned that keeping between 250-300 words is ideal.

-k said...

This is a great post and is a fantastic outline even for the more weathered bloggers to follow. I know that sometimes I'm so overwhelmed with trying to put down my thoughts on a book that I sometimes don't even know where to start - whether good or bad.
Thanks for putting so much work into this. I'll definitely have to bookmark this page so that I can refer to it if I ever get stuck again.

SariJ said...

I would like to add to your wonderful list. Don't review the book if you did not read it. Too many people review a book they barely looked at. It is not fair to the author or readers. Remember the old saying "if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all".
Don't review a book based on other books by the same author or personal feeling for the author. There are too many people bashing an author because they heard something negative about him/her or hated their last book. Review the book on its merits, not your judgment of the author. This is happening a lot on Amazon, and it is getting old.
Thank you, I will get off my soapbox now.

Michelle said...

I'm bookmarking this post! Sometimes I struggle with writing book reviews and this will help me out when I'm stuck and out of ideas. :D

Library Lounge Lizard said...

Thanks everyone for your comments and I will be sure and add your addendum's to the final post!

Arya said...

Truly great post! I wish I'd had this a year ago when I started reviewing. It was a kind of touch and go learning process for me, but this pretty much sums it up! (: