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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Advice on Writing Reviews Part One

I recently received an email from a reader asking for advice on reviewing books and book review blogs. I figured the best way to answer would be to write a post about it (names excluded, of course). Here is what the reader wrote:
The main reason I'm writing this e-mail is to ask you for some pointers on how to actually review books. I've been thinking of starting a review blog myself, but my reviews always seem to just consist of "I liked this book, and recommend it". I want to be able to say more than that, but I don't know how. I don't suppose you have any tips you might be willing to share? Rest assured, you won't get any competition for readers from me.
First things first, this is a rather loaded question. There are a lot of different kinds of book reviews, both professional and amateur, and the way I review books is not necessarily the same as someone else. There are different classes or categorizations of book reviewing and each type has advantages and weaknesses. So, with that in mind, you have to decide what kind of book reviewer you want to be. The most common types of book reviewers are as follows (note: this post is not going to be a discussion of which kind of review style is the best one as I am not interested in discussing such matters; people read different kinds of reviews for different reasons; I would, of course, enjoy discussion about these review types and welcome additions to the pros and cons as you see fit):
  1. The Literary
    These are folks like Larry of OF Blog of the Fallen who delve into the text, citing examples, pointing out themes, analyzing, etc. You might consider this to be along the lines of literary criticism. They can be quite interesting forms of reviews when done well and offer an in-depth perspective.
    Pros: These are designed to please those that are interested in more than whether or not they will like the book. Usually insightful and useful to those wanting to know whether a text is more than just another book about whatever.
    Cons: They can take a bit of time to do, especially if your reading practices are not already inclined to this sort of thing, and your audience will be relatively select (although not as select as you might think primarily because there aren't a lot of blogs that do these kinds of reviews).
  2. The OMG
    Go on the Amazon, look up any popular book (Eragon, Twilight, Harry Potter, etc.) and find any 5-star review that essentially opens and closes with some derivation of "OMG this book was teh awzums." That's basically what this is, although to varying degrees of literacy.
    Pros: Quick and easy. These reviews are essentially about how you feel about the work and are not reliant upon objective opinion, informational dialogue (synopsis, plot information, etc.), etc.
    Cons: Because they don't rely on objective opinion, informational dialogue, etc. these reviews tend to have value only to people who are already fans of a particular work, or fans of similar works. These reviews lose a lot of the value offered by other formats and really should be kept to convention meetings and Twilight fan clubs (I don't even think they should be allowed on Amazon, because they provide absolutely nothing of value about a work: people read reviews to find out if they will enjoy a book, not whether you think it's the best thing since sliced bread).
  3. The Reverse OMG
    Take the opinionated feel of #2 and add in some literacy. Essentially the Reverse OMG is a review that is based on personal opinion, but attempts to present that opinion in a less flamboyant manner. Consider this to be like an expanded #2 if you want.
    Pros: Tend to be much more interesting for the writer, which makes writing them rather easy.
    Cons: Suffers from some of the same issues as #2, although to a much lesser degree. Often times these sorts of reviews are placed on a personal blog, rather than a review blog, since they coincide with the writer's personal opinions. These aren't necessarily bad, though, and often can be interesting for people who like to get that more personal approach. Plus, they're readable.
  4. The Comprehensive
    Well, it's like the name sounds. Comprehensive reviews, to varying degrees (obviously), attempt to bring a little of everything into the mix. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but by fusing a little personal opinion (I liked it) with informational dialogue (what was the plot, etc.) you end up with a review that tells the reader what the book is about, tells them whether you thought it was good, and informs them on whether they might enjoy it too. Now, this one breaks down into a lot of subtypes, but I'm not going to go into them (mostly because I haven't the time for the absurdities of review semantics).
    Pros: Well, you've probably read these kinds of reviews in newspapers, magazines, etc. They benefit from being primarily about whether the experience of reading a particular work will be of value to someone who hasn't read it. That's the whole point. It's meant to be clear and decisive on the matter by presenting information, opinion, and relevant comparisons.
    Cons: Less personal than #3 and generally not literary. Some of the depth of reviewing that is provided by the extremes (#1 and #3, respectively, as both are on different ends of the spectrum and offer insight into two different approaches) is lost here. (I attempt to write these).
Those are the basic categories. From those, you have to decide what you want to do (and there is certainly plenty of overlap, to a certain extent, between these). I recommend avoiding #2 like the plague, because we have far too many of those kinds of reviews in the world as it is.

That's all for this edition, though, because to put all of the information I have into one post would be absolutely absurd. Stay tuned!

(Read Part Two and Part Three)

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  1. I think what you wrote I would call the superstructure of a review.
    You give a lot of hints and I find it helpful.

    I would appreciate when you would be so kind as to rite some hints concerning the formal structure of a review.

    I tried to write reviews by myself and I failed.
    So I decided for myself to stop it. Nowadays I write something I would name impressions.

  2. Oh, there's more coming. This is just part one. As of now it's a three part series (part two goes up tomorrow and I suspect three the day after.

  3. Sorry,

    didn't recognize that there will be more parts.

  4. To the writer of the question, I would also suggest thinking about what you like in reviews. What do you read them for?

    For myself, I read reviews to determine whether I should spend money on something, and how much. I don't mind hearing whether or not the reviewer liked it, but I want to know why. Often what bothers (or excites) one person will do nothing, or do the opposite, for me, and I want to know that going in.

  5. Yup, that's coming in the next two installments.

  6. Great post and good advice.

  7. Thanks, SciFi Guy!