DISCUSSION // How to write a book review

Today on the blog, I thought I’d talk about how to write a book review. A few weeks ago, I wrote about my personal reviewing process, which you can check out if you’d like to see a detailed explanation of how I approach reviews. But no two review writers or bloggers or critics are the same, so this is more about tips on review writing – and how to develop your OWN reviewing process (or just get through a homework assignment).

1. Ask yourself questions

Asking yourself questions about the books you’ve read is something you’re probably already doing – now you just need to know how to get them on paper (or keyboard, as the case may be). They can be simple: What did I like about this story? What didn’t I like? Who were the heroes? What were the big themes? Or they can be more complex: What was the writing style like? What were the character arcs? Why was this book written or published at this moment in time?

Try to figure out the difference between subjective (“what did I think of this book”) and objective (“what is actually going on in the pages of this book”) questions and responses. Think about the book from the perspective of the target audience. Maybe you thought the plot of this picture book was too simple, but would the three-year-old who just wants to look at animals?

The answers to these questions and more will form the substance of your review. You may find that certain elements  naturally go together, like linking heroes and character arcs, or big themes and topical relevance. Once you start reading in a way that prompts questions of it and yourself –  bam, that’s critical reading.

326020092. If you’re stuck, make things as straightforward as possible

Whether you’re experienced or just starting out, you’re going to get stuck sometimes. You’ll struggle to put into words why you loved a book so much, or how uncomfortable it made you feel, or struggle to explain the exact vibe a story gave you. You may not capture that feeling entirely – and that’s fine! Reading is an individual experience. But if it’s just a case of writer’s block (critic’s block?), writing a really straightforward sentence is one of the best ways to get started. You might cut it out at the end when you’ve said in more detail what you want to say, but there’s no harm in just explaining to yourself: “I picked this book off the shelf because…” or “I love this series because…”

The opening line of my review of Lisa Lueddecke’s first book is “A Shiver of Snow and Sky is one of those books I’d been intending to read for ages.” Early on in my review of Night Owls by Jenn Bennett is simply the line: “I was surprised by how much I liked this.”  Sometimes the only way to get to expressing more complicated ideas is start with simple ones. It’s also one of the best ways of keeping yourself honest.

3. Be conscious of developing your own style

If you plan to write more than one review, you’ll have the opportunity to develop your own style. This can take a long time, but there are ways you can consciously aid the process. Figure out what kind of reviews you like to read (What kind of language do they use? Is it short and chatty, is it funny and clever, is it serious and sophisticated?). Look back over your own reviews a few weeks or months after you’ve written them and see what you would change. Experiment with new styles and see what you think of them.

9781471406829Everyone has hallmarks. I finish all my reviews with a short in-brief paragraph, string multiple adjectives together at the start or end of sentences, have a terrible propensity for alliteration, and find comp titles (specific ‘for fans of’ descriptions) very useful (“For fans of Sky Chasers by Emma Carroll and The Boy Who Went Magic by A.P. Winter, Vashti Hardy’s Brightstorm is an accessible, Victoriana-lite fantasy adventure”). I like a challenge, so recently I tasked myself with developing a more concise review style. I still occasionally write long reviews (check out this one for Alice Oseman’s I Was Born For This or this one for Flying Tips for Flightless Birds by Kelly McCaughrain). My shorter reviews are still content-heavy (check out this jam-packed review for Morgan Matson’s Save the Date), but you’ll also find me writing reviews like this one for Keris Stainton’s My Heart Goes Bang). 

4. Practice

Again, this is mainly if you’d like to consistently write reviews (if you’re just here trying to figure out how to do your homework, you probably stopped reading at point #2), but there really is only one way to develop a style or a process – practice! You won’t feel perfect at it straight away, but you can have fun getting there!

Do you have any tips on writing book reviews? Are there any reviews you’ve written that you’re particularly proud of?

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