When I started my first job after grad school, my grown-up gift to myself was a Sundays-only subscription to the Washington Post. I'd spend each Sunday sitting in my one-bedroom apartment with the newspaper crammed onto my tiny drop-leaf table. As the birds chirped outside and the early morning sun slanted onto my dingy plaster walls, I would read the newspaper from front to back. Even the Automotive section.
But the section that I most reluctantly opened was Book World. Why bother to read about books that I wasn't ever going to pick up?
Eventually, though, I'd flip the pages on Book World. I had to read the whole newspaper (don't ask), and Book World did rate above the Sports section.
And it turns out, book reviews are actually damn interesting.
I found that they aren't 5th grade book reports, but rather essays on all the topics that books cover -- which is to say, every single interesting topic under the sun. So I didn't need to read the biography of Dollie Madison to learn something about her. I could glean that from the Washington Post's beautiful review.
As my own writing became a more important part of my life, I became more interested in fiction reviews. Who is the publishing world interested in now, and what makes her novel succeed (or not)?
Eventually, my book review interested developed into an obsession, and I joined the team of the Washington Independent Review of Books.
Which means I have many opinions on book reviews.
They're a useful (if often bemoaned) part of the literary ecosystem. Reviews start a discussion on a book, and talking about books is a pleasure second only to reading them. Reviews might point readers toward a beautiful book, or away from a story some might not like. Writers love the reviews readers leave. And the more society spends its time writing and thinking about books, the better for all of us.
So whether you're reviewing on Amazon, GoodReads, or edited publications like WIROB or LA Review of Books, here are some steps to guide you.*
- Read the book. Obviously, right? But take this part seriously. Underline, make notes, and highlight themes. Indulge your inner marginalia manic. When you’re done, reread the book. Or at least, reread sections and survey your notes.
- Plan. Think about what you want to say and how you’ll structure it. Work here will save you trouble later.
- Craft your hook. What’s going to draw the reader into your particular essay? This could be a theme from the book, a broader lesson about humanity the book raises, an autobiographical note about the author, or (least often) a personal anecdote – among other options.
- Introduce the book. You probably don’t need to give the title of the book (that should be evident from the title of the review), though publication styles will vary. But make it clear if you’re considering fiction, nonfiction, mystery, etc. (Unless the publication makes such categorization self-evident.)
- Summarize key points. This is often the most challenging part to do elegantly, but it’s also the most important. Or maybe second most important, after the hook. A reader needs to have a sense of what the book is about.
- Don’t spoil the book. A book review isn’t a critical essay (usually), so you don’t need to examine every last development. Tantalize your reader by hitching a ride on the book’s suspense. Leave some questions unanswered.
- Provide some analysis. This doesn’t have to come as a separate section after the synopsis, though often that’s the easiest way to handle it. Here, don’t fixate too much on if you “liked” the book, but rather, consider where the book was successful in the objectives it set for itself.
- Close with either an echo of the hook or an important take-away. Provide a sense of conclusion.
- Let the essay sit. Like any writing, you need some time away to gain perspective. At least a day is best, if you can.
- Revise. Make sure the ideas still make sense, and then check spelling, etc. If there are heavy edits, repeat steps 9 and 10 again.
* Be sure to read your publication’s guidelines first. Every publication will have different style preferences.