Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Five Tips Toward Being a Good Book Reviewer

Today's post is for readers as well as writers. You could say it's especially for readers. I see a lot of fans get caught up in the excitement of independent publishing, and often they say: "I'd like to help my favorite authors, but I don't know how to write a good review. I'm just no good at it."

Anybody can be a good and helpful reviewer. Anybody.

A consumer review does not have to be as polished as a pro reivew -- and it can be a path to learning to write better as well. Some amateur reviewers have gone on to create successful and respected blogs. You just have to keep five things in mind:

1.) Remember that the reviewer is the reader's best friend, not the writer's. If you want to help writers, forget about writers! You are only as valuable as far as readers trust you. So don't write a review designed to pump a writer's sales. Write a review that will help a reader find a book he or she will love... and yes, your review should steer people who won't like the book away from it.

As a reviewer, your reptuation is gold. Guard it.

2.) Be yourself. You don't ahve to be the sophisticated academic critic who understands every element of literary craft and history. You don't have to impress the readers with how smart you are, and you don't have to write a masterpiece. You just have to be honest and thoughtful. If it's a consumer review, it can be short or long, or well-organized or random -- whatever you can manage. But that brings us to the next point:

3.) Give the audience a reference to judge. No two people are alike. They need to know what your tastes are, and whether they are the same as theirs. It's okay if your tastes are different -- as long as they have an idea of what that difference is, they can more easily judge for themselves. Another thing that can help them judge, is if you give them a well-known comparison. If it's more violent than Pulp Fiction or sadder than Old Yeller or as silly as a Warner Brothers Cartoon. That helps.

4.) Start by reviewing some well-known books. Your audience has probably read some of the same best sellers or classics in your favorite genre. If you review those books first, you will do two things. You will gain some experience in writing a reviews, AND you will provide another reference for the audience. They can see how you reacted to that famous book -- or a famous movie or tv show -- and they can gauge how they would react by that.

5.) Review Books You Don't Like So Much. This is one of the most important things you can do to gain the trust of your readers. It's so important, I capitalized it like a title. It's natural to only reivew books you really loved or really hated. But in this internet era, filled with fakers and cheats, people are very suspicoius of five-star reviews. Sometimes they just ignore them, but many people will click on the reviewer's name to see what else they've reviewed. If all the reviews are five-stars, they figure it's somebody with low standards and they don't read further.

The good thing is that you don't have to put a lot of effort into those reviews of books you don't love. You're not excited about the book? A short review shows that. You also don't have to be mean. As long as you are honest, and give the readers a reference or context, it can be a short summary review. Three or four sentences -- mention what got your interest in the book, what didn't live up to expectations (even if it was just kinda dull or slow), and also give them an idea of who you think might like it better or hate it worse.

Of course, if you want to be a book blogger, you will have to be more thoughtful and organized about your writing, and you should read as widely as you can in your favorite genres. (It is good to specialize and have a strong point of view. Readers appreciate that.) One way to start is to review on retail sites such as Amazon to gain experience. Another place is Goodreads or Shelfari.

A reviewer who is known and trusted by readers is gold to a writer. We bless those of you who do it, and I hope this was not only helpful, but also will get you to get out there and write some reviews.

And while we're on the subject of judging:

Tomorrow I'm going to talk about Rubrics. I had a simple one in Saturday's exercise on reading slush. But this week I'm going to talk more about what they are and how you can use them to improve your writing or judge other people's writing. And I'll tell you a little on how to develop your own.

In the meantime, on the writing front....

It seemed like a terribly productive day, but somehow I never even opened the document on the work-in-progress. Still, I don't think I wasted much time. I was doing research, development work, and ... catching up with old writing friends and critique partners. Bad me, but not very bad me.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great tips, as usual, Camille! Thanks for sharing these.

L.C. Evans said...

Thanks, Camille. A reviewer who knows how to give good constructive criticism can be a writer's best friend.