Margot McGovern shares her advice for writing a stellar review.
Sites like Goodreads, which I use and love, have turned us all into reviewers but also promote the idea that writing a book review is something to be done quickly and succinctly the minute we finish reading. That’s one way of going about it, and a good approach if you just want to recommend the book to friends. But for those who want to provide fellow readers with an insightful critique, there’s considerably more work involved.
I’ve been reviewing books professionally for a while now. In addition to editing (and currently writing) all the reviews here on Lectito, I’ve had reviews published in Australian Book Review, Kill Your Darlings, Mascara Literary Review and Viewpoint. For the past few years I’ve also been a regular reviewer for Lip Magazine, posted occasional reviews on my (largely neglected) personal blog margotmcgovern.com and written my share of bike and theatre reviews to boot. Every publication has different criteria for what they expect from their reviewers, but along the way I’ve learned a few tricks that are almost always useful.
With that in mind, below are the five key things that help me write a solid review:
1. Be an active and engaged reader
I highlight key passages and make notes as I go along, same as I would if I were conducting research for an essay or article. Nerdy, yes, but it makes the reviewing process much easier, as I’ve got all my key information and quotes handy when I sit down to write.
Some of these notes are really basic: characters’ names, where and when the story takes place, key turning points, major themes. But I also note my emotional responses: am I laughing, crying, having an existential crisis? Do I sympathise with the characters? Does the plot hold my interest? And more importantly, how is the author eliciting these responses from me? What techniques are they using, and are they working? Most of all: what does this book communicate?
2. Let it percolate
Our first reactions are often emotional rather than critical, so I usually take about a week to mull the story over before beginning my review. During that time I often make connections and observations that weren’t visible at close range and I’m able to move past ‘OMFG!!! THIS IS THE BEST BOOK OF ALL TIME EVER!!!’ and onto ‘why is this a great book?’, which is far more helpful (and interesting) to readers.
Most professional reviewers also reread a book before writing their review. It’s a time consuming but incredibly helpful exercise, especially if the book is a dense one. If I can’t manage a full reread before deadline, I’ll at least revisit key passages or sections.
3. Have a plan
Call me old fashioned, but I like structure. For me a good review is one comprising the following:
Hook: grab the reader’s attention with a quote, an interesting fact about the book, a brief description of the narrator, etc. The ‘hook’ should give the reader a taste of the book.
Intro/summary: tell the reader a bit about the book: who is the author, what genre is it, when was it published, has it won any prizes, etc.? Is there any other contextual information they should know? This is also where I give a brief plot summary, though I’m careful to avoid spoilers.
Note: For the plot summary, I use my own words rather than copying the blurb. This makes me really think about the story and offers the reader a different perspective.
Analysis: this makes up the bulk of my review. Here I think about: what are the key ideas in this story, how does the author communicate them (what literary techniques do they use) and why are these ideas important (what is the wider social context)? A simpler version of this is: what has the author set out to achieve in this book? How did they go about it? Were they successful?
In this section I provide evidence from the text to support each point I make. This is where my notes and key quotes come in handy.
Conclusion: I finish up by summarising the book and whether or not I would recommend it. I generally avoid phrases like ‘I would recommend Name of Book‘ or ‘In conclusion’. Instead, I think: what is the thing that really recommends this book?
Here’s some examples:
The Eye of the Sheep breaks your heart slowly. It’s a story marked by preventable tragedy, but also a story of hope, resilience and unbreakable connections: a reminder that there is always scope for change both within ourselves and the world at large.
The Strays is an evocative, intoxicating cautionary tale of the often terrible price we pay for tempting fate and of the blindness brought about by misplaced desire and ambition. More than that, it’s about our primal need to make meaningful connections. To find our tribe. To belong.
A Small Madness is an unsettling, uncomfortable read that explores the shadowy space between the real and the ideal and questions our responsibility and moral obligation towards others.
4. Make it meaty, but trim the fat
Book reviews can be any length, and it’s tricky to find a balance between offering a detailed critique and losing the reader’s interest. For online reviews, like the ones here on Lectito, I aim for 750–1000 words. For me as a reader, anything less than 500 probably isn’t meaty enough, but more than 1000 and I’m jumping over to one of those other thirty-six tabs I have open.
5. Edit, edit, edit
Admittedly, I’m not that great at this step. Catching your own typos is HARD. Even after years and years and years of writing, I’ve never got a single piece exactly right the first time round.
Once I’ve finished a draft, I leave it for a while. Ideally a few days, but at the very least a couple of hours. Then I read over it a few times. Even though I sound like a crazy person, reading my work aloud helps me catch clunky sentences and bits that make no sense. Ideally, I’d have someone else who knows what they’re doing read over it too.
If I’m posting a review online it’s also really important to preview the layout and check that all the links and images are working before I make the post live.
When writing for another publication, I also check that I’ve met the brief, nailed the word count and written my review in a ‘voice’ appropriate for that title. Having worked as an associate editor managing contributing writers for a number of years, I cannot emphasise enough how important this is for writers wanting ongoing work.
For some, this might seem like a lot of effort, and it is. Writing is often fun, but it’s also hard work and the good stuff takes time. Happy reviewing!
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