The Fine Art of Talking about People
If you want your queries to stand out, beef up your byline. One of the best ways to do that is through book reviews. Publishing outlets that include book coverage tend to treat reviews more like a revolving door than a dedicated office—the more perspectives the better.
Reviewing a book also gives you an opportunity to hone your skills as a writer by honestly engaging with a work not your own, doing so with respectability and attention, and receiving feedback from an editor. But book reviews aren’t simply for those starting out in the publishing world. With the number of books published each year, writers at every experience level have unique lenses through which they view the world and, as such, unique views of the works created therein. Again, the more the merrier.
So, what makes for an effective book review? Certainly, there are evergreen rules to the trade, some of which I’ll share below. But I’d like to offer six tips for crafting a strong piece. And while these can be applied to any publication, I’ll tailor some of my comments to the specifics we’re looking for at Fathom.
1. Play by the author’s rules.
Start out by explaining what the book says. This might seem like an obvious point, but without some restraint a review can easily devolve into what the reviewer thinks, or worse, wishes a book says—especially when it comes to fiction. The world already has too many “The Gospel According to insert-pop-culture-reference-here” takes. Just because you happen across a point that reminds you of a Bible story or a personal conviction doesn’t mean that’s what the author is actually trying to say. Furthermore, an author’s casual mention of “God” does not necessarily mean he or she believes in the same God as you.
So, observe and interrogate. For non-fiction, what is the author’s thesis? And how do they argue in defense of it? For fiction, what motivates the primary characters? And how does the author develop those motivations in ways that create personal change?
Author Zadie Smith describes books as having their own beliefs. A good review needs to begin there. What does it believe? Be sure to thoroughly answer that question, as doing so respects the author and builds your credibility for the remainder of the piece. Start with what the writer actually says rather than what you think or want them to say.
2. Do more than summarize.
Keep your summary to a minimum. Start with what the book believes, but make sure you move on from there. If someone wants to know the synopsis of a book, they can simply look up the description on Amazon. They don’t need a fresh retelling by way of your byline.
Constructive criticism is part of the review process. No book is perfect. So, give readers your thoughts on where it seemed weak. Was the prose overindulgent? Was its logic consistent? Did it answer the questions it raised? Was it hyperbolic? Realistic? Truthful? How does it compare with other titles of the same genre/subject?
Take notes as you read to follow up on any confusion you have or terms that need further definition. Focus especially on the emotions you experience while reading the book. Ask yourself what prompted them, as they tend to be a good starting point for exploring your own tensions with the subject matter.
3. Build credibility.
Even the worst books possess praiseworthy seedlings. Find and point them out. Doing so engenders trust with your readers. It demonstrates that even if you did not particularly enjoy the book, you have enough respect for the author and the creative process to lend it your impartial attention. After all, no one wants to read either a purely positive or negative review (unless you can write one this well).
More importantly, those of us who count ourselves Christ followers believe that all creative expressions find their root in our creator. While those expressions do not always blossom into accurate representations of his story, they belong to the same source. Seek out what is praiseworthy, as doing so honors both the creator and our God.
4. Get out of the way.
If your name is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Stephen King, or Marilynne Robinson, you can ignore this tip. Otherwise, as much as possible, limit your use of first-person pronouns, like “I” and “me.” Readers click on a review to learn more about the book so make it the star, for better or worse.
That said, there will be times when your unique lens includes a personal experience of sorts that relates to the subject matter of the book. Perhaps, you met the author and your interactions reinforced what you thought about the book. If you’re reviewing a work on infertility and have found yourself unable to have children, that’s a valuable perspective worth mentioning. The point here is simply to keep the book front and center and any personal affectations limited to colorful background.
5. Validate, validate, validate.
Don’t be flippant with your criticism. Give examples wherever possible. Interact directly with the work itself. Sometimes that will look like quoted passages. Other times, it will look like concisely summarizing a chapter or two or comparing the book to a similar book and/or author. Whatever form your criticism takes, validate it thoroughly so that if a reader chooses to read the book as a result of your review, they will recognize how you drew your conclusions. Nothing will ruin your credibility faster than careless criticism.
6. Write with respect.
Whether you plan to enshrine the book in protective casing or drench it in lighter fluid and set it aflame, write with a posture of respect. Tell the truth, but with grace and tact. Thanks to social media, there’s a very real possibility the author will happen across what you have to say. Write as though the two of you are face to face. If you’re worried about potentially hurting his or her feelings, that’s probably a good instinct to follow. Let it inform the way you craft your criticism, but don’t let it paralyze you from critique.
Bonus Tip: Concretize
Weaving an image or story throughout your review is a great way to keep readers engaged. If you choose to go that route, stay out of the abstract. Create images a reader can touch, hear, and smell. Keep your language tight and specific. Your editor will thank you for it later.
Everyone varies in terms of their reading capacity, but no one can read every book that hits the market. Well-written reviews are one of the factors that can lead someone to either crack open the latest novel or leave it on the shelf. Write with that weight on your keystrokes and help your readers choose wisely.
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