I’ve been thinking lately about what makes a good review. I’ve been writing this blog for 3 and a half years now, and while I love writing reviews, I always want to get better at it. It starts to feel a little routine after a while.
I expect most bloggers follow a pattern when they write reviews. Mine usually start out with why I picked a certain book, and whether it met or didn’t meet my expectations. I like to provide a little background and historical context (is it the author’s first book or written late in their career, is it part of a series, did it contain elements of history or the author’s life?).
And then a plot summary, and what I liked and didn’t like, and I try to include a quote. Sometimes I look at what other reviewers are saying about a book, but I usually outline my review first so I’m not parroting someone else’s views.
I think it’s important to tell you when my reaction to a book might be unusual. I think readers need to know what I like and dislike in general, so you know whether my review of a particular book is meaningful. For example, I like endings that leave things unsaid. I like messed-up, flawed characters. I like dialect and tons of historical detail. You probably don’t.
I’d love to hear from the readers out there, what makes a review useful for you?
And if you’re a blogger, what do you struggle with as a reviewer?
What do I struggle with? I try not to say the same things over and over in each review. I try to be balanced (and constructive if I know the author is reading) — but not so balanced you’ll think I liked a book when I didn’t.
But the biggest challenge is trying not to tell too much about a book. It’s usually impossible to really express my views about a book without telling you something about what happens. I try not to go too far. But what’s too far? When does a plot summary tell you more than you wanted to know? For example, if I tell you I cried like a baby at the end, that alerts you that maybe something tragic happens (which is not always true – I’m a shameless book crier). Or in a recent book review, I wanted to write that I was glad a certain coincidence didn’t turn out to be true – but that would give away too much. So the most I can say is I’m glad the book didn’t go as expected, but that’s horribly vague.
Last is balancing informal, personal writing and good analytical writing. I want every review to tell you how it personally affected me — I think that’s what books are all about. But I also want to write a thoughtful review about the merits of the book. Sometimes I think I’m too informal, like my recent Panopticon review, and I feel like I short-changed a great book. Other times I think I’ve taken a “fun” book and totally analyzed it (Divergent maybe?).
I’d love to hear what you like and dislike in a book review, and if you write reviews, what you find challenging. Please comment!