15 October 2013

Beginner's Guide to Writing Reviews

Hey there y'all!
你们好!

Today I want to bring up an important subject: reviews, and what to keep in mind when writing them.

There are as many review styles as there are people; everyone is different.  Realize, though, that this also means that your review style is not going to jive with every reader who visits your blog.  Also, if you're frustrated by the lack of response to your reviews, consider the possibility that it is because your style isn't cutting it for the general public.

That's what I aim to do here today: point out what the general public tends to jive with.

Reviewing 101

  1. Reviews are like debates.
  2. Intros & Conclusions
  3. Main Points
  4. Flow
  5. "When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser."
  6. Pages, Publisher, Published...
  7. Quick Tips & Reminders

Reviews are like debates.

Debates, or informal academic papers.  Like both, your review should have some fundamental elements to it: an introduction, conclusion, body paragraphs, solid flow, and intrigue.  Confusing reviews not only fail to effectively communicate your point, but having to mentally spar around a jumbled review is a major turn off.  Your goal in writing reviews is to communicate your feelings on the book.  This means crafting an argument with supportive evidence.  That sounds scary, I know.  Hang in there, though.  It isn't as frightening as you might think.

Intros & Conclusions

Your introduction and conclusions should be brief, but brevity does not equal sloppiness.  Make your intros and conclusions tight, to the point.  Strive for an introduction that brings you right into the heart of what you're trying to say, and end with a quick (but not redundant) sum up.

A note on conclusions: in the way that debaters don't edge off the podium while wrapping up their argument, don't let your review fade away into nothingness.  Either leave it with a punch or tie it off neatly with a bow.  Don't just leave it hanging or nonexistent.

Main Points

All reviews should cover some fundamental concepts.  Think of the "Who, what, when, where, why" format: characters, plot, world, writing. Make sure to use these concepts as sources to draw from when you're crafting your argument.

Remember to be relevant!  Stay on topic.  While editing, think of each sentence the way writers think about subplots: if you can take it out and everything still makes sense, get rid of it.

Express yourself simply and explain your opinions.  Your audience is intelligent but not every visitor has read the book you're reviewing.  Don't go into details without explaining the hows and whys and reason thereofs.  Give examples and don't be afraid to share some quotes, whether they're from the book you're reviewing or not.

Flow

Clarity is important in any argument you make, and it comes partially from the smooth flow of a well-constructed argument.  When I read a review, I want to know exactly what's going on at all times.  If you start talking about the world in one sentence and then about the symbolism of a character in the next, I'm going to be a little confused.  Don't jump from idea to idea.  Let them flow.

If logical flow is something you struggle with (like me), then try outlining.  It doesn't have to be extensive, unless you want it to be, but experiment with jotting down and then organizing your thoughts beforehand.  Sometimes I do this on paper, sometimes I type phrases and ideas directly into my blog post.  Making something like an outline or a checklist helps ensure that you're covering everything you want to share with your audience in a way that makes sense.

Something to note about flow: each paragraph should build on the previous one.  So start with the aspect of the book that is least important to you, or the one you disliked the most, then, like a book, build to a climax.  I aim to make the highlight of the book the climax of my review.

"When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser."

Don't bash the author.  Would you respect someone who bashed authors in their reviews?  It's poor taste and a bold signifier of your professionalism as a book reviewer.  It's understandable if you can't stand a book; we all have read books that make us want to hurl it across the room.  Realize, though, what it says about you if you launch a personal attack on the author.

Whenever you don't like a book, be as professional as you can about it, and remember to explain exactly why you didn't like it.  In a negative review, I always double check to make sure that I have explained myself clearly without getting bitchy.  I want my followers to navigate away from my review considering whether or not they are still interested in the book.  I don't want them leaving with less respect for me than when they came.

Pages, Publisher, Published...

In newspaper reviews, there is always basic information given about the book.  There's always a cover, and always the title and author's name somewhere -- don't trust that your followers are going to be able to surmise the title and name from the cover.  Beyond that, what you provide is entirely up to you.  I've seen everything ever related to a book provided at the end, or beginning, of the review.

I myself provide the information I would like to see in a review: pages (I'm more apt to give a pass to shorter books), whether it's hard or soft cover (because page count varies by edition), when it was published (for whether or not I should bother looking for it at my local library), the publisher (some have better reps than others), the genre (just in case it isn't entirely clear from the cover/review), how I got it (just in case it was from an author or publisher), the rating (since I don't like putting it in the title of my post), and the series and subsequent titles (if applicable).

I also provide my favorite quotes.  This is a chance for me to give my followers a taste of the writing style, of the characters, etc.  I tend to stick with funny or dramatic quotes, but note that you want to choose your quotes with care.  Sometimes you can excerpt a section in the middle of a conversation, but take the time to think whether or not your readers are going to understand what's going on.  If you're stuck on quotes, try searching for some on Goodreads.

Browse through other blogs to see what's provided, but don't be afraid to change it up the more reviews you write.  When I first started, I didn't provide half the information I do now.  After three years, I've pretty much settled on the kind of information I want to provide.  Look around.  Experiment.  Try your own thing.

Quick Tips & Reminders

Sometimes I get writer's block when I go to write a review.  This is not the end of the world.  It's a harrowing experience to think of the best way to express your opinion.  Whenever I'm stuck, I go to a family member (read: my dad) and talk it out.  I go on a big rampage about the book, and by the end of it, I have a good sense of what I want to say and how I want to say it.

Remember the intelligence level of your audience.  Followers don't need to be spoken to as if they were three-year-olds.  Don't let words scare you.  Try to find instances where you can broaden your vocabulary.  But, again, remember the intelligence level of your audience.  Don't get crazy.

Make sure that what you're saying matters.  What you say impacts others, so take the time to make sure what you're saying matters to you.  If you, the writer, can't find it in yourself to care about what you're writing, why should anyone else?  Also, if you believe what you say fully, you give yourself more confidence if someone happens to argue with you.

If someone disagrees with you, proceed with caution.  Take someone who disagrees with you the same way an author should take critique: with a smile and a polite, "Thank you."  Even if someone leaves a comment saying they disagree with every point you made, don't let it get personal.  Say "I'm glad you liked it/I'm sorry you disliked it so much...thank you for stopping by" if you have to say anything at all.  Just like with bashing authors, the way you respond to criticism says a lot about you.

I hope these tips were of some help to you.  :)  Comments, concerns, questions, cookies, are all welcome.

Until next time!
再见!