Wednesday, September 05, 2007

How to write a book review

OK - I confess. This is as much a checklist and reminder for me as it might be for anybody else who's thinking about doing book reviews for THE BIG DRAWING BOOK REVIEW next month - which is the Campaign for Drawing's BIG DRAW month in the UK.

I'm posting a little bit later today as what follows has already been for a bit of a 'test drive'. This is a first draft. You can all pitch in with suggestions for ways to improve it. I'll then reissue it later this month if it needs revising. I'd particularly like to know from those who've never written a book review before (or can't remember how to start) whether they find it helpful.

I've also included some links to various sites which relate to "how to write a book review". It would also be good to know about any that anybody else can recommend. You can also find examples of book reviews I've written on this blog by clicking the category label "book reviews" in the right hand column - although a number of these are project related and mixed with discussions of related topics.

The images included throughout are of some of the books I hope to be reviewing.

What's your approach to reviewing a book?

There is no one right way to review a book. Different people adopt different approaches - and in part it depends on the type of book being reviewed. However the same basic principles or pointers seem to be employed for non-fiction books as those which might be employed for reviews of erudite and academic books or the beach novel for the summer holidays!
  • The "straight and to the point" - says what the book is about, what it does and doesn't do, something about bits you liked and those you were less keen on. These tend to be written by those who have less experience of book reviews or maybe just don't much like some of the alternative approaches.
  • the "critical analysis" - This is not the same as "I didn't like it" - it's supposed to mean that you have some sort of expertise in this subject area. I'm not quite sure why it sometimes also seems to be mean that a review should be very long and turgid (says the person who writes enormously long blog posts!). Or why negative ones always seem to be written by those who've written an awful lot of book reviews even though they don't always evidence the reasons for the criticism or seem to go against the grain. I always wonder whether they say more about the critic than the book.
  • the "best way to show off all you know" approach - read the Miles Kington article for more about this. Those of us with lots and lots of books will have this one pinned to our wall just above the keyboard - as a dire warning!
  • the "summary" - otherwise known as 'let's see what the synopsis has to say on Amazon'. Beware - the synopsis for a book is written by the publishers who are naturally well disposed towards their book. Publishers are generally accurate about the factual content (presentation / price / subject matter) but can sometimes have rosy coloured glasses on when it comes to the quality of the content. Summaries can also be an overview of views being publicly expressed by other people, which 'in my book' is OK so long as you make it clear that you are summarising the views of others rather than reviewing the book. For example, book reviews might include a summary note eg "getting rave reviews in certain newspapers" or "people who have read the book are consistently giving it the thumbs down in reviews on on Amazon"
What a book review should include

The review guidelines produced by sites like Amazon can be a very neat way of describing what a book review should do

What to include: Your review should be a genuine review of the product, discussing the quality of the product and your opinion of it. Make your review as informative and detailed as possible. The best reviews include not only whether you liked or disliked the product, but also why. Feel free to mention other items you consider similar and how this products rates in comparison to them. A good way to approach writing a customer review is to imagine that you are deciding whether to buy a particular book: what information could you put in your review that might help other customers with this decision?
( review guidelines)
If you want more help and would like a checklist of prompts - here's a few ideas but remember these can be revised!
  • state basic and factual details about the book
    • keep this brief but informative. Publishers or distributors websites tend to provide the basic info. needed for a book review. (eg full title; date published; no. of pages; no. of colour and/or black and white images; hardback and/or softback; ISDN no.; current price)
    • what's the purpose of the book is - as stated by the author / publisher
    • who is the book is targeted at- as stated by the author / publisher
  • your opinion about the content
    • Does it meets its objective as stated by the author? Don't mix this up with whether it does what you think it should be doing - that's a different issue.
    • Does it cater well for its stated audience? Who do you think it's suitable for?
    • Could it have done better?This is when you can offer your opinion about the book the author should have written. It might reflect your view on how authoritative the author is in this field.
    • Has it all been said before? Or has this author maybe got a unique perspective or a really good and individual way of presenting the information?
  • your opinion about how well it communicates messages
    • This is about how easy the book is to follow and read. A book can make lots of good points - and be difficult to read. A book can be well written and say nothing very much.
    • How does the author structure the content? What do you think about the layout and flow. Is it confusing or does it help the reader?
    • What do you think about the writing? Is it easy to read? This could involve comments of the level of language used, length and complexity of sentences and how text gets chunked up on the page.
    • What do you think about the type of images used? Do they help and support the points being made?
  • your opinion about the presentation and price.
    • If the feel and presentation is impressive, then say so upfront. However, if it does the job or makes the grade like most other books then probably best to comment nearer the end.
    • Is the book produced well? Are the colour images good? Does it have a quality feel? Will it fall apart?
    • Is the book good value for money - or not? Good books can be expensive and they can be cheap - but the latter represents better value for money. Books which aren't helpful or don't add much to what you alraedy know might be thought to be a waste of money for you - but still be a good buy for somebody else
    • who would do well if they bought this book?
  • would you recommend it? In other words, would you buy this book for yourself and keep it on your shelf of books you really like and value? If you're not sure try my acid tests which are "If you lost it, would you buy it again?" and "Would you ever lend it?".
Sound principles

Here are some suggestions about a few things to keep at the front of the brain while writing a book review
  • read the book - I know it's obvious but you'd be surprised how many people don't.
  • check your facts - otherwise you'll look silly!
  • have a view - that's what a book review is all about
  • evidence your opinion - say WHY as well as what you think
  • positive before negative - play nice!
How to write a book review
How not to write a book review


Anonymous said...

When I saw your post on signing up for reviewing a drawing book I was interested. I have 10 -15 books on drawing in my collection. I wanted to leave a comment but didnt as I have never reviewed a book before :D So thanks for this post and the links I'm off to check them out.

Making A Mark said...

I think most people have never reviewed a book before - or at least maybe not since school! I'm glad you found the post to be of use to you.

Anonymous said...

I have a post that I THOUGHT was ready to publish reviewing a new book - Stitched Textile Collage - and now I'm going to be going back over the entire thing! I know I included some of the points you mentioned belong in a good book review, but I'm also certain that if I review what I wrote with your thoughts in mind that I'll improve my post. Great article!

Casey Klahn said...

I will be reviewing "Wolf Kahn Pastels", and filling in a little extra from his exhibition catalog of pastels from 06.

Making A Mark said...

Thanks Casey - I hear that's a good book so I'd love to hear what you think about it.

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