I would be interested in any pointers from you or other reviewers here on the basics of writing a review. New skillset! Yea!
I am a little embarrassed that I haven’t discussed this before, especially since we’ve been doing the RITA® Reader Challenge for years now. So, without further ado: reviews! Guidelines and suggestions only, because I don’t think there are any firm and absolute rules about writing reviews. Everyone’s opinion is different, and therein lies the rules and reasons for reviews.
There are many kinds of reviews, and they vary according to the forum for the review, the product being reviewed, or even the type of review for a specific kind of product. Book reviews vary as well. Some are evaluations of the romance as an argument: does the reader believe that the main characters have earned and will sustain a happily ever after, till big misunderstandings, sequels and random acts of villainy do they (temporarily) part? If the answer is yes, then the review might articulate why. If the answer is no, same thing. If the romance’s goal is to make you feel, and make you believe in the emotions and the HEA of the main characters, then the review can, if you wish, evaluate whether that enterprise was successful.
My reviews are usually a discussion of what I liked, and what I didn’t, lodged firmly under the umbrella (-ella -ella -ella) of how I felt when I finished the book. Sometimes I have a dialogue with the text of the book, and talk back to it, like I did with The Billionaire Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable Girl. Sometimes I get mad and exasperated at myself and the book, and yell at us both in my review, which I did for my review of the Sweet Valley High book Dear Sister.
And sometimes all the reasons I loved a book try to exit my brain at the same time, and I worry that I’m only semi-coherent, like for my review of Tessa Dare’s A Lady by Midnight.
Most of the time, however, when writing a review, I try to translate the feeling I have for the book in the middle, and at the end, into a grade and a narrative.
My Two Guidelines For Writing Reviews
My personal “two rules” for review writing, though I maintain that there are no rules for reviewing that apply to absolutely everybody in every circumstance, stem from my goal of translating my feeling into text.
1. The text of the review should match the grade.
If my grade is revealed at the end, it should not be a surprise that is unsupported by the review text preceding it. If the grade is at the top of the review, it should be a consistent leadoff that introduces the review logically. It would be jarring to see a C- and then read a first paragraph that begins, “Oh, my gosh, I LOVED this book.” It would be logical, though, to read, “Oh, my gosh, I LOVED this book until….”
The exception to my desire for consistency around here is the F+, which is a grade I try to reserve for books that are brimming with crazysauce, that fall of the end of the “bad” spectrum and circle back around past good to “outstanding fun” because there is totally an audience for crazysauce romance, and I am in it. “Good” is subjective, and I think more of a mobius strip than a linear evaluation.
2. Give reasons.
I didn’t like ____ because ____.
I loved _____ because ______.
Reasons make a review useful to the person reading the review. If you disliked a heroine because she was brash and mouthy and cussed out the hero a lot, there are many whose reading catnip signals will go off because they love heroines like that. They learn nothing if all the review says is, “I didn’t like the heroine.”
The hardest type of review to write for me is the review for a book that made me think, “Meh.” The best kind of reviews that I enjoy writing are the ones for books which made my brain go all Jiffy-pop with ideas. I love explaining what I thought about a book, how it made me feel, if it made me laugh, and whether I recommend it. I like trying to organize my list of reasons why a book made me mad or disappointed me.
Recommending books is a very personal thing to do, and writing a review, for that reason, can feel very personal. You can learn a lot about yourself, and the filter of your experiences, when you process exactly why you adored this book and loathed that one.
Things to Keep In Mind While Writing Reviews
Your job in a review is to tell other readers honestly what you think of the book so that they can filter your review through their own experience and decide if they want to read it, or if your reaction matches their own. Your job is not to make the author, publisher, cover art designer, copy editor, typesetter or the dude who uploaded the file feel better about themselves.
Your response and reaction to a book are your own. Your experience with the book belongs to you. This can be alienating and a challenge when you’re the only one who liked a book that everyone else is screaming about, or if you abhorred a book that everyone else seems to wrap in flannel and cuddle with at night. But your experience is between you and the book, and it belongs to you. Your articulation of that experience influences how you shape your review.
If you get stuck trying to write a review, draft it as an email. Open the email program, even, and type in a friend’s name in the To: field, and start an email to that person explaining the book. It’s kind of amazing how an email or instant message window can unlock words that refuse to emerge from your brain when you’re looking at a word processing screen.
Audience is important. If you think of a target for your review, a person or persons to whom you are speaking, it’s often easier to explain yourself, your reaction, and your grade. I receive many email messages from people who want to rant about a book, and directed the rant at me personally because they assumed (very correctly!) that I would understand their feelings. And thus, Book Rants were born.
Books, and especially romances because they deal with emotions and empathy, can make us really, really mad. REALLY mad. That is ok. I think it’s important and very cathartic to identify and explain to someone what a book did to make you mad, and why it made you so angry. I usually feel better, anyway.
So if you’re stuck trying to write a review and your audience is the entire internet, focus on a person or a small group. I often imagine that I’m in a big cushy living room with all of you (not in a creepy way!) and I’m trying to explain the book. I try to talk to you as people I know, not as a nebulous “they” whom I don’t know. I also write reviews in email messages, or in sticky notes to try to boil down all my reactions to the absolute minimum, and then I expand on that. If I’m really stuck, I make a list: 3 things I want you to know about this book. 3 things I’d warn you about before buying it. 3 reasons you’ll regret it if you don’t buy this right freaking now.
But as I said, my goal when I write a review is to say, This is what I thought. This is the grade, and this is why. This is how I felt.
The second most powerful tool after your own honesty is quotes from the text of the book. Your reaction alongside quotations for the book can go a long, long way to persuade a reader to buy that book. Whether it’s an F+ with ample crazysauce for chicken finger dipping, an A+ that made you squee so hard you went hoarse, or a C that was chock-full of meh, the text of the book can back you up, and provide another tool for the reader to make her own evaluation.
A good review, as you know, isn’t always positive. A good review is always useful. A good review is a gauge of your tastes against that reader’s taste, a shopping tool for our entertainment consumption. It can be intimidating to think that the author and everyone else who had a part in creating that book are reading what you wrote. I completely understand that. But there are readers looking for your honest opinion, and that is whom reviews are for.
I asked Carrie S, Elyse, and RedHeadedGirl for their tips and suggestions for writing reviews, and here is what they had to say:
I highlight as I read and leave notes for myself. The three points I try to hit on are character development, plot/pacing and what makes the book unique or different in its genre.
I also highlight anything that really hits me emotionally (good or bad) or anything that makes me say WTF.
I take a couple of days to a week after I finish a book to write a review. I need processing time.
I just vomit words out and sometimes they make sense!
It kind of depends on my goal- if I am reading this shit so you don’t have to, then I’ll do a full summary. If I want other people to read the book, I’ll try to be a lot more circumspect.
Then I talk about what worked, what didn’t, what didn’t work for ME (those aren’t always the same thing), and, if applicable, what I think could have made it better….but then I’m not known for my succinctness.
I would say: write like yourself.
When I started, I was very self-consciously trying to be funny. Now I hope some humor comes through, but all I’m really trying to do is explain, in my own voice, as specifically as possible, what about the book did and didn’t work and why.
I second RedHeadedGirl that sometimes what works in general and what works for a specific reader aren’t always the same thing. Romance is an emotional, personal genre so don’t hesitate to explain why something did or didn’t work for you, specifically, and why you think it might or might not work for other readers.
So, MissB2U, and everyone else who signed up to read and review a book for the 2013 RITA® Reader Challenge, I hope that was helpful. (If you’d like to join in, there are certainly spaces still available – have a look at the spreadsheet.)
Please feel free to ask questions, if you have some.
And, if you’d like, please share: what do you do when you write a review? What tips do you have to offer? What’s your favorite review that you’ve read or written?