A Neon Sign at the Topless Bar of Literature
12 Tips for Writing Good Book Reviews
When Publishers Hit You With Their Worst
By Janice Harayda
A well-known book critic once said that she hoped that her reviews would be “a soft light in the alcove of art.” Some of the books I’ve reviewed have made me feel more like a neon sign at the topless bar of literature. But I share that critic’s view: A reviewer’s most important task is to help you see a book clearly and, especially, to show its uniqueness. A question I ask every day is: How can I show how this book differs from all others? And I’ve tried to develop a few guidelines for answering it.
I was the book critic for the Plain Dealer for 11 years, and during that time, I had to follow the Associated Press Stylebook, which has 448 pages in its current edition. I also had to follow the house style sheet for the Plain Dealer, which had more than 100 pages. Together these guides had thousands of rules. If their rules clashed, you had to know when the Plain Dealer rule would override the AP rule and vice versa. On a deadline, you could feel like an accountant trying to parse an obscure point of the federal income tax code just before midnight on April 15.
So the last thing I want to do is to flash-freeze more rules. The joy of blogging is that you get to make your own rules. But I write a lot of copy (which, if you’re under 30, was the old word for “content”). Since 2006 I’ve written 1,763 posts for One-Minute Book Reviews. And I’ve been able to keep up that pace in part because I’ve set a few guidelines for myself. I write better and faster if I don’t have to ask each time I do a post: What are my goals as a critic? For whom am I writing? When does a review cross the line, legally and ethically?
My guidelines keep evolving as I learn from the best critics working in print or online, but here are a dozen that I’ve used for years. Freelance reviewers for the Plain Dealer also had to follow most of these (so that — yes! — their work had to pass the test of three style sheets).
1. Seek out books that you can review uniquely well, and say what you alone can say about them.
2. Report facts accurately. Every reviewer’s judgments are at times flawed. But you can build trust with readers, authors, and publishers by getting the facts right even if you’re wrong about the merits of a book. Don’t trust your memory. Go back and check every fact and quote, and the spelling of every character’s name, before you post a review.
3. Know what you want your review to be: A consumer’s guide? A news report? A literary or scholarly analysis? A combination of all of those? Or something else entirely? If you aren’t sure, find a review you admire of a similar book and use it as a model.
4. Answer these questions in every review: What makes this book different from all others? And why should anyone care?
5. Write conversationally. Read your reviews aloud and rewrite or cut anything you wouldn’t say to your smartest friend.
6. Purge your work of “reviewese” (words and phrases you see mainly or only in reviews). Would anyone you know call a novel “an affecting literary debut full of lapidary prose”?
7. Aim to be fair rather than “kind.” A kindness to an author (such as failing to mention a serious defect in a book) can be cruel to readers who use reviews as a guide to what to read.
8. Criticize the book, not the author, if you don’t like what you’ve read. Focus on what’s on the page, not a writer’s character defects.
9. Give people enough information about the plot of a novel or the facts in a nonfiction book that they have a context for your opinions. Don’t give so much that your post turns into a book report instead of a review.
10. Never review a book by a friend or an enemy. Make this point part of a strict ethics code that includes avoiding any conflict of interest or appearance of a conflict. (The trouble is, as others have noted: You don’t know who your enemies are until you review their books.)
11. Find paper mentor, a great critic whose work you love. Read his or her work regularly and take it apart to see how it works. Hand copy the critic’s reviews or parts of them (with a pen or by typing them into a computer) to absorb their rhythm and structure.
12. Never post a review that isn’t the best work you can do in the time available. If you might improve a review by sitting on it for a few days and you have the freedom to do that, hold it back.
I also respect the unofficial motto of American journalism: “Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” A partial translation of that slogan is: Look for “afflicted” books that need your review, including underappreciated gems from the past and from contemporary small presses. And have the courage to “afflict” overpraised books that don’t deserve their medals or comfortable spots on bestseller lists. Will the author of Fifty Shades of Grey really suffer if you say it offered Fifty Shades of Boredom?
Update, Aug. 19, 2012: A point I made in my BEA Bloggers talk that did up appear on this list when I first posted it: Whenever possible, put the good things about a book or author up front — if not in the lead, at least close to it.
Helpful or Entertaining Links
1. “Mrs. Post Enlarges on Etiquette.” Dorothy Parker’s review of Emily Post’s Etiquette.
2. “Politics and the English Language.” George Orwell’s classic essay on writing, which offers advice related to “reviewese.”
3. “40 Publishing Buzzwords, Clichés, and Euphemisms Decoded” and “More Publishing Buzzwords Decoded With Wit on Twitter.” A tongue-in-cheek list of book-review clichés submitted by editors, authors, and others and its sequel.
4. “A Sampling of Five Decades of Phobe-Lou Adams’s Brief Reviews.” A collection of short, witty reviews by a longtime reviewer for the Atlantic.
5. “Weblog Ethics.” Rebecca Blood’s excellent guide to ethics for bloggers.
6. Ruth Franklin’s acceptance speech for the 2012 Roger Shattuck Prize for literary criticism from the Center for Fiction, delivered on May 30, 2012.
7. “Tips for Successful Book Reviewing,” Rebecca Skloot’s excellent post on how to get started in book reviewing.
Janice Harayda runs One-Minute Book Reviews and tweets at @janiceharayda. She is a novelist and an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She wrote this article in conjunction with her appearance on the Critical Reviews panel at BookExpoAmerica’s 2012 BEA Bloggers conference in New York. Dorothy Parker and Phoebe-Lou Adams are two of her paper mentors.
© 2012 JaniceHarayda. All rights reserved.