The first professional reviewers rose out of the Salon in Paris.
Between 1748 and 1890, the Salon of Paris was the most important art exhibition in the world. The bi-annual Salon was held at the Palace du Louvre where paintings were hung frame to frame from floor to ceiling. Visitors came from all over Europe to see the greatest artists exhibit their work, making Paris the capital of fine art.
Interestingly, the Salon rejected the artists who would become the Impressionists, who began to form a movement against the Salon.
The Rise of Professional Critics
It was out of the Salon that the first professional art critics arose, and they arose out of sheer necessity.
Someone had to sift through the thousands of paintings, the hundreds of artists, and determine the good from the bad. There were just too many paintings for the every day art lover to sort out.
Critics were the curators and appraisers for the public. They guided people through the chaos to find the true masterpieces.
Does This Sound Familiar?
In 2013, over one million books will be published. If each of these books were standard 5 x 8 paperback books, they would fill up five Louvres. And, obviously, it takes a lot longer to read a book than look at a painting.
More than ever, the world needs critics.
The good news is that now, everyone can be a critic. You don’t need a Ph.D. in literature to review books. All you need is an Internet connection and a blog. The Internet has disintermediated the art world, allowing you to share your opinions directly with other readers, helping them navigate the crowded waters of publishing.
How to Write a Book Review Worth Reading
You don’t just have the ability to do this. As a writer, you have an obligation to help your fellow writers find readers and the readers in your Cartel find writers.
Also, book reviews are a great way for authors to connect with both readers and other writers. Writers rely on reviewers to help them spread their books, and readers rely on reviewers to find new books worth reading. By reviewing, you’re serving both groups.
Ready to start? Here’s how to write a review worth reading:
1. Read and Take Notes
The first step to writing a great review is, obviously, to read the book. As you read, take notes about what catches your eye or turns you off.
Capture your notes in a notebook or a separate sheet of paper. Taking notes in the margins is convenient, but it’s time consuming to flip back through the book to find them. If you’re reading on an eReader, you can choose take notes using the eReader’s keyboard, as those will go to one easily accessible place.
If you come across any particularly interesting (or terrible!) passages, underline them and write down the page number in your notebook to come back to later.
2. Introduce the Book
In your review, spend the first paragraph or three introducing the book. Write about why you chose to read the book, the emotions or memories the book evoked in you, or even give an analysis of where the book falls in comparison to other books you like.
The introduction of your review is a good place to add color and share some of your own personality. Remember: readers don’t just want to know about the book. They want to know how you felt about the book.
3. Summarize the Story
After the introduction comes the summary, where you briefly describe the setting and the key events of the novel, or the main ideas if it’s a non-fiction book. Your summary should be short, between one to two paragraphs, longer if you’re writing a longer review.
For fiction, make sure you don’t give away the ending or share any spoilers in your summary. You may only be able to summarize the first half of the story, and that’s fine.
This section helps the reader get a sense of whether this book is for them or not.
4. Analyze the Result
Here’s where you answer the question, did this book succeed or not? Note that I didn’t say, did you like this book? Your job as a reviewer isn’t to reveal your preferences, although they will color your review. Rather, your task is to help readers discover whether they will enjoy the book.
Your review is not about you. It’s about the reader.
In the analysis section, mine the book for strengths and flaws. This is a great place to share a longer quote from the book. John Updike said, “Give enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage —of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.”
In your analysis of fiction or memoir, you might answer the following questions:
- Did the novel follow through on its promise in the first pages?
- Were the characters deep, interesting, and relatable?
- What themes did the story illustrate? Why do you think the author was interested in those themes?
- How would you describe the author’s style of writing? Did his style fit the story?
- Were the ideas presented unique and interesting?
- Were they true?
- How were they presented? Did the author do a good job keeping you interested?
- Did the author change the way you see the world?
For this section, I usually aim for one to two paragraphs
5. Your “Verdict”
This is where most reviewers start, but it’s actually the least important part of the review. Many great reviewers leave it out completely.
This is where you say whether you liked the book or not. You may choose to give the book a certain number of stars or rate it on a scale of 1 to 5 or 1 to 10.
Instead of giving my own verdict, I prefer to suggest who else will like this book, saying something like, “If you enjoy fast paced thrillers, Sempre Fi Forever will keep your heart racing.”
The Ethics of Reviewing: A Few Notes
With Story Cartel, I talk to a lot of reviewers, and one response I hear regularly is, “I didn’t like the book and I didn’t want to leave a bad review. So I didn’t review it.”
I always air on the side of leaving positive rather than negative reviews, even if the book doesn’t suit my taste. If you follow these rules, readers will be able to see whether the book is for them or not, regardless of whether you give them a verdict or not. As Updike said, “John Updike said, “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”
A good reviewer rises above her own personal preference as a sign of respect to both readers and the author who wrote the book.
And if the book failed, give the author the benefit of the doubt. Updike said, “Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?”
However, if you still think the book is bad, remember your first loyalty is to the reader: Leave the bad review!
Examples to Study
Before beginning any new form, I always recommend studying other professional examples. Below are a few great sources for book reviews for you to study.
Now it’s time to put your reviewing skills to the test. To move on to this unit’s exercise, click here.