By Irene Watson
Some people might think that anyone can write a book review, but to write one that will help people to make an educated decision about whether a book is worth reading requires honesty, good writing, support for an argument, and an adequate description.
Following are some attributes of quality reviews. If you are someone who writes reviews or wants to be a book critic, these can be used as guidelines to help you write critiques that readers will appreciate. If you are an author, look for these qualities in potential critics so you can determine whether you want the person to read and write about your book.
Honesty: A review isn’t worth anything if it’s not honest. If a reviewer gives every book five stars, chances are he’s either not reading the books or he’s afraid to hurt the author’s feelings. Reviews should be balanced and only praise books that are well-developed in their arguments, have engaging storylines and characters, or add new information to their field. Whether or not the reviewer receives compensation for reviewing the book, the review is of no value if it isn’t honest. A critic should not be “bought,” and one who writes up a glowing and dishonest review is doing no one a service because his readers will no longer value his opinion and be angry that they spent time and money reading a sub-par book. Similarly, the reviewer who has an ax to grind and gives a book a low rating because he simply doesn’t like the author or the general topic would do better to review other books or no books at all. Bad reviews have their place; they can be a true learning experience for the author, but they can also be kindly worded.
Brief and Clear Summaries: A good book review is not a book report. It should not include a complete plot summary or a chapter-by-chapter description of the book’s contents. It may, however, describe enough of the plot to make people want to read further, such as stopping the summary at a cliffhanger moment, or it might list the main topics without going into detail. Under no circumstances should a review give away a novel’s ending, or list the concluding arguments of a non-fiction work. In short, a review should never provide so much information that the reader feels no need to read the book because he completely knows what it contains; a review should be like a movie trailer-a teaser to get people to read the book, while giving enough commentary to let the reader decide whether the subject is really for him.
Accuracy: Book reviews must be accurate, so if looking for a book critic, checking the accuracy of the person’s past reviews is the best way to determine whether the person truly reads the books he reviews. By accuracy, I mean using the correct names of the characters and spelling them properly, accurately summarizing the plot, and also the importance of proper grammar and punctuation so the reviewer appears intelligent and competent, and therefore, qualified to write the review.
Good Writing: A reviewer is a writer him- or herself. The person should have a strong command of the English language and be able to communicate well. Writing choppy sentences and having poor grammar will only make the reviewer look bad, and that will result in people not understanding the book’s value or valuing the critic’s opinion. A good reviewer will also have knowledge of what constitutes good writing and be able to judge the difference between good and bad. He or she should be widely read and be familiar especially with the subject area to be reviewed, or be willing to admit when a subject is out of his range of expertise; if the latter, he can still judge the material based upon how well he was able to follow the argument. If a reviewer is highly knowledgeable about the Middle Ages, she may be the best person to review a book on the building of Gothic cathedrals, but she may not be the best person to review a book debating evolution-that said, she can admit she is no expert on the subject, but still point out whether the book informed her and she was able to follow it. It never hurts for the reviewer to add whom he thinks would be the perfect audience or age group for the book, for example, “I think anyone interested in quantum physics would enjoy this book” or “This book is probably best suited for a young adult audience, but I think many adults will be pleasantly surprised as well by how entertaining it is.”
Supporting Statements: A good review will provide a basic argument-this book is good or bad, or has merit but with a few faults-and then support that statement with examples, such as: “Sometimes the plot becomes unbelievable; for example when the princess suddenly reveals that she has the ability to turn invisible and doesn’t explain how.” Quoting a passage from the book will help to support the statements. Quotes can be helpful to readers so they get a sense of the author’s style and the work’s reading level to determine whether they will enjoy it. Quotes can be used to provide support for a statement that the book is humorous, well-argued, or a number of other positive or negative attributes it might have. The important thing to remember is that a review is an argument so its writer has to provide support for his argument if he is going to convince people to read, or not to read, a book.
Visibility: Finally, a good review is a visible one-it will be seen by lots of readers. Before you spend money on a review or even give away free review copies of your books, make sure the review will be posted in places where readers go to find out about books. Those places might include the reviewer’s website or blog, online bookstores where the review will be read by customers, as well as print publications like newspapers or magazines, or bookseller brochures. A review is not worth having if no one is going to see it. Also, as an author, be sure to ask for permission to quote from the review in part and in full so you can post it on your website or at least link to it, and so you can quote from it on the back of your back cover and include it in your marketing pieces.
A quality review will help an author to sell books and it will make a reviewer an authority whom readers will come to respect and follow. Few things are of more benefit to an author than a positive and well-written book review.
Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.
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