There’s something liberating about critiquing another’s work. By simply formulating an opinion we’re a valuable part of a book’s public image. However, before you dive headfirst into the deep end of analysis, there’s a few things you need to know.
It’s true that your opinion matters, but you’ve got to let everyone know that you’re the person with the right idea; that you’re qualified to retain their attention. Below are some important steps regarding the structure and content of a book review. The inclusion of these steps in your review will organise and streamline your opinion so that it is above all, interesting (hopefully like the book you’re reviewing).
First, read the book. Personally I don’t think it’s a very hard ask to read what your reviewing but some seem to think differently. A story can drastically change over the course of 200 pages. Don’t be skimming through a book nonchalantly. You could start a book and write your review, only to find it could completely change through its story arc. The Fault in Our Stars, happy romance to start off with. SPOILER – the dude dies. Reviewing a section of a book is simply not enough. Know the story you’re reviewing inside and out. Okay? Okay.
It's important to research and understand how you're delivering a review. If you're reviewing for a magazine, know what's expected of a magazine review. It's the same for blogs, newsletters, journals or whatever else may contain your work. Each platform you deliver your review to will have a different set of expectations.
It’s also important to have a feel for how the novel should read. If you’re a fan of sci-fi, fantastic, you have an idea of how the genre works. But if you decide to review Pride and Prejudice, you’ve got to do a bit of reading and research.
Here’s a basic list of some possible research you could source:
- Author Profiles – Who is Jane Austen?
- Similar Reviews – What do others think?
- Historical Context – Where is it set it time? Is it an important part of the story?
- Genre Conventions – How do other novels of this nature compare?
If you’re a fan of Sci-Fi, don’t carry your Sci-Fi sensibilities into this review – ‘Not Enough Lasers’ is not an acceptable sum up of Jane Austen’s novel (granted P&P probably would have been more interesting with a few lasers).
This is the nitty gritty stuff. Using your research or prior knowledge of story and its conventions, start thinking about the individual aspects of the story. For example:
There’s an extensive list of story aspects you can examine but these are the main points people require. Take note of important sections within the story. Use sticky notes if it helps. Just please don’t be one of those people who folds the corner of pages to mark them (shudder).
What makes sections of the book you’re reading good or bad? Does it have a particularly bland protagonist but a great story? Is the setting overdone? Are the themes masterful? This is all important information to hold on to and understand. These are the elements critiquing revolves around.
As I said before, use research to gain an understanding of what good character or themes are in regard to other books. But use this research as a guide, not as creed. Believe it or not, originality still exists. I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true! When you come across a piece of literature that’s unlike anything else, analysis is valuable. Through examining the conventions of story you can gauge whether you’ve got a gem or a piece of coal on your hands. Genre conventions may change, but a story will always remain a story.
THINK ABOUT THE READERS
I probably should have changed that heading, because you shouldn’t just be thinking about your readers. You should be structuring the piece and tailoring it specifically for them! First of all, think to yourself, have my readers read the book or not? Often, it’s hard to tell, so you need to write the review for both categories. In this respect you’ve got to be careful. Give enough story exposition so those who haven’t read it still want to, and those who have can identify with what you’re saying. Don’t give away important points of the story in your review – (Oh wait, I apologise for doing that earlier. Sorry. Awkward.) Your review should:
- Make your readers place the book right at the top of their TO READ list
- Resonate with the crowd who has read the book
When writing, you also need to take into consideration where your review is going. Are you writing for a scholarly paper? Use words with hubris and chutzpah. Are you writing for a tech blog? Write in Windings. Actually, don’t. Please. The point is your readers need to be able to understand your opinion. It’s no use throwing certain jargon around if the people you’re appealing to wont have a clue what you’re saying.
CONVINCE THE READERS
It’s ironic because in a way, a lot of authors write to have people understand and appreciate their opinions. When we review their work we’re kind of doing a similar thing. We often write our critiques so that people will consider and appreciate our analysis. Now the thing is, people won’t be convinced we’re telling the truth in our critique unless we back up what we’re saying. It’s like having an argument. It’s all well and good thinking you’re right, but you’ll get nowhere unless you have a good reason WHY.
Use all your prior knowledge in a barrage of literary intellect. I’m right because of this reason. These are reasons why I may not be, but I’m pretty certain…. Etc. etc. Think about different opinions too. It’s important to examine the opposite of your argument to have a full range of thought. For example: I don’t like this book, but why might some? You may be a nun reviewing 50 Shades of Grey. I’m not even going to go down that road, but it’s important to sit back and review the book with and unbiased opinion. Being a critic you’ve been given the power of authority in the form of your opinion. It’s important to use it wisely.
This is boring but necessary. People aren’t going to want to read your stream of conscious thought unless you’re Jack Kerouac. Have structure to your argument. With your introduction include a thematic statement:
I found… or I Believe or…. This book….
After your introduction use the body of your review to explain the reasons why your thematic statement or line of argument is correct. Then finish with a conclusion basically saying ‘See, I told you so’. In all seriousness, the conclusion should be a sum up of all the points you put forward in the argument. These points should be coupled with your original statement. When you put it all together you have a clear and coherent line of thought. Below is a basic diagram of how it all fits together. I call it the burger theory:
The most important thing is to be interesting. If you wouldn’t read it, don’t put your poor readers through the same slog. There’s nothing more boring than a dry essay masquerading as a review. Put your thoughts, feelings and emotions into your work. Reviewing isn't only beneficial for the books image, it's great for you as a writer. Critiquing the work of authors you respect gives you first hand experience as to what makes their literature great. You’ve been given an important duty as a critic. Use it in the best way possible. Research, analyse and cater for your readers with a structured argument. Go forth good people of the internet, and review to your heart’s content.