Sunday, January 17, 2016

How to Write a Review--and Why, Maybe, You Should

There's a constant tug-of-war between writers and their readers. Authors can sometimes go to rather grotesque  extremes in pleading for reviews--begging, bargaining, sweet-talking, flattering, cajoling, enticing, trolling, bullying, threatening, extorting, blackmailing (believe me; I've heard it all) . . . But how often are they truly satisfied with the notices they end up getting--especially the bullies, the extortionists, and the blackmailers?

It's bad enough that we want readers to appreciate what we do, to be entertained, but more, to find meaning in it, to like it, to love it, to shout their new-found passion for it from the rooftops. That most readers don't bother to leave a review does not necessarily mean that they weren't entertained or moved or excited or deeply inspired or powerfully turned on; it simply means that, after being entertained, the last thing the average consumer wants to do is sit down and write a book report, bringing back unpleasant memories of disastrous procrastination, coercion, and ultimate public humiliation from grade school a la some old episode of Leave It to Beaver  or The Simpsons . . .  If they wanted to write a review they'd be writers themselves, wouldn't they???

There's a notion--or would it be a stereotype?--of the critic as a frustrated creator, somebody who couldn't make it as an author or an artist or a performer, and now spends their time exorcising their pent-up disappointments on those who truly can achieve greatness. We all have our horror stories of laughably ignorant reviewers, barely articulate--if even remotely conversant with the basic language of story, music, or art--willfully clueless, invariably leaving a bad notice for something that 'disappointed them' or 'wasn't what they were expecting' while seldom appreciating the book or play or film or composition that was actually set before them. Most 'bad reviews' are of books that never existed, except in the wishful imagination of incompetents, wannabes and hacks.

Come to think of it, why would writers want reviews from people like that?

Because, alas, as I point out in the Afterword to The Moon-Haunted Heart:

 . . . the cold, hard, commercial truth of the matter is that without reviews, a book simply languishes on the shelf and ultimately dies for want of notice. Not exactly the kind of situation that encourages an independent author to spend the considerable time and intense mental and physical effort required to write, edit, format, and bring a new book to market.

And if writers do pour their heart and soul into their work, sending it forth like a beloved child into the world, can they be blamed if, ever so often, they long to hear of their offspring’s progress? If, on occasion, they allow themselves to imagine their love requited?

Writing can be a labor of love, but, for the independent author,  publishing is often an act of faith; it renders the creator vulnerable, placing their fate in others' hands. 

"But . . . but . . . but," I hear the naysayers neigh, "reviewing is time-consuming, and boring, and . . . hard!" (Really??? Just a minute ago, they were saying "those who can't, review.") 

So, here is a little crash course in effective literary criticism. A basic set of guidelines that I follow when writing reviews. I ask myself the following set of questions about the book under consideration. 

(1) What is it?

The answer to this question is factual, not subjective. Describe the thing under review, its basic taxonomy. Is it adventure, romance, YA fantasy? How long is it? What tense and point-of-view does the author employ? and so on and so forth. 

(2) How is it? 

The quality of the writing, the effectiveness of the narrative. The standards of usage, grammar, editing, formatting, presentation.

(3) How does it make me feel? 

What is my subjective, emotional response to the material? Is the story compelling--or not? How does it affect me? Am I impressed? Dazzled? Inspired? Turned on--or off? Or, perhaps, something else?

(4) What does it inspire me to think? 

What thoughts and ideas does the material call forth? 

(5) What do I believe other readers will get from it? 

(6) What is the ultimate significance of the book considered in the contexts of (a) its particular genre, and (b) literature in general? 

Note that I do not always answer these questions in the same order. 

With this simple interrogative template, one can--not necessarily easily--find a way to approach the writing of a thoughtful, literate review. 

And why should you endeavor to write reviews? 

(1) Because writing reviews can make you a better writer. 

Referring to the list of questions above, note that you are called on to describe something in both concrete and abstract ways. Think of the review as good practice for those descriptive passages in your next novel or short story.

(2) Reviewing can make you a better, more self-aware human being. 

You are required to search your own thoughts, where--surprise!--all sorts of interesting ideas tend to lurk. You consider your feelings--come to grips with your passions whether long-repressed, hidden or seethingly overt--and ultimately know yourself better. 

(3) Reviewing helps you to find yourself within the context of a broader community.

Sure, we all know about some reviewers who only seem to spout vitriol or take great pleasure in destroying people with their blithely wielded poison pens; but there are others who know how to edify and enlighten with their reviews, make connections that aren't always obvious to the rest of us, and help to strengthen the bonds of our writerly community. And when we understand that we are, indeed, a community of like-minded creatives, not in competition with each other, but always better off when we cooperate and encourage one another, we all come that much closer to success.



  1. Very nicely done! We all know the best writers are readers first - maybe we should add that the best writers are also reviewers! It is definitely a skill, a way of reading and responding, that can be honed. Thanks for sharing!