Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Wordcraft – This New Year, resolve to review

Resolutions have a way of sneaking up on us. I slid past last New Year’s Day without making any, only to realize a month later that a blog post about a friend’s books was really a book review. As much as I love to write, book reviews had always seemed reminiscent of the essays we all dreaded writing in school. Writing is fun, even when it’s hard. Essays are work. But a blog post once written—how easy is that, with maybe minor tweaking—to copy and paste to Goodreads, then to Amazon?

I tried the same thing with a few other posts from my Adventure classics series. Then the Dallas Mayor’s Summer Reading program, usually for kids, had a section this year for adults. Only we grownup readers had to submit a (gasp!) review of each book we read to qualify for the yummy prizes. After a summer of book reviews (duly posted also to Goodreads and Amazon), I figured I had the reviewing thing down. Sometimes readers even found them helpful.

And I thought: reviewing, it’s not that hard. The fact that, unlike in school, I wasn’t actually graded on it removed a lot of the pressure. And it’s a service to other writers and other readers, a way of giving back to the literary community.

It wasn’t until rather late this year that I started to wonder if there were actually any guidelines on how to write book reviews, other than the essay format we learned in school: tell people what you’re going to say, say it, then tell people what you said. With this additional caution for reviews: don’t tell them how the book ends.

Turns out, there’s quite a bit of information online about how to write a book review.

Mostly the advice turned out to be variations on the three-part method I learned in school, with some fine tuning, like this from the Writing Center at University of North Carolina’s College of Arts and Sciences:

1. Introduction (including the name of the author, title of book and main theme)
2. Summary of content
3. Analysis and evaluation of the book
4. Conclusion, which is the old restatement issue

A few additional suggestions from UNC that I found helpful were: Review the book in front of you, not the book you wish the author had written. Be precise. (In other words, reviews such as one I read, that said, “it wasn’t what I expected,” aren’t precise. Or helpful to readers.) Never hesitate to challenge an assumption, but cite specific examples to back up your assertions. Finally, try to present a balanced argument about the value of the book for its audience.

The site Writing-World.com repeated the caution to review the actual book, not the one you wished had been written. I hope I don’t need to add that you actually need to have read the book before reviewing it? Or that you should check to be sure statements you attribute to the book are accurate? A review my book group looked at immediately lost credibility when the writer used the wrong names for the characters.

There’s also an entire cottage industry on the Internet about how to write reviews specifically for Amazon, including information from Amazon itself. (Note that Amazon’s guidelines apply to all product reviews, whether they’re for books or hula hoops.) And although you must have at some point used an Amazon account to buy a product or service in order to post a review, and the product (in this case, the book) has to be available on Amazon, you don’t have to buy the actual book you’re reviewing from Amazon. Presumably Amazon considers even non-buyer reviews a service to its customers.

Other Amazon tips are: Include the “why”: the best reviews include not only whether you liked or disliked a product (book) but also why. Be specific. Don’t make a review too long or too short. Suggested lengths are between 75 to 500 words. Minimum length is 20 words, maximum 5,000. And finally, give an honest opinion, even if it’s critical.

Happy New Year and get those reviews out there!

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