Recipes for Success: 8 Tips for Writing Good Book Reviews (or, A Neon Sign at the Topless Bar of Literature)

Guest Post: Janice Harayda, novelist, award-winning journalist, and founder and editor-in-chief of One-Minute Book Reviews

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We’re thrilled to welcome Janice Harayda to the NetGalley blog. After being fortunate enough to hear her panel on book reviewing at the 2012 BEA Bloggers conference, we’re so pleased she’s shared this updated version of her remarks as part of our Recipes for Success series. Janice Harayda is a novelist and an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can read more of her comments and tips on reviewing here, and follow her tweets at @janiceharayda.

Recipes for Success aims to give NetGalley members helpful information, tools, and best practices to help facilitate your growth and effectiveness as professional readers. Check back often for tips and tricks from the insiders.

A well-known book critic once said that she hoped that her reviews would be “a soft light in the alcove of art.” Some of the books I’ve reviewed have made me feel more like a neon sign at the topless bar of literature. But I share that critic’s view: A reviewer’s most important task is to help you see a book clearly and, especially, to show its uniqueness. A question I ask every day is: How can I show how this book differs from all others? And I’ve tried to develop a few guidelines for answering it.

I was the book critic for the Plain Dealer for 11 years, and during that time, I had to follow the Associated Press Stylebook, which has 448 pages in its current edition. I also had to follow the house style sheet for the Plain Dealer, which had more than 100 pages. Together these guides had thousands of rules. If their rules clashed, you had to know when the Plain Dealer rule would override the AP rule and vice versa. On a deadline, you could feel like an accountant trying to parse an obscure point of the federal income tax code just before midnight on April 15.

So the last thing I want to do is to flash-freeze more rules. The joy of blogging is that you get to make your own rules. But I write a lot of copy (which, if you’re under 30, was the old word for “content”). Since 2006 I’ve written more 1,700 posts for One-Minute Book Reviews that have had more than 1.5 million visitors. And I’ve been able to keep up that pace in part because I’ve set a few guidelines for myself. I write better and faster if I don’t have to ask each time I do a post: What are my goals as a critic? For whom am I writing? When does a review cross the line, legally and ethically?

My guidelines keep evolving, but here are a dozen that I’ve used for years. Freelance reviewers for the Plain Dealer also had to follow most of these (so that — yes! — their work had to pass the test of three style sheets).
1. Seek out books that you can review uniquely well, and say what you alone can say about them.

2. Report facts accurately. Every reviewer’s judgments are at times flawed. But you can build trust with readers, authors, and publishers by getting the facts right even if you’re wrong about the merits of a book. Don’t trust your memory. Go back and check every fact and quote, and the spelling of every character’s name, before you post a review.

3. Answer these questions in every review: What makes this book different from all others? And why should anyone care?

4. Write conversationally. Read your reviews aloud and rewrite or cut anything you wouldn’t say to your smartest friend.

5. Purge your work of “reviewese,” words and phrases you see mainly or only in reviews. Avoid more than obvious clichés such as  “a must-read,” “ripped from the headlines” and “sends chills down your spine.”  Kill “relatable,” “unputdownable” and other publishing-industry neologisms, too.

6. Criticize the book, not the author, if you don’t like what you’ve read. Focus on what’s on the page, not a writer’s character defects.

7. Never review a book by a friend or an enemy. Make this part of a strict ethics code that includes avoiding any conflict of interest or appearance of a conflict. (The trouble is, as others have noted: You don’t know who your enemies are until you review their books.) If an editor asks you to review a book and you have a conflict of interest, say so before you accept the assignment. Have you and the author interacted on Facebook, Twitter or in real life? Editors may or may not consider those conversations a conflict, so spell them out before you before you take an assignment. If you’re reviewing a book for your own blog, disclose any conflicts in the review or a tagline at the end.

8. Find paper mentor, a great critic whose work you love. Read his or her work regularly and take it apart to see how it works. Hand copy the critic’s reviews or parts of them (with a pen or by typing them into a computer) to absorb their rhythm and structure.

I also respect the unofficial motto of American journalism: “Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” A partial translation of that slogan is: Look for “afflicted” books that need your review, including underappreciated gems from the past and from contemporary small presses. And have the courage to “afflict” overpraised books that don’t deserve their medals or comfortable spots on bestseller lists. Will the author of Fifty Shades of Grey really suffer if you say it offered Fifty Shades of Boredom?

© 2013 JaniceHarayda. All rights reserved.

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16 thoughts on “Recipes for Success: 8 Tips for Writing Good Book Reviews

  1. I read over One Minute Review post by Janice Harayda and even wrote them down. I have been casually writing reviews on Amazon for a couple of years or so and am happy to see that I have unconsciously incorporated quite a few of these. It is helpful to have a ‘blue print’ of points to build on as I formulate my impression/opinions on a book.

    I am currently reading my first Net Galley book, I want my first review to be worthy of not only the publisher but myself as well.

    Thank you for this opportunity.
    Kelly

    1. I appreciate these tips. I have been reviewing for a long time and my reviews are entirely my objective opinion. I feel that I follow most of these tips.

      I am very appreciative of NetGalley’s generosity of providing me with super books in advance. I have some health issues that sometimes interfere with the timeliness of my review, or in some cases just a tag line.

      I don’t blog, but I do post all of my reviews where they get the best exposure: GoodReads, Face Book, and the sites that I review for.

  2. I like these tips, reviewers sometime think that they must describe the plot and characters with more detail than I feel is necessary. thank you.

  3. While these may seem common sense to most, there will always be those of us who benefit from this sort of guidance. Great post and thank you for providing these tips!

  4. I was inspired by this article because I’ve often wondered what makes a good book review. When I read a review, I’m more inspired to read the book if the review is informative, kind, and well written. That’s my personal preference. Thank you so much for this article. Now I will better about leaving my own review.

  5. I really loved what you shared with us readers and reviewers. I always struggle when writing reviews. I sometimes find a lot to say about a book and other times I am lucky if I can put a paragraph in writing. I try not to be just critical and give both the bad and the good.

    What I truly have trouble with is giving a title to my review. Amazon asks you for a title and I struggle to put one together.

    Again, Thanks!

  6. I found this to be very informative, perfect for the inexperienced and the practiced alike
    I’ve took note of them for myself and some friends..

    Thanks.

  7. I too struggle with writing reviews. I feel I give too much away or I just write a blurb about the book. I’ve started reading a lot of books on how to write a good review and I think I’ve gained a better insight on what makes a good review. You don’t have to rewrite the book as some of the reviews I’ve read. It’s like you don’t need to read the book now, after reading the review. I was getting a lot of mixed signals.
    I was doing better before I joined a group on Goodreads regarding NetGalley, I started getting really insecure about my reviews. They seem to be all over the place, plus I had this need to start a blog and I spend so much time trying to start one that I fell way behind on my reading and therefore my reviews. I’ve decided to sideline that project and focus on writing the best reviews I can.
    I’m glad I saw this and I subscribed to the videos and printed a lot of this material out to use as a reference while I start to write my reviews. Maybe I won’t “freeze up” when I’m writing them now. That was an odd sensation, reviewer’s block?
    Thanks so much for providing us with this great material and I really appreciate the galleys I’m sent and I want to make sure that I write a good review in return.

  8. I know how hard it is to write a book, so I struggle with delivering the bad news. ‘Faithful are the wounds of a friend’ so the bible says. I know pretty quickly whether a book works for me or not. It’s a fascinating exercise to try and figure out why. I guess that’s what the review is all about, but still, I find it easier to describe why I like a book than why I don’t.

    Anyway, one thing I’ve noticed in both positive and negative reviews is that the reviewer is often more focused on being clever than being accurate. In other words, the review is more about the reviewer than about the book itself. The best reviews are both clever and accurate, but if you can’t do clever, do accurate.

  9. MerCi pour ces précieux conseils et lignes de directions.
    Je vais modifier un peu ma façon d écrire.

  10. Writing a good review is definitely a tough work. I have submitted some reviews but they seemed to be…what can I say?….incomplete even to me. Like what I am trying to put in them are not working like I want. I needed help and this article was really helpful. Now I think I can do much better.

  11. I’m trying to become a better reviewer. I usually try to slap something together without giving away the plot. I hate spoilers. I like a review that tells me how the reviewer felt about the book, what they got out of it, etc. I try to incorporate that in my own reviews. I also will tie in how a book may reflect on my life in comparison.

    I have a lot of health issues so I don’t blog due to that reason. Reading is my passion! I love to read especially when I spend I majority of my time in bed.

    Thank you for these tips! I’ve saved them in my reading list so I can reread them.

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