How To Review a Book
I am often asked for pointers on writing book reviews and recently realized that, to my recollection, I’ve never written on the topic. That may be because I consider myself quite a poor book reviewer. I got into writing reviews (over 500 book reviews ago now) by circumstance more than skill; I had a blog, I read a lot, and book reviews just started to happen. Yet I am aware that I am not a great reviewer. Read the Times or a theological journal and you will encounter a completely different skill level in reviewers.
Having said that, I think I am able to write reviews that appeal to a particular audience. And in that way at least, I’ve been successful. So today let me share just a few pointers for those who are considering writing reviews for a medium similar to this one.
Know Your Audience
As I said a moment ago, any success I’ve had owes more to writing for a defined audience than in great skill. I know who reads this site and I try to write about books that will be of interest to that kind of reader. If my IQ was about 100 points higher and if I wrote for Themelios I might read and review Revitalizing Theological Epistemology: Holistic Evangelical Approaches to the Knowledge of God. As it is, though, I know who I am and I know who reads this web site and I try to review books accordingly. Almost by definition, the people who read this site share at least some of my interests and so what is of interest to me is of interest to them. That’s part of the beauty of a blog.
So know your audience. Know the kind of book they will want to read and then anticipate the kind of questions they will want answered before they consider reading that book. Here are the types of questions I tend to answer:
What’s the Point?
An author will typically not wait very long before offering a defense of his book’s existence. He will most often say “This is why I have written this book.” I seek to communicate that information within my review. So, for example, in my recent review of The Masculine Mandate I quoted the author as he said, “My aim in writing this book is to help men to know and fulfill the Lord’s calling as it is presented so clearly to us in God’s Word.” It’s usually just that simple. But that little bit of information is very helpful to the reader. And you’d be surprised how often reviewers neglect to include it.
Who Is It For?
As an author defines the purpose for his book, he also tends to define his audience. This is not always the case as some books are written for just about anyone (think, for example, of Malcolm Gladwell’s books); but most books do have a defined audience. Again, from my review of The Masculine Mandate: “Richard Phillips writes that his new book The Masculine Mandate ‘is written for Christian men who not only don’t want to lose that precious biblical understanding, but who want to live out the calling to true manliness God has given us.’”
What Does He Say?
Once I’ve covered the purpose of the book and its intended audience, I tend to offer a summary of what the author communicates. To do this I sometimes pick out just a few of his more substantial points or I may trace his outline, moving chapter by chapter or part by part. In just a few paragraphs I want to offer a summary of the complete book, giving enough to be interesting but not so much that it becomes burdensome. Two or three paragraphs is often sufficient here.
Why Does It Matter?
Before I wrap up the review, I want to help people understand what sets this book apart and what makes it unique. This is often the most important part of the review. In almost every case the book will have some close competition, so it is important to offer evidence of what makes it different from the others. This is a good time to discuss a few of the author’s very good or very bad points, to agree with him, to quibble with him or to offer up a wholly different perspective. If he says anything outrageously good or outrageously bad, here is the place to bring that out.
What Do You Think?
Reviews are, by their very nature, subjective. An author of a review cannot entirely remove himself from it. Ultimately, many readers are looking less for a summation of the book’s content than they are looking for the opinion of the reviewer. They simply want to know, “Should I read it or not?” Many readers will do little more than skip to the bottom of the review to find that information (which is one of the reasons I avoid star ratings or other easy tip-offs that would allow people to not bother reading the review). So I generally try to offer my own opinion, saying who should read this book and why (or who should not read it and why). At 10MillionWords I’ve gotten into the habit of closing each review with “Verdict: Read it if…”
Mix It Up
Having said all of this, I find it best not to follow any single structure too rigidly. There are some review styles that call for a kind of stylized rigidity (see PluggedIn’s movie reviews as an example) and that is well and good. But unless you have to write within a certain structure, it is probably best to vary things at least occasionally.
There is also value in offering reviews of a variety of kinds of books, a variety of genres. Again, this will depend on the context for those reviews; a theological journal will likely only print reviews of theological books. But often at a blog or in a magazine you will have freedom to try something very different. Know your audience and feel free to tell them about books that are, for some reason, particularly interesting to you, even if they are somewhat unusual.
Finally, just a few words about logistics. In terms of length, go with “just long enough.” Communicate what you need to communicate but be wary of going too long. This is particularly true when writing for an online publication where people are accustomed to skimming more than reading. A little too short is probably better than a little too long. Also, it’s often a good idea to add a “buy it” link at the end of the review, pointing to Amazon or another relevant bookstore. If you are recommending a book and people are going to buy it anyway, you may as well pocket a few cents for referring them.