The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing

The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing

by Mayra Calvani, Anne K. Edwards


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This book was written not only with the aspiring reviewer in mind, but also for the established reviewer who needs a bit of refreshing and also for anybody--be they author, publisher, reader, bookseller, librarian or publicist--who wants to become more informed about the value, purpose and effectiveness of reviews.

Foreword by James A. Cox, Editor-in-Chief Midwest Book Review

Winner, ForeWord Magazine 2008 Book of the Year Award in the category of Writing

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781933353227
Publisher: Paladin Timeless Books
Publication date: 06/09/2010
Pages: 194
Sales rank: 1,009,388
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.45(d)

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The Art of Reviewing
The Five Keys to Being a Good Reviewer

In order to become a good reviewer, first and foremost, you'll need the following:

Command of Language

A solid command of English (or whatever language you write in). This includes a good knowledge of grammar, syntax, spelling and punctuation.

Let's face it. You might be able to express your thoughts clearly, but if your review has grammatical, spelling or punctuation mistakes, nobody will take you seriously. You might get away with posting your poorly-written review on Amazon or B&N, but no serious review site or publication will accept your review. Print publications, in particular, demand spotless submissions. Even if you have a word processor to take care of typos, this is usually never enough to correct grammatical or punctuation mistakes. Too many words pronounced the same way, like piqued, peaked, and peeked, end up being misused because this type of mistake is ignored by spellcheckers.

If you need some refreshing, get a good grammar book, take an English course in writing, or buy yourself a copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, which continues to be a classic that all serious writers must have. Also, a good thesaurus should always be on a reviewer's desk.

Clarity of Thought

Likewise, you may have a solid command of the English language, but if you lack the ability to express your thoughts clearly, you won't be doing your job properly. A good review should sparkle with clarity. Keep your sentences straight and to the point. Follow a logical order when describing the plot and writing the evaluation. Don'tlet your thoughts stray all over the place or use unnecessary words. Each word you use in your review should count and have a purpose. Luckily, a good review has a specific structure which will be discussed in the How To Write A Book Review section. Sticking to this simple structure will help you keep your thoughts organized.


Yes, the topic of honesty will keep appearing in different sections of this book for the simple reason that it is so often taken lightly by reviewers.

Honesty is what defines a reviewer's trade. Readers, who turn to reviews before purchasing a book, depend on this honesty. And ultimately, a reviewer's foremost--and probably only--obligation is to readers, not to authors and publishers. "A reviewer's honest judgment is his stock in trade. Without it, a review is little more than weak PR," says Maggie Ball, owner and book review editor of The Compulsive Reader (, an online publication that specializes in serious fiction and long, in-depth reviews.


According to Random House Webster's Dictionary, to be objective is to be "not influenced by personal feelings, unbiased."

What does this mean to you, the reviewer? Simply that, ideally, you shouldn't let your values, beliefs, and way of life influence your review.

Let's say that you detest abortion, but are assigned to review a book where the protagonist has one. You get angry as you read, and may even start planning in your mind a negative review in spite of the fact that the book is well written, the characters compelling, the descriptions evoking. In this case, to write a negative review would be wrong, unfair, and dishonest. If you succumb to your personal feelings, you're being subjective, and a good reviewer, to the best of his or her ability, is not supposed to be subjective.

Sticking to books with plots with which you feel comfortable is the best way to avoid this problem. If you detest violence, for instance, don't review books about serial killers. Chances are, your opinion will be biased.

Objectivity in reviewing is the deliberate ignoring of your personal biases and preferences in order to write an honest review based on all parts of a book--plot, writing, characterization, construction and so on. However, the objective review will become subjective when the reviewer sums up their observations of the book in a logical manner and recommends it or doesn't recommend it.

Remember, just because you don't like the book doesn't mean it is bad.

When writing an objective review, try to put your feelings aside. One effective way to handle this situation is to mention it in your review to those who might be offended by the book, as well as those who might like it--even if you don't!


What you say is as important as how you say it, and this is where tact comes in, especially when writing negative reviews.

Stating your thoughts tactfully and eloquently while offering examples to support your evaluation will keep the negative review from sounding harsh, mean, or insulting. Your aim is not to offend or humiliate the author, but clearly explain to the reader why this particular book is not worth reading. When you phrase your reviews tactfully, the authors themselves can learn and profit from your negative reviews.

Avoid statements like "This is a terrible book" or "This is the worst book I've ever read." This screams 'unprofessional' and will label you as an amateur. There are other statements you can use to convey your negative reaction to the book. For instance, the harsh phrases mentioned above can be replaced by, "This book didn't live up to its full potential because.... "or "This novel didn't work for me for the following reasons..."

* * * *

What is a Book Review?

A book review is many things to many people. It is a judgment, a recommendation, a criticism, a job, an ego booster, interpretation, retelling part of the story, and others. So when you ask what a review is, and what purpose it serves, you ask a simple question with a complex answer.

A book review is different to each person in its intent, the impact it has and the final communication between reader and reviewer.

A review is an ego booster to an author if the reviewer finds the book praiseworthy. To that same author, it is a promotion too. It also tells the author if they've achieved their goal in the writing of the book. The author learns if their book is considered well written, well plotted, well researched, interesting, and if the characters are real enough in the world they inhabit to hold the reader's attention. If the review faults the book on any one of these items, the review is a teaching/learning tool (depending on how the author receives it and if the reviewer writes fairly of the book). It proves to the author that they have or have not learned their craft.

To the reviewer, a review is the end result of reading a book. The reviewer must then decide on the content of the review which will depend on where the review is going, who will read it, the length the recipient prefers, and if the recipient prefers positively-worded reviews only. Some reviews will be negative no matter how a reviewer tries to word them because there are one or more major faults they found in the book. This dictates what the reviewer will say in the review. So, for a reviewer, a review is a two-step communication, reviewer to author/recipient, and through them to the reader.

A reviewer does not just write a review and that is the end of it. Each review a reviewer writes has an impact on the reviewer's reputation as well as the author's. Too much praise for any book and the reader may be suspicious that the reviewer is either a friend of the author or afraid to write even a little critically of an author's work. Too much negativity in a review has the same effect. It either causes one to suspect the reviewer of playing god to build up his own ego or having an ax to grind. It may reflect the reviewer's inability to understand the message of the book, or the story, or their lack of knowledge of how to write a fair review. Some reviewers think they must find fault with every book they read.

To a reader who uses reviews to gather information about new books, a review is a source of information. They must be able to trust the reviewer's judgment as they are spending money and time on this book. If they believe a recommendation by a reviewer and find, upon reading the book, the reviewer did not tell what they, the reader, considers to be the truth or that the reviewer was only helping the author or publisher sell books, they will not trust that reviewer again. Thus, the reviewer's reputation suffers, and soon, no one will take their word as worth anything. Although the author may continue to solicit reviews from this reviewer to use for promotion of a book in which case, the reviewer isn't a reviewer, but has become a promotional blurb writer.

A review is a messenger that spreads the word about the book to publications, libraries, booksellers, websites and so forth. It may say anything from how much a reviewer enjoyed the book to how much they disliked the book and all that falls in between those two extremes. There are many publications in print that carry reviews and many websites that post them. Some of the publications and websites take reviews very seriously and have staff who do the reviews. Others accept freelance reviews written by satisfied readers.

A review tells a reader if the book is worth the time or not, keeping in mind that not all books fall into the area of interest of all reviewers. For instance, if a reviewer who loves romance but hates violence reads a mystery thriller or a horror story, their review may be negative because of the violence contained in the book. But if that same reviewer reads a story about two people finding true love in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds, they would probably recommend it highly if it were well written. Like other readers, reviewers have their preferences and that often shows in their reviews which recommend or don't recommend a work.

A review also tells the world there's a new book on the horizon that might be worth investigating, a chance to experience something new, to learn something not known, to see new worlds through the eyes of the writer. A well-written review may lure the reader into a new genre, thus opening a new market for that genre's writers and giving that reader a set of new places to visit and new people to meet.

Reviews that are well written offer much to the reading world, they carry information about the book, the author and the reviewer. A poorly-written review offers the same information, but may turn readers from exploring the book, future works of that author, or turn them against recommendations by this reviewer. Thus, a review can have a lasting effect on an author or reviewer's career. This, in turn, affects the publisher who may not be willing to submit any other works to that reviewer's incompetence.

It all boils down to reviews having a far-reaching effect. Like a stone dropped into a pond the ripples do spread outward, even though one may be almost unaware of them. It is a gamble for an author or publisher to ask someone to write a review of their work, an extension of the same risk they take in putting the time into writing the book or the money a publisher invests in putting the book on the market. Positive reviews help produce positive results for all concerned if the book is truly worth a reader's time and money.

An overly-positive review about a poorly-written book is a cheat in any way it is viewed. It misinforms the reader, perhaps causing them to buy a book they won't enjoy or that is even unreadable, it tells the publisher that an author who hasn't learned their craft is a good writer, and it tells the author that they have done a good job when they haven't.

"Some authors should never be published and I think it's a reviewer's responsibility to critique to that extent," says Ron Kavanaugh, publisher of Mosaic (, a print review publication specializing in African-American and Latin-American literature. "Assuming that everything--publisher, writer, reviewer, bookseller, and reader--is connected, then not to review books honestly is to perpetuate a bad writer's career, lessening the chances that a decent writer may be published instead."

Some reasons for overly-positive reviews are because the reviewer is afraid to write anything negative or doesn't want to hurt an author's feelings or because the media or website publishing the review only wants positive reviews. Another reason is that the reviewer may be afraid of facing criticism that may be turned on them for anything other than such a review. For some reviewers it is hard to say something negative in a positive fashion and yet warn the reader that this may not be a book worth taking home. Thus, the reader wastes his time and money on a poorly-written book because of a review that was written in false terms.

Reviews are harbingers of good things to come for a reader, author, and publisher if a book is well done. The review tells the world this book deserves to be read, the author deserves to be known and the publisher deserves to sell that book. Reviews introduce new authors to the world and encourage readers to buy their books, thus helping to build that writer's reputation.

Reviews are sounding boards for reviewers to tell the world why some books should be read and why others should not. A satisfied reviewer will write a satisfied review and recommend the book to others.

Reviews are tools used by booksellers, libraries, and even publishers. Booksellers peruse reviews online and in print publications to make decisions on what to stock on their shelves. Libraries use them for the same reason and may keep them on hand for their readers to read. Some readers will ask the library to get a certain book based on reviews they've seen. And publishers may use reviews as feedback in helping decide whether or not the next book by this author is worth publishing.

A review can be many things to one person or one thing to many people. It depends on the reviewer and the reader of that review. Some reviewers are academics and write very thoughtfully-constructed reviews of varying lengths that offer an in-depth look at the content and perhaps the message of a book. Their reviews will not be read by the average reader nor will their reviews be about books the average reader would likely peruse as they are meant to reach readers in a specific field of interest or profession. This review, while very informative to the reviewer's peers, may appear too wordy or dull to someone not interested or acquainted with that book's subject matter. Yet, that same review will be perfectly aimed at the intended readership.

While a review by an academic may not work for the average reader, nor is such a review likely to be the result of the average reviewer's work, it serves to let a portion of the world know about the work of a specific author whose work might be of interest to those who work in that field and serves notice to the author that their work is considered worth the time of their intended audience.

This is how reviews work. They spread the word about books, authors and publishers, serve to alert the reading world of their existence and give a leg-up to an author's career. Reviews grab a reader's attention and say "Read this book" or "Don't read this book." Reviews are part of the cycle of publishing a book, helping to link reader to author, which, in the end, is their purpose.

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