Sunday, 3 June 2007

How to review books - Grace Bridges style!

Here's a little something I wrote on book reviewing recently. You can also use this method to review movies, and at a stretch, music CDs too. Why not give it a try?

Now I don’t claim to be an expert, and this is no highly professional technique. Still, as a hobby reviewer, it’s worked again and again for me, even when I think I’m not at all in the mood to write a decent review.

Get a piece of paper and fold it in half. This makes two sections on each side, four in all. You can also use four pieces of telephone notepad, or whatever you have on hand – as long as there are four sections of paper with room enough to write a few sentences on each.

Each section has a heading to help you get started. You’ll need to take the headings out of your final review text, but it shows what you need to begin. Here are the titles:

  • The Intro is your prelude to having a chat about the book. I like to set the scene and tell where I was when I picked it up, perhaps how I was doing that day, or the situation I read it in. More important perhaps is what you had already heard about the book. What have others said about it, what did you already know, about the author or genre or publisher, etc? What were your expectations on picking it up? Did other books or articles by this author affect your expectation? What did you think of the cover design?

  • Describing the story can be a short synopsis or your paraphrase of the back-cover copy or other promotional materials. Outline what happens, particularly as the tale begins. Don’t give away too much of the ending, but it’s good to mention whether you were satisfied with it and why/why not. Try and do all this in your own words.

  • Go into details where there was something you particularly noticed. You can also note this while you’re reading if you like. This can be anything from characters to plot twists to writing style to evocative imagery. Whatever seizes you in the story, try and describe it a bit. This is also the place to mention aspects you were perhaps disappointed with, if any. Try to balance criticism with comments on something that did work well, e.g. if you found the writing style was lacking, perhaps the plot was really clever, or vice versa.

  • The wrap-up is your arena to pull all the strands of your comments together. Sum up your overall impression. If you found it not to your liking, it’s often helpful to compare it to something similar, e.g. “If you liked X, you might/will enjoy this.” This makes it possible to deliver a professional recommendation even if your opinion tends towards negative – and that happens to all of us sometimes.

If you write a couple of sentences for each of the four points, you should be able to get at least 200 words total, which is a perfectly respectable review length. Longer is good too!

The fun part is that you don’t have to write the four parts in order. I often write the third point first, since that’s the first thing that comes into my mind – that special something this novel touched me with. With the four titled sections of paper, this is no problem – just start writing at the point where your first ideas come, and filling in the rest is then pretty easy. Of course, you can also write the four headings on your computer and just start typing – that’ll save extra work. However, I often find it easier to do it on paper first, also because I like to read outdoors when at all possible, and paper and pencil are easier to shove in my pocket than a computer.

Using this method has changed my own book-reviewing from a drudge at times, to something fun and easy. Have your papers at hand, and you’ll be amazed at what you can scribble down in the course of a busy day, just a sentence or a half sentence here and there. The headings are not rules to be followed, but prompts to help you get started – feel free to leave them by the wayside if another structure shows up in your essay.

Don’t forget – this will be easier if you do it fairly soon after reading the book. A week is too long for me, because by then I’ve probably forgotten what made it special for me – and that is the single most important thing in a review. That’s what both the author and the reading public are wanting to know from you.

If you'd like to go into more depth, Terri Main has written a great article on book reviewing, and you can read it here:

Have fun!

1 comment:

David said...

My dad taught me what he calls the SAFE outline, and it's very similar to the advice you give here:
S - State it
A - Amplify it
F - For instance
E - End it
Strangely enough this outline works for almost any kind of writing. It gets you from the beginning to the end with the proper amount of bulk in the middle. Good job.