What is a Review???
A review is a critical evaluation of a text, event, object, or phenomenon. Reviews can consider books, articles, entire genres or fields of literature, architecture, art, fashion, restaurants, policies, exhibitions, performances, and many other forms. This handout will focus on book reviews.
Above all, a review makes an argument. The most important element of a review is that it is a commentary, not merely a summary. It allows you to enter into dialogue and discussion with the work’s creator and with other audiences. You can offer agreement or disagreement and identify where you find the work exemplary or deficient in its knowledge, judgments, or organization. You should clearly state your opinion of the work in question, and that statement will probably resemble other types of academic writing, with a thesis statement, supporting body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
Typically, reviews are brief. In newspapers and academic journals, they rarely exceed 1000 words, although you may encounter lengthier assignments and extended commentaries too. In either case, reviews need to be succinct. While they vary in tone, subject, and style, they share some common features:
- First, a review gives the reader a concise summary of the content. This includes a relevant description of the topic as well as its overall perspective, argument, or purpose.
- Second, and more importantly, a review offers a critical assessment of the content. This involves your reactions to the work under review: what strikes you as noteworthy, whether or not it was effective or persuasive, and how it enhanced your understanding of the issues at hand.
- Finally, in addition to analyzing the work, a review often suggests whether or not the audience would appreciate it.
Reviewing can be a daunting task. Someone has asked for your opinion about something that you may feel unqualified to evaluate. Who are you to criticize Toni Morrison’s new book if you’ve never written a novel yourself, much less won a Nobel Prize? The point is that someone—a professor, a journal editor, peers in a study group—wants to know what you think about a particular work. You may not be (or feel like) an expert, but you need to pretend to be one for your particular audience. Nobody expects you to be the intellectual equal of the work’s creator, but your careful observations can provide you with the raw material to make reasoned judgments. Tactfully voicing agreement and disagreement, praise and criticism, is a valuable, challenging skill, and like many forms of writing, reviews require you to provide concrete evidence for your assertions.
What follows is a series of questions to focus your thinking as you dig into the work at hand. While the questions specifically consider book reviews, you can easily transpose them to an analysis of performances, exhibitions, and other review subjects. Don’t feel obligated to address each of the questions; some will be more relevant than others to the book in question.
- What is the thesis—or main argument—of the book? If the author wanted you to get one idea from the book, what would it be? How does it compare or contrast to the world you know? What has the book accomplished?
- What exactly is the subject or topic of the book? Does the author cover the subject adequately? Does the author cover all aspects of the subject in a balanced fashion? What is the approach to the subject (topical, analytical, chronological, descriptive)?
- How does the author support her argument? What evidence does she use to prove her point? Do you find that evidence convincing? Why or why not? Does any of the author’s information (or conclusions) conflict with other books you’ve read, courses you’ve taken or just previous assumptions you had of the subject?
- How does the author structure her argument? What are the parts that make up the whole? Does the argument make sense? Does it persuade you? Why or why not?
- How has this book helped you understand the subject? Would you recommend the book to your reader?
Beyond the internal workings of the book, you may also consider some information about the author and the circumstances of the text’s production:
- Who is the author? Nationality, political persuasion, training, intellectual interests, personal history, and historical context may provide crucial details about how a work takes shape. Does it matter, for example, that the biographer was the subject’s best friend? What difference would it make if the author participated in the events she writes about?
- What is the book’s genre? Out of what field does it emerge? Does it conform to or depart from the conventions of its genre? These questions can provide a historical or literary standard on which to base your evaluations. If you are reviewing the first book ever written on the subject, it will be important for your readers to know. Keep in mind, though, that naming “firsts”—alongside naming “bests” and “onlys”—can be a risky business unless you’re absolutely certain.
Since most reviews are brief, many writers begin with a catchy quip or anecdote that succinctly delivers their argument. But you can introduce your review differently depending on the argument and audience. The Writing Center’s handout on introductions can help you find an approach that works. In general, you should include:
- The name of the author and the book title and the main theme.
- Relevant details about who the author is and where he/she stands in the genre or field of inquiry. You could also link the title to the subject to show how the title explains the subject matter.
- The context of the book and/or your review. Placing your review in a framework that makes sense to your audience alerts readers to your “take” on the book. Perhaps you want to situate a book about the Cuban revolution in the context of Cold War rivalries between the United States and the Soviet Union. Another reviewer might want to consider the book in the framework of Latin American social movements. Your choice of context informs your argument.
- The thesis of the book. If you are reviewing fiction, this may be difficult since novels, plays, and short stories rarely have explicit arguments. But identifying the book’s particular novelty, angle, or originality allows you to show what specific contribution the piece is trying to make.
- Your thesis about the book.
- This should be brief, as analysis takes priority. In the course of making your assessment, you’ll hopefully be backing up your assertions with concrete evidence from the book, so some summary will be dispersed throughout other parts of the review.
- The necessary amount of summary also depends on your audience. Graduate students, beware! If you are writing book reviews for colleagues—to prepare for comprehensive exams, for example—you may want to devote more attention to summarizing the book’s contents. If, on the other hand, your audience has already read the book—such as an class assignment on the same work—you may have more liberty to explore more subtle points and to emphasize your own argument.
- Your analysis and evaluation should be organized into paragraphs that deal with single aspects of your argument. This arrangement can be challenging when your purpose is to consider the book as a whole, but it can help you differentiate elements of your criticism and pair assertions with evidence more clearly.
- You do not necessarily need to work chronologically through the book as you discuss it. Given the argument you want to make, you can organize your paragraphs more usefully by themes, methods, or other elements of the book.
- If you find it useful to include comparisons to other books, keep them brief so that the book under review remains in the spotlight.
- Avoid excessive quotation and give a specific page reference in parentheses when you do quote. Remember that you can state many of the author’s points in your own words.
- Sum up or restate your thesis or make the final judgment regarding the book. You should not introduce new evidence for your argument in the conclusion. You can, however, introduce new ideas that go beyond the book if they extend the logic of your own thesis.
- This paragraph needs to balance the book’s strengths and weaknesses in order to unify your evaluation. Did the body of your review have three negative paragraphs and one favorable one? What do they all add up to? The Writing Center’s handout on conclusions can help you make a final assessment.
Summary of content
Analysis and evaluation of the book
Finally, a few general considerations:
- Review the book in front of you, not the book you wish the author had written. You can and should point out shortcomings or failures, but don’t criticize the book for not being something it was never intended to be.
- With any luck, the author of the book worked hard to find the right words to express her ideas. You should attempt to do the same. Precise language allows you to control the tone of your review.
- Never hesitate to challenge an assumption, approach, or argument. Be sure, however, to cite specific examples to back up your assertions carefully.
- Try to present a balanced argument about the value of the book for its audience. You’re entitled—and sometimes obligated—to voice strong agreement or disagreement. But keep in mind that a bad book takes as long to write as a good one, and every author deserves fair treatment. Harsh judgments are difficult to prove and can give readers the sense that you were unfair in your assessment.
Some handy tips-
Reviews make great blog posts: they’re not only a novel answer to the perpetual blogger’s conundrum of “what shall I write about today?”, but also a cool way to attract readers. Lots of people want to know if the new U2 record (for example) is any good, so why not write to cater for an audience that’s already there?
Furthermore, if you write an interesting and comprehensive article, it’s just the sort of thing that readers will bookmark for later reference, e-mail to friends or link to from their own blogs. This is especially true for high-investment purchases like technology or household electronics. A detailed review can even mean you or your blog become recognised as an authority on the subject.
But how to write those great reviews? I’ve been reviewing music for ages, and I always try to stick to these 10 rules. Although they’re from a music journalism point of view, they’ll work for most subjects. Let me know how you get on, whether it’s reviewing books, movies, software, or something different altogether.
1. Ask yourself “what does the reader want to know?”
This is the most important thing to remember when writing a review. You can craft the wittiest prose with the cleverest metaphors, but unless the reader finds out what they want to know, you’ve not done your job as a reviewer.
Think of the sort of questions they’re likely to be asking themselves – these will vary depending on what you’re writing about: “Is this book a light, enjoyable read for on the beach?”, “Why should I upgrade to Windows Vista?”, or even “Does Justin Timberlake’s new CD have anything on it as good as Cry Me A River?”
Find that one question, and make the sole aim of your article to answer it.
2. Decide on the overall point you want to get across to the reader.
If you know your subject matter well (which, as a reviewer, you should do), you’ll no doubt have a whole ream of opinions, both good and bad, that you can knock back and forth like a review-writing game of tennis. All those viewpoints can get confusing, so simplify it.
Decide on an overall basic opinion of the product, such as “An hilarious, if overlong movie – just don’t expect anything groundbreaking”, and use that as a framework for your review. Hang everything else off this one idea. How does the movie’s acting influence this opinion? Why isn’t the plot that groundbreaking?
You can get all your points across, but just relate them all to this central theme (in conjunction with number 1 above) and your review will seem less like the sort of conversation you have in a bar after the movie, and more like real journalism!
3. Be ruthless when editing – don’t be precious about your “art”.
If it doesn’t help you answer the reader’s question (point number 1, above), or isn’t directly conducive to getting your main point across (number 2), then get rid of it! You might be really proud of a line you’ve written, but unless it helps the review as a whole it’s no good.
Review writing isn’t art – save that for your novel – so don’t get precious about it. Remember the words of science fiction author James Patrick Kelly on this subject: “murder your darlings”. Readers don’t think someone’s a great writer because of a single sharp-but-irrelevant observation; they’ll think you’re a great writer if all the cogs in the machine of your review work together.
This is something I sometimes struggle with, but Copy-blogger further underlines the importance of keeping your writing simple.
4. Don’t write about yourself; it’s about the band, book, movie or whatever you’re reviewing.
A classic novice’s mistake this one. Look at any page of Amazon customer reviews, and you’ll no doubt come across someone who tells a story all about how the guy they work with said The Da Vinci Code is great, but I wasn’t sure because he’s not too smart, but then he did recommend that other book to me that was pretty good, although he’s a religious nut so it probably won’t be my thing, but I suppose I should because otherwise he’ll never shut up about it…WHO CARES?
As we’ve said already, reviewers want to know about the product, and that should be what you concentrate on. Of course, blogging is a personal medium, and it can be great for personal anecdotes, but within a review isn’t the place. As mentioned previously, one of the main benefits of review writing is that your posts can become a point of reference for people, and even an authority on a product depending on what it is you choose to review. But if you cloud the matter with irrelevancies, you won’t get the linkbacks and word-of-mouth publicity that these things merit.
By all means stamp a bit of your personality and thoughts on the review, but stick to the subject matter; the reader shouldn’t really know the reviewer is there. A good rule of thumb is to try not to say “I” at all.
5. Ask yourself “what makes my review unique?”
Well-anticipated products like Hollywood movies or a new release from Apple (hurry up iPhone!) can generate thousands of reviews both across the blogosphere and the more traditional media. So why would anyone want to read yours?
That’s not meant to be a criticism of your writing – I’m sure it’s great. But it’s meant to make you think about having a “unique selling point” – something that your review can offer that people won’t be able to find elsewhere. Do you manage to bring a humorous slant to it? Do you have a specific or rare expertise (eg. wouldn’t it have been an interesting take on things if a priest posted his thoughts on the aforementioned Da Vinci Code)? Is your opinion vastly different to that of everyone else? Have you managed to be the first one to review something?
Whatever you decide your unique selling point is, make sure you emphasize it! There’s some good advice along these lines in Matt Cutts’ article on a blogging technique known as linkbait.
6. You don’t always need to be a smartypants – sometimes it’s better to write as if you’re chatting to your friends.
Writing like a smartypants is something I must admit to being (very!) guilty of at times. It can be very tempting to get wrapped up in metaphors and tie yourself in linguistic knots. While this may make you feel like Charles Dickens, often it can just confuse the reader. By all means write well and write interestingly, but don’t try to translate everything to purple prose – sometimes it really is better to just write exactly what you said as you walked out of the cinema, without looking up 27 different synonyms for “crappy chic-flick”.
7. Compare to other similar products – but not too much!
One of the advantages of being an expert in your field is that you can place a new release in context – is it better or worse than the author’s previous work, are there other better alternatives in a similar genre, and so on. This is something it’s definitely worth doing if you don’t already, as it can lend your writing an air of expertise and authority.
The thing to remember though is not to do it too much, as it’s easy to end up writing more about other products than the one you’re meant to be reviewing. This is something beginners tend to do a lot – many of my early music reviews read like a who’s who of the genre (probably in an attempt to show off my knowledge!), so watch out for it.
8. Strong quotable sentences are great, but let them come naturally.
One of the best ways to learn to write good reviews is to read professional ones, and try to imitate them. What bits of their style do you like? What ideas can you borrow? One of the dangers of this though is that you can easily write reviews full of the sort of phrases that appear on movie posters – “a rip-roaring thrill ride for all the family!”.
Needless to say, clichés like that should be avoided at all costs. And even if they’re not clichés, such sentences can often be superficial. So don’t go looking for them. If they genuinely serve a purpose and help you say what you want to say, then great. But if you’re just writing something because it sounds like a movie poster quote, then really it’s just a platitude.
Having said that, if you do come up with a killer quote, you may want to consider using it as your review’s headline; Freelance Switch outlines the importance of “writing headlines that kill” in order to attract readers.
9. Be specific!
Used in conjunction with the tips on comparison (above) and stating the obvious (below), this can be one of the things that really makes your review a resource that people are going to return to months, or even years, after you’ve written it.
Much of this applies to reviews of events: touring bands, theatre shows etc. It’s easy to write a cookie-cutter review of a gig that does a good job of describing the music and the songs that were played. But be specific: what happened on the night you saw the show that will differentiate your review from that of anyone who saw the show on a different night? For example, in live music reviews, try and include a notable quote from the stage. Mention the atmosphere. What about context: has the artist been in the news recently? If you’re reviewing a popstar’s first show after a big court case, this could even form part of your unique selling point, as described above.
Although mostly useful in a performing arts sense, these same techniques are useful for anything: just ask yourself, “what was unique about my experience?” This stops your reviews committing the cardinal sin of reading like a press-release, and as long as you don’t start telling boring personal anecdotes like our friend from the Amazon review above, you’ll be fine!
10. Don’t be afraid to state the obvious.
You’re an expert in your field – anything you don’t know about the works of Stephen King isn’t worth knowing! So it can be a bit frustrating as a reviewer to have to hold your reader’s hand and explain to them that he’s a quite well-known horror writer, and that they may even have heard of The Shining – it was made into a film, you know?
Obviously, that depends on your audience. If it’s for the Stephen King fanclub, by all means go straight into depth. But if it’s for a more general audience, don’t underestimate how little your reader may actually know about the subject. There’s no need to give a full life story, but a bit of background info is always good. When reviewing bands for example: where are they from, how many members are there, what’s their biggest hit, and so on. If nothing else, it means your first paragraph’s sorted!
Now , what are you waiting for?