In the last installment of this series we took some baby steps, discussing how to write a short review that gave your opinion of a book and a reason or two why. Since then you’ve completed your homework assignment by writing and posting a short book review on Amazon, right? Don’t tell me your dog ate your homework. That might have worked when your homework was on paper, but it doesn’t in today’s electronic world.
Those short reviews get the author off your back, help your fellow readers, and aren’t too demanding. But maybe you’d like to move beyond that by saying a little more. I’m anticipating your question. Why? I’ll throw out two answers. Maybe one or both will convince you. (Or possibly you’ll stop reading and stick with your short reviews. That’s okay, too.)
The first reason is altruism. In Part 2, I defined the purpose of a review. It bears repeating here:
The purpose of a review is to help a potential purchaser decide if this book (CD, lawn blower, restaurant, whatever) is one they’d be happy buying and reading (listening to, using, etc).
The more reasons you give for liking or not liking a book, the more information you’re giving that potential purchaser on which to base their decision. We all want to help each other, don’t we?
If altruism doesn’t move you, maybe self interest will. We all have different reasons for reading, probably multiple reasons with escape and entertainment high on many (maybe most) lists. Those reasons are good enough. But I’ve discovered that when I finish a book and take the time to reflect on the reasons why I did or didn’t like it and then communicate what I find to someone else that it is a learning experience. It leads to discoveries about myself. I sometimes gain insights into people unlike myself. Evaluating what does and doesn’t work in the way the story is told helps improve my own writing and communication skills. These skills are valuable for everyone, whether you’re an author, want to be, or have no desire to ever write a book, the skills learned from evaluating someone else and from the actual writing of the review are beneficial in all walks of life.
If you’re convinced, the next step can be as simple as expanding on what you did in your short, simple reviews, telling the reader more of the things you liked or didn’t like about the book and the reasons why. Figuring out what those things are is the challenge since you might not have thought about it in the past. One way to figure these out is to ask yourself some questions. Here are a few questions beyond the big one (did you like the book or not) that, if you consider the answers, might prompt some thoughts worth mentioning in a review.
Did the characters and situations they found themselves in seem realistic? Consider where and when the story takes place. What would seem perfectly reasonable on a spaceship in the year 2525 might not in medieval Europe. In some books in the science fiction and fantasy genres what is reasonable is going to depend on where the story takes place. If it is a world of the author’s imagining, he or she makes the rules of what is permissible, as long as the rules are consistent.
Did you feel you were given the right amount of information about the characters, places, and events in the book to become immersed in the story? If not, did you not get enough or did the story get bogged down with a lot of unneeded, extraneous detail? Again, genre can and should influence what is acceptable. The amount of description for a fantasy book taking place in a world the author has created in his or her own mind is going to require more for you to picture than if the story is a thriller happening in New York City.
How did the book make you feel? Did you laugh or cry? Did it make you think and, if so, about what?
Did the book have a theme or message? If you don’t understand what this means, this article about book themes will point you in the right direction.
Can you picture this being a book that a person with particular tastes or life experiences would especially like or not like (even if your reaction was the opposite)?
If the story takes place somewhere in the world you’ve never been (or even a fictional world), is this somewhere you’d like to experience? If the story is happening at a time other than contemporary times, does it make you happy to live now, make you wish you’d lived in the past, nostalgic for an earlier time, or give you hope (or hopelessness) for the future?
Is there anything you learned? Did you glean a new insight into the human condition from the book’s characters and their experience?
Were there descriptions or lines the author used that struck you as especially good, bad, or clichéd?
If the author uses humor, how is it done? Is it subtle, dry humor? Does the humor come from exaggeration or from looking at something commonplace in a different way? Is the book mostly humorous or does the author use humor as a way to lighten what would be be very dark or serious without it?
What sets this book apart from others you’ve read? Is there something unique or different in this story or the way it is told? Was that uniqueness a positive or negative for you?
The number of questions we might ask is virtually unlimited. As you write more reviews and reflect on your reactions to different books you’ll find many more. Pick those answers that best illustrate the reasons behind your reaction to the book and that make this book unique in your experience.
In the next, final installment of this series, I’ll throw out a hodge-podge of other tips and ideas.