How to write a decent book review

This was first written in 1998. I have now been reviewing books for forty years.

I have been reviewing books for twenty-seven years and counting. I wrote my first book review for the November 1973 issue of Library Journal. I reviewed for LJ for 19 years, until I became editor of Wilson Library Bulletin. I currently review children’s books for Kirkus and children’s and adult books for Booklist. I have also reviewed for other publications, most notably The New York Times Book Review (1983-84). Here are some thoughts on what I have learned.

1. Read the whole book. That is the very least you owe the author. You can’t make a judgment on what they have done until you know all of it.

2. Review the book in front of you, not the book you wish they 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.

3. Don’t review in genres with which you are uncomfortable. There is no point in having a science fiction hater review sf, or someone who doesn’t read romances review them.

4. Think clearly about who the audience for the review is. Is this another librarian who wants to know if s/he should buy the book for their collection? Is this a parent who wants a good read-aloud? Is this review for patrons looking for information on a particular topic, or for patrons searching for a good read?

5. If possible, compare the book to others in the genre or field of study. That helps any reader.

6. Criticize clearly and specifically but gently. A bad book takes as long to write as a good one, and each book is someone’s baby. But a reviewer is charged to make a critical judgment, and fails if s/he does not do so.

7. Know the guidelines of your reviewing medium. Some don’t want plot summaries at all; some insist on them. Some want you to say outright if you are recommending a book, others don’t.

8. Be precise in your language. If this is the best book you have ever read, say so, and say why. If it is yet another nice little book on a nice little topic, say that, too. Find the words to say what you mean: the author did, and so should you.

9. Don’t be cowed by a famous name. Even famous writers sometimes do mediocre books.

10. Don’t review books by people you know, or love, or hate. It isn’t fair. Only review a book once; do not review the same title for more than one venue. This ensures that people who are looking for multiple reviews with multiple opinions will actually get them.

Enjoy! Reviewing is great fun, and deeply rewarding. It puts another spin on always having your nose in a book. And it is a kick to see a quote from your review on the back of the paperback.

GraceAnne Andreassi DeCandido, June 1998

About girasoleazzurra

GraceAnne Andreassi DeCandido. Over 65. Feminist. Works with words. Thinks with music. My belief system involves food and family. Wrote and spoke and published about libraries, librarians, writing, editing, and reading. Now retired. Putting some of that writing here.
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