Friday, 10 August 2012

Friday Feature: How Do You Review?

I've been thinking about this a lot recently as I'm slightly changing the focus of this blog - more on that tomorrow, perhaps - and won't be doing as many reviews as I once was. Because of this, I want to make sure the ones I do write are as useful as possible.

So, how does everyone approach reviewing a book? I tend to keep mine short and (hopefully, at least!) to the point. 100 words or so in a plot summary, 200 - 300 words of my thoughts on the book, finishing off with something like "highly recommended to everyone", "recommended, especially to fans of XXX", or "not really recommended unless you're a massive fan of YYY".

I'm also (over?) cautious about 'spoiling' a book. My general rule is I try to not even touch anything that happens past the quarter-way mark in the book, other than a vague comment along the lines of "I thought the ending was very well-handled" or "I found the ending to be a real let-down." Unless the blurb on the back is incredibly vague, I try not to give away more in my plot summary than that does - and sometimes, as with my recent review of Dark Eyes by William Richter for the Bookbag, I think that's gone too far and try to say a lot less.

As for what I'm looking for - in my mind, I tend to focus on (in roughly this order) characters, dialogue, voice, plot. For me, a book with really strong characters can hook me even if there's virtually nothing happening - although in that case, I'd certainly mention it as I know not everyone feels this way! - while a book with a great plot but weak characters is unlikely to hold my attention much. I'm also much more critical of dialogue when it's a book in a fairly familiar setting - as a teacher in the UK, I find myself gnashing my teeth at the dialogue in certain books saying "But children don't talk like that!" On the other hand, that makes it easy to appreciate the best dialogue in contemporary novels as well - as an example, James Dawson's Hollow Pike captures the tone of his teenage characters so well that it was no surprise to find he worked as a teacher himself. I won't necessarily mention all of those things when reviewing but will pick out anything that particularly impressed me - or, indeed, that I felt wasn't so good.

Finally, the long-standing debate - to rate or not to rate? I don't, personally. (Although I do on the Bookbag and working out what score to give a book often takes nearly as long as writing a review!) I can see strong reasons for doing so but personally slightly prefer not to. This is partly because my reviews are quite short - if I was writing 600 or 700 word reviews I think I'd be much more likely to come up with a rating system to let people see at a glance how much I enjoyed a book.

How do you write your reviews? I'd love to read your comments - or links to your own blog posts if you've previously tackled this subject.


  1. I actually did a discussion about reviews on the blog today! I'm going back to school in a couple weeks so I won't be reviewing as much as I'd like to, but I still like to keep my reviews as helpful as possible. I have the same structure for all reviews, 4 paragraphs, and I try to keep them shorter rather than longer. I think everyone has a different style and it's important to make sure you use your own voice!

    Anna @ Literary Exploration

  2. I try to touch on the core ingredients of the book: writing style/diction; characters; plot. As well as themes and messages. If I hated a book I could go on and on, and my reviews tend to be longer when I dislike a book than when I like it. I think with negative, critical reviews, you really need to spell out exactly why you didn't like it.

    I don't rate books on my blog though. I do it on Goodreads, just to make it simpler for readers to glance and understand how I felt about the book. I adhere strictly to Goodreads' ratings' definitions. It just makes things easier.

    I find it funny that you are shifting your blogs focus and will be doing less reviewing - I am also trying to shift my blog towards MORE reviews and less everything else.

  3. I try to split up my reviews into a summary (like you said, I keep it vague), a section of what I liked, and a section of what I didn't like about the book. I feel like this helps me to give a more balanced review -- I have to come up with something I love and something I hated about every story, even if I though the book was stellar (or a complete turd).

    I have been using a rating system, but I am contemplating just giving reviews and no ratings. I agree with other bloggers that don't rate that the focus of the review shouldn't be a 'score'. It should be giving a solid opinion that helps other readers decide whether they would like the book.

    Occasionally I include spoilers, but I make sure they're well marked.

    If you want to see a few of my reviews, I have a list of them here:

  4. Really interesting comments - thanks, everyone. Anna, I read that piece on your blog just after posting this and thought it was brilliant!

  5. Wow. Yours and everyone else's comments make it seem like quite a few people have a rough structure that you use. I don't really have that. For me, it depends on the book as to what I'll talk about in the review. Sometimes I'll give a fuller summary of the book followed by some thoughts, sometimes I just skirt around the main plot points if what I really want to talk about are the characters or the relationships or whatever.

    Most of what I want to say about a book is how it made me feel, so I guess I focus on that. You've given me something to think about!

  6. Also, I hate ratings. I use them when I add my reviews to goodreads and amazon, but not on the blog. I really don't like ratings at all. And no spoilers.