Very few of us review and critique full time. Those who do are frequently known as mother-in-laws, and they are not usually paid for their often-talented freelance work. For the everyday reader, writer, and Written Word Enjoyer, reviewing books is a fun sideline offering the opportunity to read new work (for free, usually), get acquainted with publishing houses and authors, and build a personal stash of books.
We all do a lot of reading – terribly clever tweets, project proposals at work, the dollar menu, and books on dog-training are just a few of the words we may plow through in a given day. Who has time to read for pleasure, and write reviews on top of that?
You, of course. Here are seven tips for successfully reviewing books (or other publications) without hiring a personal assistant.
The fact that this suggestion seems patently obvious to some, and ludicrous to others, will be sufficient to illustrate my point as to why it needs to happen. As a stay-at-home mom, I don’t really have time for TV (I know, what’s the point of being stay-at-home then, right?). If I had a nickel for every time somebody asked me how I have the time to do all I do, you wouldn’t be reading this because instead of writing it I would’ve been getting my nails done at an all-inclusive spa resort or interviewing applicants to count my millions. Rather than watch movies (we don’t have TV, per se), I choose to dedicate my time to home bread-baking, washing baby diapers, drying peppers, not waxing the floors, and blogging about my home adventures at a devastatingly clever homemaking blog. If you are thinking about ways to cut back on the amount of shows you watch in order to have more time for Everything Else, might I radically suggest cutting TV out altogether for a week and seeing how much you get done?
It’s not fair to an author to blitz through a book so fast you get a blowback, but it does help to be able to read at least moderately fast. If you are wading through particularly meaty content, of course, you may have no choice but to plod slowly. You can pad your review shelf with fun fiction, short collections, and children’s books to add a little variety, but your best tool for racking up titles to your credit will probably be a wide knowledge of the English language, a good handle on the topic you’re tackling, and a fair skill at reading quickly. This is probably shocking to some, but this skill is naturally acquired by starting young and practicing often, and generally appreciating and enjoying the written word. If your eyeballs bleed at anything over 200 words per minute and comprehension drops off like the deep end of a pool, don’t belabor this point and just enjoy your leisurely pace – there are plenty of speed-readers who wish they could enjoy a slower read (I’ve held paper over the page I’m reading to slow myself down, personally).
Read what you like.
This may be an obvious statement, but if a book is interesting to you, you’ll read through it quicker. Occasionally, of course, you end up with a book that is not what it was billed to be and turns out drier than a Texas temperance county, but you can make note of this in your review; it should be duly noted here, however, that this is not necessarily a negative thing. You could let people know without disparaging the book by stating that it “reads like a textbook” or “combines heavy legal language with thoughtfully collected examples from real life”. A book doesn’t have to be particularly engaging to be good – Grey’s Anatomy: Descriptive and Surgical, for instance, or anything else on the subject of ringworm.
Before you dismiss me as a close-minded sophophobic, hear me out! While we do read to learn, it is not always fair to the author you are reviewing for to pick a book about some aspect of a topic you know nothing about (“Hmm, the only club I’ve ever handled was the turkey bacon sandwich from yesterday – why don’t I review On Par: Five Unique Points for Finessing Your Swing?”). You can’t really offer any useful critique that will be helpful to other golfers (“If I were a golfer, I’d probably find this book useful! It seems like good advice, especially for people named after large cats.”). While you could offer compliments on style (“This writer is so funny, he sounds like the next Andrea Huehnerhoff!”), you couldn’t really point an avid student in the right direction (“The author appears to discuss things most golfers don’t already do, or possibly haven’t read in sixteen other places already.”). It would be a little like having an amateur interpret your x-rays. “Hmm, that black blob looks pretty bad. On the other hand, it could just be your liver.” Do yourself and the author a favor, and choose books you can offer thoughtful advice on.
If you are reviewing for a specific publication, they will probably offer a word limit. If not, when composing your horridly clever review be aware that most writers use exactly twice as many words as they need to.
Possibly I am the only person who has ever sat down to write a review … and stared at the computer screen for twenty minutes wondering what to say. Then again, most likely I’m not. I often break through this barrier by imagining myself telling a specific friend about it – or actually telling somebody about it – and (if I really liked it) trying to convince them that they need to read it. I ask myself, “What would I like to hear, to help me decide if I want to buy this book?” Hone your powers of persuasion to a sharp enough edge, and you may also be able to get your specific friend to bring you an ice-cream cone, too.
I’d elaborate more on how to implement this technique, but my son is wailing for his supper and I must go feed him.
Are you a quick wit? Leave a comment and give me pointers on how to read more, write more, and wax the floors less!
Andrea Huehnerhoff has been churning up messes in the kitchen since a very young age. Chasing down fine food from coast to coast with her Navy husband and their chubby new baby, she writes about her peculiar adventures in the kitchen, on the road and sometimes on the side of the road, at Dotal Anecdotes: Life as a Wife. Always on the prowl for a good read, she is the editor for a bloghosting short story and poetry submissions called In Short, Stories, and a reviewer for City Book Review.