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12 February
The Critical Eye Viewpoints

The Seven Deadly Sins of Book Reviews: How to improve your book reviews and help audiences find their next favorite read


As kids, my siblings and I would ravage the local library and bring home stacks of dozens, if not hundreds, of books at a time (this was before check-out limits were imposed!).  We’d plow through them, devouring tale after tale – my particular favorite was anything historical, and mysteries were always popular –wolfing down, indiscriminately, pulp fiction and high-caliber Christie novels alike.  Time was no issue – we were kids, homeschooled no less, and we could read all afternoon without pause.

As adults, we’ve grown more discriminating by necessity: wasting time and even financial resources on a book that turns out to be a flop is more than disappointing, it can be downright irritating!  We turn to book reviews to help us narrow the playing field, hoping to know in advance that the book is already a winner and those precious hours while baby naps won’t be wasted.

Book reviews are one of the primary drivers of the book-selling industry.  While a hearty platform, book-signings and purchased promotional spots are all major factors in getting a book to sell, a high-profile review or four-point-five stars out of six hundred Amazon reviews can propel a book forward through grassroots and word-of-mouth avenues.  How do we compose useful and interesting reviews for audiences like ourselves?  There are a lot of reviews out there that are completely useless – I’ve read reviews that left me as confused and undecided as I was before.  As a professional book reviewer, is your review everything it needs to be to help a word-hungry, time-starved audience choose what to read next?  Avoid these seven deadly sins, and ratchet your reviews up to the next level of quality!

1. Vocabulary and grammar offenses ain’t no joke

It goes without saying (but here I am, saying it anyway) that a good book review uses correct English, proper syntax and stellar, not unique, grammar.  If you have the benefit of a copy editor reviewing your work before it is published, so much the better; but regardless, using interesting wording and something a little better than rudimentary writing skills is still up to you.  If I read a review that says, “this book probly dosent help most peaple,” or even a technically correct but blandly composed, “I liked it. It was interesting. I enjoy cookbooks a lot,” I’ll skip right on by and look for a more creative response.  Refer to a dictionary and a thesaurus if you find yourself using the same clichéd words and phrases over and over.  Educated readers want to read reviews written by readers on their level or above; it makes us feel smart to choose a book that has an intelligently-written review, so beef up the vocab and pick up your game.

2. First Person Writing – personally, I find it appalling

Follow the conventional rules of academia and write in the third person.  Although you, John or Jane Doe, are the one writing the article, and as much as you are being paid or asked for your own opinion, unless you are writing for a publication such as your own blog, that specifically asks for your personalized perspective, readers of a newspaper review column or book review publication don’t really care what you think, they want to know how the book is.  Ask yourself, who is the one being credited when the review appears on the back of a book – you, and your title to prove your credibility on the topic, or the Kansas Sun Magazine?  While we on the inside know that every book review is formed by the readers’ own personal opinion, it doesn’t have to appear that way.  If you write, “I never read cookbooks and found this to be bland and dry, in fact I think most people would hate it,” readers will doubt the authenticity of your statement because it appears to be a personal bias, colored by your own perhaps inadequate experience and not based simply in the intrinsic merits of the book.  Rephrase the comment in third person, even using yourself as a sample audience, such as, “Readers unfamiliar with commercial cookbooks may find the text bland and dry.”  Gain credibility within your review by maintaining the third person.

3. Unfounded, unqualified statements are useless

Build even more credibility by not making unfounded statements that may simply be an emotional reaction.  Validate your statements with an explanation.  If you’re coming up short on inspiration, simply follow a miniaturized version of the paragraph-writing technique called PIE, which stands for “Point, Illustrate, Explain.”  Point out the issue: It’s bland and dry.  Illustrate it so we can decide for ourselves if you’re right: There are no pictures or explanations of recipes, and measurements are all by weight.  Explain why this is so: It’s a commercial cookbook, and readers outside of the industry won’t find it easy to read.  Bring it all together in a smooth statement: “Readers unfamiliar with commercial cookbooks, or seeking a colorful and interesting treatment of pastries and cakes, will be disappointed: measurements are all listed in simple metric weights, and there are no color photographs, detailed explanations, or process pictures.”  Point, illustrate, and explain so we can decide for ourselves.

4. Too much personal opinion: books for babies are super boring

Don’t get caught up in the fact that you hate the book, and forget what it’s really all about.  Commercial cooks aren’t interested in paying for a lot of colorful, glossy photos when they already know what they need out of a recipe, and the food scales in kitchens are often calibrated to metric weights because they are more accurate than imperial weights.  You may need to adjust your review to accommodate the fact that, while a book may be uninteresting to you individually, it is however perfect within its own field: “Readers unfamiliar with commercial cookbooks, or seeking a colorful and interesting treatment of pastries and cakes, will be disappointed – however, commercial or high-volume cooks will be delighted!  Measurements are listed in simple metric weights, there are no color photographs, and explanations and directions are simple and to the point.  It is helpful if the reader possesses a thorough kitchen vocabulary and understands such terms as ‘turning’ or ‘sous vide’.”  Remember who the intended audience of the book is.

5. Stingy recommendations: I can think of three people who would like this

It’s okay to recommend a range of audience, but don’t box the book in too badly.  Sometimes a book ends with a simple referral as to what type of audience would enjoy it.  Sometimes it’s too specific: “A great book for people who are opening a restaurant.”  Isn’t it true that new restaurateurs would enjoy a book on commercial baking?  Yes, but paint your audience with the widest brush reasonable – and this is simply because after a bookseller goes to all the trouble of procuring your review, or a reader goes to all the trouble of seeking out your recommendation, it would be tragic if nobody chose the book because they didn’t fit into the tiny niche audience you described.  As a discerning reader, I prefer recommendations that come with qualifiers: “Commercial bakers would enjoy this book since it follows professional standards of measurements, as well as home cooks that enjoy thoroughly-tested, large-volume recipes that produce enough cinnamon rolls for a bake-sale or potluck.”  Since the reader already knows from your explanation that the book uses metric measurements, they can then decide for themselves if they want it – do they have a scale?  Do they have large bowls?  Do they care if there are pictures or not?  This might be the right book for them!  .  If you can’t think of any qualifiers for your stated recommendations, or disqualifiers for your negative recommendations, rethink your statement.  Recommend to the largest audience possible, be reasonable, and include qualifiers – why they might like it, if they fall into this category!

6. Let me decide for you – this book isn’t a good fit

The overall goal of a book review is not to get your personal emotional reaction, but to give enough specific information that an audience can decide for themselves if it is a good fit.  Above all, do not decide for your audience.  This is offensive, patronizing, and irritating to readers.  You provide some details – maybe a few recipe titles, the fact that it is measured by metric weight, a warning that there are no pictures – and the audience can look at their lives and think about whether or not they are interested.  They probably already enjoy baking, or they wouldn’t be reading a review on Baking for Big Crowds, and you just need to help them decide if the book is a good choice for their kitchen.  Don’t make the decision for them!!  Give the audience enough information that they can decide for themselves. 

7. Forgetting to read your own review

Read your own reviews.  Always.  Ask yourself what you would want to know before choosing or declining this book, and amend the review to include any pertinent information you may have excluded.  If you cringe at the grammar or fall asleep by the tenth word, change it.  If it’s fiction, make sure there are no spoilers!  Ask yourself if this review answers all the questions you had about this book when you first received it to review. 

Now that you’ve got professional reviewing in the bag, read these seven tips for squeezing more book reviewing into your life!

What’s your pet peeve about book reviews?  Do you have any advice or helpful tips for avoiding these nasty pitfalls and others that may exist?   There’s always room for improvement – so share what you’ve learned and we’ll all benefit from your experience!

About Andrea Huehnerhoff

Andrea HuehnerhoffAndrea 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.

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