Writing Bad-Book Reviews
By Amy Brozio-Andrews
It's inevitable. At some point in every book reviewer's career, there's a clinker. Some book that's just, well, bad. It's easy to write about the books you love, but what to do when you're assigned a title that's just not up to par?
Do I have to?
First thing to do is check in with your assigning editor. Some publications do not want reviewers to complete assignments on books that are unacceptable in some way. Others will not publish negative reviews. If it's not clear from the writers' guidelines, the assignment sheet that came with the book or the e-mail communication from the publication that preceded or accompanied the assignment, call or e-mail the editor right away for clarification. Books are usually assigned to reviewers with tight deadlines that must be met for publication, so don't hesitate in calling the editor so that she can avoid a last-minute scramble for a replacement (that scenario won't endear you to the editor for future assignments).
Other publications expect reviews to be turned in for all assigned books-- regardless of your opinion of the book's quality. If that's the case, then there a few key points to keep in mind to keep that bad-book review from turning into a bad book review.
Where did we go wrong?
Consider the book carefully. Be totally honest with yourself here. Is it possible that the book isn't poorly written, that it's just not in the usual scope of your reading tastes? It's very tempting to write off a title as a bad book when it's in a genre you don't appreciate or on a topic that doesn't interest you in the slightest.
Objectivity is crucial to being a good reviewer. If the mechanics of the writing are solid, and you've determined it's actually the content of the book you're not enamored of, this may not be a bad book. You just might not be the book's target audience. As a professional reviewer, you should still be able to relay a brief synopsis of the book and provide intelligent commentary on the writing even if the book's in a genre or style you don't ordinarily read or on a subject you have no interest in. Good reviewers should have a working knowledge of what it is about the story or narrative text that appeals to readers in most genres and nonfiction works.
If, on the other hand, the book is not written well, then by all means, do inform the reader in a thoughtful and respectful manner. Whether it's that the book's deficiencies are in content or style, your obligation as a reviewer is to offer the reader an honest evaluation of the work, one that provides him with an overview of the book and how it fits into the context of the genre or subject.
Reviews are most useful to readers when they are specific. The plot may be solid, but the characters may be wooden. Perhaps the main character's name changes from Jaime to Jamie and back again, all on the same page. Take the time to highlight particular instances in the book that support your evaluation of the work. Bland, sweeping statements are just that, and don't inform the reader in any meaningful way.
Be honest but be fair.
Critique the writing, not the writer. Of course, the tone of your writing should fit the voice of the publication you're writing for, but try to pay attention to any snarkiness that creeps in. Superiority is never pretty. It's all right to say that maddening grammatical errors made this book a tough read, it's not alright to say trees around the world cried when they heard their brethren were sacrificed for this book.
If at all possible, try to write a balanced review-- or at least try to acknowledge what the writer did well. Is there anything redeemable about the manuscript? Again, specificity is important. While the author may do blasphemous things with a semicolon, perhaps her plot left you breathless or her powers of description were like stepping through the door of the Gale's farmhouse into Oz. As much as a wholly glowing review may leave readers suspect-- a glaringly negative one may leave readers just as suspicious: "Why the hatchet job?"
Writing a review of a less than perfect book is never a joyful task, but you can turn it into something positive for the reader, your ultimate customer, when you present as objective an evaluation as possible, giving him the tools to decide for himself if this book-- despite any shortcomings-- may be worth his time, energy, and money.
Keep in mind that many publications archive their content online, and others re-sell their reviews to Internet bookstores like Amazon, Borders, and Barnes and Noble. Your work may be seen by numerous readers for years to come. Just because you're reviewing a bad book, don't write a bad review.
Amy Brozio-Andrews has published almost 150 book reviews in print and online publications. Want more advice on writing book reviews? Sign up for Amy's online class It Pays to Read: Book Reviewing Basics! Next session starts November 13th-- and get a free book reviewers' paying markets list!
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