So I’ve pretty much abandoned my half-hearted ‘post schedule’ in favour of this post because, after just 10 months of blogging (gosh, has it been that long?) and one rather long review I just finished I’m starting to see my reviews slip away from what they were meant to be when I set out on this journey. I’m hoping this post will help me re-centre my priorities and focus on what I first set out to do.
When I say ‘slip away’ I’m not so much talking about a slip in quality, I still like to believe I produce quality reviews for all the books I read because I can’t stand the idea of doing anything less than my best. However, if you’ve ever so graciously taken the time to go over to my ‘About Me’ page you will know that one of the main driving forces behind this blog was to produce the kinds of reviews I would want to read as a reader. This is an excerpt of that page:
“I was sadly unaware of the world of awesome book bloggers I have been introduced to lately and was finding myself frustrated with the slew of unhelpful reviews I was confronted with every time I was indecisive on whether I ought to read a book. Some were rambling essays dissecting every detail of a book to the point I no longer needed to read it. Others were two lines long stating an opinion with no reasoning. A few felt downright cruel, decimating a book (someone’s creation) giving no counterbalance or thought to a fair argument. None helped me, so now I try to write those kinds of reviews – concise, reasoned and fair.”
Why do I think this has changed?
I’m not sure. As I said previously I have just finished writing my review for an ARC (Batman: White Knight by Sean Murphy) and it was a long one. Too long, even in my opinion. But I felt I needed to talk about everything I talked about, so I’ve left it how it is but I’m of a mind to improve my reviewing technique going forward.
How am I going to improve?
I decided to brainstorm what I felt absolutely must be included in a helpful review and came up with the following 4 ‘checklist items’.
SPOILER ALERT: I won’t be describing the plot anywhere here. I don’t get this number 1 requirement of book review ‘should contain’ lists everywhere. That’s what the back of the book is for.
I don’t discount book reviews that include a description (even if it is usually copied or paraphrased from the back of the book itself), but I skip right over them. If I’m interested enough to read a review I’ve either already read the description or want to be encouraged to read the description after reading a selling review.
If someone hasn’t already read the description for the book I’m reviewing, I want that to be my challenge – to make them go read the description, preferably as they buy the book (or, being cynical, googling it out of curiosity as to why I didn’t like it).
The only reason I would ever include so much as 1 or 2 sentence plot summary would be if it differs significantly from what the description suggests. And I’m talking a book about Mars that inexplicably neglects to mention four women in skirt suits continuously doing the Macarena.
I’ve narrowed my ‘review must have’ list to just four items also, with the intention that will encourage me to be concise because more time spent reading reviews has the opportunity cost of less time reading books.
I didn’t include ‘Star Rating’ as one as I think it’s a given. As an overall rule (which I feel is most ambitious considering my notoriously wordy nature) I want to put an umbrella cap on my review length of 300 words (I just got chills, this is going to be hard).
☑ Identify the Book’s USP
A USP is a Unique Selling Point and by that I mean: what about this book makes it different from others like it? Or just other books in general?
I think this is the most important thing to include if nothing else, and I would like to write more of these as the first sentence of my book reviews. I find in my own reading habits, a short snappy USP is usually more winning and effective than a 300 word, beautifully crafted description.
This is quite difficult sometimes, and a lot of the time the USP can already be found in the quoted reviews from publications or at the top of the description themselves but even including these is a huge start.
If done in the style of ‘X meets Y’ it draws in the target audience for that book immediately by catching the attention of the existing fans of X and/or Y. If it’s just one scroll-pausing sentence, the reader is drawn in and you have a chance to win them over with the rest of the review.
I’m not going to pretend I have in any way mastered this art but I want to, because I know it works.
☑ What did / didn’t I like and why?
(Brief, brief, brief – 150 words max!)
The more reviews I write and the more people I talk about books with, the more I’m reminded we are all so different and we notice and appreciate different things. I can’t tell other people why they will like a book, I can only explain why I liked it so whilst this part is important, I also want to make sure it’s short so people are left to make up their own mind and pick up on their own highlights.
I think the why is very important when it comes to negative comments. It’s okay to dislike something, I, like everyone else, am entitled to my opinion but reading back on very old reviews (from the pre-blog era) I cringe at my brutality and judgement in some books I maybe didn’t get on with as well as I could have.
Something I dislike could easily be something someone else loves, the only way for people to know otherwise and give a book a chance is to reasonably explain it so they compare that to their own personality.
I fulfil both the like and dislike criteria for books I do and don’t like overall, because there is good to be found in everything in as much as nothing is perfect. This goes hand in hand with being fair and balanced. An author who maybe didn’t handle a situation so well, or didn’t flesh out their characters or build their world etc. will never learn or adapt without constructive criticism.
Again, brief is the word.
☑ Powerful Content & Problematic Content
This is a classification system for my reviews I have been deliberating on in my head for a little while and I think I have it down.
We are in a wonderful age of publishing where booksellers, authors and publishing houses are becoming increasingly aware that they’re books don’t just have to be entertaining, but they also have to have some social responsibility. Symbolic annihilation and stereotypical, crass treatment of minority characters is not acceptable.
I think reviewers have a responsibility to draw attention to books that contain Powerful, positive messages and representations against these injustices because (though they are starting to try) publishing houses don’t always do the best job of promoting these all-important aspects that so many readers from all walks of life are calling out for.
As with wanting to highlight Powerful Content in the positive section, there is of course a flip side of that coin and that’s Problematic Content. This can include anything from trigger warnings to an age-appropriateness recommendation to insensitive themes and character portrayal.
I originally had this under the ‘What didn’t I like and why?’ section but I think it’s important to emphasise Problematic Content is not just an aspect of a book I, personally and subjectively, did not enjoy. Problematic Content is aspects, themes, scenes, or characters I feel would be disrespectful, insulting, hurtful, or generally have a negative impact in the hands of impressionable or marginalised readers, as well as to myself.
I am by no means a sensitivity reader and this is not a form of censoring but I think it’s important for the book community and by extension reviewers to give an accurate representation and consensus on what is and is not acceptable content or messages to authors.
☑ Do this book and I have a future together?
AKA. Would I re-read? Would I buy for myself or for others? Will I read any sequels? Will I pick up any of the authors other books? And so on.
It’s pretty self-explanatory but I sometimes think reviews can be misleading in that a reviewer knows exactly what they wish to convey but after several re-reads and re-drafts I know I’m probably not alone in saying it’s easy to get too close to a review and fail to see the bigger picture.
In place of a summary, you can give a pretty acid test response to your feelings by just saying if you would be willing to spend money and additional time with this book and its world. I can sometimes be a little ‘meh’ about the first instalment of a series (or even the first 2 or 3 – I’m looking at you Throne of Glass) but then go on to love later ones because whilst the books themselves weren’t great, and probably didn’t rate that highly, the world and characters were interesting and I wanted to give it more of my time.
Okay, so I feel much better now that I kind of, almost feel I have a focus? Maybe? I do feel like I’m just trying to skimp on my workload but I really am not. If anything, trying to succinctly and effectively convey all the things a book may/may not make you feel and why someone should/shouldn’t read it in 300 words might actually be harder than usual.
So, I’m off to adjust my review template document and test this out – wish me luck and let me know what you think of this and any of my upcoming reviews!
Until next time!