July 23, 2013

Recipes for Success: 8 Tips for Writing Good Book Reviews (or, A Neon Sign at the Topless Bar of Literature) 

Guest Post: Janice Harayda, novelist, award-winning journalist, and founder and editor-in-chief of One-Minute Book Reviews


We’re thrilled to welcome Janice Harayda to the NetGalley blog. After being fortunate enough to hear her panel on book reviewing at the 2012 BEA Bloggers conference, we’re so pleased she’s shared this updated version of her remarks as part of our Recipes for Success series. Janice Harayda is a novelist and an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can read more of her comments and tips on reviewing here, and follow her tweets at @janiceharayda.

Recipes for Success aims to give NetGalley members helpful information, tools, and best practices to help facilitate your growth and effectiveness as professional readers. Check back often for tips and tricks from the insiders.

A well-known book critic once said that she hoped that her reviews would be “a soft light in the alcove of art.” Some of the books I’ve reviewed have made me feel more like a neon sign at the topless bar of literature. But I share that critic’s view: A reviewer’s most important task is to help you see a book clearly and, especially, to show its uniqueness. A question I ask every day is: How can I show how this book differs from all others? And I’ve tried to develop a few guidelines for answering it.

I was the book critic for the Plain Dealer for 11 years, and during that time, I had to follow the Associated Press Stylebook, which has 448 pages in its current edition. I also had to follow the house style sheet for the Plain Dealer, which had more than 100 pages. Together these guides had thousands of rules. If their rules clashed, you had to know when the Plain Dealer rule would override the AP rule and vice versa. On a deadline, you could feel like an accountant trying to parse an obscure point of the federal income tax code just before midnight on April 15.

So the last thing I want to do is to flash-freeze more rules. The joy of blogging is that you get to make your own rules. But I write a lot of copy (which, if you’re under 30, was the old word for “content”). Since 2006 I’ve written more 1,700 posts for One-Minute Book Reviews that have had more than 1.5 million visitors. And I’ve been able to keep up that pace in part because I’ve set a few guidelines for myself. I write better and faster if I don’t have to ask each time I do a post: What are my goals as a critic? For whom am I writing? When does a review cross the line, legally and ethically?

My guidelines keep evolving, but here are a dozen that I’ve used for years. Freelance reviewers for the Plain Dealer also had to follow most of these (so that — yes! — their work had to pass the test of three style sheets).

1. Seek out books that you can review uniquely well, and say what you alone can say about them.

2. Report facts accurately. Every reviewer’s judgments are at times flawed. But you can build trust with readers, authors, and publishers by getting the facts right even if you’re wrong about the merits of a book. Don’t trust your memory. Go back and check every fact and quote, and the spelling of every character’s name, before you post a review.

3. Answer these questions in every review: What makes this book different from all others? And why should anyone care?

4. Write conversationally. Read your reviews aloud and rewrite or cut anything you wouldn’t say to your smartest friend.

5. Purge your work of “reviewese,” words and phrases you see mainly or only in reviews. Avoid more than obvious clichés such as  “a must-read,” “ripped from the headlines” and “sends chills down your spine.”  Kill “relatable,” “unputdownable” and other publishing-industry neologisms, too.

6. Criticize the book, not the author, if you don’t like what you’ve read. Focus on what’s on the page, not a writer’s character defects.

7. Never review a book by a friend or an enemy. Make this part of a strict ethics code that includes avoiding any conflict of interest or appearance of a conflict. (The trouble is, as others have noted: You don’t know who your enemies are until you review their books.) If an editor asks you to review a book and you have a conflict of interest, say so before you accept the assignment. Have you and the author interacted on Facebook, Twitter or in real life? Editors may or may not consider those conversations a conflict, so spell them out before you before you take an assignment. If you’re reviewing a book for your own blog, disclose any conflicts in the review or a tagline at the end. 

8. Find paper mentor, a great critic whose work you love. Read his or her work regularly and take it apart to see how it works. Hand copy the critic’s reviews or parts of them (with a pen or by typing them into a computer) to absorb their rhythm and structure.

I also respect the unofficial motto of American journalism: “Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” A partial translation of that slogan is: Look for “afflicted” books that need your review, including underappreciated gems from the past and from contemporary small presses. And have the courage to “afflict” overpraised books that don’t deserve their medals or comfortable spots on bestseller lists. Will the author of Fifty Shades of Grey really suffer if you say it offered Fifty Shades of Boredom?

© 2013 JaniceHarayda. All rights reserved.

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