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Read to Write: Writing Book Reviews
by Sara E. Polsky

The "don't have any clips, can't make a sale – don't make any sales, can't get any clips" problem is the classic chicken-and-egg situation faced by most beginning writers. Many publications prefer to publish writers who've had previous writing experience, and this is the root of the writing paradox. How can a writer get clips (and get paid) without any writing credits? One possible solution is to write book reviews.

The format and length of a book review will vary from publication to publication, but there are some basic guidelines that can be followed when writing any book review:

Study the publication you intend to review for! This will give you an idea of the appropriate length for reviews, as well as how they are structured. Does the publication only print positive reviews, or does it also include negative ones? Is the publication attempting to sell the books it reviews, or merely to inform readers about different books? If the publication is trying to sell books, it's a good idea to return books you don't enjoy to the editor, so that another reviewer can give them a try. This is also a good thing to do if you feel you will be unable to review a certain type of book fairly. If, for instance, you have an instinctive dislike of romance novels, let the editor give romance titles to another reviewer.

Never start out a review with "This book was about..." or "This was a good/bad book because..." Try to begin and end your review creatively. Also, don't begin or end all of your reviews the same way -- experiment! Eventually, you will develop your own reviewing style.

Summarize the plot of a book at the beginning of the review. Give as much detail as possible, but be concise and objective. Even if you absolutely hated a book, try to strike a balance between fact and opinion.

Compare the book to other books on the same subject or by the same author. This will help readers put your comments in perspective.

If you have the space, include quotes from the book. This will give readers an idea of the author's writing style, as well as some concrete evidence to back up your opinion.

Be specific! Don't just say that a book was good or bad, but explain why. Was the plot solid or undeveloped? Were the characters realistic? Was it historically accurate? Was it a page-turner or a slow read? Was it well-written? Did the end leave you satisfied or wanting more? Why? Mentioning these elements in your review will make it more in-depth.

Remember, not everything is black and white! Some books may be absolutely fantastic, while others may be downright awful, but most fall somewhere in the middle. If a book is mediocre, say so! Try to focus on the good parts of the book, but don't ignore the not-so-good parts!

Before you send in a review for publication, you might want to read other reviews of the book, so that you get an idea of what others liked and didn't like about it. Your reviews should always express your own opinion, but reading what others had to say will help you evaluate your comments. And if you have the space, it might give you ideas for a paragraph about what "the book's detractors" or "the book's supporters" have to say.

Lastly, provide all of the book's information -- title, author, publisher, date of publication, price, and ISBN -- in your review so that readers will be able to locate the book.

Writing book reviews, though not a very lucrative form of writing, is a great opportunity to practice writing concisely and effectively, and reading other people's writing will help you to improve your own. Each book review you write is also one more clip to add to your file, and before you know it those clips will have put you far along the path to bigger and better things.

© Copyright 2000, Sara E. Polsky

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