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The art of the book review

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Are you an avid reader who always has plenty to say about the last book you read? Then why not consider putting your passion to use by writing book reviews? Helped by two literary experts, we’ve compiled a handy guide to writing a winning book critique:

Read the book

That’s the entire book – not just part of it. This may sound obvious, but you can’t write a balanced review unless you’ve been able to appreciate the book in its entirety.

Don’t give too much away

The job of the reviewer is to give a balanced overview of the book whilst holding back enough information so that there’s still plenty for the reader to discover themselves. Julie Wheelwright, a lecturer who runs City University London’s MA in Creative Writing and author of The Fatal Lover, says that, like the reviews of her favourite critics Jenny Diski and Boyd Tonkin, a well-written review should whet the reader’s appetite for the subject of the book.

Dig deeper

Wheelwright stresses that a book review should not simply be a compilation of plot, character and scene. A good book review should go further than this – it should explore themes, and offer analysis of the ways in which (and how successfully) the author has conveyed those themes. Wheelwright advises that you should give the reader enough to understand the critic’s comments, and, of course, whether or not the reader should actually buy the book.

Be constructive and creative

Wheelwright says that the best book reviews are those that are measured and constructive in their criticism. Try to balance your review by looking at both the pros and the cons, even if you feel there is more of one than the other. Also, a book review is a personal piece, and is the perfect opportunity to show off your flair, wit and sense of humour in your writing. Alexandra Heminsley, a journalist and Elle’s book editor, notes that, in addition to constructive criticism, book reviews should always be entertaining and make you feel as though you’re discussing the book with your favourite, smartest friend.

Explain yourself

A book review should go deeper than just outlining your opinions on the book. As Heminsley points out, a quality review should leave you with an understanding of why the book is good or bad, not just that the reviewer thinks it’s good or bad.

Fiction vs non-fiction

There are different points to consider based on whether the book you’re reviewing is fiction or non-fiction. Wheelwright says that when reviewing fiction, the review should be subjective, and more of a gut reaction to the writing, the story, the character, the plot and writer’s originality. If the subject is non-fiction, the review should be a look at the subject and how the author has handled the research, structured the material and whether they’ve managed to tell a riveting tale.

Get published

Think you’ve got what it takes to write a good review? Then set about getting your work published, whether in print or online. Investigate local newspapers and magazines and find out if they have a reviews section. If so, enquire whether they accept freelance submissions – it may be that the editor is always on the lookout for avid readers with plenty to say. Alternatively, submit your critique to the reviews section of websites such as Amazon.co.uk, or use the Living Social Visual Bookshelf app on Facebook – whilst this isn’t paid, it’s a great way to share your work, and fellow users have the option to rate your review.

Or, if you think you’ve really got what it takes, try entering our culture critic competition for the chance to write our Quiet Night In page in the magazine.

Picture credit: Rex Features

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