Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


Book Reviews for Writers

How to get the most from what you read

By Mary K. Wilson
© 2005,
Mary K. Wilson

Most aspiring writers receive the same piece of advice: read books in your chosen genre.  Read good books.  Read bad books.  Then, go out and find some more books to read.  Reading in the genre in which a writer wants to write has a three-fold effect.  First, it teaches aspiring writers what works.  Secondly, it teaches what doesnít work.  Third, it helps cultivate the fields of inspiration to start creating a personal writing style.

But with so many good books on the market it can be too easy to lose oneself in reading and not reap the full benefits.  Writing a book review helps.  After reading a book, writing a review allows the reader to compose thoughts as to what worked and what didnít.  Book reviews help the reader write a short one or two paragraph synopsis of the plot, a useful tool when it comes to writing synopsis for his or her own books. 

As a writer, I found I learned more  when I started writing reviews of books I read.  I post these reviews on my website, but such reviews can be personal and never shown to anyone.  Itís up to the individual reader.  In fact, reviews donít even need to be written down.  Taking time after reading a book to think about what worked and what didnít can be as effective as writing down a book review.  But, since the memory is fallible, writing down reviews will keep them from becoming forgotten.

Reading a book to review requires active reading.  While half of the readerís mind can be engaged by the exciting story and the riveting prose, the other half has to be constantly thinking about the mechanics of the story. 

v     How well was it put together? 

v     Is the plot logical? 

v     Can you identify with the characters and are they acting true to their characterization? 

The analytical part of the readerís mind focuses on the three benefits of writing reviews:

v     How did the book work?

v     How didnít it work?

v     What stylistic elements does the writer wish to incorporate into his or her writing.

 Letís take a look at these individually.  The primary reason for writing a review is to find out what works within the story.  Forget literary reviewers whose sole existence seems to be to denigrate every work of fiction placed on their desks.  Forget also reviewers who sugarcoat their thoughts about a book.  A bad book is a bad book; however, there are ways to relay what wasnít liked about the book without downgrading (denigrating?)  the author.  The point of these reviews is to give honest analysis and feedback about the book as part of a learning experience. 

When doing a review on what works, take the book component by component. 

First look at the plot. 

v     Was the story arc as a whole believable? 

v     Did the plot seem too contrived? 

Then, take a look at the characters. 

v     Did they act in believable ways? 

v     Could you identify with them? 

v     Did they annoy you? 

Then move onto the setting and world building. 

v     Did it seem like a fully realized world? 

v     Were the descriptions vivid enough? 

I probably wouldnít worry about grammar or spelling when thinking about what worked.  Any book published should be free of such errors, and if it isnít, then that would fall under what the reader didnít like about the book.

For looking at what the reader didnít like about the book, take the same questions and ask them again.  Maybe something about the characterization bothered the reader, or perhaps the setting wasnít as fully realized as it should have been.  By pinpointing the faults of the book it helps the writer to know what not to do, which sometimes is as important as learning what works.  Lastly, the reader should make any notes of any grammatical or spelling errors, or if the book appeared to be poorly edited.

By putting together what the reader liked, or didnít like, about a book into a review, writers can discover what should be incorporated into their own writing.  This is the third gift of a book review and probably the most important.  Perhaps an author handled a plot twist a certain way, or maybe a passage contained particularly vivid description.  These are things writers should tuck into their toolbox for study and later use.

Itís one thing to read a book for enjoyment.  Reading as a writer takes particular skills which are honed the more they are used.  The first time it might take two or three times reading a book through to be able to write a book review.  But, as more books are read and more reviews are written, it will become easier.  And, by looking at whatís come before, the writer will be able to better craft publishable prose.