Writing Book Reviews

Book Reviews
Member Blog by Russell Merrin

Writing book reviews is fun

First, there is the arrival of the three or four books from the journal I review for – all children’s fiction, information books or Young Adult novels – or the almost always delightful, illustrated picture books. It feels like I am still, vicariously, a part of the children’s literature community, from when I was a teacher-librarian for twenty-five years.

Review writing is a little like problem solving. First, you read the books as swiftly and thoroughly as you can, making notes of any salient points about each resource and jotting down a short and thorough outline of the main plot. Sub-plots rarely make it into the limited space of the review.

If your book review is for a newspaper or journal, you will almost certainly have a deadline to meet, preferably before the publication date. Check the deadline that you have been given and then set your own deadline for a week before that.

Length? My earlier editor’s less-than-helpful suggestion was that a review should be as long as it needs to be. While this was as generous as it was unhelpful, I usually try for 200 – 250 words. (Realistically 250 – 300).

You will obviously read the book’s own blurb first, to familiarise yourself with the genre and the general theme that this book will be all about.

As you are reading, get the names of all of the characters right, their ages, brief descriptions, allies, enemies etc. Be clear on the locations and settings and also the time period in which the piece is set.

The first draft of the book review involves writing it as comprehensively as you can and then paring it back, again and again, to make it as brief and concise and readable as you are able. It becomes a sort of puzzle, playing with words. I use my right click pull-down menu to trawl for synonyms, because the repetitive use of not-quite-precise ordinary words usually plagues the first draft.

Keep yourself out of the review, completely. This is not the place to score points or show off your own cleverness or give in to unhelpful sarcasm. Presumably, a dedicated author and their team put a lot of work into getting this work published, so they deserve your complete commitment.

Checklist for your book review

I have a short check list, a template for setting out each review, which varies, depending on what I’m reviewing. Picture books may need a slightly different approach (e.g., illustrations, artwork styles etc.)

  • Intro
  • Plot
  • Characters
  • Description
  • Illustrations
  • Cover Design
  • Opinion
  • Other publications by this author
  • Other observations
  • Conclusion
  • Recommended / Not recommended

When you have completely finished – if you are unsure of how your book review flows – go online and check out how other reviewers have reviewed this book. Have they picked up something you missed? Did they give a shorter, more concise outline of the plot?

If you are reviewing fiction, don’t give away the ending. That’s just being a bad sport.

Non-fiction doesn’t have to be read in a linear fashion. It can be read piecemeal. It is only necessary that you glean what the reader will want to get out of that book. Note any lists, fact boxes, maps, charts, photographs etc. Mention if the glossary, index table of contents is useful or not. If you think it is relevant, mention any other, similar earlier titles by this author.

It is not up to you to ‘sell’ the book. It is not up to you to pan the book. It is up to you to read the book – dissect it if you like – then report on the book as objectively as you can. If you do thoroughly love the book, praise it by all means, but do tell your reader why you like it. What are its strengths? Why is it so entertaining or informative for you? Who would you recommend it to?

You don’t have to, but I tend to comment on the writing style. Is it written in the first person, third person, multiple viewpoints, present or past tense?

Writing a review is reportage, so you are in pseudo-journalist mode when you write one. Check everything you have written, again and again. Just capture the essence of the book and omit the rest.

Finally, learning to compose a clear, concise review really is a helpful writing exercise, as it trains you to craft an effective blurb for your own fiction. It helps you to pare back all the extraneous detail and to write only the core of the story.

Have a go at reviewing. It is a good mental workout, and it can be quite fun. It definitely helps you to improve your own writing and it is quite reassuring because, as you read and assess each book, its flaws, as well its strengths, become obvious. Although one shouldn’t really say this out loud, there really is a lot of quite mediocre writing being published.

That should give the rest of us hope.

Contributor Russell Merrin
Russell Merrin

About Russell

Russ was born in Mackay, but grew up on the Gold Coast and has spent most of his life there, where he and his wife raised their family.

Before retiring, he was a primary school teacher and then teacher librarian, working in New South Wales, Victoria and, briefly, in the UK, before settling again on the Gold Coast. In Queensland, he taught at Palm Beach State School and then at the Tallebudgera State School.

His interests include reading, playing music (piano, guitar, banjo), bushwalking and geomorphology.

At high school (Tweed River High) he edited the school magazine ‘Seagull’ and at teachers’ college in Armidale, he edited ‘The Collegian’.

His short play for children, ‘The Bushrangers’ Last Picnic’, was published in the NSW Education Department’s ‘School Magazine’.

He has reviewed for the children’s literature magazine ‘Magpies’ since 1992, and contributed articles to its sister journal ‘The Literature Base’ over the same time period.

In 2008 to 2009, he was one of four national judges for the Children’s Book Council of Australia, judging the winning information books for the Eve Pownall Awards.

In 2022 he came second in the GCWA short story competition held that year.

Russell is currently editing a children’s novel that he just completed writing, and continues to maintain a keen interest and enthusiasm for reading, writing and books in general.

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