Desiree Villena Talks To Bookbag About 5 Key Tips for Writing a Critical-Yet-Fair Book Review

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Getting to review a book you loved is a privilege. But it can also lead to a fair amount of hand-wringing and second-guessing. After all, how can you convey what a revelation it was without stooping to inarticulate gushing or toothless clichés?

Still, the pressure of doing justice to a great read pales before the anxiety that runs up your spine when you have to review a flawed one. Whether it could've benefitted from hiring a developmental editor or squandered a dazzling premise with dull execution, something about this book left you cold.

Having to write about it could make you gnash your teeth — or bite your tongue to keep the scathing comments in. You might even be tempted to wash your hands of the review entirely. After all, shouldn't it fall to someone who actually liked the book?

Don't recuse yourself just yet! Undecided readers deserve a wide range of perspectives on whether this book is worth picking up — including yours. As long as you keep it professional, there's no reason not to give them your honest assessment, and you can absolutely present it in a manner that's measured instead of mean. Just follow these five tips, and you can produce a critical-yet-fair book review — one that not even the author can fault.

1. Get the snark out of your system

Say you've got a lot of thoughts about this book, and almost none of them can be considered nice. Chances are, some of these critiques are perfectly valid, while others verge on Reddit rant territory. The problem is, in the heat of the moment, when your righteous rage at perceived crimes against literature still burn white-hot, it can be hard to distinguish thoughtful criticism from frothy-mouthed vitriol.

That's why you should get the venom out of your system first. Freewrite a 'shadow review': a comprehensive account of everything you disliked about the book, no matter how petty or irrational. You can be as harsh as you want, use interrobangs liberally, and even keep the caps lock on for the finale crescendo of your snark. After all, no one will read this but you!

Think of that as your real review's evil twin. You may not be able to repurpose any of it — odds are, there will be too much hot air and not enough substance to use as even a first draft. But that's okay: the point isn't so much brainstorming as catharsis — letting your inner troll run loose for a while until you're ready to get serious.

2. Structure your review using the sandwich method

Maybe you've heard of the sandwich method as a way for corporate hotshots to give feedback to their underlings. The principle is simple enough: you couch a piece of criticism between two compliments, like ham sandwiched between slices of bread. The criticism is the meat of it, but the compliments make it more palatable going down.

This method works just as well for structuring your critical review. To keep it fair and balanced, make sure you start and end on positive notes. Even if you hated the work as a whole, you'll be able to find something to admire about it — perhaps there were a few specific strengths, like the compelling first paragraphs of each chapter, or the precision of the metaphors.

Highlight the little things that are done well, and you'll make your big-picture criticisms that more more credible — and diplomatic.

3. Keep your audience in mind

Have you ever heard that a critic is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car? This bit of pith comes courtesy of the British writer Kenneth Tynan, who was talking about theater critics. But it applies just as well to book reviewers.

Now, that's not to say you can't write something stronger than the book you're reviewing. You might be a stupendous plotter and polished stylist, a talent fully capable of ghostwriting a masterpiece with an identical premise. But that's not the point of your review.

Remember, you're writing for an audience of readers. They're not here to find out what you wish the book looked like: they want to know how it reads right now — and whether it's worth their time. So focus on reader-centered impressions, not on the kind of notes you'd offer if you were assessing a rough draft in a writing workshop. Try to include a mention of who might like the book, even if it wasn't to your taste.

4. But do picture the author reading your review

Authors get a lot of reviews, and they won't necessarily read yours. You should absolutely write your first (real) draft without feeling like they're looking over your shoulder. But once you've gotten the words down, and you're going back over it with an eye to revision, try to picture the author reading them.

Is there anything that makes you feel embarrassed or defensive? Was your wit a little too biting? Did you lavish too much of your word count on something that might read as nitpicking?

You shouldn't censor honest, substantiated points because you're overly concerned about hurting the author's feelings — as professionals, they'll understand fair-minded critique, and they won't expect to be everyone's cup of tea. Still, this exercise in empathy may keep you from going too far, crossing the line from criticism into bullying.

5. Review the book — not the author

In the end, you're reviewing a single book, not a writer's entire oeuvre. Keep your criticisms grounded in the text at hand (pointing out that a book could have used a proofread is fair game, for instance), and avoid making blanket statements about the author's weaknesses as a writer. After all, you're only considering a single sample of their work, and you don't want to start skirting the territory of the personal attack. We'd recommend reading some example book reviews first — starting with the reviews right here on Bookbag.

As long you're able to substantiate your claims with concrete examples — and to give credit where credit's due when the book does something right — you should have no problem turning out a review that's critical while still being fair.