John, who writes While We Sojourn, asked, “What are some tips on book reviewing?”
Never in a million years did I think I would be asked that question. Never.
Tips for breast feeding? Sure. Tips for training your baby live on your schedule? No problem. Tips for understanding your child’s development? Sure, I studied it for four years! Has anyone ever asked me a question about those things? Never. Not even in my life on this side of the computer screen.
But questions about books? Yes.
As I was writing my response to John, I decided I would post it here. After all, it’s certainly long enough and I spent some blogging time writing it. I hope it proves helpful and that I can encourage you to write about the books you love and those you hate.
First of all, you may be wondering how I ended up writing reviews for Discerning Reader.
Back in the spring of 2006, Tim Challies asked for submissions as he was considering adding people to his team at Discerning Reader. I had two important reasons for wanting to be considered: free books and a deep desire to grow in wisdom and discernment. I had been a regular reader of his blog for more than a year and I knew that I’d be reading excellent books if he chose me.
I waited and waited. I think I had a week to write a short bio and two book reviews, each limited to one page. The prospect consumed my mind, but I was afraid. By Friday, I was running out of time. I finally mentioned it to Karl (I was even afraid and embarrassed to say anything about it) and he encouraged me to do it. I had absolutely nothing to lose. If Tim liked my writing, great. If not, then it was a good writing exercise.
I remember standing in our family room, staring out the window and rehearsing all that I knew about the sovereignty of God over all things, even something as small as the desire, ability, and opportunity to write book reviews. I smacked myself and said, “It’s not life or death! Let go of your fear and see what happens.”
I chose two books I had read recently (Faithful Women and Their Extraordinary God and Wild at Heart) and started writing as fast as I could. Karl helped me edit (I married a genius who has experience as an editor). I wrote up a short bio and sent the three very mediocre documents. [I am not exaggerating when I tell you that my “review” for Wild at Heart was bad. Karl didn’t like it nearly as much as the one I wrote for the Piper book. All I remember about that W@H review is that I made a word play with cross and crux. I wish I were kidding.] It may even have been my first time to send attachments in an email.
And then I hyperventilated and sprinted to the bathroom.
Then began the waiting.
When I finally heard back from Tim, he wrote something about going against his better judgment, but that he thought it would be good for DR to have a feminine perspective/representation. I wish I had his response to my first review. I recall not being sure if it was a compliment or not.
And that’s how all of this began.
Blogging followed about a month or two later.
You’d think by now I wouldn’t get so worked up about writing. I still agonize over book reviews. In fact, every time I sit down and start typing with the intent to publish I feel butterflies in my stomach. Sometimes I’m so nervous my teeth chatter.
Without further ado, what follows is my process for writing book reviews.
First, I try to take notes as I’m reading. I interact with the book and ask it questions. Sometimes it’s helpful to summarize each chapter in a few sentences just to make sure I understand it. I don’t do this for every single book I read, but it does help with the ones that are difficult or contain lots of new (to me) information.
After I finish reading a book I think about it for a day or two. Some people can finish a book and start writing. I like to ruminate. I consider its structure, its flow from one idea to the next, major arguments, etc., to see if that will help me structure my review. I ask whether or not the author accomplished what he/she set out to do. Is the book good? Is it true? What was my response like? Who will benefit from this book? What makes this book stand out? Also, during this day or two of thinking, I talk to myself about the book. For instance, the back wall of my shower hears all about a book before anyone else reads one of my reviews.
One afternoon last week, I was talking to myself in my brain about a book when Karl asked, “What did you say?” And that’s when I realized I spoke out loud. Not quietly out loud. Loud out loud. Apparently whatever point I was making was a big one and I had to use my mouth.
I can’t believe I’m sharing that, but it’s the truth. Karl got a good laugh out of that, so feel free to go ahead and have one, too.
Since so many of the books I read could be considered self-help, I evaluate what it says about God, the gospel, grace, etc. I like a book that is going to point me to Jesus and his work, so if what I’m reading isn’t doing that, then I don’t usually recommend it.
As far as actually writing a review, the first thing I do is just write. It helps to create an outline, but you don’t have to have one. Especially if you already have one in your head from all the internal talking. I sit down and I start writing about everything that comes to mind regarding the book. I don’t edit myself at all. Call me old fashioned, but I use my trusty Bic and a notebook.
To me, the most difficult part of writing a review is the beginning. I want the beginning to serve like a hook, to propel the reader onto the next paragraph. Sometimes that’s hard to do. It all depends on the book. I try to provide some information about the author. An interesting or shocking quote from the book would make a good beginning.
After the intro, I move into the content of the book. How is it structured? What are the main points? Topics discussed? What’s unique about it? I usually throw a quote or two in there if there are some really good ones or if one can sum it up. It’s a good idea to include a couple of quotes so that your reader gets an idea of the author’s style.
Then I offer my opinion of the book, focusing on whatever questions I asked as I was reading. I usually share how its message affected me or what I took from it. Did it meet my expectations or disappoint? And I write a little something about who I think will benefit most from reading the book.
After I write for a while, attempting to touch on all of those things, I edit. As I edit, I consider my audience. I think about friends and relatives who I’d love or hate to read the book and I think about my editors (Tim and Mark). When I’m done, I hand a copy of the review to my husband (most of the time, not always). Once he gives it an OK, then I send it to Mark or publish to my blog. Great editing makes all the difference, I’ve learned.
Two pieces of advice given to me: (1) Read good books. Read a variety of books. Read those authors whose writing you’d like to emulate. (2) Write, write, and write some more. The more you write the better writer you’ll be.
And now my teeth are chattering.