How to start a review

1. Jeopardy.

Think of your conclusion: the one thing you want anyone reading your review to know about the thing you’re discussing. Now think of the question to which your conclusion is the answer. (This works best if you have something more interesting to say than simply, “it’s good” or “it’s bad”.)

2. About a third of the way through the book …

What scene or event encapsulates the book’s strengths (or weaknesses)? Describe it. Make the person reading your review share your enthusiasm (or frustration).

3. Kick it LRB-style (version one).

Potted history of, or meditation on, the author’s career to that point.

4. Kick it LRB-style (version two).

Potted history of, or meditation on, a category of which the book is an example. (Useful when LRB-style version one is inappropriate, e.g. first novels.)

5. Bear with me for a minute …

Anecdote or trivia that illustrates something about the book under review, and thus makes it relatable for the reader. Works best if the nature of the link between the two things remains opaque until the moment you illuminate it. Use with caution in reviews of less than a thousand words.

6. Narcissism

A bit like option 5, but requires a stronger relationship with the audience, since the anecdote or trivia is about you, or your experience with the book (or another book by the writer), which is less likely to be of interest to a passing reader.

7. Here is some brilliant writing.

A bit like option 2, but you’re showing off the specifics of your subject’s prose. If you do this, you have to make at least one substantive point about the writing per sentence quoted. OK, you don’t have to, but you should.

8. Ronseal.

Offer up the most pithy summation of the book you can manage. The danger here is that if it’s too pithy, nobody will read on to get the detail.

9. Previously, on this book …

Ah, the synopsis. Almost always necessary at some point; but if it’s your opening gambit, it’d better be interesting.

10. Everyone else is wrong!

Quote one (or more) other reviewers about the book, then argue with them. The more high-profile the reviewer the better — as long as you can back up your claims. (Everyone else being right is also possible, but for obvious reasons trickier to pull off.)

30 Responses to “How to start a review”

  1. Evan Says:

    My problem is usually finding and reading a book good enough (or spectacularly bad enough) to review before everyone else has gotten to it and said their piece.

  2. Abigail Says:

    I’ve probably used each of these at least once, but now I’m curious to go through my reviews and see which one I use the most (or whether I’ve shifted from one type to another).

    What brought this on?

  3. Niall Says:

    Trying to start a review, obviously!

    Coming soon: how to end a review.

  4. Niall Says:

    (I went through a phase of being very fond of 2. I think I’m a bit more balanced now, with perhaps a lean towards 4, and I’d like to do more 3. In fact would like to see more 3 around in general.)

  5. Jonathan M Says:

    You missed out Kick it LRB-style (version 3) : Write knowledgeably about the topic the book addresses before evaluating the opinions put forward by the author.

    I am particularly fond of that one :-)

  6. Niall Says:

    Good point. Although sometimes tricky to apply to fiction (you’re better at it than I am, certainly). The important point with all three LRB styles is to delay talking about the actual book for as long as possible. ;-)

  7. Abigail Says:

    From an examination of my Strange Horizons reviews, it seems that I also started out writing 2 reviews almost exclusively, and nowadays I write combination of 4, 5, and 8.

    Coming soon: how to end a review.

    A tougher question, in my experience.

  8. David H Says:

    I tend to go for 9 rather too often (though probably more so on my blog than when reviewing for another venue); it’s (almost) always a viable option, but I’d rather have a ‘hook’.

  9. James Says:

    All you’ve done is left me feeling even more inadequate about my reviews.

    I’ll overcome it by writing the first two hundred words that come into my head and hit post before I can change my mind….

  10. Matt Denault Says:

    And then there are combos! I opened up the last review I wrote for SH, of Elizabeth Bear’s Chill, with #3, her career in a nutshell; then moved on to #4, generation starship stories in a nutshell; then did a version of #9, an overview of the previous book in the trilogy; all before saying much of anything about the book at hand.

    I am not sure if I am proud or embarrassed about this.

    Meanwhile, I note that in a negative review, #7 can easily become “here is some dreadful writing.”

  11. Martin Says:

    Looking at my reviews, I tend to range all over these. However, I have noticed a bit of a concentration around the ego-categories: 5, 6 and 11 (judging a book by its cover). I fear this marks me down as a bad reviewer.

  12. Patrick H Says:

    I understand your ironical purposes here, Niall, but I have to admit, then when lists like this started turning up in my notebook, I began drifting away from writing reviews. It started to become less a process of exploration than one of filling in boxes.

    I started blogging in an effort to break away from that sort of review, although I don’t know how successful I’ve been. The Process has a magnetic pull that arranges my writing like iron filings.

  13. Niall Says:

    Well, it is and it isn’t ironical. I don’t think any of these approaches is bad per se, and many of them I would like to see used a lot more by the sf-reviewing community in aggregate. It’s a problem when an individual reviewer falls into a rut with one or two of these variants, or when it feels like they’re going through the motions — it’s possible to write all of these with and without passion, I think. But of course at the same time, as you say, there are other styles of review to pursue.

  14. Patrick H Says:

    I think it becomes a problem when one is producing a lot of reviews of work that doesn’t really engage. I guess that’s a rut!

  15. Niall Says:

    Yeah, these are meant to be ways of kicking off an engagement with a book — ways of starting to organise the things you want to say about it — not an avoidance technique.

  16. Matt Hilliard Says:

    I frequently use “ego related” openings because I like people to know where I’m coming from. I know when I read a review of a book by someone like, say, China Mieville, the first thing I want to know is how that reviewer felt about Iron Council and TC&TC, because if their reaction was vastly different from mine then I’m going to give the review’s conclusions less weight. Not because they’re wrong, but because they aren’t aligned with my preferences.

    Niall, I hope you weren’t joking about the review endings post. I have trouble there and I’m not too proud to take advantage of a formula.

  17. Niall Says:

    Well, I was joking, but I’ll have a think about it…

  18. Lois Tilton Says:

    Oh, you mean we’re not supposed to use all of those in every review?

  19. Ian Mond Says:

    What about the giving away of spoilers. Actually… to be honest while I love the review yourself and Abigail write I find it hard to read them without squinting if I haven’t already read the novel.

    I was acually on a Panel at Aussiecon looking at the use of spoilers in reviews and I came hard on the side that while a review can talk about theme and the historical context of the novel and where it fits in the author canon and yet be silent on most of the salient plot points. No-one seemed to agree wth me. Still, it’s what I try to do on my own LJ – that is keep the spoilers to the bare minimum.

  20. Lois Tilton Says:

    Bah. If there’s anything that makes for crappy reviews, it’s this ridiculous shibboleth about “spoilers.” A piece of fiction “spoiled” by knowing the ending in advance is probably not worth reading in the first place.

    On the latest Story Club thread, readers were complaining about reviewers employing vague platitudes instead of specifics, and this can certainly be put down in part to the constant yapping and carping about “spoilers.”

  21. Matt Hilliard Says:

    Ian: The problem is mainly that reviews have two functions: helping people to find something they’d like to read, and then helping people understand what they’ve finished reading. Spoilers are very helpful for the second use and a problem for the first. And I disagree that discussing the plot is unnecessary. In some cases, certainly. But just as when praising or slamming prose it’s helpful to provide a few excerpts, when praising or slamming plot it’s helpful to provide a few examples.

    Lois: Huh. I guess I could argue this at length, emphasizing how the release of information to the reader is used for specific effects by authors and how these effects are indeed diminished for an unexpectedly informed reader…but I’m feeling metaphorical today.

    So instead I’m just going to say that fiction is, in this way, like pizza. The taste of pizza when it’s hot and fresh is fairly different from cold pizza. A lot of people only like hot pizza, some people don’t care about the temperature either way, and some like both tastes to some degree. I happen to be in this last group when it comes to both fiction and pizza. But while I like cold pizza, I like hot pizza more, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t walk up and pour ice water on the slice I just took out of the oven for myself just because you don’t have a preference.

  22. Lois Tilton Says:

    It’s not a question of not having a preference. It’s a question of providing a proper critique. If the conclusion of a story is unfulfilling, if the unfulfilling conclusion ruins the story, I can not provide evidence of this assertion if I am forbidden by some foolish stricture from discussing the conclusion itself. Placing the plot off-limits precludes much analysis.

    I am convinced that people who actually care about this should simply not read reviews at all. Or perhaps only the kind that limit themselves to giving out some number of gold stars.

  23. Paul Kincaid Says:

    I once had an author complain about spoilers in my review because I revealed something that happened less than a third of the way into the novel.
    Personally I have no problem with spoilers, because to provide anything like a proper assessment of a book you have to assess the whole book. What I do have a problem with is “Spoiler Warnings”, which is a form of pandering that sets my teeth on edge. The ending is often the most important part of a novel, discussing how it does or does not work is important for the critic, and anyone who doesn’t want that shouldn’t be reading the criticism in the first place.

  24. Lois Tilton Says:

    I can see, in a way, why some readers might object to spoilers in a review, but it’s boggling when authors do. The author, presumably, already knows what happens in the end.

    I put this down to insecurity, that the author believes the other elements of the story will not carry the reader through a plot where one element has been revealed.

  25. Niall Says:

    Unsurprisingly, I’m with Paul and Lois on this — although I take Ian’s point, and would say that, to take Matt’s metaphor, it’s good to try to keep the pizza as hot as possible. In general, I would say that the further into the novel a reviewer’s examples come from, the more central they should be to their critique; and quite often I find that flaws are fractal, that is what I think is a distinctive flaw of the climax is repeated much earlier in the book, and can be stated as a continuing pattern without revealing the ending. I also think it’s worth saying that even a discussion of the climax of a novel is going to be a selective, partial account, and (even if you don’t disagree with the reviewer) when you read it for yourself, it will almost certainly still feel new. At least, that’s usually the case for me.

  26. How to Finish a Review « Torque Control Says:

    […] to Finish a Review September 18, 2010 — Niall By popular demand! Or at least by one request. It turns out that I don’t think there are neat little identifiable gambits to end a review […]

  27. Matt Hilliard Says:

    Strange. I completely agree that you have to talk about the plot and especially the ending to properly analyze a book, but I just don’t get the hostility. From this talk of “pandering” warnings and the very concept of spoilers as a “shibboleth” you guys make it sound like Important Criticism shouldn’t demean itself by addressing the concerns of the spoiler-averse masses. They should stick to reading Amazon reader reviews, since Proper Reviews are for people who are both sophisticated enough to not care about spoilers and who have good enough taste that the fiction they read can’t be spoiled anyway.

    Sorry if that’s too much of a caricature but that’s what it sounds like to me.

  28. Niall Says:

    I think there’s a fair amount of frustration underlying this discussion; it does seem that what counts as a spoiler has become more and more broad, leaving less and less room for manoeuvre. I also think review-readers sometimes don’t do themselves any favours — if you start reading a 2,000 word piece, it seems a bit unfair to complain that it goes into detail. That said, I suspect most of us here would agree that information revealed should be minimised to what is necessary to make a point.

  29. >>Nostalgia For Infinity - Linkfest: September 14th – September 19th Says:

    […] How to start a review « Torque Control – Ten ways to open a review. Niall is writing about books but these ideas are applicable elsewhere too. Tags: reviews criticism writing […]


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