How to Write a Review

Reviews are tricky to write, but authors love them. Here's a cheat guide to getting through.

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“Do you get paid for writing reviews?” my friend Jenny asked. “Or do you do it – for love?” The question stumped me, because while I very seldom get paid, I certainly don’t do it for love. I hate writing reviews. Frankly I’d rather give birth three times than cogitate over another poetry collection. And yet, people keep asking me, and I do it, because – I dunno. I’m a push over. No, I know what it is: I like being asked. I’d be horrified if they stopped asking. I like being asked, and I like the bit after it’s written, where I’m published and get lots of attention and compliments. But the bit in the middle where I actually have to read the damn book, and worse, write about it – that’s ghastly.

It’s usually poetry. I know nothing about poetry. Honestly, nothing. I have an English degree, but I carefully steered my way around all the poetry modules, with the exception of Tennyson, whom I do quite like, but he’s not often that relevant to today’s free-wheeling free verse merchants. A part of me suspects that they put the words in those funny, muddly, not-quite-sentences on the page just to make my job harder, while the rest of me specialises in shrugging at the content, which is inevitably feeling-heavy. I don’t approve of feelings. Not very English, are they? My sub-conscious wants to scream, “Ooh, did you get a feeling?! Everybody stop what you’re doing and listen to how this feeling felt! Apparently it was a bit like a tree! No, I don’t know how either!” It gets me through. Do poets honestly, really, feel all that stuff, all the time? And if they do, why can’t they learn to shut up about it?

So you can see how uniquely qualified I am to write poetry reviews. I shall now tell you what I’ve learnt. Step one: read the damn book. Yes, more or less all of it. Sorry. This doesn’t feel nearly as threatening as actually writing. Sit somewhere comfy with a pen and notebook at your side and just read it. As you go, jot down any words or phrases that strike you as interesting or get repeated elsewhere. Do they write about sleep, or colours, or domesticity, or rocks? You’ll start to see patterns. This will give you something to write about. And any sentences that make you go – “wait – what?!” in a good or a bad way. They’re probably worth noting.

When you’ve read it, look back on your notes and hopefully you’ll find the review is half-written. You thought you were just having a nice sit down, when actually you’ve tricked yourself into doing something scary and impossible. Good eh? Type up what you’ve got and try to make some sense of it. If their style is banal and simplistic, call it innocent and refreshing. If you’ve no idea what they’re talking about, liken them to WB Yeats. It’s considered bad form to totally trash a book, although occasionally I’ve let loose with both ballpoints and it’s fully compensated for some of the dreary sludge I’ve had to sift through. You want the book to be either amazing or terrible, ideally, not some mediocre meh-fest: they’re trickiest. I’ve had to beg friends to threaten to kill my family to get those reviews finished on time. Amazing books take even longer, but this is a joyous love’s labour, for you genuinely hope to do them justice; convey your enthusiasm without quoting all the best lines, the ones that made you gasp and wince with envy. Terrible books are a gas to review, but maybe that should be a separate essay, written under a pseudonym.

No one reads reviews anyway. It’s an additional little endorphin boost for the writer, that’s all, a reminder to their chums they did an impressive thing. So whatever you write will matter to no one, except the writer and the writer’s mum. No one else cares what you thought about the book. In fact, no one cares what you write at all. Isn’t that a consoling thought?

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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