The Art of Reviewing pt. 2

The Madman awoke groggily, not understanding what had happened, not at all sure of his surroundings, not all there mentally (but then again, was he ever?). As his eyes focused, he noticed two paths before him, coalescing at the chair he’d been placed in and then diverging off into the distance. He shook his head and tried to stand up. It took three efforts before his began freaking out, the adrenaline rush finally helping him awaken fully.


The Madman was tied to the chair. He had been kidnapped. His heart pounded and his body thrashed. What madness was this? A voice came from behind him.


“Almost like something you’d write, isn’t it?”


The voice chuckled then the figure to whom it belonged stepped in front of him. The man to whom the voice belonged was wearing a black mask that concealed his face. He bent over, placing his face within inches of the Madman.


“And perhaps it is.”


The man removed the mask and the Madman stared into his own crazed face. Then, with a jump, he awoke at my screen, review half-finished.




Hopefully, if the opener did one thing well, it got your attention. Getting the reader’s attention is crucial in any form of writing and is generally strived for. Begin boringly and your audience isn’t going to stick around—especially on the Internet when funny pictures of cats are just a click away. (DISCLAIMER: Life Is Story does not endorse funny picture of cats.) If you want people to read your reviews and share them with others, be interesting in your review.


It’s really quite a simple thing that’s not always thought about or easy to do. After all, the consensus in reviewing seems to be that you’re not the creative one; you’re the one critiquing the creative one. To an extent that’s true, but consider these two different options, two different ways I could have opened:


Scream by Mike Dellosso is a really good book. It is about a man who hears screams on the other end of the telephone right before the person he is talking to dies.”


“The voices Scream like a ghastly wailing chorus, a choir of raw and utter torment and death.”


The first statement is a bit more literal and tells you more about the content of the novel, including the author’s name, but it doesn’t do anything to draw the reader in and make them want to read the review. If they’re not interested in the premise, they’re not reading the novel and maybe not coming back to your site. The second statement—the one I obviously went with—does so much more in engaging the reader’s emotions in what the novel is all about.


Thus, the second rule of book reviewing:


Thou shalt be interesting.

The first half of the book review should be a summary of what the book is about. Be interesting about it without giving away any major spoilers. Creatively summarize without making it a point-by-point analysis. Show readers (and the publisher) that not only did you read the book, you grasped what it was about and was able to do more than regurgitate on the back cover copy.


Back cover copy: This leads me to one of my biggest pet peeves of book reviewing. The back cover copy is already on the back cover of every single copy of the book and every website description where the book is sold. Copying the back cover copy onto your review doesn’t tell the reader anything new, doesn’t give the reader any special reason to come to your site for information, and doesn’t show the publisher that you have a working knowledge of the book.


Rule 2.1 of book reviewing:


Thou shalt not quote the back cover copy.


So to conclude, figure out ways for your review to stand out in its summary. I strive to give all of my reviews a unique and compelling beginning whether my review is positive, negative, or neutral. The Madman has to perform a few tricks to get people to look his way, remember? Some examples I’m particularly fond of are my reviews of Germ by Robert Liparulo and Fatal Convictions by Randy Singer. So get out there and stop being the man on the street corner, hawking his wares with the same lackluster enthusiasm and same-old, same-old style. Reviews are a lot about assessing the content of a novel, but that means nothing if you can’t get your readers to read to that point. Be interesting, be creative, stand out, stand up.


Next week we’ll talk about the meat of a review, actually discussing its content. Click HERE to revisit part one.


Question: How much are you influenced by back cover copies of books?







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Author: Josh Olds

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  1. Great advice, Josh! Thank you. I am influenced by back covers for the first two times I read them, and then I don’t want to read them because I know what it is going to say; just as you said above. I will be sure to use this advice in my next book review!

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  2. Excellent information, Josh. Thank You! Yes, I must admit the back cover copy often determines if I will read the book (unless the front cover copy includes the words Ted and/or Dekker!) I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of your favorite reviews, excellent job on both. I thought the whole germ warfare book idea had been overdone but now I am definitely reading the Liparulo novel next. I am often turned away immediately by legal thriller talk or by foreign relations, so to take me all the way to the end of the Singer review AND make me want to read it…KUDOS on that!

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  3. Influenced? As in enticed into reading the novel? Usually, back cover copy is what I enlist to decide whether or not to read a novel. I need maybe two sentences, choosing not to get too much information. Some back cover copy is awful, revealing way too much of the story. I never read reviews until after I’ve read the book. Even as “seasoned” reviewers we tend to give parts away in order to describe enough for future readers to be interested. I think those who read reviews for their recommendations expect more information than someone like me. All I want to know is the bare minimum because I want to be surprised.

    I agree with you, Josh. Make your opinion stand out with your own voice and means of entertainment–which you do well, BTW.

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  4. (Donna, Germ is excellent. Can’t recommend that one of Randy’s. Sorry.)

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  5. Thanks for the info Josh! I am very new to the review world and I try to keep my review descriptions to a minimum because I too don’t like reviewers that basically tell you the story. Though from what you have said I will try adding more flare and style to my next reviews.

    I hardly ever read the back of the book, unless it is a series and I have already read the first book. I have a lot of friends and follow numerous review sites to help me pick new books. I also like reading reviews of the books before I read them, I just make sure the review/reviewer is credible and doesn’t tell spoilers.

    Also Donna: Germ is a great book, just keep reading past the first 3 chapters.

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  6. Interesting. I always thought that copying the back was more of a style than just a show of laziness, though it does make sense. I admit to copying back covers on all of my reviews, but I’ve recently been considering doing away with that. This post is definitely pushing me in that direction.

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