Writing a book review is a great way to get your first publication credit or expand your publication portfolio.
As a blogger, I’m always on the look out for shortcuts you can take from my writing experiences, pitfalls, and wins. So when I wrote a book review for one of my favorite college professor’s new novel, the sirens went off. We have a winner! Because book reviews are a great and almost easy way to get a publication under your belt if you’re a new writer.
Even if you want to write and publish fiction (my goal), having other publications shows that you know how to work with editors and that you can write.
Don’t worry if you’ve never written a classic book review before. I hadn’t either. We’re going to cover the steps I took that landed my book review in the local paper right here, so you can see yours in print too.
Let’s do this.
Do Your Research (i.e.: Google Some Shit)
I’d never written a classic book review before, so this project started out where any new thing I try starts: Google search. And “how to write a book review” kicked back the usual suspects with their usually helpful how tos (like this one and this one). That was helpful, but it was also more than I needed. Since I was reviewing a fictional work, I compiled all the usable tips into one checklist. That way I wouldn’t miss anything, and it would save time. Here’s a worksheet version of my approach that you can download to make it easier for you.
Read the Book + Take Notes
Next I read through the book with my checklist and notepad open. I prefer to work digitally, so my checklist and notepad were open in Evernote. Use whatever system works for you, as long as you can jot down your observations as you read through the book. If you’re reviewing non-fiction or writing a long review, it’s a good idea to summarize each chapter to make finding passages you need later easier to find. Summarizing chapters can also help you focus on the book’s content. Since my review was on a fictional work and the word count goal was only 800 words, summarizing chapters turned out to be a waste of time. What I ended up using most in the end were the notes I took about my personal observations and emotional responses to the work. Start there if you’re writing a similar review.
Read Other Book Reviews To Absorb The Style
When I’m around people who speak with an accent, I have to actively work against speaking with an accent too. And when I read authors with a distinctive style, my writing takes on the flavor (this article I wrote sounds like Jon Morrow). Sometimes it’s embarrassing when people notice, but it also means I can easily match the tone and style of a given publication just by reading it.
If that sounds like you, pick up a copy of The New York Review of Books from your local book store and read it before you draft your book review. If you don’t tend to absorb everything around you like a thirsty little sponge, you may have to work harder to match the classic book review style. Analyze the reviews instead for structure and use them as a template. This isn’t cheating; it’s learning.
Review Your Notes
Look for a common theme in the notes you took while reading the book. What was the biggest takeaway for you? In my book review, I noticed that I responded most to the main character, a religious figure, being so much more flawed than figures in other religious stories. I felt that his flaws were what made him approachable. For me, that was the takeaway of the book and why others might enjoy reading it. So that’s what I built my book review around.
The First Draft: Frankenstein Your Notes into A Sort-Of Review
This is when you get the main points onto the page. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to be on the page. Start in the middle or the beginning or the end. It doesn’t matter because this process is where every writer is different, and that’s okay. Even if your first draft looks like Frankenstein’s monster.
I copy/pasted my notes into a separate document and organized them. Then I smoothed it out with transitions and tried to find a great first line that would draw the reader in.
The Next Drafts: Polish Your Review Pretty
Move things around and polish it off. Worry about the big picture stuff first—structure, great intro sentence, great closing paragraph—before you worry about grammar and typos. It helps too if you can bring the closing paragraph back to what you talked about in the opening paragraph. This circular story structure gives a sense of completion and resonance to your conclusion.
For example, I talked about how the main character’s flaws in a genre where characters don’t often have flaws made it possible for readers to identify with him. And in the closing paragraph I explained why that mattered. In shorter reviews, this circular structure is especially effective because it packs a lot of resonance into a few words.
Either way you go, take your time on this step. Revision and editing is often where the magic happens.
Get Some Feedback
Ask someone who’s published before to give you some feedback. Your average high school English teacher may be able to cover grammar and spelling, but generally we don’t write professionally the way we wrote papers in school. The same rules don’t apply. So get feedback from the person who has published what you’re writing. And if you don’t know someone like that, meet them. And if you need it fast, ask someone who offers editing and feedback as a service.
Submit Your Book Review
From letters to the editor to article and book review pitches, your local newspaper can be a great and easier way to earn your chops in professional writing. So search their website for the editor’s name and email address, and keep it in your proverbial back pocket. Because this is who you’ll send your review to.
If you’re a new writer and you don’t yet have a blog you can point to (get help setting up your professional writer platform up here), you may find more success if you just write the best book review you can and send it in on spec. Some writers would scoff at this, but we’re trying to build something here so it pays to think long term. Once your review is published, you can use it to pitch bigger articles (for higher pay) later.
Be friendly and professional (of course) when you send your review in. Include a mini bio with your URL or social media handle if you have one and a headshot just in case they want to use it.
Editors are busy people. And emails are one of those things that are easy to fall behind on. So be patient as you wait to hear back. I didn’t hear back at all when I first sent my review in.
Sometimes you’ve got to be your own advocate and give the gentle push. It was dead silence for a week after I sent in my review. That’s when I emailed a quick follow up to check in, offer to answer questions, and make sure the review arrived in the first place. I didn’t hear back from this follow up email either.
So after another week, I followed up again and this time I got a response that my book review would be published the following week. Follow up weekly until you hear back, but remember to be friendly and professional. Sometimes people get busy, and you’re not the only person with work under submission.
If you get a No Thanks from this publication, just expand your reach. Pitch your book review to news publications in surrounding areas and online or print literary publications. But definitely start with your local newspaper. It can be easier to get to know people when they live in your community, and it’s good business for them to publish a local which means they’re more likely to publish your review.
Once you see your beautiful baby in print, send a quick Thank You to everyone involved. In this case, I emailed a Thank You to the editor and the professor whose book I reviewed.