Three Things to Do When Writing a Book Review (And One Thing NOT to Do)

All writers covet considerate reviews from readers who appreciate the hard work they’ve sandwiched between their book’s covers. Additionally, submitting thoughtful reviews can be an excellent way to earn bylines for your writing resume, while being a good literary citizen of the writing community. Even one-liner 4- and 5-star reviews on sites like Amazon, Goodreads, Target, and Walmart can help a new writer get noticed among the bestsellers whose work always ranks at the top of most search engines.

So how should you go about writing a good book review? What should you do—and what should not do?

  1. As you’re reading, jot notes about the things you love in the story. Mark quotes or powerful lines that move you. Use those in your review (note the page number for bonus points).
  2. Think about and mention the story elements, such as memorable characters, sensory and setting details, or lines of dialogue that stick with you. Write about what surprises you in the story. (Be sure to denote a “spoiler alert” if you plan to give away the ending.)
  3. What about the story will you take with you? What will you remember long after you close the book’s cover? Chances are, if it moves you, it will move other readers to whom you’re recommending the story.
  4. Do NOT review books you don’t like. Sure, some say any attention is good attention, but if you’ve watched a two-year-old have a tantrum in a grocery store, you know that’s not true. The writing community is its own microcosm, and you don’t want to be known as “that spiteful writer” who dissed the work that another reader or writer loves. Let it go and move on to write glowingly about the next book you love.

Where can you publish your well-written review? Many local newspapers and library newsletters seek book reviews, especially those written by local authors. If your review is especially detailed and thoughtful (and includes quotes with the page numbers on which they appear), you may submit it to one of the literary magazines and journals that publish well-written book reviews. Bonus: some will even pay you for your review!

Here are a few you can try (be sure to follow their guidelines, as each is quite specific):

And while you’re here, check out some of my published reviews (linked on my Publications page) for inspiration, examples, and recommendations for your next great read!

SUBMIT!

I suppose that, in this post-Fifty-Shades-of-Gray era, I should tell you up front that I’m not writing about that kind of submission, though a rough spanking might seem preferable to the pain of formatting, reformatting, searching this-week’s-editor’s name, copying and pasting cover letters, adding your name, removing your name, and paying fees from one dollar to thirty of them simply to have your work read—and likely rejected—by the magazine/agent/publisher/editor you’ve long had your eye on. But if you’re a writer, submit you must!

Is there any way to make the submission process easier?

After several years of occasionally (and sometimes rarely) submitting my work, followed by a year of submitting more frequently, I’ve learned a couple of things. If there are painless ways, I haven’t found them, though here are a few facts you can accept and steps you can take to streamline the process and perhaps even soften the pain of rejection.

It’s not you; it’s them. The best literary magazines, most coveted agents, and biggest publishing companies receive—quite literally—hundreds of submissions each day. Imagine this: you drive to work in the pouring rain, get stuck in traffic, break the heel on your favorite pumps while running for the office door, spill coffee on your desk, and then your kid calls to tell you he forgot his homework, so you have to run home to retrieve the homework, deliver it to the school, and restart the process. You’re behind before you even begin. Then you open your email to find your inbox filled with new submissions. You have phone calls to return and meetings to attend, yet those submissions need your attention. How do you begin to sift through them? Like any smart editor, you sift the chaff from the wheat. You immediately reject any submissions that don’t fit your formatting guidelines, that open with a sluggish first page/paragraph/sentence, and those that are pocked with typos. Out of the dozen that are left, you save the few that fit a theme you’ve noticed coming in this month—they’ll make a nice collection when published together—and you reject the rest. After all, you’ll have a hundred more to scour tomorrow.

It’s not them; it’s you. You know you’ve done it. The Muse sat on your shoulder, whispered in your ear, and you pounded out a 5,000-word story in two hours flat, and the story blew your mind. You read through it a second time, and you only found one misspelled word. A. Maze. Ing. This is the story that will get you noticed. You send it to the top fifteen lit mags you’ve been drooling over since your fingers first fit a keyboard, and later that night, you drift off to sleep imagining the acceptance letters you’ll get, the Pushcart nominations, Best American Short Stories calling to ask for your bio, the movie they’ll make of your story, and what you’ll wear on the red carpet when you accept your Oscar.

And then the rejections start pouring in. Not even personalized rejections; they’re form letters! You take a second look, and you realize you called one of the editors by the wrong name—instant rejection. On the next, you submitted a .docx file, when they specifically requested rich-text files only. Then you notice that on page one your main character was named Kathy with a K, and on page six she’s Cathy with a C. And you accidentally wrote affect instead of effect. Ah, the pain. Self-inflicted pain, at that.

Slow down. Proofread. Wait a week. Proofread again. Send your story to a trusted writerly friend. Proofread again. Reformat. Check submission guidelines. Proofread again. Submit.

Do your research. There are some wonderful web sites that make the process of determining which agent is seeking what kind of story, which lit mags are open to submissions and when, and what the word count and submission guidelines are for your genre. I am huge fan of New Pages, which also offers the free service of weekly emails notifying you of calls for submissions, contests, and even conference and retreat notices, as well as book and lit-mag reviews. There’s also a great list that’s updated quarterly at Entropy Magazine, and author C. Hope Clark runs a website called Funds for Writers that has won awards for its regular market updates. Let these amazing services do the initial searches for you.

Keep notes. The best thing I have done to streamline my submission process is to start a submission file. You can use a notebook, a manila folder, a calendar—or simply do as I’ve done—use a Word document. My submission file is simply a table tracking my submission information (date submitted, publication, story submitted, result), followed by an ongoing list of magazines, web sites, agents, and publishers to which I want to submit, each with very brief notes listing maximum word count, passwords (many require you to set up an account), and web address. Don’t bother listing a magazine’s editor, because that may change before you actually submit your work. Always check the publication’s web site for submission guidelines before sending in your work. Always.

circus master

Submit often! You can’t get published if you don’t submit your work. Editors and agents won’t knock on your door and ask to browse your computer files to find a story they can’t wait to print. You have to send your story out, and typically, you have to send it to multiple places before it’s accepted for publication.

Submit a lot! I’m talking quantity, here. At any given time, I have around four to six stories and essays floating among ten to fifteen lit mags and publishers. I know other well-respected authors who can claim four times those numbers. If you always have submissions out there, you always have hope, so the sting of rejection is softened. Just when I’d almost given up (much too easily) on one of my stories finding a home, I received a publication agreement from a magazine I’d long admired. I’d sent the story so long ago that I’d assumed they’d lost it in the slush pile, yet it had been making the rounds from the slush reader, to the fiction editor, to the senior editor.

Following these simple guidelines won’t guarantee your work will be published—if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that there are no publication guarantees for writers. But if you’ve worked hard, written the very best story you can write, and followed these guidelines, you’ll stand a much better chance of seeing your name in print.

Write well, and keep submitting!

submit

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