Re. Book Reviews

Subject: Re. Book Reviews
From: Geoff Hart <geoff-h -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
Date: Wed, 4 Oct 1995 14:31:36 LCL

Keith Russell asked for advice on writing book
reviews. I like the traditional "5 W's" approach
used in journalism, as follows:

1. What? Tell the reader what the book is about
(define and limit its scope).
2. Who? Based on this, who will find the book
worth reading? If appropriate, who is the author?
3. Where? Where can the book be useful (e.g., in
what activities) and where can you get a copy
(i.e., provide a full bibliographic citation)?
4. Why? Why would anyone want to read the book?
(i.e., what are its strengths?)
5. When? In what situations would the book prove
useful? When was it written (i.e., is it topical
or out of date)?
(Use this as a starting point. You'll discover
other variants of these five W's depending on the
context of the review and its scope.)

Supplement this with a discussion of the book's
flaws, and an assessment of whether these flaws
render the book worthless, limit its usefulness or
applicability, or are just the inevitable glitches
that we all produce as writers. Focus more on the
worth of the book than on the author's style,
unless the style is either so good that the book
is a joy to read or so bad that it's useless to
anyone but an editor in need of a challenge.

Ignore the minutae: if you don't like the font,
who really cares so long as it's readable? Don't
harp on production details like minor typos unless
they're so numerous that they interfere with
reading. Don't pick nits just to show how clever
you are (and that you actually read the whole
book); focus on points that would be important to
readers of the review and of the book.

Draw a strong conclusion based on two points: Did
the author achieve the stated objectives of the
book? (Read the preface or foreword: it's unfair
to judge a book without knowing what the author
intended to achieve.) Are these objectives germane
to your audience (the folks that you, not the
author, are writing for)? What's the bottom line
when you tie these two results together?

Two final points:
1. KISS (Keep It Short and Simple): the longer the
book, the longer the review, but don't drag on and
on to the point that readers are better off
reading the book itself.
2. Be fair. The author will rarely have a chance
to defend against your comments, so don't be nasty
or spiteful... even if this would ordinarily suit
your "confrontational" style of writing.

--Geoff Hart @8^{)}
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

Disclaimer: If I didn't commit it in print in one
of our reports, it don't represent FERIC's

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