Good reviews do not gush.


Reviewers have the power to do more than to encourage or discourage the buying of certain books. They can actively help readers read more insightfully. Generally reviews fall into three types–I love the book; I hate the book; the book’s soso–joking! Though this is how most authors and readers probably think are the types reviews, good reviews are not just about praise. Review types–puff pieces, argued reviews, essay reviews–help readers most when they are skillfully written. I’m going to describe these review types and then discuss some example review sentences.

Puff piece reviews are very short, only two or three short paragraphs. It is a common practice to give a paragraph or two description of the book and then devote the third paragraph to a statement of gushing adulation of the book. Some reviewers like to give a little more depth and so use more than three paragraphs, but the format is the same. The bulk of the review is a straightforward description of the book with the final paragraphs praising it. Many high-caliber reviewers also follow this format, with the final paragraph of adulation making specific mention of characters or scenes the reviewer enjoyed most. A variation of the formula is that the reviewer states in the first sentence what the reviewer’s opinion of the book is, then gives a description, and finishes with a forceful statement of the reviewer’s opinion of the book.

Argued reviews are pieces where the reviewer quotes from the book he or she is reviewing as support to the argument that the book is good. Occasionally a book is panned in this manner, too. To say a book or film is panned, means the book or film (or play) received a very bad review. For non-fiction books, the reviewer mentions the salient points of the book in the order the book mentions them and quotes key lines from the book. For fiction books, the reviewer mentions the characters the reviewer liked (or disliked) the best, or most exciting (or dullest) moments, and also mentions any instance of a turn of phrase that particularly appealed to the reviewer (or turned-off the reviewer). Again for each element of the book mentioned, a quotation is given. These reviews tend to be five to eight paragraphs in length.

The third type review formula is the essay review. In the essay review, the reviewer brings in information other than a description of the book and how good it is. For fiction books, this information tends to be some biographical information about the author to say what of the author’s personal life influenced the author’s writing of the book. Literary trends, schools, or devices that the author uses or follows are also often mentioned by the reviewer to place the book in a literary context. For non-fiction books, the reviewer will touch on additional information of the book’s topic—science, history, psychology, what-have-you—and the reviewer does so for a variety of purposes. Sometimes the information given by the reviewer is to help the reader understand the context of the book. Often the information is given as a reason for the reviewer’s negative or positive evaluation of the book. For instance, the author did not include this information, which is bad; or the author includes this information which bad because it makes the book a rehash of what is known; or the author touches on this information as a springboard into new and interesting ideas. Sometimes the reviewer gives the information as a sort of conversation with the book. As in, the book mentions this which has to do with all these other things the reviewer knows (and tells the reader about!). In this way the reviewer is showing the book is engaging. These reviews tend to be four lengthy paragraphs and more long.

While essay reviews dig into the background information, argued reviews argue for the quality of the book by giving examples in the form of quotes from the book and brief descriptions of scenes and characters. The higher caliber puff pieces, the argued reviews, and especially the essay reviews also use as part of their formulas more complex sentences and a better to a superior vocabulary. Just as simple puff pieces can sound silly for their over-praising gushing, so the essay reviews can also sound rather silly with their showy, self-conscious use of fashionably intellectual big words. Since language level is part of the review formulas, let’s examine some typical review language formulas. For lowest grade of language in review language, both in tone and in grasp of English, romance novel review sites supply plenty of examples. This is not to knock romance novels. Nor does this mean that only romance reviewers write overly-gushing reviews. I don’t read the sorts of novels men and boys tend to like (war and gore) but I imagine what I am going to point out in this romance review could be found for those sorts of books, too.

“A fantastically written romance with plenty of twists to keep the story moving.” (Found at coffeetimeromance.com) First off, though punctuated like a sentence this sentence is not a sentence. It is a sentence fragment. It has no verb. While many authors make use of fragments to create drama, it is a bad idea in a short piece because it gives the idea that the writer does not have complete thoughts. A sentence is after all, a complete thought. Notice how simple all of the words are and the only longish word is still very much the sort of word a young but intelligent child would use. The fragment does clearly show the reviewer liked the book, but is so general that it does not give the would-be reader very much information. Indeed a savvy reader is apt to avoid a book that is reviewed in this way. This fragment was from a two paragraph puff piece type of review.

“Transhumanists have no desire to take over the world, but one of the subjects for social consideration has to be how to extinguish potential schisms between humans and posthumans.” (Found at book review.com) Taken from a review of a hard science book, this sentence uses college level language in both word choice and sentence structure. The words are of a higher level than the sentence structure because it must make use of words scientists generally use. The sentence is a compound sentence, meaning it has two full sentences joined with a very common conjunction, but. The sentence also includes infinitives, to be and to take, and two prepositional phrases all of which make the sentence feel quite packed. This gives the impression that the reviewer took this book very seriously and so gets the would-be reader interested in the book. The advanced-level words are not used to show off, but are used as the best word choices to describe the book. This review was more of the essay type, with the review giving background information to help place the context of the book and the reviewer’s opinion on both the book and the subject in general.

“Ambitious, thorough, and imaginative, Chang whisks us among the music’s isolated big-bang moments and the contextual events of the larger world, maintaining his double focus on the details and the big picture, from Bronx gangs and hip-hop basements to Yankee Stadium and N.W.A and the Soledad Brothers.” (Found at Boston phoenix.com) While this sentence is long and clearly shows the reviewer liked the book, you probably noticed that it really doesn’t say why in a way that makes sense. The reviewer seems to be showing off his vocabulary in an effortful manner to prove his own penetration. Personally, this is not the sort of review that would make me want to read the book, and yes, it is a review of a book, not music.

Let’s take a look at sentences from two of the most important review sources. Kirkus Reviews and The New York New Times Review of Books. These reviewe sites are both professional review sites (they pay their reviewers a good living) and the big NY publishing houses feel it a requirement of a book’s marketing to be reviewed by these places.

“Weldon (Mantrapped, 2004, etc.), with some 24 novels and numerous nonfiction works and short-story collections to her name, has a justified reputation as one of the most acerbic judges of human and gender frailty.” (Found at kirkusreviews.com) As you can see from this sentence, the essay type of review is part of the reviewing formulas of even the big name reviewers. The vocabulary is typical of someone with a college education with the words numerous and acerbic used effortlessly. The sentence structure is technically simple with only one subject and verb, but the arrangement of the many prepositional phrases makes for a sense of a complicated idea being expressed. Thus, the sentence is accessible to most adult readers and even a good many teen readers, but encourages the thoughtful reader to read between the lines. The sentence is very interesting in that it is a straightforward description of the author’s body of work, with the word choice of acerbic allowing the would-be reader to decide whether he or she would enjoy the new book. The sentence is clever in that those who like sharp-tongued writing will think the reviewer likes the book, but also manages to let those who do not like sharp-tongued writing think the author did not like the book. If we read between the lines, as it were, it suggests the reviewer feels he or she has to step rather carefully when reviewing the book.

“Standing alone at the center of that room is a single, elaborately carved pillar.” (Found at nybooks.com, The New York Review of Books) This sentence is a not a quote from the book. It is a sentence from the review. The reviews I sampled at The New York Review of Books (NYRofB‘s) were mostly essay types of reviews, and lengthy essays at that. They are clearly written by people who themselves know the subject and so give an expert opinion on books. The sentence is as evocative as one would wish of a sentence from a novel, and yet the review is of a non-fiction book about India (The Case for India). This sentence reveals that the reviews of this most prestigious of book review places are written for people who like to read, be informed, and prefer literary writing in whatever it is they read. That is why a sentence that reads as though it is from a novel is in a book review of a non-fiction book. As you can see the language is accessible to adult readers and does not rely on pretension to let us know the reviewer reads with penetrating thought. There is nothing in this sentence that says that the reviewer liked the book, and yet this one sentence is enough to make a reader want to read the book. Notice that each of the top grade review sentences I quote in this blog begin with neither an article ( the words a, an, the) nor a pronoun (such as it). NYRofB’s sentence begins with a participle (standing) which is in itself more typical of fiction or poetry writing than review writing. What the New York reviewer seems to be after is conveying a sense of the experience of reading the book. The New York Review of Books does also haz reviews of a two paragraph puff piece formula. “Charming and dark, off-kilter but pedestrian, mercurial yet matter-of-fact, Schuyler’s novel is an alluring invention that captures both the fragility and the tenacity of ordinary life” is an example of a sentence from the second paragraph. In this one short puff piece NYRofB’s review I found, most of the sentences of the review used adjectives and adverbs to express the reviewer’s good opinion of the book. The first paragraph tells what the book is about and the second two-sentence paragraph gives the reviewer’s concluding opinion of the book. The sentence is full of words reflecting a high level of education, but the words are to laud the book, not to show off the reviewer’s language skills. This sort of language is natural to bookish, educated people. It is the sort of thing they say instead of “fantastically written.” What is interesting in the NYRofB’s short puff piece review is that almost every sentence in it expresses the reviewer’s opinion. The reviewer does it with adjectives and adverbs chosen to make the book sound good.

Highly educated, skilled reviewers like those of The New York Review of Books teach us how to appreciate good writing by modiling excellent writing in their reveiws. Good reviews do not gush; they evaluate. Great reviews inspire.

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About Cynthia Clay

I was judged to be a computer program on Shakespeare at the First Loebner Prize Competition of The Turing Test—a truly science fictional experience. I'm an author who likes to write sf, fantasy, updated versions of old myths.
This entry was posted in e-publishing, Film, reviews, Theater, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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