I’ve written before about the importance and value of writing book reviews, so I thought I’d ask a professional reviewer how she goes about the process. In this interview with Midwest Book Review reviewer Marj Charlier, she answers 7 questions about a range of topics, such as:

  • Her process or formula for writing a review vs. reviews from the New York Times
  • How she reviews self-published books relative to traditionally published books
  • Professional vs. reader reviews
  • What weight to give to the author’s background

Everyone seeking reviews for their book, or who want to write better reviews of the books they read, should read this post. More about how to contact Marj and Midwest Book Review is at the end.

1. David: How did you get started writing book reviews?

Marj: I wrote my first professional review back in 1990, or so, when I was a staff reporter at the Wall Street Journal. Back in that time, reporters were expected to write for all sections of the paper: the front page, the marketplace page, the inside news pages, the “Heard on the Street” column, and if we were so moved, the Arts page. This was long before “The Weekend Edition.” I wrote about a book written by a Northern Cheyenne tribal member about the Battle at Bighorn.

I later wrote some reviews for the Denver Post as a freelancer and began writing reviews for my own blog posts a couple of years ago. I discovered Midwest Book Review when I was seeking industry reviews for my own books. I emailed Jim Cox, offering to write reviews for him, and he accepted me.

2. Are there required steps to follow when reviewing a book, or points that every review should cover?

I don’t think there are any required steps, but there are some general conventions that have developed in the industry for the kind of reviews that appear in major newspapers in the U.S., particularly the Sunday New York Times Book Review. Not everyone follows these conventions, and there are ways to write about books that aren’t reviews.

One writer who “covers” books but doesn’t write standard reviews is Nick Hornsby, whose columns ran for a time (long time) in McSweeney’s Quarterly. He wrote columns about what he was reading and why, and put his reading into the context of his life, never following the formula of a NYT review. I found him delightful, and his style influenced me to include some of what’s going on in my life as a way of setting up my own book reviews. You can catch up with him by reading the column collections, Ten Years in the Tub, and The Polysyllabic Spree.

All that said, the typical NYT review was described (not so flatteringly) in a recent Harper’s Magazine article about reviews and reviewers this way:

“In reviews of a novel or a work of narrative non-­fiction a dreary formula persists: prolix yet cursory summary topped with a smattering of more or less irrelevant biographical information yielding to polite and generic adjectives of praise (compelling, engrossing, charming) before a dip into enthusiasm-­draining caveats placed into the penultimate paragraph to prove that the critic is, you know, a critic, and at last a kind conclusion to make sure we’re all still friends and no one’s time has been entirely wasted.”

So, in my own words, I would describe these reviews this way:

  1. Start with a related, but not on the nose comment about the world, your life, or the author;
  2. Describe the book’s place in the world (genre, popularity, other critical acclaim or disclaim);
  3. Summarize the plot;
  4. Opine on the plot, the prose, and the character development;
  5. Say something negative that proves your objectivity;
  6. Wrap it up with a final comment on the value (or not) of the book.

The process for a nonfiction book is different only in that it summarizes the main topics of the book, and evaluates their completeness, accuracy or fairness.

What I try to include in my shorter reviews (usually only about 500 words, versus the NYT’s 1,000) are four things:

  1. Some context (either from my life or the author’s life);
  2. A summary of the book (but never a spoiler that gives away the solution to the mystery or the secret the author is keeping until the end);
  3. A critique of the element I found most striking or intriguing, whether it’s the plot, the characters, or the prose. The critique can be positive or negative.
  4. I like to end with a recommendation, simply up or down.

This is doable in 500 words, which is about as much as the Midwest Book Review accepts. Hornsby’s pieces, in contrast, could ramble on (quite pleasantly) for four times as long, but they were truly a different kind of writing.

3. What is your process for reviewing a book?

I generally read the book all the way through without taking notes in order to reproduce a typical reader’s approach. I let my thoughts about it ferment in my head for about a week, until I sense what lasting impact it has had on me, decide what my main conclusion will be, and then sit down to write. I generally have the book with me, so I can fact-check myself when it comes to names or plot points. I let the review sit in my computer for a couple of days so I can edit or rewrite as necessary, which is only possible after getting that separation.

I read about a book a week, and review about half of them. I put all my reviews on my website and send a couple every month to Midwest Book Review.

4. Does your review process change when reviewing self-published books?

The process doesn’t change, but I will generally tread a bit lighter on the critique of self-published books. I know how difficult it is to get a self-published book in readers’ hands, and I don’t want to be part of the problem. For the same reason, I don’t review self-published books that I wouldn’t recommend.

If I think it’s poorly written or poorly plotted – whatever – and I think the negatives outweigh the positives, I just decline to review it. That brings me into frequent conflict with my writer friends, some of whom I’ve upset by never “getting around” to reviewing their books on Amazon.

5. What is the difference between writing a “professional review” vs. a “reader review,” or are there any? If you write both, how do you approach the process?

I write both, although I write far more “professional” reviews than consumer reviews. Because I usually review traditionally published books, I feel that adding my consumer review to the 1420 already posted on Amazon is a waste of time.

The difference, largely, is breadth and depth. As a consumer of both “reader” reviews (read: Amazon and Goodreads) and professional book reviews, I expect different things from them.

Like most Amazon customers, I want to know what the book is about and whether the reader liked it or not, and why. That can be accomplished in two sentences or in 10. Anything longer is too long.

Most readers aren’t as interested in deep critiques of a writer’s prose or an analysis of the writer’s development as an artist.

On the other hand, I am frustrated by many reader reviews—the ones full of grammatical errors, spelling mistakes or failures of logic. Whether positive or negative, these weaknesses make me distrust the review’s writer. I am also frustrated when a consumer-reviewer “likes” or “hates” a book but isn’t able to tell me why. (I might like a book for the same reason someone else hated it.)

I find it unfair and a waste of my time when a consumer gives a book a one-star review because they don’t like the politics or religion of the author. And finally, it bothers me when readers review the book they wanted to read, not the one they read. “I wish she would have written about …” or “This should have been a story about …” are examples of comments that aren’t helpful.

I once received a spate of one-star, no-comment reviews from friends of a woman who was going through a divorce with a golfing buddy of mine. Another time, a reader gave one of my books one star because one of my major characters was overweight, which she found “insensitive.” That’s all she said about the book. How helpful is that?

These kinds of reviews delegitimize consumer reviews on Amazon and Goodreads for everyone.  And for this reason, I always look at the (usually few) one-star reviews for a book I’m considering buying to see if there’s any value in them, and if there isn’t, I recalculate the average star rating, eliminating those reviews from the equation.

6. To what extent do you review the author? Do their qualifications or background influence whether you accept a book, or how you review it, or what you say? What about their prior books, if any?

Before I choose a book to buy (and likely review), I do research on the author’s writing history and awards, and the critiques the book has received from other reviewers. I start there even though I often disagree with the consensus (and awards) about authors and their books. I did not like The Goldfinch or All the Light We Cannot See, even though I’m quite clearly in the minority. I can’t read Kristin Hannah without worrying that her mundane prose will ruin mine.

Although I keep other people’s opinions out of my own reviews, reading them usually keeps me from wasting my time and money on bad books or books whose subject matter doesn’t really interest me. It doesn’t always work.

Recently, I chose to buy a book based on a NYT review that made it sound like it was based on data and science. (I love science.) Unfortunately, it turned out to be a self-help book, and I was so disgusted with the pablum and tropes I wrote a negative review, breaking my own rule of not writing about the book I wanted to read instead of the book I read. (Sorry about that!)

I love reading about an author’s literary growth and progress in professional reviews. As a writer, I’m interested in the way other authors are developing over time. Has the author started writing the same book over and over? Is the prose improving? Are the characters getting more complex and interesting? Is the author’s view of the world changing?

I think these things are important, but I don’t generally have the space (word count) to develop this as much as I would like to in my own reviews. Also, I’m constantly looking to discover new writers I’ve never read before, so many times I don’t have the knowledge of their past work to evaluate it appropriately.

7. Why do you review books?

What drives me to write reviews is the need to opine, whether anyone wants my opinion or not. I am a person of many opinions, and that manifests itself in this fashion as well as others (ask my husband). I find it helps my own writing to review other prose (especially fiction) analytically.

I learn by focusing on the elements of story, theme, character, narrative arc, and tension. Also, by critically evaluating why I read, skimmed, or quit reading a story, I learn something about a reader’s tolerances for entering a new, unknown space (I’m not talking about genre series, here), which I try to employ in writing my own fiction.

Marj Charlier has written eleven novels; owns a small publishing company, Sunacumen Press; and serves on the boards of Palm Springs Pen Women and the Diamond Valley Writers Guild. She teaches publishing and memoir workshops in Southern California. With a journalism degree from Iowa State, a master’s from the University of Wisconsin, and an MBA from Regis University, she started her career at small and mid-sized dailies before joining the Wall Street Journal as a staff reporter. After twenty years in journalism, she began a second career in corporate finance, creating the first investor-relations program and first cause-related marketing campaigns for Expedia Inc.

Learn more at MarjCharlier.com.