Home > Interviews > How to Review: Starting Out and Pro-Tips from Carleigh Baker

Are you looking to get into the review game? Are you a seasoned reviewer and want to hone your skills? Wherever you land on the review spectrum, PRISM has put together five simple starting-out steps to make the task of reviewing a book a little less daunting. Additionally, Carleigh Baker, author of Bad Endings and bad-ass reviewer for The Globe and Mail, shares some insider pro-tips.

Starting out:

After you’ve pitched your review to a magazine, you need to carefully consider style, tone, length, and audience before you begin writing. To learn more about pitching, click here.

Do your research. Magazine reviews vary in terms of the style of review and word restrictions. After the publication accepts your pitch, they will provide you with guidelines, but it’s a good idea to read past reviews published by the journal as well to get a sense of their tone and style.

Start with a brief summary of what the book is about. This should be about a paragraph long, though this will vary depending on word-limit restrictions.

Bring in points of engagement with the piece that discuss the overall experience of reading the book. This is where precise summaries of craft, technique, and structure could come into play. Go on to discuss some positive aspects and offer some biographical insights into the author (if desired), or position the book and author in the literary field (by comparing the book with similar subjects, the author’s bibliography, or a slice of current affairs). This should make up about two thirds of the review.

Offer some critique. Remember: critique isn’t the same as writing a negative review. Critique requires careful thought, consideration, and delivery. It is you, as a reviewer, engaging with the piece in a thoughtful way.

You can end the review in one of two ways: if you didn’t respect the book, wrap up your critique without offering a counterpoint. If you did respect the book, finish the review with a counterpoint to your critique. Perhaps try looking at it from a different perspective, or offer up another positive aspect of the work.

Carleigh Baker’s Pro-Tips:

It is your job to get the facts right and to engage with the material.

Keep your audience in mind when you’re writing the review. You’re not simply providing an essay on what you learned from the book, you’re thinking about other people who might read the book and you’re offering insight for them. These people could range from booksellers and librarians to students, teachers, and friends. Reading through back issues of the magazine you’re writing for will give you a clear sense of the audience.

Be empathetic. Think about what you think the writer wants audiences to think about. Sometimes you have to be overt in explaining this.

Consider cultural differences, which may guide readers on how you think the book could be read.

Contextualize the work you’re reviewing. This brings the review a texture and quality that will set it apart. For example, bringing in the work’s literary connections to other works, or bringing in the relevance of the book to what is currently going on in the world. The most engaging reviews have somehow managed to relate to either something that is newsworthy or something that is current.

If you’re going to take a book apart in a negative review, you need to be very well-versed with the book and its context. To get one fact wrong will destroy your credibility, so you need to read those sections over and over. It’s more work to write a negative review, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be written.

When writing a review, keeping your voice is important, but don’t let it overshadow the work. You can establish the “here’s me” very quickly, even in the first line, and then after that carry the writing through your voice but focus on the work.

You can acknowledge the emotional engagement you had with the work, but keep your audience in mind when you’re reviewing. You can have a passionate, strong voice without taking cheap shots. There can be passionate rhetoric or arguments.

Books are for you to read, but they’re not for you to simply consume and then throw into the fire. They’re supposed to be building our literary culture and conversations. They’re shaping our community. Respect that.

Carleigh Baker is a Metis/Icelandic writer. Her work has appeared in subTerrain, PRISM international, Joyland, and This Magazine. She won subTerrain‘s Lush Triumphant Award for short fiction in 2012 and was nominated for the Journey Prize in 2014. Her book reviews and critical writing have appeared in The Globe & Mail, The Malahat Review, The Goose, and eventmagazine.


Mike Tinnion