Writing reviews of novels

I received an email from Mack Lundy of Mack Captures Crime (previously Mack Pitches Up), which asks the questions:

On average, how long does it take you to write a book review of a novel? Do you take notes as you read? Again for a novel.

I thought I would share the answer that I sent him:

I draft a review in an hour or so, but I go back to it about five more times to read through, edit etc before sending it off or posting it- sometimes I change substantially or add things. Sometimes I take notes or bookmark pages, sometimes I just write general impression at the end. If I come across things in the book that I especially like I bookmark or note them. I don't have any general rule, though – sometimes I have a strong impression from a book while I am reading it and it is very clear to me what I think, so I won't take notes. Other times I am less sure so I do – but not to the extent that it spoils "the reading experience".

8 thoughts on “Writing reviews of novels

  1. Thanks Maxine.
    It takes me a minimum of two hours to write up a book to a point where I have my thoughts down. This might include time spent tending to the needs of the cats, staring out the window, or getting a cup of tea that I don’t need but is an excuse to wander away from the keyboard.
    The reason I asked about taking notes is that I find myself spending a fair amount of time verifying what I *think* I remember or looking for passages that support a point I want to make. I’ve taken to using a 3×5 card as a bookmark so I can note pages to which I might want to refer. Sometimes I use Post-It tabs.
    I have also found it helpful to start a new post for a book and use it to keep notes while trying to remember not to hit publish,

  2. My reviews vary in the depth and detail that I use.
    Sometimes I just stick post-its in the book to remind me of particular things, but invariably then I have to make notes on them otherwise I can’t remember what it is I particularly wanted to note here.
    My reviews are a bit formulaic in that while I can talk about themes or threads, I try very hard not to reveal anything from the story that occurs after the first 50 or so pages.
    I try to give the gist of the beginning of the story, similar to book’s own blurb, but without copying that content. Most times what I end up with is actually quite different to the blurb.
    Then I try to say what I liked about the book, and sometimes what I didn’t like, particularly if it really narked me.
    Then I try to include information about the author, particularly if they have a web site where you can read the first chapter or an excerpt.
    Writing the review probably takes the best part of an hour. For my blog I include a rating, I already have that in mind when I begin writing the review, but sometimes the writing process will convince me that I have been too generous or too tough in my rating and I will change it. While the ratings look granular, really for me thr critical markers are whether it is under or over 4 and under or over 4.5, or how close to 5 it comes. I rarely give under 3, and this year I have given only one 0 for a book that I really couldn’t read (more truthfully-had absolutely no idea after 150 pages what it was about).
    Some of my reviews go through a critique process with a group of friends. If they are books I am reviewing for a publisher- some of what I read is supplied for review by Random House Australia – then they go through that process and that actually means the review is about 3 days in the making. If it is just a book that I bought or got from the library then I don’t include my “critical friends” in the process. Those reviews go up within the hour. Interesting thread Maxine. I might blog about it sometime. I’ve seen others who’ve posted Review Guidelines.

  3. Thanks, Mack and Kerrie. I think part of the reason for my quick first draft is that I have been doing a very intense day job for many years – in which the pressure is non-stop so you just have to get everything about a particular thought process down while you are having the thoughts – because something is going to happen in the next 20 mins or sooner that means you have to drop what you are doing and do something else. Hence I have evolved a way of drafting and returning, rather than spending a long time creating a document.
    However, if I review non-fiction, or write creatively myself, the process is very different and much more time-consuming – which is one reason why I rarely review non-fiction. No time.

  4. I enjoy reading all your reviews and can understand the reasons for some guidelines but once you start with guidelines does not blogging become just like another job rather than a relaxing pastime?

  5. Exactly Norm. I often feel like that- the blog is “just another duty” and I often feel like stopping doing it. (One reason I like FriendFeed is that is isn’t as onerous as a blog, you can just say things randomly without having to create a blog post or do all the associated technical things.)
    However, reviewing books is I think a bit different – I like doing it and find it a therapeutic exercise, though if I haven’t liked a book I tend not to review it mainly because life is too short.

  6. Funny to come to this as I’m just back from a run during which I more or less wrote the bulk of a review of a volume of poetry that I’m supposed to take care of today. I tend to do a lot of my reviewing while I run, arranging my thoughts and even working through whole sentences. If it’s gone well enough, I can sit down and essentially transcribe it when I get home.
    For novels, I’m a big fan of post-it flags; simply going back through all my flags when I sit down to write helps put me back into the mindset I had when I was reading the book. But oh, can post-its get out of hand!

  7. Maxine I see that more people are commenting on Friendfeed as they realise how easy it is and as you say less onerous than a blog post. I totally agree about not reviewing books you do not like, some authors as I have found out recently do not appreciate my sense of humour.
    Life is indeed far too short to waste on ‘airport books’ when there is so much good stuff out there waiting to be read, a lot of it on my TBR pile.
    I made my comment because for me this blogging is a total change and I can sit down and do it any time. For those of you working as editors and in education it must seem sometimes like a continuation of what you do at work. I don’t want to lose you as bloggers, so please not too many rules or I am sure it will spoil the reading experience.

Comments are closed.