Return of the Book Review, Part II: How to do it

A moderately detailed guide for writing a good review. Photo: Anon.

WASHINGTON, March 1, 2013 – In our last article, we described what we hope is at least a workable update on how we want to define a reviewable “book” for this column going forward. Today, it’s nuts and bolts time, in which we’ll define what it is that we’re hoping to see in our book reviews. 

What kind of books, e-books, periodicals, and related material do we want to review? 


SEE RELATED: Return of the Book Review, Part II: How to do it


First and foremost, of course, we’d like to review the latest fiction and nonfiction books: biographies, histories, political screeds from both sides of the aisle, novels, poetry, you name it. The key element, however: will readers be interested in the material? A posthumous Jane Austen novel would likely qualify. A 300-page tome explicating a single line from Hamlet would likely not. The problem with choosing review material is often in the reviewer’s unique cast of mind. Don’t automatically assume that if you’re interested in the topic that everyone else will be as well. Be selective. 

So you’ve found an interesting book to review. What’s next? 

The next step is that time-honored process for getting nearly anything published on paper, the web, or elsewhere: pitch the editor. In this case, me. Send me a short pitch, telling me what you propose to review, why you want to review it, and why you’re sure readers will want to know about the book. Make it good. Practice makes perfect and your tactics here, even if they don’t work, will serve you in good stead elsewhere as well. Initially, it will most likely be easier to pitch a review here. Later on, as we develop regular, reliable reviewers who contribute frequently, getting in will probably get tougher. 

I particularly encourage our existing writers and columnists to get involved. You guys already know how things work here and are familiar with the process. Plus, you’ve already filled out the paperwork, which all our writers—including new ones—need to do. Writers/reviewers new to us will need to fill out the papers if we plan to publish their reviews. But not to worry, it’s not very much work.


For our previous comments and ideas, click this link.


In any event, if you feel you’re good to go, send your pitch to me at this email address: terry.ponick@communities.washingtontimes.com. Depending on whether I get one or two responses a week, or one or two dozen a day, response time could seem a little slow, but then again, it will be an order of magnitude faster than a query you send to Random House asking them to publish your latest slim volume of poetry! 

Writing the review.

If you and I are good to go, the next step is for you to actually write the review. Here’s what we want to see here: 

How many words? 

The usual answer to this question is “as many as it takes to do the job.” Which is not exactly a helpful hint. I, myself, tend to write a little long, given my long-ago former life as a naturally verbose English professor. Some writers are more succinct and can get more done with less words. Others are somewhere in the middle.

Practically speaking, a minimum word target for a decent review would be 450-600 words, not including mandatory material, which we’ll get to in a moment. A complicated book might take you 800 words, perhaps even more. Which brings us to the problem of writing for the web. Unlike print media, which have a set number of column inches to fill in each issue, the theoretical max on the Internet is infinity. That said, the average web reader, frankly, tends to have less than zero patience. He or she prefers you get the job done in about two sentences, and there it is.

But Tweeting is not reviewing. You’ll probably need at least that 450 words to get the job done, longer if things are more complex. But, even though I violate the rule (and sometimes lose readers) you probably shouldn’t exceed 1200 words max. Otherwise, 80% of your readers or more will never get to your final sentence. I don’t particularly like this, but I’ve learned that’s the way it is, so don’t go overboard on profundity. 

What format?

We live in a world where Microsoft Word is the Rosetta Stone for word processing whether we like it or not. So please send reviews in composed in a recent version of MSWord. It doesn’t have to be the latest, but hopefully what you’re using is not so old that I have to look for translator software. 

Single-space the review paragraphs, and double space between each.

Don’t, please don’t, start using paragraph indents, etc. I’ll only have to take them out. Double spacing between paragraphs will work, since we have to transport each masterpiece to our relatively user-friendly but rules-based WTC software-layout package. 

Use a basic font like Times New Roman or Helvetica. Please don’t use fancy fonts. They won’t translate to the final anyway.

Use normal punctuation, reasonable sentence structure, and don’t go crazy with semicolons, which everyone tends to overuse and/or use incorrectly. 

Check spelling and grammar, please. And don’t send in lots of run-on sentences. 

We’re supposed to adhere to the AP Style manual. Frankly, I need to order a new one since I can’t find mine. Meanwhile, I’m using the 2000 revision of the GPO Style Manual I still have from when I was doing government contracting work. It’s close enough, but AP is the official style guide. That said, in entertainment writing, you can break the rules sometimes, just as long as you know you’re doing it. 

Finally, for God’s sake, know the difference between “its” and “it’s.” This makes me nuts, and at my advanced age, I need to be careful about blowing my top. So please, pay attention here. The word “its” is the possessive of “it.” The word “it’s” is the contraction for “it is.” They are NEVER interchangeable. ARRGH! ‘Nuff said? Good.

Dateline: 

The opening paragraph of your review should start out with a dateline. Since many WTC writers live and work in the DC area, that’s easy: 

WASHINGTON, March 1, 2013 – [Verbiage starts here.]

The city is all caps and bold, the rest as in the above. 

Let’s say you live somewhere more obscure. Your dateline might be:

CLYDE, Ohio, March 1, 2013 – [Verbiage starts here.] 

For smaller towns, you need to include the state name as well. The above example is a short state name, which I spelled out. If you abbreviate, you’re supposed to use the old, official state abbreviations, not all of which I remember. But you’re not supposed to use the USPS abbreviation, which, in the above, would be OH. I’m a little flexible on this since I don’t know all of these abbreviations myself, but do your best.

First paragraph: 

This starts right after the dateline. It should contain all your key ideas up front. You can elaborate on them later. The key ideas should also tie in with your headline and tease (more in a bit). While Google’s search algorithms are still something of a mystery to me, you want your review to get its fair share of pageviews, which you won’t get if you don’t get keywords into your headline and work them in early in the review as well. I personally hate this, since I’m an old-style newsprint dude, but that’s the way it works on the web and what I think in this case simply doesn’t matter. After you get the first paragraph done, the rest should flow naturally and you can elaborate on ideas you’ve set out in your first.

Body: 

You’re on your own here. Cover the material. Be reasonably brief. Be logical. And, to the extent that you can, be entertaining. Don’t misuse the thesaurus. But don’t use the same words all the time either. 

One weird thing about journalism: clichés are actually okay when used in moderation. After all, when was the last time you read about an industrial complex that wasn’t “sprawling.” Or a Republican who wasn’t “mean spirited” for that matter. I don’t know why editors and readers like this stuff, but they do. It’s another mystery of life. 

Book title: 

I’m still experimenting a little bit with this. There’s a way you do book titles, and old reviewers used to head their reviews with the book title and particulars. I’m afraid that this format will screw up the Google searches. So send me the book title particulars at the END of your review, and I’ll figure out where to place them until I establish a better system. 

Let’s use this format for starters:

The Secret Knowledge, by David Mamet. New York: Sentinel, 2011. 241 pp. $27.95.

Book title is italicized. Then we have the author. Then the publishing city and publisher. Then the page count. And finally, the list price that nobody pays. 

Later on, I may do Amazon links to the work, but only if we can figure out how to get money out of those people. 

Headline: 

Seems like we’re working backward here, but we’re not. It’s hard to come up with a descriptive headline if you haven’t written your review yet. Afterwards, if you’ve written a clear review, the head should come to you. There are no particular rules here. But know these: First of all, in our software, the headline can be 60 characters, MAX. Otherwise, it just won’t go in. Second, and perhaps even more important, your headline should contain what the Google geeks call “strong keywords.” I am still struggling somewhat to understand what that means, but these words can be derived by systematically using the Google keyword tool or similar tools to see what readers are searching for the most. 

Practically speaking, if you’re working with a book by a well-known author, it’s almost a cinch that his or her name is your best keyword. As for the rest, for me at least, it’s an inexact science. But if you want to bear down on this as the world turns, I can introduce you to one or two of our editors who can give you more helpful hints than I can. 

For the book above, a reasonably good headline would likely be: 

Book Review: David Mamet’s ‘Secret Knowledge’ irritates left

You should always start out with “Review” or “Book Review” followed by a colon and then the rest.

Proper names are capped, book titles capped formally and enclosed in SINGLE QUOTES which is the journalistic signal that it should be italics (which aren’t included in headline fonts). The headline doesn’t have to be a good sentence, just a chunk of words that conveys the idea along with those important keywords. 

Tease: 

This is essentially a sub-head, which can include a bit more description, but shouldn’t run very long, although you’re not stuck with a 60-character limit. But don’t go too long. Our pieces initially get headlined on the main page shortly after they’re posted, along with the lead photograph or graphic. If your verbiage is overlong, it starts covering the photo, which looks bad, and you don’t want that. 

Head or Lead photo: 

All our WTC articles lead off with a photo. After all, this is the Visual Age. But there are strict rules here, and this is another area where writers can drive me crazy. 

A head photo MUST be 640 x 427 pixels, EXACTLY. And it MUST be at least 72 dpi. (Dots per inch, or, essentially pixels.) I want to avoid a dissertation as to why this is, but these are the software’s rules. 

If you know what you are doing in graphics, this shouldn’t be a mystery to you. If you’re not good at this, I can help, but only under the following circumstances: I still need a photo or graphic that’s a minimum of 72 dpi and has dimensions the same as or LARGER than 640 x 427. I can reduce such an image to the correct size in PhotoShop and do this all the time. But an image that’s smaller and less dense WILL NEVER WORK. I can play with it, but it likely will come out fuzzy and rotten looking and the other editors will get on my case.

For a book review, a scan of a colorful cover will do nicely. Likewise an author headshot. If you have questions, we can discuss it. 

If your photo is of a book cover or a PR shot of the author, likely we’ll have no copyright issues, but if you use another source, like Getty Images, we’ll have a problem. Free use material via Wikimedia is okay, too, under certain circumstances, as are AP photos because the Washington Times subscribes to their service and pays for their use. Everything else…well, discuss with me. It’s simple etiquette, really, in addition to being a matter of law. After all, you wouldn’t want anyone to steal your stuff. So why should you steal other people’s stuff?

So, to sum up: 

Pitch, get approval, write the review, provide the book particulars, write the headline and tease, come up with a photo or graphic that’s relevant, and we’ll likely have a “go.” 

Above all, though, when you’re writing the review, don’t write a high school book report that lists the plot, tells people you “just loved” the book, and think it’s a book review. That’s a book REPORT. A review involves some thought, some content, and some evaluation. If you’ve done your job, your reader should know, pretty much for sure, whether or not he or she wants to buy the book or take a pass. 

That’s it. 

Keep those cards and letters coming. Meanwhile, I have one or two reviews I need to finish to start filling up those virtual column inches. After which, I hope I can mostly retire from this and let you guys do all the work.

QUESTIONS?

If you have them, maybe the best way to shoot them to me for starters is to use the comments section below. I’ll check these once a day until queries peter out, but this may be the fastest way to do this, while, at the same time, disseminating the info to others who might also have the same question.

 

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17

 


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  

 

 

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