How To Properly Review a Book: A Guide for Bloggers

[First published on 4/27/2010] Let me offer some advice on how to properly review an argumentative type book on your blogs and/or on Amazon. It's annoying that so many people don't know how to do it right.

I have read several reviews of my book now. Most all of them aren't written very well at all. Two of them proceeded to argue with it chapter by chapter. A couple others went hodgepodge through it, pointing out things they liked and didn't like. Several others nitpick at it without dealing with the over-all thrust of the cumulative case I present in it. But good reviews will first summarize the book, tell what the author is attempting to do, tell who would benefit the most from reading the book, compare it with other books on the same topic, and offer a generalized statement about how effective the book is in attaining those stated goals. Are there any comparable books? If so, was this one better or worse than the others? As a reviewer you might even want to mention why you read the book in the first place. Then at that point you can write about some specifics in the book as examples that support your generalized statement. This is High School stuff here.

Somewhere in your review you should tell the reader on what level you think the book is geared to. Is it geared for the professional scientist, philosopher or Biblical scholar? Then say so. At what comprehension level is the book best suited for? Is it something everyone can enjoy, or is it aimed instead at the college or even the masters level? That's what readers need to know. Who will benefit the most from this book? Then evaluate the book based on it's perceived level of readership. If the author was aiming at the college level then don't criticize it because it was not written for the professional reader, and vice versa. Although, sometimes you might not know, and if so, say so.

Now for some specific do's and dont's.

First some do's:

1) Do try to be charitable. This is based on the humanistic principle of The Golden Rule. Let the author speak as much you can charitably allow. Give him or her some space in your review. And do not unfairly focus on the weaknesses of a book without also telling the reader about its strengths, and vice versa.

2) Do tell us what the author is arguing for. What is his or her main argument? Do this for the book as a whole, and if you're reviewing each chapter one at a time, then do so for each chapter. What is the author trying to get across? Briefly tell us. We want to know. While doing so keep in mind # 1 above.

3) Do offer some criticisms of the book, if you have any, or if they're important enough to mention. We want to know what you think of what the author is saying. Although, sometimes it's enough to just tell us what the author is arguing for, since the important thing is to tell the reader what the author is doing in the book for us to judge for ourselves if we want to get it. If you do criticize the book do so from your perspective since that's the only perspective you have. Don't play the proverbial Devil's advocate by defending a position you don't agree with. Let the Devil speak for himself. ;-) But if you do so anyway, then also say what you think the author might say in response to your arguments. Keep in mind once again # 1 above.

Now for some dont's:

1) Don't rate a book poorly merely because you disagree. If you're on Amazon you must rate it from 1-5. On your blogs you can choose to give it a grade much like a teacher would grade a semester paper, from A to F. But just because you disagree with the author doesn't mean you must rate or grade it poorly. You might think the book is poor, of course, but there are many books that lay out the arguments of the opposition very well and deserve a high rating. I have personally rated several Christian books with a 5 star rating on Amazon even though I disagreed with them. This merely means you think the book does as best as can be expected from the opposition, even if you think that isn't much. What a 5 star rating on Amazon means in some cases is that this is an important book written by an important person, that is argued well from their perspective, and/or a book that must be dealt with in the coming years. Some books though, are just so bad there is nothing to do but rate them poorly.

2) Don't rate a book highly merely because you agree with it either. There are many poorly argued books that conclude what you do but don't deserve a good recommendation precisely because of how poorly they argued their case. This can be hard for many reviewers to do since a book you agree with can slip under your normal critical thinking radar skills, precisely because you agree with its conclusions. This is a common error among many reviewers.

3) Don't be a nitpicker. The more educated and intelligent a reviewer is then the more that reviewer argues against the main argument of the particular author's book or chapter. You can also tell from what a reviewer chooses to argue against if he or she is being fair in the review. Fair reviewers do not nitpick at minor points unrelated to the main argument itself, unless they have first dealt with the main argument, and only if the space available to do this is warranted. My book, WIBA, has been attacked in this way by nitpickers. Every book will have some needed corrections to it, but I see no reason to nitpick at a book unless there are enough of them that makes doing so warranted, as a sort of "here's one example of many."

4) If you have written a book covering some of the same material don't write your review with the purpose of promoting yours over the one you're reviewing. That is considered in bad taste.

There are more do's and dont's but this is a good enough start.

Happy reviewing everyone.

7 comments:

Arizona Atheist said...

Hi Mr. Loftus,

Interesting and good post. I'll keep these points in mind, though most of them I already try to stick to. However, I don't necessarily agree that even a badly argued book should get a higher rating due to it's author or it's presentation.

The reason I feel this way is because a christian apologist book arguing against the New Atheists, for example, may be well written (and I've read a few that I thought were well written and stated so in my reviews) but because of the many factual and logical errors I gave it a low rating.

Despite some good things about a book shouldn't a rating be based upon the over all purpose of a book? If the book's purpose is to argue against the New Atheists and the book contains many inaccuracies and misquotes shouldn't that count heavily against the book's rating, despite it's presentation, etc.? Just as a science textbook, let's say, is nicely done but is riddled with errors, should someone give it a good rating despite it's many flaws? I wouldn't think so. It could very easily lead someone astray and needs to be fixed. The same with books about religion. From the books I've read I believe they deserve one or two star ratings based on these many flaws alone. If they had gotten some of their facts right I think a higher rating would have been deserved. But an author who can't even bother to get their facts right throughout most of their book doesn't deserve a decent rating in my opinion. What are your thoughts?

John W. Loftus said...

Arizona, I didn't suggest that "even a badly argued book should get a higher rating due to it's author or it's presentation." I changed the wording a bit to make sure this was clearly understood. So thanks for your added input. There is more to say, isn't there?

Genre Reviewer said...

Don't rate a book poorly just because you disagree. If you're on Amazon you must rate it from 1-5. On your blogs you can choose to give it a grade much like a teacher would grade a semester paper, from A to F.

This is incorrect. It's stated on Amazon that the star rating indicates how much the reader enjoyed the book, not how well written they thought the book was. (When writing an Amazon review, if you hold your cursor over the stars, it tells you what enjoyment level that number of stars is supposed to indicate.)

Social sites like Goodreads also use a rating of how much the reader enjoyed the book rather than how well written the book was. While book blogs could give a book a grade as you suggest, that's not what many of them do.

I agree that how well written a book is should be part of the review, but it has nothing to do with the Amazon rating.

Arizona Atheist said...

Hi Mr. Loftus. I think I see what you meant there. I guess I just haven't come across any books I felt were compelling enough to give a higher rating to. :- )

John W. Loftus said...

Genre Reviewer, how do you define the word "enjoyed" when you wrote: "It's stated on Amazon that the star rating indicates how much the reader enjoyed the book, not how well written they thought the book was."

I personally don't enjoy reading an argumentative type book if it doesn't argue well. I enjoy one that argues well even though I disagree with it, for it makes me think. I enjoy books that are thoughtful and informative where I learn something significant from reading them.

You don't?

Sherry said...

John, I commented on this post with I believe a polite response. YOu have seen fit to not post it out of your apparent self esteem issues and in some apparent attempt to show that no one disagrees much with you. I shall alert my readers on my blog, twitter and facebook that you only allow comments that are favorable. So much for honesty huh?

John W. Loftus said...

Sherry, read my comment policy. Your comment was off-topic. Where in this post of mine was I speaking specifically about negative reviews of my own books? I don't see it. I was speaking about book reviews in general. It's been on my mind for a long long time and so I wrote about how to do it. Why is it that you seem to interpret most anything I write as some personal agenda? If it helps people negatively review my books then fine. It may help them write better critical reviews of them you see.

Sheesh. Tell people whatever you wish to but this is the fact. Off-topic posts are not allowed as much as I can catch them.