How Do I Write A Kick-Ass Book Review (Or Any Kind Of Review)? Part 2

by Aug 6, 2020

What’s this all about?

If you’ve been following along, or even if you haven’t, this is part 2 of a short series on how to write a kick-ass book review (or product review). The first part is here on Barbarian Rhetoric

There’s also more on the basics of writing long-form content here below including:

  1. How to develop your writing fitness in 10 minutes per day.
  2. How to write coherent introductions, paragraphs and conclusions.
  3. How to write 1500 words effortlessly and optimise for search.

So how do you review a book?

In Part 1, I discussed some of the reasons why you might wanna write reviews for books or other products including generating rich content, promoting your ideas and getting affiliate sales for products you like.

In this post, I wanna deal with these things:

  • What’s a good way to get started?
  • How should you structure your review?
  • What kinds of things should you discuss?

Keep in mind, these tips and strategies are for you if you’re just getting started with writing including writing reviews, if you’re looking to improve your writing, or if you’re trying new ways to generate rich content for your blog.

Ideally, you want to be able to sit down and bang out 1500 words when you need to. If you can do that already – regardless of whether you feel like Hemmingway – then you’re probably what I’d call a good writer.

But if you’re not there yet, the structure which I outline below should help move you in that direction.

There are lots of ways in which you can write a review, but for our purposes, let’s say that there are four essential components that you probably need to include. Each of these four components is optional, but they are a good place to get started.

Here we go.

1. Introduce the book

You need to introduce the book that you’re reviewing. This applies to courses and other products too. The main thing is that you provide some supportive context to set the scene.

This WILL include:

  • Title and author: What is it called? Who’s it by?
  • Topic or genre: What’s it about? What’s the subject matter? What genre if it’s fiction. 

Here’s an example:

Currently, I’m listening to the audiobook of Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman. As the title suggests it’s a book about the vast history of strategic thinking and how strategy came to influence many different aspects of our lives including business, politics, and, of course, warfare.

Strategy: A History .

When you introduce whatever it is that you’re reviewing you probably SHOULD include:

  • Audience: Who is this content intended for? 
  • Background: What do readers or buyers need to know? Is there some relevant background information that people should be aware of?

Here’s an example of a couple of sentences dealing with the intended audience and some background. 

Strategy: A History will appeal to you if you’re interested in political or military history, but also if you’ve tracked the rise of strategy in contemporary business-think since the 80s and 90s. More broadly, though, this book will appeal if you’re interested in the mechanics of influence, power, and manipulation as seen playing out in current events, news media, and often over social media.

This section COULD include:

  • Field: Where does this work fit with regards to other material in the same field?
  • Author’s background: Do people need to know a bit more about the author’s background to appreciate the content?
  • Other information: Is there any other useful context?

Here’s an example of how I pick up on some relevant information about the author’s background as a way of further introducing the book and engaging readers that might be interested:

The author, Lawrence Freedman, is – among other honours and awards – a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Which means he’s a legitimate “Sir” as in he’s been knighted by the Queen. In Freedman’s case, his award was for a lifelong distinguished contribution in the defence and international security fields. He knows what he’s talking about and his book stands out as a significant work and brilliant historical overview of strategy and strategic thinkers.

2. Outline relevant content

You should provide a concise summary of the content, or at least, of the content that’s relevant to you or what you want to discuss. 

Summarising is quite a tricky skill, so give some thought to how you want to break this down and what you want to include or exclude.

You’ll get better at writing summaries the more you write them, but for now, you may wish to give a breakdown as follows:

  • Chapter by chapter
  • Section by Section
  • Looking at key themes in a logical order
  • Describing key ideas in a logical sequence

With these last two, you need to think about the FLOW. Don’t overthink this one though. It’s just what it sounds like F L O W – nothing mysterious. In other words, does one idea flow into the next? Is there a sense of progression, of movement, of a logical direction? 

Here are some other things to consider when you’re summarising content:

  • What are the main ideas or topics covered?
  • What perspective(s) are important here?
  • What is the main argument?
  • What’s the writer’s objective or purpose?
  • How is the content organised?

A summary of relevant content can be as short a tweet or as long as an academic essay. Probably, for a blog post you want some length, but not too much. If you work towards between 600 to 1500 words you’ll probably find a sweet spot that works for you.

Here’s an example of a short summary for the book I’m reading on Strategy. I start by outlining how the content is organised and then give a short breakdown of the main content covered.

Strategy is divided into five parts as follows:

Strategy is divided into five parts as follows:
  1. Origins
  2. Strategies of Force
  3. Strategy from Below
  4. Strategy from Above
  5. Theories of Strategy
Freedman’s treatment of the content draws from classic content found in the Bible and The Iliad, or drawing from the greats like Sun Tzu and Machiavelli but also ranges from the military strategies of Baron Henri de Jomini and Carl von Clausewitz, to the revolutionary strategy of Marx’s class struggles, to Peter Drucker’s insights into corporate strategy, game theory in economics and many others besides.

At the heart of strategy, Freedman argues, are core issues relating to manipulation and control, and the unpredictability of our environment. All of these contribute to the challenge and drama of strategy and the need for strategic approaches that are fluid and flexible.

3. Critically evaluate the content

You need to provide some relevant critical commentary on the content. This is different from writing a summary in that you need to ANALYSE and EVALUATE.

And this means you need to:

  • Be organised
  • Highlight relevant parts of the content

There are different ways in which you can highlight relevant parts of the content. Some of them are similar to what we’ve already listed above but consider highlighting certain chapters, themes, ideas, and quotes or key passages. 

Please note though, any or all of these need to serve your purpose in writing the review. If it feels like padding or filler (e.g. it’s just taking up space and not advancing the conversation you want to have) then get rid of it.

In terms of a structure here, you could present things in chronological order or in a linear sequence. But it doesn’t have to be that either. If it works for your purposes to present things in a different order then do that. 

Compare or contrast also works well, and you could look at any of these:

  • Strengths versus weaknesses
  • What you agree with versus what you disagree with
  • What you like versus what you don’t like 

Make a table with two columns and write some lists if it helps you. It’s a great idea to do this in the brainstorming stage.

And when you’re brainstorming, think about – that is, analyse and evaluate – the following:

  • Your reactions and the reactions of others to the content
  • The content 
  • The author’s knowledge
  • The style of writing or presentation
  • How information is presented
  • The merit or significance of the work

And then, if you need to, consider answering one or more of these questions:

  • How did the author achieve their objective?
  • How does the content succeed in terms of what it sets out to do?
  • How was the material effective in helping you?
  • How was the content persuasive?
  • How did the content enhance your understanding of some issue?

With all of these questions, the assumed answer is “Yes” and then you explain how. But it’s also fine if the answer is “No” and you explain why not

Again, you don’t need to address every single one of these points or questions. These are just things to get you started writing or to help you if you get stuck writing a review. Use your judgement to help you figure out what to use and what to leave. 

Here’s an example from the review I’ve been working on.

Listening to Strategy has been an interesting experience for me as I’ve been reflecting on the similarities between this and another area of interest for me – that of craft and craftsmanship.

I’ve written about craftsmanship extensively both on my blog and on Twitter, and I was struck early on how many parallels I could draw. 

For example, it’s certainly true that the strategist is not a craftsman in the same way that a blacksmith is a craftsman. The weapons that the strategist forges are more abstract, but I was reminded of the work of Hephaestus – the god of fire and metalworking who made all of the weapons of Olympus.

The weapons that the strategist forges – the twin swords of deception and coercion – he must also learn to wield with impunity and ease.

But the strategist is more than this too and has other tools in his tool box including strength, guile, force, practical intelligence, and intuition.

These tools are abstract, yet lend themselves to very practical and, often, physical application. As with the craftsman, there is no separation between hand and head. He is, in fact, like the traditional craftsman, a man both of words and action.

4. Sell it!

This final section assumes that your review is positive overall and that you want people to read, buy or otherwise consume the content. If you were writing a negative review, you’d take a different approach here. 

However, assuming your review is positive, the idea is that you need to help your reader decide that they’re going to enjoy it, that they would benefit from it and should take some kind of action.

Consider doing any or all of these:

  • Suggest whether your audience would appreciate the content
  • Add an affiliate link if it’s that kind of review
  • Suggest some other action step if you’re trying to persuade them to do something
  • Ask for the sale if you intend to post an affiliate link

Is their life going to get better in some way if they engage with this content?  If the answer is yes, then say so.

In my example below, I’ve linked to the printed book and kindle version as well as the audible version which I listened to. 

If you’re a student of history or war you’ll probably enjoy reading or listening to Strategy by Lawrence Freedman. I’m neither of these things but I was still drawn in and I think the reason was that I have enjoyed the work of Robert Greene who wrote 48 Laws of Power. Greene’s books, while less about strategy in the sense that Freedman discusses, do deal with power and manipulation in very practical ways. If you like Greene, I think you’ll appreciate Strategy.

This is a long book regardless whether you’re going to listen to it or read it. But assuming you’re interested in strategy – either in the abstract or for more practical, personal – and occasionally, nefarious – purposes like I am, here are some options.

Did you find this useful? Leave a comment below or let me know on Twitter. I’m @smith_graeme

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