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Blog – Posted on Thursday, Oct 03

A Day in the Life of a Book Reviewer

In this guest post, Kirkus's Myra Forsberg shares book reviewing tips from four veteran indie critics.

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Many critics find book reviewing a solitary affair: lounging on the couch reading a sprawling biography of an obscure mathematical genius or a complex fantasy with cunning dragons, while visions of chocolate dance in their heads.

But Kirkus reviewer Steve Donoghue is different — his process features a pooch. “It always has,” he notes. “First, a long, long time ago, a crowd of beagles. Then, a fat basset hound. And now, a fuzzy miniature schnauzer named Frieda, my bossy, temperamental little muse!”

In recent email interviews, Donoghue and three other veteran Kirkus Indie critics described their writing regimens and offered some reviewing tips.

Donoghue’s daily routine involves going for a morning walk so Frieda “can scream at all the people on their way to work, ordering them to stop and pet her. Then we come back, she settles down to sleep, and I set out reading, annotating, and whatever deadline writing I’ve got to do.”

At noon, he and his furry pal embark on a longer walk, “where she screams at squirrels and I mentally lay out the afternoon’s work. We get back, clean up, eat a bit, and then she settles to sleep (usually on my head) and I read for the afternoon and take notes for the next day’s writing.”

Ivan Kenneally’s reviewing strategy depends on whether the book sits on his fiction or nonfiction pile. “In the case of a novel, I use an excel sheet to track the characters and their various descriptions, and within a word document, chronicle the basic contours of the plot,” he explains. “Within that same document, I make editorial notations: what works and what doesn’t.”

His approach to nonfiction turns out to be somewhat similar except that he keeps “a running commentary of the overall argument of the study, making notes of its strengths and weaknesses.”

Whether tackling a satirical novel or an intricate economics treatise, Kenneally usually works “in concentrated bouts of about three to four hours at a stretch. In between those episodes, I break for about 30 minutes, and I think about anything other than the book I’m reviewing. Often, I go for a walk or run an errand. That way I can return to the text with a refreshed mind.” 

Barbara London endorses the reading and pacing method of criticism. She prefers to read a book “all the way through before I write. This way I experience it as a reader would rather than as an editor (which is how I first entered the publishing world) or a teacher. If I am lucky, I can get a sentence or two down before I begin pacing. Some writers think at the keyboard; I think by pacing. Key phrases arrive out of the ether and become sentences when I return to typing.”

For Kent Armstrong, staying away from social media is one of the keys to a successful reviewing day. As he avoids Twitter and turns the pages, he scribbles notes “on characters or significant plot points as well as citing page numbers. I write the synopsis first and then delve into the analysis. Then I write the final line and walk away from it for at least an hour or two.”

The four critics provided some wide-ranging advice for fellow reviewers.

Donoghue strongly warns against procrastination. “Start hunkering down with your new book — reading, annotating — as soon as you finish your old book. No matter what your deadline is, it’s going to rush up on you much faster than you think.”

At the top of his personal list of rules: Don’t chase tangents and don’t be dismissive. “You’ve got a brutally short word count and a whole book to bring to life; stick to the main points and keep your criticisms as broad as possible. And regardless of how far off your own reading taste your book might be, always remember that it might end up being somebody’s very favorite book. Review it accordingly — for all time, not for your personal collection.”

Armstrong’s tips include jotting down your general impression of the work after the first few chapters, “especially if your impression changes (for example, initially strong plot development wanes).”

He advises everyone to get comfortable and relax. “Reading for hours at a time can be painful for your eyes or various body parts. A cozy chair or a fan in the summer will maintain a respectable level of comfort and hopefully prevent distractions, such as repeatedly stopping for leg stretches.”

Finally, he emphasizes that critics must give the assignment “precedence over everything else. Instead of squeezing the work into a day of household chores, for example, I focus on the book and do chores later. It’s a great way to keep the story and characters fresh in your mind.”

Kenneally believes the most important insight he can share “is to meticulously keep detailed notes while one reads. Accuracy is of course paramount, and even a briefer book can contain lots of minutiae within which reside the possibility for error and confusion.”

In addition, he suggests compiling a list of quotes from the text that you “might use later in the review for a variety of reasons: a helpful descriptor, an interesting coinage, or a good example of the author’s prose.”

Kenneally also recommends writing a rough draft immediately after reading the work that’s “indifferent to the word count limitations.” Then walk away from this first effort for at least a day — “that distance from the project” will help consolidate and clarify your opinions.

London supplies a set of questions critics should ask themselves after they finish a book: Does the story stay with you? Do you still think about the characters? Did you enjoy the work? Did you learn something?

She also counsels a critic to “treat your review with the seriousness the author deserves” and “consider whether you have captured the essence of the book.”

Above all, she maintains, “avoid spoilers: don’t ruin the suspense for readers.”

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