by Sandra Glahn

Perhaps you’ve seen the Erasmus quote on a T-shirt: “When I get a little money I buy books; if any is left, I buy food and clothes.” One way to assure you’re well fed and clothed is to get the publisher to send you new books (and other products) so you’ll write critical reviews.

Critical reviews are concise summaries and assessments, and writing such reviews provides a stewardship ministry as you help readers narrow down their selections from an enormous number of choices. The process benefits you, too. Not only does review-writing get you free products; it also introduces you to editors, showing them that you can think well and meet deadlines. Writing critical reviews has launched many writers on the road to publication of more substantial pieces.

So how do you begin? Contact the publisher and request a review copy of a recent work (the copyright date should be within the past year). Once it arrives, get to work:

Before The First Draft
While reading the book, watching the video, or checking out the software, take notes. Did the software install easily? Did the book deliver what it promised? After doing your own research, read others’ reviews of the same product, if possible. Then as you formulate what you want to say, consider the following:

  • What did the author/producer attempt to do?
  • Did he or she succeed in doing so?
  • Did it move/aid me in some way?

When assessing fiction—whether in novel or movie form—consider the key elements of storytelling: point of view, characterization, plot, and setting. How well did the producer handle these? Did you find the work compelling? Predictable? Consider how the work compares with others like it and what impact it had on you.

One warning here: Watch giving away plot twists. If you had reviewed the movie, Titanic, it would have been acceptable to let it slip that the boat sinks, but only because most people know history and the movie opens with a submarine exploring the wreckage. As a general rule, don’t reveal that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, even if you want to cite it as an effective use of surprise.

As You Write
When reviewing products, remember to do the following:

  • Build anticipation.
    In his book Writing for Story, Pulitzer-Prizing-winning journalist, Jon Franklin, establishes that writers should use the same storytelling devices in non-fiction writing that we use in fiction writing. Hook with a lead to grab readers’ interest. Then build suspense or foreshadowing to keep them reading.Is the topic soteriology? Church planting? Youth dramas? Create an interest in the topic before pointing readers to the product. In other words, sell the subject before you sell the book: If you’ve ever looked through rows of marriage books for one about building a spiritual foundation together, you know that what you find makes for a short stack.Where can you come up with creative ways to pray for and with each other? Do you need other accountability partners? What if you or your partner feel uncomfortable when someone else hears your prayers? The Power of Praying Together answers these and more. Did you find good quotes along the way? Use them, but limit to one or two unless it’s a longer-than-average review.
  • Write simple, succinct reviews.
    Use word economy, get straight to the point, and write in language that the average reader can understand. To determine the actual length of the review, read the last three issues of the periodical for which you plan to write and get an average word count.
  • Reveal any major problems you had.
    The reader should discover early in the piece whether or not the reviewer liked the resource. If it’s truly bad, find something better to review. It’s not worth the space or publicity. If it’s worth recommending—but with qualifications—be sure to say so up front, and explain your reservations. Nevertheless, avoid the temptation to find something negative to say for fear of otherwise seeming unsophisticated.
  • Don’t get nit picky.
    If the writer says, “Play it again, Sam” and you know Bogie’s actual line in Casablanca was, “Play it,” let it go unless it’s a book about famous quotes. Avoid zeroing in on the misplaced word or comma unless it’s a grammar book or the error appears throughout. In other words look for the log, not the speck. Point out only those errors that undermine the aim of the entire work.
  • Slant your reviews toward a particular readership.
    When you’re writing a software review for Christian Computing, the editor will expect you to use more technical language than if you write for Pulpit Helps or Today’s Christian Woman. A review for Kindred Spirit should have a different vocabulary and tone from one you submit to Bibliotheca Sacra.
  • Disperse necessary facts innocuously.
    Avoid writing a review that sounds like this: The author is the dean of philosophy and theology at Idanha State University and received his doctorate from Cambridge. He has titled his key chapters, “Romanticism and Neo-orthodoxy,” “The Age of Reason and Enlightenment,” “Processing the Postmodern Worldview,” and “Dante Meets Descartes.” It is essential that every Christian leader have this book in his or her library, because the author says something that has long needed to be said.You do need to identify the creator and his or her main theme, as well as whatever credentials give the work credibility. Study good reviews and you’ll find creative ways to present such facts without listing the table of contents and bogging down your piece with locations and titles.Try writing something like this: Drawing on his thirty years’ experience teaching philosophy and theology at Idanha State University, Dr. James Stevens explores key philosophies that have influenced Western thinking for the past several centuries. Using a conversational style, he serves up a full menu of complex ideas in a way that the average reader will find palatable.
  • Study good book reviews.
    Any time you write for one genre—be it reviews, non-fiction articles, or short stories—study that genre and its best writers. Good sources for secular literary book reviews are The New York Times, Harper’s, The New Yorker, Saturday Review and The Atlantic. For popular-market reviews of Christian books and movies, check out Christian School & Home and World magazine.

After the publication runs your review, send a copy to the publisher’s publicity department. Publishers like to know what you’ve said. If they like your work, they’ll keep you in mind to receive future releases.

Erasmus was famous for another saying: “No one respects a talent that is concealed.” By writing the critical review, you let others know about writers worth reading, software worth buying, movies worth viewing. And in the process, you’ll also reserve more cash for food and clothing while revealing your own talent for analysis.

This article first appeared in The Christian Communicator.

© 2005, Sandra Glahn

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If you’re a blogger, here’s the link to the Thomas Nelson blogger book review program, through which you can receive free books:
And click here for the one to WaterBrook Multnomah
For info on becoming an online book reviewer, go here.
Paying market for reviewers who are published authors or who have advanced degrees: 425 Boardman Ave, Traverse City, MI  49684
The Baptist Standard accepts reviews. They ask that you keep reviews brief (150-175 words). Also: Focus on why the book would or would not be valuable for our readers, particularly laypeople. Repeat: Reviews are brief, approachable, non-academic, non-esoteric, practical.