Here’s a topic that’s been simmering in my mind since October. I started to contemplate this after posting reviews of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and The Haunting of Hill House. One book I loved and one book I did not love. My personal opinion aside, the two reviews are vastly different in terms of writing style. You might think two different people wrote those reviews! One review I am proud of, one review I am disappointed with. These two reviews stand in stark contrast to one another. I’ve written good positive reviews and bad negative reviews before, but I didn’t really notice the difference between them until I wrote two in such a close time frame.
I’d like to unpack why one review is so articulated and thoughtful, while the other is something of a mushy mess. My writing style seems to match how I feel about each book. If you look at the positive review, you’ll see it’s much longer, more analytical and better written. This sort of review takes a bit of time for me to write because I have many comments to make. I ramble on, then take some time to whittle down and polish my thoughts. The negative review is shorter and less defined. I find it difficult to write anything more concrete than ‘meh’. This sort of review takes ages to write because I don’t know what to say. I have an easier time pinpointing what resonates than what doesn’t resonate. My writing rises and falls to match my opinion of the book I’m writing about. I couldn’t bear to write a lacklustre review of a book I adore as much as The Haunting of Hill House – people must know just how much and why I love it! Whereas, I could care less what people think about my views on Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore because it wasn’t a book I cared about.
I’ve been using the term review, but I want to clarify that’s only a part of what I write when I post here about a book. My format tends towards review-style thoughts (commenting on what appeals or doesn’t appeal to me), followed by more contemplative comments on greater issues in the book and beyond (useful only for those who have read the book and want to think deeper on it), concluding with more personal or random comments (stuff that wouldn’t be helpful to someone deciding if they want to read the book). The first bit is what I’m referring to when I say review here. I want to write a good review even if I didn’t like a book. What’s a ‘good’ review? That’s another subjective question! For me, it’s a review that helps me form an opinion of whether I want to read a book or not. This means I know what the reviewer liked or didn’t like and why (without giving way the whole story), and I can judge for myself if those are things I’ll like or not. I’m not sure I did a great job of this in my Penumbra review. I find it harder to be objective and make useful comments when I don’t like something about a book (ooh, and maybe I’m not being objective when I say that – maybe I just want to think I’m objective in my positive reviews because I want the book to be objectively good! Ouch, my head.) How can I improve my writing about a book I didn’t enjoy? I think the key is being more specific…but I’m not too certain what I mean by that, haha. Perhaps a better question is, how can I write consistently ‘good’ reviews about books I can’t get in to? The Haunting of Hill House review is better, I think, mostly because I put more thought into it. How can I think just as well about a book I didn’t like as a book I did like?
Questions to ponder: While this could easily become a discussion about positive vs. negative reviews, I’m more interested in how you approach writing those types of reviews. Do you write differently depending on whether your review is positive or negative? What sort of books do you find you give better written (not necessarily positive) reviews? What do you think of my Penumbra review? Would it be helpful if you were deciding whether to read the book? Another question related to all this is, what makes a ‘good review’ for you? Please leave a comment if you have any thoughts on this subject! I’m still pondering it out myself.