Recently a college student emailed to ask if she could briefly interview me about publishing and blogging. “Sure!” I answered excitedly.
I called her a couple days later while I made a quick stop at Target on my way home from work. I wandered the aisles with my headphones in, picking up toothpaste and nail polish remover and the like, happily sharing my experiences. We talked about my internships and what acquisitions editors do.
Then she asked me a question I’ve never gotten before: “Do you have a formula that you follow for book reviews?”
I paused in between loofahs and lipsticks, and stammered a bit as I considered whether I did have a formula or pattern I follow. “I don’t think so…” I said.
I certainly used to—and early One Little Library readers might remember when I followed this basic structure (see my review of Lost Lake, for example):
- Review in a Word
- Opening line
- My Reaction
- You Might Also Like…
That formula worked great for a while. It took away some of the initial effort of starting a review from scratch. It meant I had words on the page, and was already that much closer to finishing the review.
As time went on, I wanted to branch out into other topics and types of writing. I started reading Brainpickings, probably the best known book review blog there is. I love the meandering, conversational style of Maria Popova’s posts. Hers seem to follow a very different format:
- Thoughts on a topic from a well-known poet/writer/artist/historic figure (short; 1 paragraph)
- Key ideas from the book she’s reviewing
- Connecting/extending the idea to a different poet/writer/artist/historic figure’s work
I love reading Brainpickings because I always learn about someone I’ve never heard of, or learn something new about someone I have heard of. By the time I finish one blog post, I’ve got seven new tabs open. But I knew her format could never work for me. For one thing, I don’t have time to do that much research to make so many connections. For another, I like to share more personal stories.
I got rid of my “formula” because I wanted to both challenge myself and break free. I’ve been writing what I’ve been thinking of as “free-form” book reviews for a while now, exploring books in whatever way feels natural to me.
I mentioned on Monday that I just started the Imperfect Writer course by expert editor Chantel Hamilton and entrepreneur Jason Zook. (It’s fantastic—highly recommend!) I was also surprised to learn in the second module that my “free-form” is actually a common writing formula.
Here it is for you:
I like to start with a story or personal fact. Often this is the story of how I was introduced to a book, or an anecdote that connects to the topic of the book. Very often, I share a desire or need that I have, which the book helps to fulfill. For example, in my review of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I started by sharing how much I hate running and how I’ve been trying to find inspiration to motivate me to run more often. In my review of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I shared how I seek to simplify my life.
Sometimes this story is one sentence; sometimes it’s a few paragraphs. I do what feels right for the post.
Now I get into the book itself, giving an overview of the plot or, for non-fiction, the main takeaways and lessons learned. This is usually the bulk of the post. Depending on how much I enjoyed the book, it may be quite long. I also include my reaction to certain plot elements, characters, or ideas.
What’s in it for the reader? Here I share what I think the best features/points of the book are, and I usually include some form of, “Read this book if [enter situation here]”. To be honest, I usually skip reviewing books that I don’t enjoy. What’s the point? If I don’t recommend it, why would I tell you about it? If this bugs you a bit and you want to see what books I don’t recommend, you can always connect with me on Goodreads and follow my ratings there. I recently gave two stars to two books I thought I would really enjoy (I’ll let you see what they are!).
The beautiful thing about this formula (and really, any formula) is how adaptable it is. I can use it not just for book reviews, but for posts on any topic. In my course, Chantel and Jason actually describe the formula as “Story – Study – Lesson.” No matter what words you use, the idea is:
- Share a story
- Zoom out and connect your story to a broader idea/experience/data
- Draw some conclusions
I’m working with one author on an Introduction to her book, and we’re using this formula to help her hook the reader, organize all of her data in a way that’s not overwhelming, and give a preview of the book to come. Another author of mine used it in a lovely post for Father’s Day: “How My Dad Encouraged Me To Design My Own Blueprint for Success.” Now that I have a language to use for this formula, I’m seeing it everywhere I turn!
The next time someone asks me what my formula is, I have an answer.