On Writing About Books: Ten Pro Tips for the Freelance Reviewer

Craig Morgan Teicher
From the September/October 2022 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

So you want to write book criticism. Me too. Ever since college, when I realized that writing English papers was the best way to take ownership of a text, to imbibe the words of authors I admire and hold them living inside my imagination, I’ve written about books so that I might read them better. For the past two decades I’ve written dozens of reviews for newspapers, literary journals, magazines, and websites. Reviewing may be a poor source of income, but it is an enormously rewarding way to interact with books.

Let’s assume, for the purposes of this piece, that you want to become a critic for the intrinsic value of that practice and perhaps to pay the occasional electric bill. Allow me to offer you ten pro tips for writing about books to help you on your way.

1. Trust your impressions.
This is the most important piece of advice I can give. For the purposes of your review, you, the critic, are the only lens through which your readers can view the work under consideration. Your job is to show the reader what the book looks like through your intelligent, authoritative eyes. They will make their decision about whether or not to read it based upon your review, so it is your job to furnish your most insightful and vivid impressions.

The real skill that you are selling as a critic is not your knowledge but rather your ability to clearly articulate what you think and feel about a work of art in an interesting way. So that is what you must practice: harvesting your impressions as you read and finding clear ways of putting them down on paper. You are already in possession of the essential tools: the capacity to write good sentences as well as strong feelings about art.

2. Remember the five-paragraph essay.
While what you write about books will most likely have more than five paragraphs, this basic form from eighth grade is still useful in thinking about how to structure a piece of criticism. It contains the bones of all kinds of argumentative writing:

Paragraph 1: Hook and thesis—get the reader interested and state the point you are trying to prove.

Paragraphs 2–4: Supporting points and evidence—develop your argument with three clear points, and offer support for each of them, always keeping the overall thesis in mind.

Paragraph 5: Conclusion—sum up your argument, review your supporting evidence, and exit with a bit of flair.

In a review your first “paragraph” will probably be several paragraphs long, the first couple of which will serve to hook the reader, perhaps with an anecdote about the author or some observations about the book. Somewhere in here, you will state your thesis: This book fails or succeeds because of X. Let’s take a look at one of my favorite pieces of criticism, “A Hard Case” by critic Joan Acocella, which appeared in the June 9, 2002, issue of the New Yorker, to see how she does it in a review of The Double Bond: Primo Levi, a Biography (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002) by Carol Angier. Here is the opening of the review, which subsequently appeared in Acocella’s Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints (Pantheon, 2007):

Primo Levi was a man whom people wanted on their side. Not only was he a concentration-camp survivor; with his 1947 book Survival in Auschwitz, he was also the camps’ noblest memoirist. No breast-beating for Levi, no look-at-me, no violin song, only a plain, thoughtful record, which by its very modesty stunned the mind. He went on to write two more great books, The Reawakening (1963) and The Periodic Table (1975), plus a number of excellent ones, and he campaigned for just causes all his life. In the eyes of many, he was a Jewish saint. Peace groups demanded him for their conferences; journalists called to ask him about the future of the Jews. Strangers wrote to him, seeking consolation, prophecy. And often, by virtue of the traits these people admired in his writing—honesty, justice, abstemiousness—he told them things they didn’t want to hear.
Now he has disappointed another person. Carole Angier, in her new book, The Double Bond: Primo Levi, a Biography, does not attack Levi. She loves his work. Yet the point of her book, announced in its title and tirelessly argued for seven hundred and thirty-one pages, is that he was a neurotic man, split down the middle. “His gentleness, justice, and detachment were not so much moral or literary choices as his own psychological imperatives,” she writes. He couldn’t help being that way, because “he had never resolved the inner torment of his youth.” That torment was the basis not just of his late-life depressions and his presumed suicide but of all his life and all his work. It is “the key to everything.”

Acocella clearly employs the old thesis paragraph strategy here. The first paragraph tells us a bit about who Primo Levi was and what the stakes are in writing about him now. The second paragraph contains the thesis, though because this essay is a lot more sophisticated than an eighth-grade assignment, Acocella states her thesis not with a clear topic sentence, but with her signature biting tone: “Yet the point of her book, announced in its title and tirelessly argued for seven hundred and thirty-one pages, is that he was a neurotic man, split down the middle.” Acocella’s thesis lurks behind this sentence; indeed it is its opposite—Angier, does not, according to Acocella, make a convincing case in her 731 pages.

3. Read with a pen and take notes.
Mark up the book. Find your own particular way of writing marginalia. To remember what I’ve read, and where in the book I read it, strikes me as the chief practical challenge of writing about books. I underline passages, put a star next to blocks of text I might want to come back to, and write the page number and a little note about the passage on the title page of the book, something like this: “p19— sex!” Then later, when I’m compiling my notes and preparing to write, I go back to these pages and type in anything I think I might use in my review.

Every review I write is accompanied by a sloppy file full of out-of-context sentences and paragraphs, spurs for my memory and ideas. I use one of several note-taking apps that sync between my iPhone, my iPad, my laptop, and the cloud, so I can dump thoughts into the document wherever I am, whenever they occur to me. Any scrap of an idea, an argument, a question, an assertion goes into this file. My goal in taking notes is to make the book unnecessary—everything I need to write the review should end up in my notes doc, so a good deal of the work is done before I write a single sentence of what will become the review.

4. Do not “sign on” with the book.
As I mentioned, you are the primary source of information about the book as far as the review is concerned. What this means is that you must court skepticism—you need to create some inner distance from the work to see it from your particular point of view. You must not do what I call “signing on” with the book, by which I mean you must not simply adopt the book’s own terms for your argument. Your job is not to share the author’s impressions of their own book, but yours, written in your voice, the same one that speaks in your literary writing.

You should not assume that the author is right, that they are smarter than you, that you are unworthy of making pronouncements about their book. That is all beyond the purview of your piece. Your review is not a test; it’s a tour through a scene to which only you have access: your experience of reading the book. The author does not know more about that than you do.

5. Write for a general-interest audience.
Should your review be carried by the breeze to the feet of a random person on the sidewalk, that person, whoever they are, should be able to understand it, whether or not they are interested in your topic. Avoid jargon. Do not assume your reader is aware of the ongoing discussions around a book. Write the kind of clear, accessible prose your bland, well-meaning uncle prefers. He is a general-interest reader, and your review is right now winging its way on the wind to his feet.

6. You don’t have to include everything you think.
I fill my document with lots of notes, most of which I do not use. Your job is to make one argument about a book. It’s okay to leave things out. If you try to make six arguments in one twenty-page piece, you’re not going to make any of them convincingly—the reader will always be casting about for your thesis, wondering what this next idea has to do with the ones that came before. Figure out your thesis, pick a few points with which to support it, and ignore the rest. Your other ideas may hover in the background of your thinking and inform your piece, but they will mostly sleep peacefully in your notes. Let them rest.

7. Criticism is literature.
Make good sentences, have fun with turns of phrase, pile on clauses (assuming you can do so with clarity), and find the right adjectives. Set scenes, use the word I (judiciously and where appropriate). You are a critic, which means you are a writer, and everything you write has the potential to be quoted by the gods.

That said, don’t let the gods intimidate you—they are slow readers, and the books and magazines on their nightstands are piled to infinity.

8. Negative reviews: First ask yourself why.
A general-interest reviewer’s work is mostly done as an enthusiast, a popularizer, and an explainer. Usually you will be assigned—or you should choose to write about—books about which you have mostly good things to say. You can take someone to task for their literary failings, but you need first to ask yourself why.

Acocella has a good reason for being harsh on Levi’s biographer: Acocella believes that the biography is incorrect in its conclusions, that it misunderstands and misrepresents Levi’s life and death. The reviewer is careful to substantiate her argument by closely examining the book. She writes, for instance, that the biographer’s “evidence…is flimsy. Unidentified sources are heavily relied on. So are two novels, one by a cousin of Levi’s and one by his employer’s daughter.” So Acocella’s goal is to set the record straight, and I’m comfortable with the idea that Angier, the biographer, is getting what she deserves.

The critic William Logan, on the other hand, in a review of Louise Glück’s A Village Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009) commits a number of unforgivable sins. Cruelty seems to ignite Logan’s wit, and he gets far too personal in his description of the work of a poet who is known to have struggled with an eating disorder. In his review Logan writes, “Louise Glück’s wary, pinch-mouthed poems have long represented the logical outcome of a certain strain of confessional verse—starved of adjectives, thinned to a nervous set of verbs.” To describe the poems this way, as though blaming an illness for the characteristics of the poetry, and the poet for the illness, amounts to a kind of dog-whistling, senseless unkindness.

So don’t do that: Don’t use a writer’s life and work as an excuse to show off how clever you are. Also, jealousy is a bad reason for negative criticism. We all get jealous of other writers—it comes with the territory—but those writers about whom you feel intense envy are most likely not appropriate subjects for your criticism.

9. Show us what it feels like to be you reading this book.
Your job as a critic is to act as a window into the work for the reader. But like most windows, yours will be full of smudges—the many stains of your experience and sensibility that inevitably color your writing. So your job, really, is to show readers of your review what it would be like to read this book if they were you. This means that your goal is subjective, not objective, truth. Tell it, and give readers a few clues—through your tone, your word choice, the biases that undergird your argument—as to how to locate the smudges on your particular pane of glass.

10. Lift off, zoom out.
Now we come to the most fun part of the review: the end, which not only means that your work is almost done, but that you now have the exciting opportunity to zoom out and cinch the connection between the work under consideration, your own ideas, and the wider culture. In her final paragraph Acocella offers a conclusion so precise and penetrating and broadly applicable that it has all the power of aphorism: “Even if Levi did commit suicide, it is a species of sentimentality to think that the end of something tells the truth about it.”

This glorious sentence underscores Acocella’s whole argument and undercuts Angier’s—even if Levi died by suicide (which Angier believes and Acocella thinks is debatable), that fact would not be a sufficient basis for viewing Levi’s whole life and body of work as the lead-up to, the preparation for, his death. But Acocella looks beyond Levi and the biography—she’s talking about “the end of something,” of anything, any story, any life. Acocella has, with this crafty gesture, credibly used her review to support a broad point about life in general. This ultimately should be your goal. But you can’t be gratuitous about it—don’t just append a generalization to your last paragraph. Let it grow out of the points you’ve been making all along, so that indeed the end of your review does tell the truth about the book—and about much more.


Craig Morgan Teicher is a poet and critic. He is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Welcome to Sonnetville, New Jersey (BOA Editions, 2021) and the editor of Little Mr. Prose Poem: The Selected Poems of Russell Edson, forthcoming from BOA Editions in October. He teaches at New York University and the Bennington Writing Seminars.