As someone who enjoys to write, I like to think about the rhetorical choices authors make. My own formal writing education has been limited; instructors often seemed to expect me to intuit the conventions of a genre and the rhetorical moves I should make in my own writing. This meant I had to read others to learn how to write. To continue perfecting my craft, I still pay attention to what others are doing. What does the structure of their work look like? What word choices do they employ? What kind of tone do they use? And what are the results of each of these choices? Do they give the writing power or take it away? Do they make the writing engaging or dull? Do they make it clear and approachable, or does it seem written for an elite few?
In this post, I discuss my own approach to writing reviews. I recognize that each author possesses their own style and that each other will adapt their writing for the purposes of their own blog. Still, I think it can be profitable for us to discuss how we make rhetorical choices when we write–and why. Only when we begin to have an awareness of what we are doing can we work to improve it.
Though many bloggers write more informal reviews of books, perhaps excitedly squealing that they think they could be friends with the protagonist or humorously remarking that they thought the love interest was dull or ridiculous, I tend to think of my reviews as papers in miniature. If I were writing literary criticism for publication, I would write a clear argument that I would then support with textual evidence. I do the same with reviews because this seems to me to be more useful for readers wondering if they should buy or borrow a book. A review that says “I hated the protagonist because her name was Victoria and I know too many mean Victorias in real life” is relevant to the original reviewer, but not so much to readers. Should I or should I not read this book if I have no aversion to the name Victoria? I am not sure. (Of course, such a review may still have entertainment value for the blog followers and may even resonate with fellow Victoria-haters.) I prefer to read reviews that seem more objective, so those are the kind that I write.
Such a structure does, of course, have limitations. A more informal review might sound like the conversation you’d have with a friend if discussing your latest read. You can jump around from how the protagonist was annoying and the love triangle unexpectedly laughable but the prose was beautiful. If you are writing a more formal review, however, you have to keep referring back to the original argument, even if you do not do so as rigidly as you would if submitting to an academic journal. This means some information about the book may have to be left out as it does not fit into the structure.
Since I think of my reviews as papers in miniature, I like to make sure that I point to specific textual moments that support any claims I make about the book. Maybe I did find the protagonist annoying–but now I have to explain what she did that made me think so. Maybe I think the prose was beautiful–I might want to add a specific quote from the text illustrating why.
I may not be as detailed and rigorous in doing so as I would for a formal paper, but evidence is still important in a book review because not every reader reacts to a story the same way. One blogger may think a protagonist was stupid and naive and so dislike a story; another blogger may believe the protagonist acted nobly, even if that meat things turned out badly. Only if both bloggers explain what the action in question is can their readers determine if they (potentially) share the blogger’s opinion. If a reviewer simply writes, “The protagonist is silly,” readers will not know if this is true or not, and thus will not know if it’s an opinion that should affect whether they pick up the story.
I write more formally than many in the blogosphere, I think, simply because it seems more in keeping with the way I want to present my work. I try to do some real literary criticism and offer valid critiques of the books and whether I think they achieve what they want to achieve. A more formal tone is, quite simply, still considered to be a real sign of the value and weight of a piece of writing; you see very few academics writing informally (though some are just so well-regarded that they presumably realize they can get away with it without damaging their reputations). You may think that the tone of a work should not influence how seriously people take it, but the reality is that tone does affect a work’s reception. I like to use that knowledge to my advantage and vary my tone to try to influence reader reaction.
I would also note here that there are varying levels of formality. I do use the first-person in some reviews, for example, and many would consider that more informal. I also sometimes write more personal reviews than critical ones (though I try to note when this is occurring.) Such reviews can still be considered more formal than not, however. On the more informal side would be reviews with words or sentences in caps-lock, reviews with excessive exclamation points, or reviews that rely mostly on personal reaction to the book (ex. “I hated that character. She was so mean to her friends and reminded me of this girl I went to high school with! Ew!”). The persona one wishes to project and the reception one wishes to receive will determine where a writer falls on the formality spectrum.
I don’t have a strict length limit set for myself, nor do I try to do something so horrendous as follow the infamous “five-paragraph essay.” However, I recognize that this is the Internet and people like to skim. Sometimes I have more to say, but the review is starting to feel long, so I cut it off. I don’t think that’s intellectually problematic because I believe that when you write, you are trying to communicate. And when you communicate, you do what it takes to reach your audience.
There is no one “correct” way to write a review or to run a blog. However, I do find it interesting to see what rhetorical choices others are making and how that affects the way I perceive them and them and their reviews, the types of followers they gain, the types of comments they receive, etc. What rhetorical choices do you make when blogging–and why?