Thursday, August 05, 2004

Writing Reviews: What are we really afraid of?

Here's an interesting blog by Michael McGrorty on "Reviewing Books". It's informative and subtly funny too (like many of the blogs I like). A statement in the 5th para caught my attention: "You don’t find a lot of enthusiasm these days among librarians for writing reviews." It struck a chord because I thought this problem existing only in NLB. Now I know we are not alone.

Michael suggests that writing reviews is "a lost art, gone to the same musty resting place as the card catalog and the Silence Rule." I think for NLB, it's not permanently lost. It was probably side-tracked for a while.

NLB probably needs to do what it has been doing so well for the past 8 years: Re-inventing.

The card catalog hasn't really gone away. It's now online and we're better off because of it. Silence is still part of library etiquette but since we know we can't stop every single person from talking, NLB created a Quiet Reading Room for the upgraded libraries (where readers would help us enforce the Quiet Reading rule). So it's the same for the "lost art" of writing book reviews. NLB has to reinvent it.

Mind you I'm no expert in writing reviews. My problem is that when I'm conscious of what I have to write, I feel pressured and tend to spend days refining the draft. Frankly, it's tiring work and I end up dreading to write. So that's why I started Raw Notes, where I could deliberately write anything I want and not feel pressurised into conforming to the requirements of "good reviews".

I want to make my "notes" (not reviews) personal. Forget about being correct and objective etc. It's ok for the occasional typo and grammatical mistake. I just want to enjoy writing and reflecting on what I've read. So far, the experiment is working for me. I've never been so productive where writing is concerned. And I find that there's a ripple effect - the more I enjoy commenting on the stuff I read, the more stuff I find myself reading, and widely too.

Be Personal . Be 'Incorrect'.
Blog it. Flame it.
Be Unafraid.

That's my suggestion for reinventing the way we write and publish book reviews. I'm sure my more creative colleagues will have more brilliant ideas.

Michael has a few suggestions worth noting (comments in [ ] are my own):
* If you have a ‘new books’ section post the review near there, in close proximity to the book. [Makes sense to me!]

* Don’t hesitate to tack copies up at the ends of the stacks where the book would be found. [I like this. That's where readers would need the reviews. Brilliant ideas are often simple ones. ]

* A nice trick is to tuck in a copy inside the book itself, or to hang one from the shelf where the book rests, just like the bookstores do. [Did I mention that brilliant ideas are often simple ones? Micheal, I couldn't have said it better.]

* Put a copy at the reference desk so that the staff can pore over it in those few moments when there isn’t a rush of people to serve. [Yes, don't forget that internal customers are customers too. And if yet another customer asks the "Where's the toilet?" question, point it out but also hand them the review and say, "Here's something to keep you occupied. And feel free to recycle."]

* Be sure to send a copy to the editor of your local paper, especially if you live in a small town. You might end up writing a review column for the paper. [And make a career out of it... it's not as far fetched as it sounds. Singapore is pretty small. In many ways, we are a small town. ]

* Some libraries have book reviewing circles which function very much like book clubs, with the obvious exception that the members produce reviews of the book they’ve all read. This is a great idea if you can coordinate the activity so as to make the review coincide with new releases. Another project you might undertake is to put together a staff-patron reviewing group.
[Sounds like a lot of work, but I read somewhere that if something is easy to do, it's probably not worth doing.]

* But if you end up soldiering on alone in your task, don’t feel bad. A true reviewer establishes a relationship with a book that is unmatched by anybody other than its writer. You have that, and your understanding, for compensation. [I think that's why librarians don't want to write anymore. The fear of not being read at all is worse that being criticised. I learnt in my IRC days that being ignored is infinitely worse than being flamed.]

This last point is important. Now I'm getting really philosophical here - the key is to not worry about it. I know from my experience that the less I worry about writing, the better my writing seems to be - at least to me anyway. And that's ok, because I should write for myself first. I'm often my worse critic.

Even if someone says "Ivan, your review sucks", I'd say "At least you're reading it. Thanks for your time. BTW, you might want to look up books on "Improving your EQ". I can recommend you some really great titles!"

My PLS librarian colleagues are re-discovering the joys (and pains) of writing reviews. Their work is improving everyday. Right now, they've a regular column in The Straits Times, Singapore's main English broadsheet. The reviews are on books relating to Personal Finance. In recent months, we've since received requests from one or two publications asking us for reviews. And a few authors have asked our folks to review their books. My colleagues are complaining about different things now - they say they have no time to write (or read, in order to write). It's a problem, but a good problem.

I don't know how my librarian colleagues would react to Michael McGrorty's article. I sent them the URL and I hope they read it. Doesn't matter if they don't agree with Michael's suggestions on promoting books using reviews. I do hope they find comfort that they're not alone in being hesitant about writing reviews.

Times like this I reflect on Yoda's Words of Wisdom: "Do, or do not. There is no try."


  1. Dear Ivan

    I hate writing, i hate re-writing even more.

    I can't remember any one time I write something for my boss, he would just need to change one teeny aspect of it.

    Which aspect? The words.

    I believe many of us who write on the computers are obsessive re-writers. I would spend 5 minutes to write a post and spend 5 hours changing the adjectives. Each time I write up something for my boss, he would just need to change one teeny aspect of it. Which aspect? The words.

    My boss loves writing and he writes best in longhand. He'd killed for a BIC disposbale mechanical pencil with 2B lead. He is the kind of guy who would wake up 4 am and scores his speech to make sure it sounds humorous.

    About book reviews - HKUL has a Book Talk Club. "Talk" is fun, casual, u can even act or role play. "Review" is for the literati.

    About Rawnotes (Blog) - the "personal book reviews" aren’t crafted, or polished but they’re are natural and relaxed. Any thoughts grammatically correct and incorrect, are blogged down. He didnt do it "right", he did it in writing.

    About grammar - quoting Thurber
    "When I split an infinitive, it is going to damn well stay split!"

  2. Refering to the comment I have posted :
    "I can't remember any one time I write something for my boss, he would just need to change one teeny aspect of it. "

    - a good example of bad writing. Ambigiouity. Negate a negative.
    Why try to write 23 words when you can say the same thing in 18?

    The sentence should be:
    "Every time I write something for my boss, he needs only to change one tiny aspect of it."


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