It was only in the last couple years that I started reviewing books. Now that I started, I wish I had much earlier. A couple wrongheaded ideas about reviewing books held me back before I started.
First, I imagined that I wasn't qualified. Maybe I'd get the book wrong—as if having a response to a book is solely the job of an exalted literary critic.
Second, I imagined that it would detract from my own writing. Maybe I wouldn't be able to turn off that critical "reviewer voice" when I returned to my own work.
The quietly powerful poet Jane Munro brought me around when she said in an interview that "it no longer seems sufficient to do my own writing." This was an aha moment for me. I now believe:
Writing book reviews will not only help me build the community of writers that I need, it will improve my writing.
What I mean by book reviews
When I'm talking about book reviews, I'm not talking about a personal take on how a book relates to me and how I felt about it. Certainly, a review should include a bit of this, but a good review starts with a reflection on what the author was trying to do with the book—its form, its genre, its themes. Through that lens, I, as the reviewer, can evaluate whether the author succeeded in doing what she set out to do. And, I don't need the permission of some governing body to do this. If I write the review well, I have thought about the audience for the book and spoken directly to that audience.
Getting started reviewing
If you are new to reviewing, your first one doesn't have to be published in a print or online journal. Though I encourage you to seek out those places because a good editor can help you hone your reviewing craft. (Shout-out to my editor, Leah Golob.) To get started, you can publish on your own website. Build up a few good sample reviews online, and you can use them in your portfolio when you apply to review elsewhere.
Why writing reviews builds writing community
Review sections have shrunk or disappeared across most media. Shrinking column inches means that other than the darlings of bestseller lists, few books get a chance at a close read by someone who cares enough to comment on their work in review form.
If you review a "small" but important book on any media, you're creating a space for that writer. And you're making space for you, yourself, to one day be reviewed. (Assuming your book doesn't have the backing of a crack marketing team. Most don't.)
You're also introducing yourself to other writers as a considerate reader, which will lead to more connections.
How writing reviews helps your writing
Spending time really reflecting on a book will help you as you work on your own manuscript. It's a chance to untangle thoughts about what works and what doesn't in a book. This, in turn, can help you clear the cobwebs on your own manuscript. I recognize now that the critical eye I had feared would impact my writing does—for the better.
As a reviewer today, I no longer think I can get a book review "wrong" or that reviewing books takes attention from my own writing. I know with each review I'm strengthening my writing community and getting stronger as a writer.