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Writing for the Pet-Fish/Ornamental Aquatics Interests: On Writing Reviews

By Bob Fenner

Don't be crabby... start writing!

"This book was really neat; it had great photos and good information. It should be on your bookshelf", the end. You call this a review? Me neither. What was the book about? What was 'good' about it? Relative to what? Who would benefit from this text?

The production of worthwhile printed materials is amazing; similarly astounding is the lack of decent review of the same. Do you have the time or inclination to pursue and review what's new in publications? Printed manuscripts are more expensive than ever, and it take's ever-precious time to find what's available and worthwhile.

I'm not encouraging the abandonment of printed reviews, or suggesting you give up reading or taking them seriously; far be it. I'm actually proposing that you consider writing them. Do you enjoy reading our hobby's literature? Wouldn't it be fun to get paid in part for doing so, maybe even have editors, publishers send you advance copies for your opinions? Would you like to learn the material like never before, short of being the original author? Then you should contemplate reviewing books.


What is the purpose of a published work review? To inform the intended reader as to what the work contains, in an entertaining, enlightening yet factual manner. Secondly to offer commentary on the book's merits and shortcomings, maybe even advice on what they would add or leave out. Lastly comes advice as to audience, placement/use.


All the above underlined elements are critical in understanding what goes into and out of a complete review. Do you read? Critically? I mean, while you're reading do you find yourself thinking, "Is that right?". Do you find yourself lifting an eyebrow feeling, "I would have said that differently; it would have been more effective..."? Are you non-squeamish about writing your ideas in the front, back, margins of works as you're using them? Certainly, some knowledge of content of the area you're reviewing, and facility with format of written language is necessary; but you don't have to an established journalist to have you reviews published.


What better place to start out writing than the fish club hobbyist bulletins? Many an author in this magazine have there propitious start there, me included. Contact your organizations editor and volunteer.

Looking to make money for your efforts? If your designs are on a work of general application, e.g. home improvement, environmental, educational, beginner content, entertain the possibility of submitting the review to your hometown newspaper. More specialized manuscripts can be offered to regional and special interest magazines, like this one.

A standard approach before sending or even writing your review(s) is to craft a query letter. This is a short inquiry sent to the publication's editor stating that you want to do the review, why you think their readers might like to read it, and especially why you are qualified to do it.

Learning to Write Reviews:

There are many roads that can, do lead to successful writing. Some folks find out how by reading other peoples' published reviews. Look through the magazines and papers you get; most have a review section or column near the back. Which reviews are good, poor; a mix? Why? Is it content, plot, something missing? How could you, would you do, re-do it?

Get thee to a library and look through recent volumes of Book Review Digest and Contemporary Literary Criticism for prime examples of good reviewing.

A bit sticky on getting the words right? It might suit you to attend an Adult Education or Community College class on writing; or at least check out what they are using as a text. May I throw in my eight cents (inflation) for my favorites? The Elements of... Grammar (Margaret Shertzer), Style (William Strunk and E.B. White), and Editing (Arthur Plotnik), and Sheridan Baker's The Practical Stylist. These are wonderful tools; short, to the point, and available everywhere as inexpensive paperbacks.

Becoming a better writer is a synergistic multi-input process. You write, read, re-write, have someone critique what you think you've written, write some more, re-write... so it goes.

Basic Building Blocks:

After long contemplation, collecting and cataloging aquatic literature reviews it dawns on me that those I like have the following elements.

1) An interesting opening: a few paragraphs about the author, the title's coverage and relation to other work.

2) A summary of the book's physical make-up: Size, number of pages, color-work. How is it laid out? Is there sufficient margin space, an appendix, glossary. How's the print job, registration, type size, adequacy of graphics?

3) Information and Beauty: Is the work complete, with few errors? Is it something you'd find on a coffee table or more of a manual?

4) Your opinions as reviewer to the book's strengths and weaknesses. This is the time and place for subjectivity.

5) An overall summation and conclusion that gives the reader an overall impression of the work.


What was your initial impression of the book? Does it have any cohesive theme or approach you found notable? What is so special that someone might want to seek this book out? The beginning sentences of your review must address these questions in a manner that compels your audience to read on.


Why do people read reviews? Mainly to find out whether they want to read the book itself. Telling the reader what's in the text can be accomplished through several means. Give significant information, quantitative and qualitative that allows them to make up their mind to go further. Selected quotations can make or break a review. Give context where necessary. A note here regarding the issue of copyright. If using more than a sentence or two, it is suggested you secure permission from the publisher before quoting extensively. I further encourage you to always send a copy of your original and published review to the publisher and author(s). Believe me, they do appreciate this.

Negative Opinions:

If you didn't care for a book, why did you buy and keep reading it? Some folks seem to like trashing other people's work. I'm not one of them. If we have to have countries and governments running them, why can't we have grandmothers in charge? They're so full of good advice; "If you don't have something nice (or at least constructive) to say ..."; "You can catch more flies (or editors) with honey than vinegar". Sigh.

The Big Wrap-Up:

Hey, geez time for me to be going too. Make your finish with some strong, stirring words concerning what the author set out to do and how well they accomplished it. Very possibly, echo your sentiments expressed in your opening paragraph(s).

A worthwhile review tells a brief story and impression of a book's contents, lending the reader a feeling of the flavor of the work in an interesting, informative manner; allowing the audience to determine for themselves if the book is for them.

"Now, sit up straight and don't slouch." Ahhh.

Further Reading:

Burack, Sylvia K.. 1994. The Writer's Handbook. The Writer, Inc.. Boston.

Evans, Glen (Ed.). 1988. The Complete Guide to Writing Nonfiction by the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Harper & Row, Publishers, New York.

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