Writing Book Reviews

It’s been said that an intellectual is someone who reads with a pencil in hand. These days I’d update that to say they highlight and make notes in their digital library.

I didn’t jump on the digital books bandwagon until about seven years ago, but I am a full-fledged adherent now. About 90% of the reading I do is done digitally through a variety of apps. I really got into digital books when I started participating with Library Reads, a library worker-centered monthly top 10 list of books being released in a given month. Participants access a website called Edelweiss and now also NetGalley) to download digital copies of upcoming new releases and submit their reviews. 

Say what you will about Amazon, but they did build a really great reading app with Kindle. I did previously use an actual Kindle device (and for some that may be the way to go), but I’m now pretty much exclusive to the app on my iPhone and iPad. So when I get the chance to read an upcoming release for a review, my first preference is to send it to Kindle. 

This is me being a little persnickety, but I use Todoist for all my tasks, and I do a lot of non-fiction book reviews. So naturally I look at the table of contents of whatever book I’m going to write a review for, and I create a task list in Todoist of all the chapters. Then I can schedule out what I need to read to make my deadline. This is a definite quirk of mine, but it helps me not only keep track of my reading but also stay on task and not stress out about missing my deadline.

Once my book is in Kindle, I can highlight passages that stand out to me as I read. When putting together a book review, this is great for pull quotes and general good writing you want to recall. Kindle allows for four different colors of highlighting, so you could even color code your highlights if you wanted to get a little more intense.

You can also add in your own notes and observations. Sometimes I’ll highlight a passage and I’ll have a personal anecdote that goes along with it, or a reference I want to tie with it. I can add that note in, as long as I need since narrow margins is not a thing!

Once you’ve finished reading the book, you can access those notes and highlights for quick reference. This has gotten a little tricky for me, since there is a distinction between the “books” that I purchase or borrow from the library, and the “documents” that are the digital advance reader copies of books. Notes and highlights in documents have to be exported so you can look over them.

This is where Evernote comes in. I can export those notes and highlights into a note in the application, and from there I have all the passages and observations I like ready to go! I can start cutting and pasting items I want to build the review within that note, and it’s all at my fingertips.

Sometimes I’m sent a PDF of a book to review. While that can be imported to Kindle, you either have to import it as a PDF and then have trouble resizing it so you can read it comfortably AND you’re not able to highlight, or you can have Kindle reformat it for Kindle… and I have never had that work out well. The formatting goes so wonky I can’t even read it so it defeats the purpose. 

So I started using GoodNotes for my PDF books! Importing to GoodNotes means I can read the book comfortably on my iPad and MacBook (and iPhone if I want, but again — it may just be too tiny), and I can highlight as I go along and write in my own notes as I read. GoodNotes allows for you to have a “gallery view” of the PDF file, so I can quickly skim through to find my highlights or passages I circled in red pen that I found important. GoodNotes can be good about syncing to where you left off on another device, but I usually trust my task list of chapters to keep me updated when I’m using that app. 

Since GoodNotes doesn’t have a way for me to collate the notes I take in the app, I instead open up an Evernote note with the title and due date of the review and switch between the apps to write down things I want to remember, turns of phrase that I like to include in the review, or anything else. It’s slightly more cumbersome, but it gets me what I need in the end.

What strategies and apps have you found useful when writing book reviews?

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