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Writing a Book Review

Guidance from an Academic Journal and Three Universities

The information below about gathering review information and writing reviews comes from the following:

For additional guidance about becoming a book reviewer, see the information at the end of this post. 

 

ABOUT BOOK REVIEWS

A review gives the reader a concise summary of a book’s content and offers a critical assessment of that content. In addition to analyzing the work, a review often suggests whether or not the audience reading the review would appreciate the work. A good review combines balanced opinion and concrete examples. It is a critical assessment based on an explicitly stated rationale, and it makes a thoughtful recommendation to a potential audience.

Different publications/organizations may ask for different things to be included in a book review, such as comparisons to other books on similar topics, style comparisons to previous works by the same author, suitability for public or academic library collections, etc.

A book review is a commentary, not just a summary. Note, however, that typically reviews are brief. In newspapers and academic journals, they rarely exceed 1,000 words. They may range from a single paragraph of around 250 words, to a standard length of about 1,000 words, to an unrestricted length that allows the reviewer to uncover even deeper contextual nuances. The publisher will make that decision. Most reviews include the book title, length, format (hardcover, paperback, electronic), ISBN, and price.

 

READING THE WORK TO BE REVIEWED

The reviewer asks these questions:

  • What are the author’s viewpoint and purpose?
  • What are the author’s viewpoint and purpose?
  • What are the author’s main points?
  • What kind of evidence does the author use to prove those points? Is the evidence convincing? Why or why not? Does the author support their points adequately?
  • How does this book relate to other books on the same topic?
  • Is the book unique? Does it add new information? What group of readers, if any, would find this book most useful?
  • Does the author have the necessary expertise to write the book?
  • What are the most appropriate criteria by which to judge the book? How successful was the author in carrying out the overall purposes of the book?

The reviewer may also consider information about the author and the circumstances of the text’s production, and include it in the review. For example:

  • Who is the author? Nationality, political persuasion, training, intellectual interests, personal history, and historical context may provide crucial details about how a work takes shape.
  • What is the book’s genre? What field does it come from? Does it conform to the conventions of its genre or does it depart from them?

Here are more aspects of the work that the reviewer should consider:

  • Characters: Who are the principal characters, if any? How do they affect the story?
  • Themes/motifs/style: What themes or motifs stand out? Are they effective or not? Is this author’s particular style accessible to all readers or just some?
  • Argument: How is the work’s argument set up? What support does the author give for the findings? Does the work fulfill its purpose/support its argument?
  • Key ideas: What is the main idea of the work? What makes it good, different, or groundbreaking?

 

WRITING A BOOK REVIEW

What a Good Book Review Does

  • Summarizes the aim of the book and its contributions (or lack thereof).
  • Identifies the book’s strengths and weaknesses and evaluate the contents of the book critically.
  • Assesses the book on its own terms by considering what it sets out to accomplish and whether it does so successfully. Important: The book review must stay focused on the book that is actually being reviewed.

Questions the Book Review Should Answer

  • Does the book have a clear and significant thesis?
  • What are the book’s major contributions?
  • Is the book’s methodology an appropriate one, given its overall question or focus?
  • Is the book well-written and clearly organized?
  • At what level is the book pitched, to whom might it appeal, and how might it be useful to readers?
  • For reviews of anthologies or edited volumes:
    • The reviewer should briefly summarize the overall collection and emphasize what they find to be most significant about the book. They might select a few chapters to focus the review on. This way, they can discuss specific contributions and/or arguments in much greater detail and tie these to the key theme of the volume.

The Book Review’s Components

Introduction

In general, the introduction should include the following:

  • The name of the author and the book title and the main theme
  • Relevant details about who the author is and where the author stands in the genre or field of inquiry. Note: At this point, the review could also link the title to the subject to show how the title explains the subject matter.
  • The context of the book and/or the review. Placing the review in a framework that makes sense to the audience alerts readers to the reviewer’s “take” on the book. The reviewer’s choice of context informs the argument.
  • A summary of the main points or main characters that will help readers gauge their interest. The audience has not read the work, so the reviewer should introduce characters and principles carefully and deliberately. Does the author’s text adequately reach the intended audience? Will some readers be lost? Will some readers find the text too easy?
  • The thesis of the book. Identifying the book’s particular novelty, angle, or originality allows the reviewer to show what specific contribution the piece is trying to make.
  • The reviewer’s thesis about the book.

Summary of Content

The audience has not read the work, so characters and principles should be introduced carefully and deliberately. What kind of summary can the reviewer provide of the main points or main characters that will help the review readers gauge their interest? Does the author’s text adequately reach the intended audience? Will some readers be lost? Will some find the text too easy?

However, this section should be brief, as the next section, Analysis and Evaluation, takes priority. The purpose of the review is to critically evaluate the text, not just inform the readers about it. The reviewer should leave plenty of room for evaluation by ensuring that the Summary is brief. The reviewer must determine what kind of balance to strike between the Summary information and the Evaluation. Often the ratio is half and half.

Analysis and Evaluation of the Book

This section should be organized into paragraphs that deal with single aspects of the reviewer’s argument. One or a few points about the book should be chosen for discussion, ideally the most pressing issues. What worked well for the reviewer? How does this work compare with others by the same author or other books in the same genre? What major themes, motifs, or terms does the book introduce, and how effective are they? Did the book appeal to the reviewer in an emotional or logical way?

Conclusion

Here the reviewer sums up or restates their thesis or makes their final judgment regarding the book. New evidence for the reviewer’s argument should not be introduced in the Conclusion. The reviewer can, however, introduce new ideas that go beyond the book if ideas extend the logic of their own thesis. This paragraph needs to balance the book’s strengths and weaknesses in order to unify the Evaluation.

A general rule of thumb is that the first one-half to two-thirds of the review should summarize the author’s main ideas and at least one-third should be used to evaluate the book.

Adding Interest

The following elements could be of extra interest to review readers:

  • Author: Who is the author? What else has the author written?
  • Genre: What type of book is this: fiction, nonfiction, romance, poetry, youth fiction, etc.? Who is the intended audience? What is the purpose of the work?
  • Title: Where does the title fit in? How is it applied in the work? Does it adequately encapsulate the message of the text? Is it interesting? Uninteresting?
  • Preface/Introduction/Table of Contents: Does the author provide any revealing information about the text in the Preface/Introduction? What judgments or preconceptions do the author and/or “guest author” provide? How is the book arranged: by section, by chapter?
  • Book Jacket/Cover/Printing: Book jackets are like mini-reviews. Does the book jacket provide any interesting details or spark an interest in some way?

 

ALSO SEE

Reviews Are In: Read, Write, and Expand Your Career. Mission Bell Media, 2016.

Henrietta Verma, a seasoned reviews editor, offers general writing advice as well as specific guidelines for reading and writing as a reviewer of fiction and nonfiction materials. National University owns a physical copy. Please complete this Books Direct Request Form to have the book sent to your home.

For information from the American Library Association about becoming a book reviewer, see
https://www.ala.org/rt/nmrt/news/footnotes/november2008/book_reviews_dorney
Also explore the links at the end of the ALA article.