How to Write a Book Review

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Writing a book review — or any evaluation of a piece of content, including live or recorded music or a film — is simply a matter of sharing your thoughts after you have engaged in the content, but there is a standard template for producing it. Here’s one outline of the format.

The two primary types of book reviews are those written as an academic assignment (also called a book report) and those written as an informational service to readers of a print periodical or a website. The structure of each is essentially the same as the other, although an academic exercise tends to be more formal and analytical, while a journalistic book review is often more casual and geared more toward helping the review’s reader decide whether to buy the book.

Word count varies widely, especially in the latter case; as with film and music reviews, the length can vary from a fifty- to one-hundred-word capsule review that describes the plot or topic in one sentence and briefly describes the book’s quality to an extensive essay consisting of a thousand words or more.

A book review summarizes the book’s content, examines the author’s intent in writing it, and expresses the reviewer’s opinion about to what extent the author succeeded in conveying the intent or communicating a message.

Just like any other piece of writing, a book review requires a lead paragraph that will attract the reader’s attention. In the case of nonfiction, be alert for offbeat or provocative statements that define the tone of the book, and refer to them in your opening sentence. After reading a novel or a collection of poems or short stories, articulate what it is about the content that makes it innovative, unique, or otherwise noteworthy.

Next, briefly identify the author and describe the narrative. (A more detailed description of the author, including qualifications and/or previous publications, can follow later.) Then, explain whether, in your opinion, the author has told the story (fiction or nonfiction) well.

Follow up in the next few paragraphs with supporting arguments. Are the characters credible and fully realized? For nonfiction books, will the reader feel as if he or she knows the people interviewed or understands the topics or issues discussed? Is the plot coherent and realistic? Is the organization of chapters logical? Are there plot holes, or are matters left undiscussed or treated with insufficient attention?

Note the author’s use of content other than running text (the basic content). Does the novel include any other elements, like illustrations or maps, to enhance the narrative? Do sidebars or boxes of text provide interesting digressions or case studies? Do graphic elements like photographs, graphs, charts, or tables support the text, and do they do it well?

Conclude your review with a restatement of your general impression of the book, including a concise, precise endorsement or rejection. Don’t be concerned about offending a professor who worships an author or damaging a magazine’s or website’s relationship with book publishers that advertise with it; it’s your responsibility to provide a well-reasoned and honest appraisal.

Take care to be impartial. If you’re reviewing a book by a favorite author of yours, approach it skeptically. If you disagree with an author’s philosophy or politics, keep an open mind. Your task is not to champion or chastise the author; it is to evaluate the merits of the work. You’re welcome to criticize shortcomings in an argument or a narrative or to extol the author’s craft or persuasive skills, but support your analysis with solid examples from the book.

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4 thoughts on “How to Write a Book Review”

  1. I liked your post – a lot of information in a concise and organized format.

    I’m planning on writing book reviews for both the fiction and nonfiction book I read in the future.

    I’ll be bookmarking this post for future reference. Thanks!

  2. This approach is great for an essay paper, I’d agree.

    In an online world where customer reviews are increasingly important, however, it may be daunting to both reviewer and reader. For shorter reviews, I’d recommend a four-paragraph approach the original Space Gamer magazine taught:

    (1) What’s it about?
    (2) What’s good about it? (Find something.)
    (3) What’s bad about it? (Find something.)
    (4) What’s your final recommendation?

    During a stint writing reviews professionally, I learned the particular importance of “find something.” (As you note, it’s important to remain impartial.) There were times when a more careful look pointed out something to grudgingly admire in a book I disliked, or a flaw to admit in one I loved.

    I’d definitely recommend this shorter, four-part approach for customer reviews. It covers the points you describe above, though in a simpler, more straightforward fashion.

  3. This is sufficient advice for passable reviews of genre fiction and other popular fare, and which are intended for publication in outlets like local newspapers or the various localized “Patch” news websites. It is, however, very simplistic and just won’t do for more sophisticated and specialized publications like American Book Review, Rain Taxi, and New York Review of Books, not to mention literary journals that publish reviews, all of which focus on serious literary fiction and other works that elude the kind of brief, formulaic approach offered here. Their savvy readers expect more. So, yes: If you want to take on, say, the latest James Patterson, have at it. You might want to leave, however, the next Joanna Scott novel to specialists.

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