The aim of this article is to explain the process of writing book reviews, reports, essays, or any document that gives a critical view or perspective of a particular text. Furthermore, this guide suggests a process and a few strategies for writing these types of assignments. The focus of this guide is how to write a book review. A separate article in this series looks more closely at literature reviews and how to approach and complete these.
Reviews are, in essence, a process whereby the writer critically evaluates a given event, phenomenon, object or text. A review can be based on a newspaper, journal or magazine article, a book, a whole field or type of literature, an artwork, a performance, a policy, a piece or type of architecture, an exhibition, a restaurant, fashion, or on any one of a number of other things.
A review, above anything else, puts forward a particular argument. An essential feature of review writing – possibly the most essential feature – is that it provides commentary and does not just summarize. The writer should be able to engage in discussion and dialog with the creator of the work and, indeed, with a variety of audiences. When you are writing a review, you may agree or disagree with a work’s author and pick out parts that you find excellent or lacking in terms of organization, judgment and/or knowledge. It is important the writer states their opinion on the work they are reviewing clearly. Usually, the way these opinions are laid out is similar to the way this is done in other genres of scholarly writing, i.e. an introductory paragraph with a central thesis statement, a few body paragraphs to support the writer’s opinion, and a concluding paragraph. Please refer to our guide on constructing and laying out an argument for more information.
In most cases, a review is quite short. In the case of scholarly journals and newspapers, these are generally around 1000-word documents and seldom exceed this word count. However, it is possible that sometimes you will see longer reviews with extended commentary. In any case, a review should be clear and succinct. Although the subject matter, style and tone can vary, there are some common elements in a review:
A lot of writers find the prospect of writing reviews daunting. You may have been asked to provide an opinion on something you do not feel qualified to comment on. How can you criticize the new novel by Toni Morrison when you have not written any books yourself and you certainly are not a Nobel Prize winner? However, the fact remains that someone – possibly your professor, other members of a review group you belong to, or perhaps a journal or newspaper editor – wants your views on a given work. It may be you are not an expert or do not feel as though you are one, but you will have to adopt the persona of an expert for the benefit of those who will be reading your review. It is unlikely anyone will expect you to be on an intellectual par with the creator of the work but careful and astute observation can give you the basis to arrive at well-reasoned and impartial judgments. Your first aim should be to voice any agreement(s), disagreement(s), criticisms and/or praise in a tactful way. While these skills are challenging, they are very valuable in review writing and, as is the case with many types of writing, you will need to provide solid evidence to support any claims or assertions you make.
The example below is a short review written by a History student with an interest in beer and whose course deals specifically with Europe in medieval times:
In the book Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600, the author Judith M Bennett draws attention to the fact it was women who mostly brewed and sold the ale and beer consumed in England during that period. From a historical perspective, beer and ale – rather than water, wine or milk – were key constituents of the diet in medieval England. The brewing of ale did not require much skill, and the work itself was considered lower status than other industries; therefore, it complemented the other domestic duties of women. In the early 15th century, however, those involved in brewing started to use hops in the ale-making process, and the resulting new beverage was called beer. The new technique enabled beers and ales to be produced more cost-effectively and they were easier to sell. Notably, women ceased to brew when the industry started to generate more profit.
Here, the writer describes the book’s subject and provides the reader with a fairly precise summary of its contents. However, readers do not find certain important information that is usually gained from a book review i.e. the argument(s) the author puts forward, the writer’s own evaluation of the work, and an indication of whether the writer recommends Bennett’s book or not. In terms of critical evaluation of a book, a review should be focused not on details and facts, but rather on opinion(s). It is important to keep the summary brief while specific facts and details should be used for the purpose of illustrating arguments.
Now look at the following review, which concerns the same book but is written by a student with slightly stronger opinions:
I found this book a huge disappointment. My aim was to learn more about the drinking rituals of the English during that period, including the party practices, games and songs. I found no such information in Bennett’s book. However, I did like the way the author showed the economic aspects of brewing ales and beers. Yet, readers can get lost in all the detail about wages and prices. My interest lay more in the actual lives of the female brewers. This book is split into eight lengthy chapters, and I find it difficult to see why many people would be interested in reading it.
This particular review is not lacking in opinion and judgments! Still, the reviewer does not show they know or understand the argument in the book. Readers get a view of the writer’s expectations of Bennett’s book, but little idea about what the author wanted to achieve or prove. While the review writer gives a number of reasons for their negative views, the examples provided fail to relate clearly to one another in terms of their overall assessment i.e. they do not seem to support a particular thesis. Though the above review assesses the work, it lacks a critical manner.
And below is one last review based on Bennett’s book:
It is one of the paradoxes of feminism, those that question and challenge several of its historical optimisms, how patriarchal structures continue to persist even with the passage of time. Although in her book, the author recognizes women in medieval England as actors in history due to their brewing of ale, she also shows that with the emergence of beer, the role of the female has been limited. I previously believed these limitations were more of a political and religious nature, yet Bennett demonstrates how women were also sidelined in economic matters. The analysis of female earnings in the field of producing ales and beers further proves that changes in the work of women do not mean a corresponding change in their status. I would recommend that both modern historians and feminist proponents read this book and then think again about the issues raised in it when they will be contemplating the beer in front of them.
In this review, the problems with the two previous examples are avoided. This last example neatly balances opinion with solid example and it critically evaluates the situation using clear rationale. It also makes a recommendation to potential readers. There is a clear sense of the author’s intentions. Furthermore, the writer makes reference to the general history of feminism and this puts the book in a particular genre so that it reaches a more general or wider audience. The use of the specific example about wage analysis indicates the writer’s argument, and this analysis provides scope for important intellectual debate on the situation; in addition, the writer’s reasons for such a positive evaluation are rather clear. This review contains opinions, criteria, and supporting examples. Whether the reader agrees or disagrees with these is their own choice.
While it is necessary to spend a little time thinking critically about the subject of your review before you begin writing, there really are no set rules on how to write this type of paper. Essentially, there are two key steps involved in the process. First, you need to develop some sort of argument about the text you are reviewing and then you need to continue building that particular argument while you are creating a properly-supported and well-organized draft.
After this, there are a number of important questions to think about and these will help keep your thinking in focus while you are delving into the details of the task you are working on. Although these questions are specific to a book review, they can easily be transferred to other tasks e.g. if you are asked to analyze exhibitions, performances, or any other subjects that can be reviewed. You should not feel you have to answer all of these questions since you will find certain questions to be more critical and relevant to the particular book than others.
Apart from the book’s internal elements and workings, you could additionally consider addressing certain information concerning the book’s author and the particular circumstances in which the text was produced:
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Once your evaluations and observations regarding the text you are reviewing are complete, look at the notes you have made carefully and try to bring the impressions you have formed into a full statement that describes the thesis or purpose of this particular review. Please feel free to refer to our guide on thesis statement writing for additional guidance. The next step is to outline any arguments that lend support to your main thesis.
It is important that any argument(s) you build contribute to developing your thesis in a way that is logical. This logic, which differs to some extent from other types of scholarly writing, can at first put emphasis on the argument made by the author as you continue developing your own argument. How relative this emphasis is can depend on the type and nature of your specific review. For instance, if the interests of your readers are more likely to lie in the actual book itself, you might want to give more prominence to the actual work and its author. If, however, the aim of your review is to set out your own opinions and perspective, you might want to structure your writing to favor your own observations more than those in the text you are reviewing, although the two should never be entirely separated. While there are several ways in which a review can be organized, the following is just one method.
Because the majority of reviews are short, a lot of writers tend to start with a catchy or “attention-grabbing” anecdote or quip that cleverly and succinctly sets out their central argument. However, you may use a different type of introduction depending on your audience and the argument of your review. You should find our guide to writing introductions useful if you need help finding a good approach. A review introduction should contain:
The author’s name, the title of the book, and the book’s central theme.
Any details that are relevant about the author’s identity and what their position is in the field or genre in question. It is also advisable to connect the work’s title to its subject matter to demonstrate how the former explains the latter.
The particular context of whatever work you are evaluating as well as, where applicable, the review you are writing. Putting a review in a context or framework that readers can make sense of shows them what your “position” on the work is. It may be, for example, that you want to position a book concerning the revolution in Cuba within the context of the rivalries that existed between the Soviet Union and the USA during the Cold War. A different review writer may want to position it within the context of the social movements in Latin America. The context you choose tells readers about the argument you will make.
Describe the book’s thesis. If the work you are reviewing is fiction, this could prove difficult because you will seldom find a precise argument in short stories, novels and/or plays. However, if you can identify a particular angle, original take, or novelty in a book, this will enable you to demonstrate the specific role or contribution of this work.
Your own thesis concerning the work you are reviewing.
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While you are analyzing and evaluating a book, you should organize your work into clear paragraphs with each one devoted to a single point or aspect of the argument you are making. Arranging a piece of writing like this can be a challenge, especially when the aim is to consider a work in its entirety. Nonetheless, you may find it helpful to differentiate the various parts of your critique and couple individual claims with relevant evidence as clearly as you can.
It is not always necessary to work your way in chronological order through a book while you are discussing it. Taking the argument you are trying to make, it should be possible and perhaps more useful to arrange paragraphs according to methods, themes, and/or other aspects of the work under review.
It would be useful to compare one particular book with other works. Keep these comparisons as brief as possible so that the book you are reviewing remains in focus.
Try not to use too many quotations and remember to place the page numbers for every quotation in parentheses whenever you use these. Do not forget that it is permissible to use a lot of the original author’s ideas and points by paraphrasing them (i.e. a situation where a writer rewrites parts of a text in their own choice of words).
Here are a few final things to consider. These points are of a general nature:
Looking at examples or sample reviews is an excellent way to learn more about writing a good book review. Indeed, you can learn how professional reviewers go about their work by checking out the Sunday Book Review Section of the New York Times or by checking out the New York Review of Books.