Writing a good book review is an art in and of itself, with the lofty goals of entertaining the reader, offering thoughtful opinions on the value of the book, and backing those opinions up with careful analysis. The best book reviewers are well respected professionals, whose opinions guide curious readers to new books that they’ll love but would not have otherwise picked up, or help them steer clear of those books whose covers and titles catch the eye but whose content ultimately disappoints. Book reviews are also an effective assignment for teachers who want their students to learn the skills of reading. It can help students focus on comprehension and critical thinking. Or maybe you are a graduate student trying to assess the breadth of existing research in your field and you want to do a better job reviewing the literature while you read it. Whether you are writing a review for school or you are interested in reviewing books professionally, the fundamentals of the book review are the same, and taking the time to consider the template of a book review before you begin reading can help you focus on and extract the information that will be essential to writing a useful and entertaining book review.
Let’s begin by describing what a book review is and isn’t. A book review is not a summary or synopsis. You will be describing the contents of the book to some extent, but the goal of a book review is not to explain what the book is about but to evaluate its quality and significance. Neither is a book review an in-depth essay about some specific aspect of the book. The difference between and essay and a review is that a review offers an overview of the book so that the reader of the review can decide whether they want to read the book. An essay however is more specific, it delves deeply into one particular aspect of the book and instead of offering any opinion of the quality or value of the work in its entirety, an essay attempts to understand and analyze something that the author was saying. In many ways both essays and reviews work with the same materials, such as themes, character development, genre, authorial intent, but the difference is in what they are trying to convey about the book, essays are specific, reviews are general. Fundamentally a review is an opinion on whether you think other people should read a book, your reasons why or why not, and some context so your reader knows what this book is about.
Let’s look at a basic template for a writing a book review and then we’ll discuss the various key elements in greater detail so that you can keep them in mind while reading.
Preview to the Review
– The introduction is the most structured part of a review, it always mentions the title and author of the book, gives some brief characterization of the book and offers some preliminary analysis that will be further explained in the rest of the review.
– It often makes the best sense to write the introduction after you have written the rest of the review. It can be difficult to introduce the review if you don’t yet know what is in it.
– The first sentence of a review may be the last sentence you write because it should be a enticing, informative and relevant to the opinions you will present in the review that follows it. At the very least it should be the last thing you edit before considering the review completed, in order to make sure that it does its job.
– Key elements: a) Book title, b) Author’s name, c) catchy first sentence, d) description of books contents, e) preview of the opinions in the review.
Saying your Piece
– The body of the review is where you have a chance to make your opinions about the book known and support them with your analysis.
– It is in this section that we consider the various qualities of the book and benefit most from having considered the basic questions that a reader asks of any book.
– This section can be long or short depending on the audience of your review. If this review is for your teacher, they may have specified a specific length. Generally the body is the longest section of a review, although some reviews have no body at all and are merely an introduction; these are generally called blurbs and don’t require any analysis of the book, only an opinion.
– The general format of a body paragraph will first offer an opinion about one of the basic questions, then support the opinion with some analysis of the qualities related to the basic questions. This can be repeated in order to discuss several of the basic questions or it can be used once in the first paragraph with subsequent paragraphs offering further analysis of the same topic.
– Key Elements: a) basic questions, b) opinions, c) qualities and analysis
Make ‘em Remember
– As with any conclusion, this is the part where most of the important information has already been laid out and all that remains is reinforcing your opinions, and impressing your reader with one last closing remark.
– Key Elements: a) reinforcing opinions, b) closing remark
Let’s take a look at the key elements mentioned in the template for writing a review. Some of these elements are important to keep in mind while you are reading the book and will make formulating your opinions and writing the review much easier.
- Basic questions: The fundamental aspects of a story (or non-fiction)
- The basic questions are what any reader is trying to learn by reading a book, such as: what the author is saying, how they are saying it, and why they are saying it. Here’s a list of some of the most important things to consider while reading:
- The Plot (or idea): What is the setting and era of the book, what is the central conflict, who helps the central conflict towards a resolution, who prevents the resolution of the conflict, is the central conflict familiar or unusual? Is it symbolic or literal? Does the author make the plot obvious or is it hard to follow, why? What is the outcome of the conflict, or the central thesis of the idea, is it success or failure and what does the outcome say about the author’s opinion of the central conflict as a quest?
- The Characters (of topics) : what are the goals, quests, values, skills, motivations, and weaknesses of the characters? Do they develop or change? Do they represent a type of person or class of people, do they fit into society or are they outcasts? Consider how the author is portraying them and why? Do you feel sympathetic or envious or superior to them and why? For nonfiction take account of how the author characterizes the topics, favorably or unfavorably, are the ideas well explained or simply stated as fact?
- Themes: Themes are societal sized topics, issues such as courage, hate, love, violence, treachery, isolation, devotion, spirituality, ambition, class, culture and death. A work can have many themes and you can discover the themes by analyzing the plot. Once you have identified the theme then you can identify the thesis, which is: what the author is saying about the theme. If the theme is hatred and all the characters end up unhappy, then the thesis might be that hatred leads to unhappiness.
- Qualities and analysis
- Once you have read the book and contemplated the basic questions, it is time to assess the qualities of the book and analyze them. The analyzing the qualities of the book is how your form opinions about the book. Are the characters or topics well developed, do they seem real, is the information trustworthy or unbelievable, are the themes interesting, do they make you think, or are they dull. Analysis involves justifying why you assess the qualities the way you do.
- Author’s name
- Take the time to look up the author on Google, knowing about the context of their life will give some valuable insights into the basic questions of the book. Pay attention to when they lived and the historical events that affected them, their social standing and cultural background, the scope of their career and success during their life. This sort of insight is not only helpful when reading, it also makes for interesting analysis that you can share in your review.
- Book Title
- The author often makes a strong point in the choice of title. Sometimes it is as simple as trying to intrigue the intended audience, but even then the title draws attention to what basic questions the author considered most interesting or important. If you are, for instance, reviewing Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice then you already have a very good idea of the central themes of the story.
- Description of book’s contents
- Don’t give the whole story away, but a brief description of the setting, central ideas, and themes of the book is essential to helping your reader decide if the book you are reviewing is of interest to them.
- Did you like the book? Can you relate to the characters? did they open your eyes to an experience you’d never thought of? Should everyone read this book? Should no one read this book? Why? Your opinions are supported by your analysis of the qualities of the book as they relate to the basic questions of the reader.
- Preview of opinions
- Essentially your opinions boil down to whether this was a worthwhile book to read. Preview your opinions by making your bottom line recommendation known (to read or not to read), and give a sample of the analysis you support this conclusion with.
- Catchy first sentence
- Ask an unusual question, offer a plot teaser, contemplate the themes, hint at your opinion of the book, whatever you decide to do, the catchy first sentence is your opportunity to make someone want to read your review. What makes you want to read a review?
- Reinforcing opinions
- Ideally you will not merely restate the opinions you developed earlier, but will find a way to draw them all together in order to make a recommendation for other potential readers and offer some idea of what the author’s intended audience was.
- Closing remark
- The game is over, you’ve made all your arguments and you’ve got one final sentence to convince the audience of your opinions and expertise. There’s a lot of leeway for the last sentence, you can draw on the universal themes as presented in the book, make some last jab at the book’s clichés, reflect on insights gained from an unexpected subject matter; whatever it is, make it count.
Now you’ve got the template for writing a review and the fundamentals of reading a book so that you can write the best review possible. The purpose of a review is to convince the reader that your opinion of the book is the same opinion they will have if they read it. You are either enticing them or warning them, and therefore it is important to consider how people are convinced. The reader will be affected most by your ethos (trustworthiness), logos (expertise), and pathos (emotional sincerity). Your ethos and logos will be products of how clearly and convincingly explain yourself, so it is essential that you take the time to proofread, and your pathos will be conveyed by well considered and thoughtful your opinions of the book are. Book reviews follow some basic structure but it is a chance for creativity as well, a chance to express your opinions in an entertaining way so that someone else can benefit from your consideration of the book.