Writing a book review might seem a challenging task. To begin, reading a book as the first step in putting together a critical piece may be time-consuming. Memorizing a plot, identifying important details, and setting priorities in terms of information pertinent to a review is also strenuous. Another difficulty that, unaddressed, may compromise the integrity of an entire paper is poor structure and organization. Challenges aside, the benefit of writing a book review is that it may lead to in-depth insights and generate new ideas.
Common Mistakes to Avoid
Arguably, knowing what not to do is as valuable as knowing what to do. The discussion that follows presents four common mistakes found in writing.
- Summarizing the plot of a book
Even though a summary of a book’s contents comprises an indispensable part of a book review, a review that retells the plot lacks complexity and integrity. While a synopsis or summary can be valuable in another context, a book review expands beyond merely providing a description of events.
- Revealing the ending and plot twists
The validity of choosing to reveal the ending depends on the writing assignment. In certain cases, such the task of writing a review of a new book for a magazine, it would be appropriate not to disclose the ending, especially a plot twist.
- Organizing the review poorly
Although creativity and free expression of ideas is usually encouraged when writing a review, run-on sentences and stream-of-consciousness are to be avoided. It helps to reread a review through a reader’s eyes.
- Putting excessive emphasis on the author
The author’s personality and life events may play a considerable role in correctly understanding the main ideas. Still, providing too many details about the author’s background, reviewing other works, and speculating as to what he or she might have been intending to convey are redundant.
- Writing about the book you wished had been written
Prioritizing expectations for a book over the actual contents may be misleading and may preclude a complete review. While it may be normal to point out specific gaps in narration or topics an author has failed to cover, wishing a book was completely different from reality is not solid criticism but fantasy.
Beginning the Writing Process
Ideally, you will start by making notes to use later for a review while reading a book for the first time. Bookmarks and brief comments might help you to organize the thought process and ensure that all important details are included in the body of the review. On the other hand, merely reading a book without focusing attention on details or an agenda might be more natural to some writers. Regardless of the approach you choose, the next step involves reflecting on the book’s contents. At that, it may be helpful to pose a number of questions while reading, including the following:
- What is the main question or issue the book addresses?
- What is the book’s argument or thesis?
- How is the book organized to support the thesis? Are the chapters ordered chronologically or thematically? (Rand 1)
If not pressed for time, it may be reasonable to read the book twice. First impressions are valuable for providing the emotional context; however, a second reading might draw attention to hidden details and help you view the work through a critical lens. A second reading is also useful for gathering evidence to support the author’s case and the assumptions he or she made.
Studying the Background
Each book is not an isolated work of art but a product of its time and environment. What may appear perplexing at first may become clear if you learn about the author’s background and the period to which a book belongs. Answering the following questions may help to set the context:
- What does a reader learn about the period and issues covered? Are there unique aspects to the epoch described?
- How do the characters’ milieu and the social norms of the epoch described help to explain the characters’ actions and motivation?
- How does the author’s life story pertain to the contents of the book? Does the book draw on the author’s experiences? Can parallels be drawn between his or her life events and the book’s events?
- What are the author’s convictions, philosophical outlook, or religious background? What is the author’s apparent attitude toward the characters’ actions?
If expanding the context becomes necessary, the questions below may be of great help:
- How does this book compare to other works by the same author?
- Do similar books on the topic exist? Was the author innovative in approaching the topic and addressing the issue?
Outlining the Structure
It is important to understand the essential elements of a good review.
- First, a review should include a brief and concise summary of a book. Rather than emphasizing small details, focus instead on discussing the book’s thesis, perspective, purpose, and ideas. The organization and contents of a summary often depend on the book itself. For example, writing a review of a classic work may lead to the assumption that the reader might be familiar with its contents; thus, retelling them in minute detail might serve no significant purpose. However, if a book is new and its author is seeking more publicity, the purpose of a review is to present the synopsis in such a way that a reader knows what to expect.
- Second, a good review needs to provide a critical assessment. In short, was the author persuasive in supporting his or her case?
- Third, a good review takes into consideration the target audience of a book and discusses whether they would appreciate the book.
The structure of a review may be outlined as follows:
- Introduction. Many writers like to start a review with a quote, a pivotal scene from the book, or a personal anecdote to draw the reader’s attention. You must determine the relevance of any quote or story you plan to include in the review and make a decision based on the instructions and the word count. The introduction section should include the following details:
- The author’s name, the title of the book, and the date of first publication;
- The literary and social context;
- The thesis of the book;
- The main thesis of the review.
- Summary. The summary should be brief and concise, focusing on analysis rather than mere description.
- Analysis/ Critical Evaluation. The analytical section of the review should be organized in separate paragraphs, with each detailing a single aspect to be analyzed. It is up to you to decide exactly how this section is to be organized. Some ideas for establishing a structure include:
- Covering the book chapter by chapter;
- Evaluating the plot, characters, stylistic devices, and so on;
- Discussing each topic/ issue separately—for example, racial issues, family relations, love, death, and so on.
- Conclusion. A proper conclusion includes all the points made in the body of the review and provides no new information.
In the writing process, you may be confronted with a number of difficulties that, although potentially confusing, you can overcome if you approach the exercise with logic and common sense. Being intentional while reading can be a significant help, including making notes and commentary to organize your thought process. Studying the period described in the book under review and key events from the author’s biography may spark inspiration and facilitate drawing conclusions about a book. A good review should be well-structured, provide relevant data about a book and its author, and offer a critical assessment alongside a summary of the contents. However, avoid discussing your expectations regarding your thoughts of what the book might have been as well as hazarding too many guesses about the author’s true intentions.
Rand, Asta J. “Writing a Book Review for an Academic Journal.” CAPA-ACAP, 2016, capa-acap.net/sites/default/files/basic-page/book_review_guidelines.pdf. Accessed 27 Dec. 2018.