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How to Write a Book Review – You’ve Hit the “Big Time” Now

October 19, 2015 - Posted to Writing

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How to Write a Book Review and What Is It All About

Book reports were pretty easy high school assignments. You read a book, wrote a summary of the plot, talked a little bit about the characters and setting, maybe hit on a theme, and stated whether you liked it or not and why. And admit it. If you were a bit pressed for time, you went to “Sparks Notes,” got the summary and tried to re-write it in your own words. Unfortunately, that won’t work in college. First, professors will “see right through” what you have done; second, you won’t be writing a book report anymore.

What is a Book Review?

A book review is not easily defined. First and foremost is it a piece of literary criticism, not a report. You will be asked to provide an analysis of some aspect of the book. It is assumed in advance that you have read it, of course, and the analysis will differ considerably between works of fiction and non-fiction. Here are some typical examples of book review assignments for students in college:

  • Select a major character and provide a full character analysis. What are major strengths and weaknesses of this individual? How did these strengths or weaknesses impact the plot and other major characters?
  • Is the setting of the novel credible? What specific aspects of both time and place allowed the reader to place him/herself in that time period and place? Was the setting historically accurate relative to customs, dialogue, behaviors, and other elements?
  • Select one theme in the novel. State the theme is one sentence. How has the theme been depicted both in events and in words/actions of the characters? Provide another example of this theme from your own experience or from contemporary events and circumstances.
  • For Non-Fiction: What is the author’s thesis? Identify and describe the main points made and discuss how they support the thesis?
  • For Non-Fiction: Research the background of the author. In your opinion, does the author bring biases to his/her treatment of the subject matter? If so, in what way?
  • Describe the style and tone the author uses. Are they compatible with the message and the points being made?

By now you should realize that book review writing entails much more complexity than your book report writing days.

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The Book Review Writing Process

  1. Try to get the assignment in advance of reading the book. If you have a syllabus for the course, chances are the assignment topics are listed, and you may have options. Read those options carefully and choose one that you fully understand and that you believe you will be able treat successfully in an essay. If you have the topic in advance of reading the book, you will know what to focus on as you read. This will save you from re-reading the book to find the evidence you need to support you topic and thesis.
  2. Focusing on your topic as you read will allow you to take notes as you go. Gathering your evidence may detract from enjoyment of the book itself, but if you really like the work, you can read it again another time. Right now, the focus is on the analytical essay you must write.
  3. You have finished the book and you have your notes. Read through them and think about a thesis statement that will drive the content of the essay you will write. One good way to develop a thesis is to turn the topic details into a questions and then to answer that question. Your answer is your thesis. Now, all you have to do is craft a great sentence that states that thesis.
  4. Looking over your notes, and given your thesis statement, how will you organize the points you will be making in your body paragraphs? You will need to identify at least 3 points to be made, one per paragraph of your body. Each of the 3 points must then be supported by evidence you have gathered. Most students find it easiest to use some form of an outline. It doesn’t have to be formal. Other organizational platforms may be useful too – perhaps a Venn diagram if you are comparing and contrasting two characters.
  5. The introductory and concluding paragraphs both have important purposes. The introduction presents the topic and the thesis statement both. Finding a creative beginning sentence will certainly enhance that introduction. The conclusion should speak to the author’s purpose – in providing a specific setting, in developing credible characters, in proving his/her thesis (non-fiction), or in depicting a theme in credible and effective ways.

Do’s and Don’ts for Book Reviews

Do's Don'ts
  • stick to the topic of your assignment. You must resist from plotting
  • veer from your thesis statement. Each paragraph must support it thesis
  • craft good transition sentences between paragraphs. Otherwise, your essay seems disjointed and lacks the fluency
  • submit your book review without a full review and polish. You may have great ideas and points, but errors can ruin your grade

If you need to read other reviews of the book - that is absolutely ok, and actually a great idea. This does not mean that you go to Spark’s or Cliff’s Notes. It means that you look for reviews in major journals – Saturday Review, New York Times, and Huffington Post – respected publications with expert reviewers. It may help you to clarify your own thought and give you new insights. The word of caution, however, is that you must be extremely careful that you do not “lift” content from these pieces. This is research you are conducting, not engaging in plagiarism.

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Some Final Thoughts

Once you learn how to write book reviews, each one you produce will get easier. You may even grow to enjoy them. The other skill that book review writing enhances is your ability to identify evidence in the written word that will support a thesis you have developed. This will carry over into all of your coursework.

A Final Note

Reading what others have to say about the book is not regarded as plagiarism. Doing so, might actually give you some great ideas and prompts on structure or outline of your book review. However make sure you do not copy paste other person’s words.

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