Tennessee Valley Civil War Round Table
General Guidance for Writing a Book Review
A book review tells not only what a book is about, but also how successfully the book explains itself. Professors often assign book reviews as practice in careful, analytical reading. As a reviewer, you bring together the two strands of accurate, analytical reading and strong, personal response when you indicate that the book is about and what it might mean to a reader (by explaining what it meant to you). In other words, reviewers answer not only the “what” but the “so what” question about a book. Thus, in writing a review, you combine the skills of describing what is on the page, analyzing how the book tried to achieve its purpose, and expressing your own reactions.
Reading the Book: As you are reading or preparing to write the review, ask yourself these questions:
What are the author’s viewpoint and purpose?
Are they appropriate? The viewpoint or purpose may be implied rather than stated, but often a good place to look if or what the author says about his or her purpose and viewpoint is the introduction or preface.
What are the author’s main points?
Again, these will often be stated in the introduction.
What kind of evidence does the author use to prove his or her points?
Is the evidence convincing? Why or why not? Does the author support his or her points adequately?
How does this book relate to other books on the same topic?
Is the book unique? Does it add new information? What group of readers, if any, would find this book most useful?
Does the author have the necessary expertise to write the book?
What credentials or background does the author have that qualify him or her to write the book? Has the author written other books or papers on this topic? Do others in this field consider this author to be an expert?
What are the most appropriate criteria by which to judge the book?
How successful do you think the author was in carrying out the overall purposes of the book? Depending on your book’s purpose, you should select appropriate criteria by which to judge its success. Use any criteria your instructor has given you in lecture or on your assignment sheet. Otherwise, here are some criteria to consider. For example, if an author says his or her purpose is to argue for a particular solution to a public problem, then the review should judge whether the author has defined the problem, identified causes, planned points of attack, provided necessary background information, and offered specific solutions. A review should also indicate the author’s professional expertise. In other books, however, the authors may argue for their theory about a particular phenomenon. Reviews of these books should evaluate what kind of theory the book is arguing for, how much and what kind of evidence the author uses to support his or her scholarly claims, how valid the evidence seems, how expert the author is, and how much the book contributes to the knowledge of the field.
Writing the Book Review
Book reviews generally include the following kinds of information; keep in mind, though, that you may need to include other information to explain your assessment of a book. Most reviews start off with a heading that includes all the bibliographic information about the book. If your assignment sheet does not indicate which form you should use, you can use the following: Title. Author. Place of publication: publisher, date of publication. Number of Pages.
Like most pieces of writing, the review itself usually begins with an introduction that lets your readers know what the review will say. The first paragraph usually includes the author and title again, so your readers don’t have to look up to find this information. You should also include a very brief overview of the contents of the book, the purpose or audience for the book, and your reaction and evaluation. You should then move into a section of background information that helps place the book in context and discusses criteria for judging the book. Next, you should give a summary of the main points of the book, quoting and paraphrasing key phrases from the author. Finally, you get to the heart of your review—your evaluation of the book. In this section, you might discuss some of the following issues:
- How well the book has achieved its goal?
- What possibilities are suggested by the book?
- What the book has left out?
- How the book compares to others on the subject?
- What specific points are not convincing
- What personal experiences you’ve had related to the subject?
It is important to use labels to carefully distinguish your views from the author’s, so that you don’t confuse your reader. Then, like other essays, you can end with a direct comment on the book, and tie together issues raised in the review in a conclusion. There is, of course, no set formula, but a general rule of thumb is that the first one-half to two-thirds of the review should summarize the author’s main ideas and at least one-third should evaluate the book.
Polishing the Book Review
After you’ve completed your review, be sure to proofread it carefully for errors and typos. Double-check your bibliographic heading—author, title, publisher—for accuracy and correct spelling as well.
There is no standard length for a TVCWRT book review but if you don’t feel comfortable that you have communicated what you think is important in 500 to 1000 words, you’re not going to like it any better at 2000 words. The old adage “I would have written a shorter letter if I had more time.” Applies here. But, it is all up to you!