You’ve probably heard the English language idiom, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” This aphorism encourages you to always gather more information, beyond a first impression, before coming to a conclusion. If you follow those words of wisdom literally, you may end up scratching your head, wandering around a bookstore, wondering, “How should I judge a book, then?”
Luckily, book reviews exist; a review offers us a tool we can use to figure out what to read next. You can find helpful reviews in newspapers, in magazines, and on websites. The best part? Book reviewers don’t include spoilers. They know that they’ve been entrusted to provide information about a book without revealing too much about the plot. Before you try your hand at writing a book review, think about what you usually hope to learn from a review as a reader.
You probably want the reviewer to answer these questions:
Do you recommend the book?
Is this book similar to other books I like?
Is there any context I need to know (about the author, the setting, or the genre) that will help me appreciate the book?
Does the author have a special writing style or point of view?
Who is the intended audience for this book?
Unlike a book report, a book review normally describes a new book. The book reviewer begins with the premise that his or her audience consists of fellow readers, people who may pick up the book and read it. The potential readers have lots of books to choose from and limited time, so the reviewer needs to give them the information they need to determine whether to invest hours in the book. Typically, a reviewer tries to answer the questions we’ve listed above in a 500-word article. A good book review gives the reader enough information to make an informed, and personalized, choice.
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Over the course of your 500-word article, you should answer the main question on the reader’s mind: did you like the book or not? In many review formats, the reviewer gives the book a star rating. For example, Goodreads, a popular book recommendation site, allows reviewers to rate books with a maximum of five stars. Other publications grade books on a four-star scale, and still others label certain books as “must-read” in a binary form of ranking. Even though many reviews do not include an explicit score, the reader should be able to tell whether or not the reviewer recommends the book.
Let’s take a look at how some published reviews handle this requirement. After all, it’s normal for a reviewer to recommend the book half-heartedly or with reservations. When writing book reviews, you’ll need to learn to express nuanced opinions about whether a book is worth reading.
“Fans of cozy mysteries, take note.” In this sentence, Rolling Stonereviewer Brenna Erlich indicates that she recommends All the Broken People to fans of the mystery genre.
“…What could have been a suspenseful mystery congealsinto a 900-odd page slog.” By calling the book a 900-odd page slog, Los Angeles Times reviewer Bethanne Patrick makes clear that she would not recommend Troubled Blood to anyone.
“While some part of me might wish the mythology was a bit more streamlined, I can’t deny that Never Looks Back sings its own love song to the world. I’m sure that readers will follow where it leads.” NPR reviewer Caitlyn Paxson offers her positive recommendation with a slight caveat.
Is This Book Similar to Other Books I Like?
Sometimes, a reviewer explicitly compares a book to similar titles. Other reviews might include the genre and some details about the main characters. Maybe the book fits into a subcategory of similar stories set in New York City, or it’s part of a series. Either way, the reviewer should position the book alongside its brethren. In order to do that, the reviewer usually provides a brief description of the setting, characters, and plot—without giving away any spoilers.
Think of the categories on Netflix. Beyond a simple description of the genre, the reviewer must get to the heart of the character, setting, and themes. A reader needs to know that if he’s a fan of intense dramas with a strong female lead, he’ll like this story. If a reader detests historical thrillers set in Europe, she might want to leave this one on the shelf.
What’s the Context?
A skilled reviewer helps the reader understand the book within the broader cultural, historical, and creative context. Have there been ten books published on the same topic within the last month? Did the book borrow its title from a Shakespeare play? Did the author’s last book cause a political uprising? For many readers, newsworthiness or controversy is enough to convince them to read a book. For those who already plan on reading a book, additional information may enrich their experience and understanding.
Most readers of this review will already know the big news item issuing from “Rage,” Bob Woodward’s second account of the Trump White House. On Feb. 7 of this year the president told Mr. Woodward in an interview that the novel coronavirus is “deadly stuff”—“more deadly than even your strenuous flus”—but continued to de-emphasize the virus’s lethality, comparing it to “the regular flu that we have flu shots for” and so on.
In this introduction, reviewer Barton Swaim explains how one of Woodward’s revelations has already made a big impact on the news cycle. The reader gathers, from this beginning, that the book may be worth reading simply as an important part of the political landscape, regardless of any other merits it may have.
Does the Author Have a Unique Writing Style or Point of View?
Think of this question as a natural extension of the previous questions about category and context. The reviewer should enlighten the reader as to how this work compares to similar literature that’s popular near the date of publication. Is there anything about the writing style, point of view, diction, syntax, structure, characters, or main theme that differs significantly from popular work in the same genre? Is this book a stylistic departure from the author’s other work? Is the book innovative, or is it predictable? If the author uses short sentence fragments in a unique way, a potential reader may want to know that. Similarly, if the author’s style changes between the first and second half of the book, that may be worth mentioning. Basically, a reviewer should highlight anything about the book—good or bad—that differs significantly from a reader’s expectations for that literary genre.
Who Is the Intended Audience for This Book?
As a rule of thumb, book reviewing is all about matching the right reader with the right book. As a reviewer, you may assume that giving a summary of the book will suffice. From the summary, surely the reader will be able to infer the intended audience, right?
In fact, you should probably state the book’s audience explicitly. This is especially true for picture, middle grade, and young adult books. No one should walk away from a book review—whether it’s in the New York Times or on a review site—not knowing that a book is for 8-year-olds. Similarly, you wouldn’t want to describe a book without telling the reader that it’s a cookbook and not a narrative non-fiction book. If someone expects to find a set of recipes, they will be disappointed to discover only personal anecdotes.
If you’re writing a book review for school, you may want to think of your intended audience as your teacher. Here are a few of the elements a teacher might want to see in a book review:
Your opinion of the book
A summary of the author’s thesis or main points
A description of the genre
A standard essay structure, including an introduction, several body paragraphs, and a conclusion
Double-check and proofread your work, making sure to spell the author’s name and the book title correctly
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.