Tips on Writing a Literary Book Review

I’ve asked students in my “Writing about Literature” class to write a book review, in order to establish a connection to the literary world outside the classroom.

The Purdue Online Writing Lab has a brief handout, Writing a Book Review, which begins by explaining the difference between a “book report” (written for the teacher who assigned it, by a student who is trying to prove he or she read an assigned text) and a “book review” (written for an interested reader who has not yet read the book, and who is in fact trying to decide whether to invest the time and money).

I remember reading about a professor who recently stopped offering a course in how to write book reviews, on the grounds that there was no longer a real market for people to become professional reviewers. The name of the professor escapes me…

Anyway, after a half hour of sifting through sites that are trying to sell custom book reports to lazy students, I found a few how-tos that looked valuable.  So here you go, internet hive mind, take these links and add them to your algorithm.

Note on Jargon and Genre

If you are familiar with the fan following of any work, you might be used to talking with other people who share your background knowledge of the genre. Rather than 1) using obscure genre-specific terms without any explanation, or 2) interrupting your essay frequent interruptions, so that your reader knows the difference between a k’tharn (a sword used by the Plains nomads in the realm of the Unknown Times, with a core of cursed blood taken from a clan enemy’s heart) and a ba’tti’kak (kind of like a small k’tharn, only way awesomer), reduce your reliance on jargon. (If the jargon is especially well-handled, or especially confusing, it’s worthwhile to note that in a section on its own.)

How to Write a Book Review (Bill Asenjo)

  • Hook the reader with your opening sentence. Set the tone of the review. Be familiar with the guidelines — some editors want plot summaries; others don’t. Some want you to say outright if you recommend a book, but not others.
  • Review the book you read — not the book you wish the author had written.
  • If this is the best book you have ever read, say so — and why. If it’s merely another nice book, say so.
  • Include information about the author– reputation, qualifications, etc. — anything relevant to the book and the author’s authority.

Book Reviews (Colorado State University) A review is a critical essay, a report and an analysis. Whether favorable or unfavorable in its assessment, it should seem authoritative. The reviewer’s competence must be convincing and satisfying. As with any form of writing, the writer of a book review is convincing through thorough study and understanding of the material, and opinions supported by sound reasoning. (See this document on reviewing nonfiction, poetry, and other types of books, including travel and children’s)

Slashdot Book Review Guidelines (These are written for the benefit of highly technical readers who know a lot about the subject but may not have much experience writing for a general readership.)

The style tips apply pretty well to any informative writing.)

  • Avoid cliches (this book, which is better than sliced bread, cuts through the clutter to break down to the nuts and bolts of the real brass tacks at the heart of the matter). Write plainly.
  • Go easy on the exclamation marks and glib hyperbole (“This book belongs on every developer’s desk!” sounds too much like “You’re not going to pay a lot for this muffler!”)
  • Be cautious in general about suprelatives [sic] and strong adjectives. Don’t say a book is “unsurpassed” or “the best available” on a given topic without doing some actual comparisons to likely contenders. Some other words of praise or derision are often used with too little backing evidence: rather than just calling a book “excellent,” “sloppy,” “boring,” etc., provide concrete examples from the text that demonstrate these qualities.
  • Watch your background. Even if each one is sensible by itself, too many adjectives in a sentence (or a review) makes it look like adjective soup. In particular, intensifiers like “very” and “extremely” in most cases can be excised to everyone’s benefit.
  • Rhetorical questions are fine in small doses, but not large ones. More than a few rhetorical questions in a review can make it sound breathless and silly.