Book Review Essay Guidelines For College

Writing a Book Review


This resource discusses book reviews and how to write them.

Contributors: Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2017-11-15 10:34:49

Book reviews typically evaluate recently-written works. They offer a brief description of the text’s key points and often provide a short appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of the work.

Readers sometimes confuse book reviews with book reports, but the two are not identical. Book reports commonly describe what happens in a work; their focus is primarily on giving an account of the major plot, characters, and/or main idea of the work. Most often, book reports are a K-12 assignment and range from 250 to 500 words. If you are looking to write a book report, please see the OWL resource, Writing a Book Report.

By contrast, book reviews are most often a college assignment, but they also appear in many professional works: magazines, newspapers, and academic journals. They typically range from 500-750 words, but may be longer or shorter. A book review gives readers a sneak peek at what a book is like, whether or not the reviewer enjoyed it, and details on purchasing the book.

Before You Read

Before you begin to read, consider the elements you will need to included in your review. The following items may help:

  • Author: Who is the author? What else has s/he written? Has this author won any awards? What is the author’s typical style?
  • Genre: What type of book is this: fiction, nonfiction, romance, poetry, youth fiction, etc.? Who is the intended audience for this work? What is the purpose of the work?
  • Title: Where does the title fit in? How is it applied in the work? Does it adequately encapsulate the message of the text? Is it interesting? Uninteresting?
  • Preface/Introduction/Table of Contents: Does the author provide any revealing information about the text in the preface/introduction? Does a “guest author” provide the introduction? What judgments or preconceptions do the author and/or “guest author” provide? How is the book arranged: sections, chapters?
  • Book Jacket/Cover/Printing: Book jackets are like mini-reviews. Does the book jacket provide any interesting details or spark your interest in some way? Are there pictures, maps, or graphs? Do the binding, page cut, or typescript contribute or take away from the work?

As You Read

As you read, determine how you will structure the summary portion or background structure of your review. Be ready to take notes on the book’s key points, characters, and/or themes.

  • Characters: Are there characters in the work? Who are the principle characters? How do they affect the story? Do you empathize with them?
  • Themes/Motifs/Style: What themes or motifs stand out? How do they contribute to the work? Are they effective or not? How would you describe this author’s particular style? Is it accessible to all readers or just some?
  • Argument: How is the work’s argument set up? What support does the author give for her/findings? Does the work fulfill its purpose/support its argument?
  • Key Ideas: What is the main idea of the work? What makes it good, different, or groundbreaking?
  • Quotes: What quotes stand out? How can you demonstrate the author’s talent or the feel of the book through a quote?

When You Are Ready to Write

Begin with a short summary or background of the work, but do not give too much away. Many reviews limit themselves only to the first couple of chapters or lead the reader up to the rising action of the work. Reviewers of nonfiction texts will provide the basic idea of the book’s argument without too much detailed.

The final portion of your review will detail your opinion of the work. When you are ready to begin your review, consider the following:

  • Establish a Background, Remember your Audience: Remember that your audience has not read the work; with this in mind, be sure to introduce characters and principles carefully and deliberately. What kind of summary can you provide of the main points or main characters that will help your readers gauge their interest? Does the author’s text adequately reach the intended audience? Will some readers be lost or find the text too easy?
  • Minor principles/characters: Deal only with the most pressing issues in the book. You will not be able to cover every character or idea. What principles/characters did you agree or disagree with? What other things might the author have researched or considered?
  • Organize: The purpose of the review is to critically evaluate the text, not just inform the readers about it. Leave plenty room for your evaluation by ensuring that your summary is brief. Determine what kind of balance to strike between your summary information and your evaluation. If you are writing your review for a class, ask your instructor. Often the ratio is half and half.
  • Your Evaluation: Choose one or a few points to discuss about the book. What worked well for you? How does this work compare with others by the same author or other books in the same genre? What major themes, motifs, or terms does the book introduce, and how effective are they? Did the book appeal to you on an emotional or logical way?
  • Publisher/Price: Most book reviews include the publisher and price of the book at the end of the article. Some reviews also include the year published and ISBN.


When making the final touches to your review, carefully verify the following:

  • Double-check the spelling of the author name(s), character names, special terms, and publisher.
  • Try to read from the vantage point of your audience. Is there too much/enough summary? Does your argument about the text make sense?
  • Should you include direct quotes from the reading? Do they help support your arguments? Double-check your quotes for accuracy.

Writing a book review is a common assignment in college and even beyond if you decide to have a career in this profession. Personally, I love writing reviews of any kind mostly because that way I can put all my thoughts about the subject on the paper and also I can help with college essays. Before we go on, I have to mention it is different when you write a review for yourself i.e. your blog or website and for your professor in college. You can’t throw around some expressions you wouldn’t even say in front of your professor, you know what I mean? Since book reviews are common writing task in college but they’re still largely misunderstood, I’m going to help you out with this practical guide to ensure you get a good grade every time.


Why are reviews important in the first place?

To an untrained eye, reviews may seem pointless. What’s the point of writing about something when other people and your professor have already read the book? Isn’t it enough to talk about it in the class?

Just as movie reviews (see the “how to guide” here) develop your critical thinking, the book reviews do the same. It is not enough to read a book and call it a day; you have to establish your opinion, your likes, and dislikes. When a professor gives you this assignment, he/she wants to see your abilities to analyze the book and use vocabulary skills to discuss different segments of the plot. Plus, you have to demonstrate your ability to organize the review so that you mention all aspects of the book in an easy-to-follow manner. Otherwise, a reader would just get confused.


Book review vs. book report

Since we are accustomed to writing book reports at a very young age, it comes as no surprise we don’t think book reviews are different than a book report. Did you also have a book report in your mind when you read the title? If so, you’re not alone.

Contrary to the popular belief, book reviews and book reports are two different types of writing. Knowing how they differ is the first step towards writing a high-quality paper that will guarantee a good grade.

Book reports are usually reserved for elementary, middle, and high schools while book reviews are more of a college-level assignment. That said, it’s not uncommon for professors to ask for book reports either.

Book reports usually revolve around topical details about the author and the plot of the story. Here, you have to explain biographical information about the author starting from the day he/she was born to other info such as marital status, children, education, some other works, and so on. You know the drill! After that, you have to accurately summarize the story you’ve just read.

On the other hand, a book review is a more sophisticated approach to understanding and discussing a book. It doesn’t revolve around a summary of each section, but you have to carry out a thorough analysis. As you grow and develop as a student, so does your ability to think critically. You don’t just sum up what you’ve just read, but analyze every piece of the puzzle in a bid to demonstrate the ability to pay attention to detail, engage critically thinking, and so on. Here, you have to be careful that you aren’t, actually, just retelling the story.

While book reviews may contain some elements of book reports e.g. author, characters, plot, the emphasis is to provide a more detailed insight, go deeper and elaborate strengths and weaknesses of the book, and discuss the elements of the story.

You know the difference between book reports and book reviews, now what? Now you’re ready, to begin the assignment.


Things to do before you read

The entire process starts before you even read the book. Here, you have to do a little bit of research to find out the following:

  • Author info: who is he/she? What is the author’s typical style? Has this person won awards? Is the author known for controversial behavior, statements etc.?
  • Genre: is this book a fiction, romance, nonfiction, poetry, and so on? What is the purpose of the book?
  • Title: is it interesting or uninteresting? What can you find out about the book just by reading its title?
  • Preface, intro, and table of contents: what does the author say in the preface and intro? Does he/she provide background information for the book you’re about to read? Is the book arranged in chapters or sections?

In order to write a thorough book review, you have to pay attention to everything about the book, which is why writing down the information about the author, genre etc. is strongly advised. That’s why you’ll need a pen and notebook where you can write everything.


While you’re reading

There is no need to wait until you finish reading the book to start writing your review. As mentioned above, the process begins early. While you’re reading the book you should take notes about different aspects of the story. For example:

  • Quotes: are there some memorable quotes that stand out?
  • Key ideas: what is the primary idea of this book? What makes the book groundbreaking or different than others?
  • Characters: who are the main characters? How do characters affect the story?
  • Themes, motifs, and style: what motifs and themes stand out and how do they contribute to the story? Are the motifs in book effective or not? How would you describe the writer’s style?

When you write this down while reading, you won’t leave out some important information later.


I finished reading, now what?

After reading the book, you have to create an outline and write your review. The outline is essential here mostly because it helps you organize your book review in a coherent manner. Since analyzing a book is vast subject, the outline helps you stay on the right track and avoid drowning in the sea of ideas, thoughts, and story details.

An outline for book review should look like this:

Introduction or background

This is self-explanatory; the section should contain the title, publication information, author’s name and short background (one or two sentences), the purpose of the writing, main ideas, presenting characters etc. Naturally, the introduction should also feature your thesis about the book, which is the last sentence of this paragraph.

Always act like you’re writing a review for people who haven’t read the book. Of course, since your professor assigned this particular book, it means he/she read it. That said, if you assume “they know what’s going on”, you’ll leave out important information. The introductory paragraph should be short, concise, and informative.

Short summary of plot and characters

While book report is all about providing a summary of all aspects of the book, in book review it’s important to keep it short. Strive to deal primarily with the pressing issues. Why? The reason is simple; since book reviews require thorough analysis you will not be able to discuss every idea and character in detail. Focus on the principles and characters you agreed or disagreed with, some notable events that are important to the plot, and so on.


This particular segment is the “meat” of your paper and the primary reason behind the review. Here, you analyze and evaluate the book, provide a critical assessment of the book’s central argument, and include evidence to support that argument. The purpose of the book review is to critically evaluate what you’ve just read, not to just inform readers about it. There’s a fine line between the analysis or assessment and summary, which is why this section will take a bit longer to write since you have to pay more attention not to cross that line.

Sometimes your professor will assign and book and name a central idea to focus on throughout the review. In other instances, you’ll have to review the book and distinguish some important ideas that spread through the story. In this section, you uncover symbolism (if present), motifs and other details that are crucial to the overall meaning of the book.

Your evaluation

Make sure you leave a paragraph to discuss what worked for you or what didn’t. How does the book compare to other works of the author or other books in this niche? Did the book appeal to you in an emotional, logical, or some other way? While this is the part where you write about the personal experience while reading this book, make sure you stay away from using “I think, I like, I dislike, I this or I that”. Also, make sure you support everything you mention with strong evidence i.e. examples from the book.


Conclusions are important too. The goal is to finish your review with a bang! Here, you should provide a short summary of ideas and other details discussed in the review and mention whether you would recommend it to someone or not. The paragraph should be short and concise.

Book review writing tips

  • Consider how does the book agree or clash with your view of the world
  • How were your views and opinions challenged by the text?
  • Consider political, economic, social issues that author assessed or try to address throughout the book
  • Pay attention to author’s style of writing and look at his/her cohesion, flow of the text, and use of precise words
  • Discuss the author’s descriptions and narration
  • While using quotes is encouraged, make sure you don’t overdo it
  • When mentioning characters, instead of restating what the author wrote about their appearance and general characteristics, go in-depth and discuss whether some important character evolved or how does he or she affect the book and its story


Bottom line

Book reviews are common assignments in colleges and universities throughout the world, but you shouldn’t confuse them with book reports. Also, bear in mind that writing a review for your blog is different than for your professor. While your opinion matters too, and you should include personal evaluation, make sure everything you say is supported by examples from the book. In order to write a high-quality book review, always strive to provide a more detailed insight about the text you read, analyze, evaluate, and think critically. That way, you’ll avoid summarizing the plot.

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