3 Approaches to Writing Book Reviews

Pulling from my experiences of reviewing books and having my book reviewed, I’ve devised a few key personal rules before writing a review: stay open-minded, don’t jump to conclusions a few pages into a book, and ask what messages the author is trying to convey. Believe it or not, resisting jumping to conclusions a few pages into a book is a pro tip; although, it should be common sense. In addition to the above key rules, to strengthen and refine my reviewing process, I’ve consulted several sources. Each source offers a different approach. As you read through this post, consider the recommendations from each source and whether you’d like to add one or more of the techniques to your book review process.

The Academic Approach

Scholarly book reviews place great emphasis on penetrating a work to uncover its purpose; weigh its effectiveness at defining that purpose; examine the validity of elements used to support its purpose; and, similarly, muse deeply on the numerous aspects of the work’s construction, e.g., approach, structure, mood, plot development, etc. Academic book reviews can be somewhat formulaic, as it is important to examine a work not just holistically, but sometimes contextually and from various lenses or points of view. For example, an academic book review can seem unbalanced or biased if the reviewer does not consider the author’s credentials surrounding the work and what approach(es) they took to formulate and support the work’s messages. Conversely, a different type of scholarly review can be centered on examining the work only and not the author’s life or credentials. This form of analysis is called new criticism, and it’s just one of many methods of dissecting and interpreting the written word.

Indiana University Bloomington’s online article “Writing Book Reviews,” recommends the introduction of a review to focus on the author’s purpose in writing the work and its main ideas, as interpreted by the reviewer. From there, the reviewer can examine whether the work supports the believed purpose and main ideas and whether those elements are well supported and convincingly executed. The article also recommends asking whether the book is unique; if the author is appropriately credentialed to write the book; and how the book stands up to similar works (indiana.edu).

Read Indiana State University Bloomington’s full list of tips.

The Professional Reviewer’s Approach

A professional book review written by a paid reviewer “matters to writers, readers, and publishers,” writes Edwin Battistella in the Oxford University Press blog post “How to write a compelling book review.” Battistella’s approach to the review process carries the same scholarly tone as that of the above academic approach; however, there’s more attention to detail, guided by eight recommendations. One recommendation is to include direct examples from the book while summarizing it, “rather than just relying on a retelling of an author’s points” (OUP.com).

To help readers relate to the work and/or have a point of reference for the work in a greater societal context, OUP recommends that the reviewer ask how the book fits into a social milieu. Other tips are to provide an analysis of the work within the review’s summary or the text and avoid wordiness (OUP.com).

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Read OUP’s full list of tips with details.

The Average Joe/Jane Approach

In “Anatomy of a Book Review: Tips for Writing a Good Book Review,” editors at bookish.com write that the role of the book reviewer is to help recommend books to readers and to serve as a bridge to “fellow bookworms all around the world,” express the thoughts of the reviewer, and “keep track of [the reviewer’s] own musings on the books on [their] shelf.” I agree, all readers should have a place to share their thoughts and recommendations for books they love . . . or hate. But, for the average reader to have their review read and taken seriously, the review must stand out and be presentable. Bookish.com’s editors laid out 11 tips on how to hit those desired marks; several are to summarize the book’s plot, leave out spoilers, clearly state your opinion, and consider your audience (Bookish.com).

Two tips that separate the Bookish’s approach to book reviews from the academic and professional approaches are to

  • use a rating system
  • find your voice
  • have fun.

All are great tips. Read all of Bookish’s tips and further details.

Last Word

The above approaches share a few commonalities: summarizing the book being reviewed; uncovering and examining the purpose of the work (indiana.edu); or, as my creative writing professor often said, the “so what” of a work; and proofreading or polishing the review.

Out of the three approaches, I prefer the professional approach, which is the only style of the three that recommends re-reading a book before reviewing it. This recommendation is essential to any professional book review, as plot holes or other lacking key plot elements that might have been overlooked during a first reading, can jump out upon a second reading. As Battistella writes, professional book reviews matter to writers – and a writer would do well in anticipating whether their work holds up to a second read through.

Readers, which book review technique of the three above do you prefer? Let me know your thoughts, and thanks for reading this post.

References + Further Reading

Writing Book Reviews (2019). Indiana University Bloomington. : https://wts.indiana.edu/writing-guides/writing-book-reviews.html

Battistella, E. (2015). How to write a compelling book review. https://blog.oup.com/2015/08/how-write-book-review/

Anatomy of a Book Review: Tips for Writing a Good Book Review. (2018). https://www.bookish.com/articles/how-to-write-a-good-book-review/



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