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What this handout is about
This handout will help you write a book review, a report or essay that offers a critical perspective on a text. It
offers a process and suggests some strategies for writing book reviews.
What is a review?
A review is a critical evaluation of a text, event, object, or phenomenon. Reviews can consider books, articles,
entire genres or fields of literature, architecture, art, fashion, restaurants, policies, exhibitions, performances, and
many other forms. This handout will focus on book reviews. For a similar assignment, see our handout
on literature reviews .
Above all, a review makes an argument. The most important element of a review is that it is a commentary, not
merely a summary. It allows you to enter into dialogue and discussion with the work’s creator and with other
audiences. You can offer agreement or disagreement and identify where you find the work exemplary or
deficient in its knowledge, judgments, or organization. You should clearly state your opinion of the work in
question, and that statement will probably resemble other types of academic writing, with a thesis statement,
supporting body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
Typically, reviews are brief. In newspapers and academic journals, they rarely exceed 1000 words, although you
may encounter lengthier assignments and extended commentaries. In either case, reviews need to be
succinct. While they vary in tone, subject, and style, they share some common fe atures:
• First, a review gives the reader a concise summary of the content. This includes a relevant
description of the topic as well as its overall perspective, argument, or purpose.
• Second, and more importantly, a review offers a critical assessment of the content. This
involves your reactions to the work under review: what strikes you as noteworthy, whether or
not it was effective or persuasive, and how it enhanced your understanding of the issues at
• Finally, in addition to analyzing the work, a review often suggests whether or not the audience
would appreciate it.
Becoming an expert reviewer: three short examples
Reviewing can be a daunting task. Someone has asked for your opin ion about something that you may feel
unqualified to evaluate. Who are you to criticize Toni Morrison’s new book if you’ve never written a novel
yourself, much less won a Nobel Prize? The point is that someone —a professor, a journal editor, peers in a stud y
group —wants to know what you think about a particular work. You may not be (or feel like) an expert, but you
need to pretend to be one for your particular audience. Nobody expects you to be the intellectual equal of the
work’s creator, but your careful o bservations can provide you with the raw material to make reasoned
judgments. Tactfully voicing agreement and disagreement, praise and criticism, is a valuable, challenging skill,
and like many forms of writing, reviews require you to provide concrete evid ence for your assertions. Consider the following brief book review written for a history course on medieval Europe by a student who is
fascinated with beer:
Judith Bennett’s Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300 -1600,
investigates how women used to brew and sell the majority of ale drunk in England. Historically, ale and
beer (not milk, wine, or water) were important elements of the English diet. Ale brewing was low -skill and
low status labor that was complimentary to w omen’s domestic responsibilities. In the early fifteenth
century, brewers began to make ale with hops, and they called this new drink “beer.” This technique
allowed brewers to produce their beverages at a lower cost and to sell it more easily, although wom en
generally stopped brewing once the business became more profitable.
The student describes the subject of the book and provides an accurate summary of its contents. But the reader
does not learn some key information expected from a review: the author’s a rgument, the student’s appraisal of
the book and its argument, and whether or not the student would recommend the book. As a critical
assessment, a book review should focus on opinions, not facts and details. Summary should be kept to a
minimum, and specif ic details should serve to illustrate arguments.
Now consider a review of the same book written by a slightly more opinionated student:
Judith Bennett’s Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300 -1600
was a colossal disappo intment. I wanted to know about the rituals surrounding drinking in medieval
England: the songs, the games, the parties. Bennett provided none of that information. I liked how the
book showed ale and beer brewing as an economic activity, but the reader get s lost in the details of
prices and wages. I was more interested in the private lives of the women brewsters. The book was
divided into eight long chapters, and I can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to read it.
There’s no shortage of judgments in this review! But the student does not display a working knowledge of the
book’s argument. The reader has a sense of what the student expected of the book, but no sense of what the
author herself set out to prove. Although the student gives several reasons for the negative review, those
examples do not clearly relate to each other as part of an overall evaluation —in other words, in support of a
specific thesis. This review is indeed an assessment, but not a critical one.
Here is one final review of the same book :
One of feminism’s paradoxes —one that challenges many of its optimistic histories —is how patriarchy
remains persistent over time. While Judith Bennett’s Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work
in a Changing World, 1300 -1600 recognizes medieval w omen as historical actors through their ale
brewing, it also shows that female agency had its limits with the advent of beer. I had assumed that
those limits were religious and political, but Bennett shows how a “patriarchal equilibrium” shut women
out of economic life as well. Her analysis of women’s wages in ale and beer production proves that a
change in women’s work does not equate to a change in working women’s status. Contemporary
feminists and historians alike should read Bennett’s book and think twi ce when they crack open their
This student’s review avoids the problems of the previous two examples. It combines balanced opinion and
concrete example, a critical assessment based on an explicitly stated rationale, and a recommendation to a
potential audience. The reader gets a sense of what the book’s author intended to demonstrate. Moreover, the
student refers to an argument about feminist history in general that places the book in a specific genre and that
reaches out to a general audience . The example of analyzing wages illustrates an argument, the analysis engages significant intellectual debates, and the reasons for the overall positive review are plainly visible. The
review offers criteria, opinions, and support with which the reader ca n agree or disagree.
Developing an assessment: before you write
There is no definitive method to writing a review, although some critical thinking about the work at hand is
necessary before you actually begin writing. Thus, writing a review is a two -step p rocess: developing an
argument about the work under consideration, and making that argument as you write an organized and well –
supported draft. See our handout on argument .
What follows is a series of questions to focus your thinking as you dig into the work at hand. While the questions
specifically consider book reviews, you can easily transpose them to an analysis of performances, exhibitions,
and other review subjects. D on’t feel obligated to address each of the questions; some will be more relevant
than others to the book in question.
• What is the thesis —or main argument —of the book? If the author wanted you to get one idea
from the book, what would it be? How does it com pare or contrast to the world you know?
What has the book accomplished?
• What exactly is the subject or topic of the book? Does the author cover the subject
adequately? Does the author cover all aspects of the subject in a balanced fashion? What is
the approach to the subject (topical, analytical, chronological, descriptive)?
• How does the author support her argument? What evid ence does she use to prove her point?
Do you find that evidence convincing? Why or why not? Does any of the author’s information
(or conclusions) conflict with other books you’ve read, courses you’ve taken or just previous
assumptions you had of the subjec t?
• How does the author structure her argument? What are the parts that make up the whole?
Does the argument make sense? Does it persuade you? Why or why not?
• How has this book helped you understand the subject? Would you recommend the book to
Beyond the internal workings of the book, you may also consider some information about the author and the
circumstances of the text’s production:
• Who is the author? Nationality, political persuasion, training, intellectual interests, personal
history, and historical context may provide crucial details about how a work takes shape. Does
it matter, for example, that the biographer was the subject’s best friend? What difference would
it make if the author participated in the events she writes about?
• What is th e book’s genre? Out of what field does it emerge? Does it conform to or depart from
the conventions of its genre? These questions can provide a historical or literary standard on
which to base your evaluations. If you are reviewing the first book ever writ ten on the subject, it
will be important for your readers to know. Keep in mind, though, that naming “firsts” —
alongside naming “bests” and “onlys” —can be a risky business unless you’re absolutely certain.
Writing the review
Once you have made your observat ions and assessments of the work under review, carefully survey your notes
and attempt to unify your impressions into a statement that will describe the purpose or thesis of your review.
Check out our handout on thesis statements . Then, outline the arguments that support your thesis. Your arguments should develop the thesis in a logical manner. That logic, unlike more standard academic
writing, may initially emp hasize the author’s argument while you develop your own in the course of the review.
The relative emphasis depends on the nature of the review: if readers may be more interested in the work itself,
you may want to make the work and the author more prominen t; if you want the review to be about your
perspective and opinions, then you may structure the review to privilege your observations over (but never
separate from) those of the work under review. What follows is just one of many ways to organize a review.
Since most reviews are brief, many writers begin with a catchy quip or anecdote that succinctly delivers their
argument. But you can introduce your review differently depending on the argument and audience. The Writing
Center’s handout on introductions can help you find an approach that works. In general, you should include:
• The name of the author and the book title and the main theme.
• Relevant details about who the author is and where he/she stands in the genre or field of
inquiry. You could also link the title to the subject to show how the title explains the subject
• The context of the book and/or your review. Placing your revi ew in a framework that makes
sense to your audience alerts readers to your “take” on the book. Perhaps you want to situate a
book about the Cuban revolution in the context of Cold War rivalries between the United States
and the Soviet Union. Another review er might want to consider the book in the framework of
Latin American social movements. Your choice of context informs your argument.
• The thesis of the book. If you are reviewing fiction, this may be difficult since novels, plays, and
short stories rarely have explicit arguments. But identifying the book’s particular novelty, angle,
or originality allows you to show what specific contribution the piece is trying to make.
• Your thesis about the book.
Summary of content
This should be brief, as analysis takes priority. In the course of making your assessment, you’ll hopefully be
backing up your assertions with concrete evidence from the book, so some summary will be dispersed
throughout other parts of the review.
The necessary amount of summary also depends on your audience. Graduate students, beware! If you are
writing book reviews for colleagues —to prepare for comprehensive exams, for example —you may want to
devote more attention to summarizing the book’s contents. If, on the other hand, your audience has alre ady read
the book —such as a class assignment on the same work —you may have more liberty to explore more subtle
points and to emphasize your own argument. See our handout on summary for more tips.
Analysis and evaluation of the book
Your analysis and evaluation should be organized into paragraphs that deal with single aspects of your
argument. This arrangement can be challenging when your purpose is to consider the b ook as a whole, but it can
help you differentiate elements of your criticism and pair assertions with evidence more clearly. You do not
necessarily need to work chronologically through the book as you discuss it. Given the argument you want to
make, you ca n organize your paragraphs more usefully by themes, methods, or other elements of the book. If
you find it useful to include comparisons to other books, keep them brief so that the book under review remains in the spotlight. Avoid excessive quotation and g ive a specific page reference in parentheses when you do
quote. Remember that you can state many of the author’s points in your own words.
Sum up or restate your thesis or make the final judgment regarding the book. You should not introduce new
evidence for your argument in the conclusion. You can, however, introduce new ideas that go beyond the book if
they extend the logic of your own thesis. This paragraph needs to balance the book’s strengths and weaknesses
in order to unify your evaluation. Did the body of your review have three negative paragraphs and one favorable
one? What do they all add up to? The Writing Center’s handout on conclusions can help yo u make a final
Finally, a few general considerations:
• Review the book in front of you, not the book you wish the author had written. You can and
should point out shortcomings or failures, but don’t criticize the book for not being som ething
it was never intended to be.
• With any luck, the author of the book worked hard to find the right words to express her ideas.
You should attempt to do the same. Precise language allows you to control the tone of your
• Never hesitate to challen ge an assumption, approach, or argument. Be sure, however, to cite
specific examples to back up your assertions carefully.
• Try to present a balanced argument about the value of the book for its audience. You’re
entitled —and sometimes obligated —to voice strong agreement or disagreement. But keep in
mind that a bad book takes as long to write as a good one, and every author dese rves fair
treatment. Harsh judgments are difficult to prove and can give readers the sense that you were
unfair in your assessment.
• A great place to learn about book reviews is to look at examples. The New York Times Sunday
Book Review and The New York Review of Books can show you how professional writers
We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the
handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not
use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation s tyle you are
using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips
periodically and welcome feedback.
Drewry, John. 1974. Wri ting Book Reviews. Boston: Greenwood Press.
Hoge, James. 1987. Literary Reviewing. Charlottesville: University Virginia of Press.
Sova, Dawn, and Harry Teitelbaum. 2002. How to Write Book Reports , 4th ed. Lawrenceville, NY: Thomson/Arco.
Walford, A.J. 1986 . Reviews and Reviewing: A Guide. Phoenix: Oryx Press.