Thursday, February 19, 2009

How to Write a Book Review by Bryan Catherman

My good friend Bryan Catherman gives some helpful hints on how to write a book review.
A good book review usually tells as much about the reviewer as it does about the book although the reviewer should seek balance between the two.

What is a book review?
A book review is a reader’s opinion that serves as advice or a recommendation to other readers. In our world of limited time and competing books, a review should help others sift through the marketing. However, one review is just one review and not anything to be taken too seriously.

Elements of a book review:
At a minimum, a good book review should include a brief synopsis of the book itself. It should be fair. Try to accurately describe the book’s plot, argument, or reason for its existence. Even if the book is terrible, try writing this synopsis factually. For example, “Joe Author attempts to explain….” Another example might read, “The Great American Novel is a fictional novel about…” WARNING: Never give away twists or the ending. DO NOT spoil the book for others. (Many reviews, especially on, will leave out the synopsis altogether. I advise against doing this in the event that a reader has never heard of the book and has no idea what it’s about.)

The next element necessary for a good book review is the reviewer’s opinion. This is an opinion so it’s not necessary to include statements like, “I think,” or “in my opinion.” But stay fair. And whatever you do, do not use vague, unsupported adjectives like boring and fantastic. Try to explain why you feel the way you feel about the book. Simply saying, “This book is great and everybody should read it,” or “this book was a waste of money,” doesn’t help anybody. Try to explain in detail. Support your statements. Give examples. You can also recommend that people read or not read the book, but your explicit recommendation is not a requirement of a good book review. (Many reviews stick with the implied.)

That’s it. Reviewing a book is not as tough as people make it out to be. There’s nothing to be scared of.

Additional (but not required) items to include in a book review:
A grading system is popular. Give the book a grade or rate it with stars or spoons or something. (I recommend not using a thumbs up or down because that’s an all-or-nothing proposition. A five-star system is good but a ten-star system allows for a greater depth in rating.) Try not to make the grading system complicated; the entire reason for the grade is to simplify the review. And stay consistent in the grading process.

A history of the book or of the author can be informative if it doesn’t clutter or bog down the review.

A counter argument is warranted on occasion, but only if the book is a non-fiction argument. However, your book review is not a counter argument; it’s a review. Include the mandatory items and then include your counter argument only as an expansion of the review.

Pictures often enhance book reviews. The cover is the most obvious choice.

Author background if interesting or relevant to the book.

Sales history if it’s meaningful. Did the book do poorly for a long while and then something changed? Why?

How about an interview with the author if you can get one?

Additional media is nice if it’s available. Websites, videos, trailers, sound bites.

Sampling of the first couple of pages or a chapter helps the reader get a feel for the author’s style. (This is normally done with permission to avoid sticky copyright issues.)

How about comparing and contrasting the book you are reviewing with other books? This works well when reviewing books in a series and the comparison is made against an earlier book. “Book three was not as well written as the first two books….” This also helps readers understand a book they haven’t read by comparing to one they have.

Providing a location or link where the book may be purchased is always appreciated by the author and publishing people. (Even if you give the book a poor review.)

Is the author something other than an author? Does she wrestle tigers or is he also a religious leader or whatever. This may be worth including.

Be creative and make the review fun and informative for the reader. Otherwise, you’re wasting their time in a world where the review is meant to help save time.


  1. Thanks for the article, sound advice and tips.

  2. you've a really fantastic blog here! Brilliant!! Aristotle.