Compared with many other academic assignments, writing a book report doesn’t look like much. How difficult it may be – just read the book, then write about what it was like. Right?
This approach may be more or less appropriate in primary school, but it would certainly look utterly ridiculous in college. If you are going to be serious about it, you have to follow a pattern – and this guide is here to provide you with it.
Book Report and Book Review: What Is the Difference and What Am I Writing?
First of all, you should make sure you understand correctly what is expected of you. The terms “book review” and “book report” are often used interchangeable despite having different meanings; in addition to that, both of them can be understood differently depending on your academic level. Basically, the difference is as follows:
Book report is a relatively short and simple description of the book. You give its title and the year of publication, name the author and provide some background information about him/her (year and place of birth, schools he/she attended, what family he/she had, marital status, occupation, significant life events, other notable works, etc.). Then you go on summarizing the plot of the book in a few paragraphs. Sometimes you may be asked to outline the themes and symbols relevant for the story, but not always.
Book review is a much more serious affair. It is a critical and/or analytical evaluation of the text in question. It may contain the story’s summary (although sometimes it is assumed that readers are already familiar with it), but it is far from being the most important part of it. Review is first and foremost a commentary or argument – you are expected to express your own opinion, agreement or disagreement with the author, your evaluation of the work: where it hits the mark and where it is deficient.
However, this division is often vague, and some people, even teachers and professors, don’t differentiate between them at all. Book reports either acquire traits of reviews or these two terms are used synonymously. Alternatively, it is sometimes said that a book report should be an objective presentation of the book and analysis of its structure, while a book review should present a critical analysis and evaluation.
The point we are trying to drive home is this: consult your teacher or professor before writing and make sure both of you understand the assignment in the same way. For the sake of completeness, this guide will cover all potential parts of this assignment.
In order to write a book review or report, first you have to read the book in question. It may sound self-evident, but if a book is given to you as a part of a course, and you don’t particularly feel like reading it, skimming through the text or reading an online summary becomes increasingly tempting as the deadline grows nearer.
However, if you want to save yourself an embarrassment of writing something hilariously out of place, better read the book. And not just read it, but prepare to write a review as you go along. So, in the course of reading, ask yourself the following questions to focus your thinking:
- Does the author make his primary idea, point of view, theme evident? Do I agree with it?
- How can I characterize the author’s style? Is it formal or informal, does it suit the intended audience; if it is a work of fiction, does it change to express the peculiarities of different characters?
- What is the main focus of the story; who are the main characters?
- Do I like the way the story is handled? Do I find it realistic or relevant?
As you read, you may encounter some paragraphs and entire passages that may be useful later on to prove your point. Don’t rely on your ability to locate them and remember that they exist – mark the corresponding places and make sure to return to them afterwards.
Structure of a Book Report
In its simplest form book report can be boiled down to a classic five-paragraph essay (introduction, 3 body paragraphs, conclusion). Depending on the academic level and complexity of the task, it may be larger, but the basic parts remain the same:
Here you put all secondary information about the text in question that may be useful for understanding and evaluating it. Depending on your school’s guidelines, it may be more or less detailed – usually it is enough to mention the writer’s name and the book’s title and genre, but sometimes you may be asked to include publication information: publisher, year and number of pages. In larger assignments it may be necessary to provide some background information: writer and his personality, circumstances of his life, especially those that surrounded the writing and publication of this particular text, society he lived in (if it is relevant to the story), evaluations of the book by other well-known people and so on.
Conclude it with your thesis about the book – it should be particularly clear-cut if you are going to make some kind of argument in the analytical part of the essay.
(summary and, possibly, analysis and evaluation)
This section may be different depending on whether your assignment is closer to being a review or a report. In the first case, it will be divided into two parts: summary and analysis/evaluation. In the second case, there will be only summary. We will return to it later.
(sums up your thoughts and formulates the main idea you’ve got from reading the book)
Several sentences summing up and organizing your thoughts. You may emphasize the impression the book left you with, or point out what the writer was especially successful (or unsuccessful) in conveying, or point out what you consider to be the most important thing about it.
Irrespectively of whether you are going to go into deep analysis of the text, first you have to summarize it for the sake of the reader.
There is no clear-cut standard according to which a summary should be written. You should take into account a number of factors:
- Will it be followed by in-depth analysis and evaluation?
- Who are your audience?
- Will you try to argue a point that will require backing up with concrete evidence from the book?
If your book report is a true book report and you don’t have to express your own opinion and evaluation in addition to basic “What I liked most about the book”, go on and use most of your available word count to cover the summary. The amount of detail should be evident from the amount of space you are allowed – if you have to cram it into three-four hundred words, you should omit everything except what you consider to be vital. If you are given some elbow space, feel free to add the details.
If, however, you are expected to analyze the text, then the summary should be as brief as possible, because analysis takes precedence. Feel free to omit some facts that you will have to bring up in other parts of the review as evidence – in a sense, your summary will be scattered throughout the paper, with facts and details appearing whenever you need to support your argument with the book’s contents.
Also, take into account who you are writing the review for. If the book is a part of the course and you may be reasonably sure that both your professor and other students have read it, you may omit most of the summary altogether, only mentioning the facts that are relevant for the point you want to make with your review.
If, however, you have chosen the book yourself, then you should make sure even those who encounter it for the first time know what you are talking about.
Analysis and Evaluation
If this part is at all present, it immediately steals the limelight for itself, which means that you should pay special attention to it.
Analysis may be mainly concerned with the literary side of the text – that is, how well it is written and what exactly the author is trying to tell. In this case, you are basically limited to answering the following questions:
As an alternative, your teacher or professor may pose a particular question you should answer and provide support for your opinion based on the book. Finally, sometimes you are not given any direct instructions – your task is to simply analyze the text. In this case, you may consider a number of questions to concentrate your attention on:
- What was the writer’s purpose in writing this text? Did he achieve it?
- Is the writing effective, beautiful, difficult to read? How can you characterize it in general?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of the book in your opinion? Prove it.
- What is your general impression of the book? How did it influence you? Did you find it boring, fascinating, moving, thought-provoking or contrived? Why?
- Would you recommend it to others? Who, in your opinion, can benefit from reading it? Why?
If you are dealing with multiple points, make sure to organize the review accordingly: divide it into paragraphs dealing with separate aspects of the book and your argument. If you are dealing with a large and complex text, it may be challenging; however, at the same time it will help you organize your thoughts, systematize your argumentation and present a fuller and more detailed point of view.
However, make sure to avoid two practices that are often found tempting by beginners:
- Excessive use of quotation. You may be attracted by the idea of showing off your knowledge of the book and presenting what you consider to be irrefutable evidence. However, direct quotations are to be avoided unless they are no longer than a couple of words. You may express most of what the author had said in your own words.
- Comparisons and parallels with other books, either by the same author or other people. They may be useful in some cases, but try to keep them brief – it is a book review you are writing, not a comparative study of the author’s creative work or an entire genre.
In conclusion you have to restate your initial thesis about the book, this time taking into account all the evidence you’ve presented throughout the review. Or, alternatively, you may make a final evaluation of the book – it depends on the task you were given. However, you should take into account the following points:
- No new evidence at this point. Conclusion is for summing up, not for continuing your argument – if you have anything else to say that doesn’t fit into the existing body paragraphs, either omit it entirely or devote a separate body paragraph to it.
- Your conclusion shouldn’t come out of the blue. That is, if your final evaluation of the book is a positive one, you should found it upon positive points covered in the review’s body, and vice versa. If the essay body didn’t lead up to a straightforwardly positive or negative conclusion, you should state whether pros outweigh the cons and why.
Some General Considerations
These tips may come in handy throughout the process of writing:
- Try to define the objective of your review early on, while you still read the book, and start finding evidence that proves your point of view as you go along;
- Keep an eye out for symbolism. Even if the author didn’t intend something to be a symbol, it won’t prevent you from seeing it as such – and symbols are a very useful part of analytical arsenal;
- Be balanced in your judgment. Try to provide an objective argument and don’t engage in nitpicking. You may have a strongly positive or negative impression about the book, but if you either extol it or find fault with every sentence, the audience may suspect that you are being led by emotions.
In general, a book report or review leaves you enough freedom to express your own personality despite putting someone else’s work in the center of attention. Make use of these tips, and there won’t be any problems!