Book reviews

Book reviews are sometimes used on undergraduate courses, and frequently appear in academic journals. This page considers what a book review is, how to structure one, and provides some language for writing a book review.


What is a book review?

A book review describes and critically evaluates a (usually recent) book. Like any kind of review, for example a review of a film or television programme, it will offer a description of the main points, consider the strengths and weaknesses, and give an overall evaluation, in order to allow the reader to decide whether or not it will be of interest to them and therefore a good investment of their time and money. Book reviews are sometimes used as assignments on undergraduate courses, and are a common component of academic journals. They are typically short pieces of work, around 500-750 words in length. They may sometimes be shorter or longer, but will rarely exceed 1000 words. A book review should not be confused with a book report, which is a relatively short and purely descriptive assignment, common in high school (rather than university) courses.


Structure of book reviews

A book review will usually begin with bibliographic information. This means details such as the name of the book, the name(s) of the author(s), and the publisher. Other details may be helpful, for example date and place of publication, format, edition, number of pages, price and ISBN.


The text of the review should begin with an introduction. As the review will be fairly brief, it is common to begin with an anecdote or quotation which captures the main idea of the book. The introduction will identify the author and title, specify the type of book, and state the book's subject matter. Further background detail to place the book in context may be given, for example previous work by the author in the same field, prior work by other writers in the same field, or information about the book series (if the book is part of a series). The thesis of the book, i.e. its specific contribution, may also be given, along with your own thesis, i.e. your initial appraisal of the work and key observations.


The main body of the review will provide description and critical evaluation of the text. These may be dealt with separately, with description first and evaluation next, or in combination. Although the evaluation is the more important part, the description may still take up half or two thirds of the content of the main body, in order to lay the foundation for the evaluation.


The description of the text will summarise the book. Evidence from the book, such as quotations, may be used to support the points. This part might give information on the following areas, which can later be used as criteria for evaluating the book:


  • content of the book (possibly by chapter-by-chapter);
  • the author's purpose;
  • the intended audience;
  • the author's arguments and themes;
  • sources used in the book;
  • how the book is organised or laid out.

The critical evaluation will present your reaction to the book. You might compare it to other (similar) books in the field, and consider its relative strengths and weaknesses. In this part you may respond to the areas above by considering key questions, as follows, to further highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the book.


  • Content of the book. Is everything included? Is there too much information? Is anything essential left out?
  • The author's purpose. Has the author succeeded in their purpose?
  • The intended audience. Is the book appropriate for the intended audience? Why (not)? Who else might benefit from reading it?
  • The author's arguments and themes. How valid or effective are the arguments and themes? Do you agree with the author's opinions? Why (not)?
  • Sources used in the book. How strong are the sources? Are there enough?
  • How the book is organised or laid out. Is it organised in a logical or useful way? Are there any problems? Is the layout clear and easy to use?

Finally, there should be a conclusion to the book review. This will sum up your thoughts on the book. This means summarising the book's strengths and weaknesses, indicating whether this is a useful book, whether it will make a lasting contribution to its field, whether you recommend it, and who will benefit from reading it.


Note that the above is the structure for a book review for a non-fiction work, which is the most common kind of review for university study. For a work of fiction, a similar approach can be used, though in place of the points for argument and sources, you would consider setting, plot, characters, use of language and voice when describing the book, and consider how effective each of these elements are when evaluating it.


Language for book reviews

It is important is to make sure that your views are distinct from the author's. This can be done by using the author's name, or referring to 'The author' or 'The book'.


The following phrases might be useful for summarising the contents of the book.


  • The book is divided into the following parts.
  • This text is divided into four main chapters focusing on...
  • Section one of the book details...
  • The opening chapter focuses on...
  • The second section explores...
  • Chapter three...
  • The next chapter...
  • The final chapter...


The following phrases can be used to highlight weaknesses.


  • The book would benefit from...
  • A nice addition to the book would be...
  • The weakest area of the book is...
  • The only/main/greatest weakness/drawback of the book is...


The following phrases can be used to indicate a suitable audience for the book.


  • The book should appeal to those who...
  • This book is applicable to...
  • It would be an excellent resource for...
  • The book is particularly interesting for...
  • The book will be of interest to...
  • This book is highly recommended to...
  • ... are likely to find the book useful.
  • ... would find it valuable.

The following adjectives can be used to give a positive review (negatives of these can be used for a negative review).

  • informative
  • interesting
  • well-organised
  • concise
  • up-to-date
  • thorough
  • substantial
  • comprehensive
  • clear
  • readable

Example review

An example book review, as well as exercises for book reviews, can be found in the book Academic Writing Genres: Essays, Reports & Other Genres, part of the EAP Foundation series of books. You can use the form below to download a sample of the book.


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Checklist

Below is a checklist for book reviews. Use it to check your own writing, or get a peer (another student) to help you.


Area Item OK? Comment
Biographical details Essential details are given, e.g. name of book, author, publisher, date/place of publication, format, edition, number of pages, price, ISBN.
Introduction There is an interesting beginning (e.g. anecdote or quotation).
The introduction identifies the author, title, and type of book.
The introduction states what the book is about.
Background is given, e.g. previous work by the author or others in the same field, information about the book series (if part of a series).
The thesis of the book is given, i.e. its specific contribution.
Your thesis is given, i.e. your initial appraisal of the work and key observations.
Description There is a description of key areas, e.g. summary of content, author's purpose, intended audience, arguments, sources, organisation and layout.
Quotations are used as evidence.
Evaluation There is critical evaluation of key areas, e.g. content (is everything included?), purpose (is it achieved?), audience (is it suitable?), arguments (are they valid?), evidence (is it strong?), organisation and layout (it is logical and clear?).
Strengths and weaknesses are given.
Conclusion There is a summary of the book's strengths and weaknesses.
There is an indication of whether the book is useful or makes a lasting contribution.
The conclusion states whether you recommend the book, and what audience it suits.



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Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 26 March 2020.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of EAPFoundation.com. He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.



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