Guide to Writing Book Reviews

"A book reviewer occupies a position of special responsibility and trust. He is to summarize, set in context, describe strengths, and point out weaknesses. As a surrogate for us all, he assumes a heavy obligation which it is his duty to discharge with reason and consistency."

- H. G. Rickover

Book reviews perform an important mission for the historical profession by bringing to a book the insight and perspective of another person working in the field. All major professional journals (such as the Journal of American History, Civil War History, and the William and Mary Quarterly) publish reviews. Some devote as much as half of their pages to book reviews and there are journals, such as Reviews in History, which devote their entire contents to them.

Your review should be a finished, polished piece of work. It should be headed by a full bibliographic citation which includes the author's name, the book's title, the place of publication, publisher, date of publication, number of pages, and other contents, such as maps and tables. For example:

William M. Fowler, Jr., Jack Tars & Commodores: The American Navy, 1783-1815 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1984. Pp. xiii, 318. Illustrations, Maps.)

Keep in mind that a book review is not a book report. A book report merely summarizes the contents of a book while a review provides critical analysis.

Contents of a Good Review

  • Identify the author's theme or thesis. Why did he write the book? What is he trying to prove? It is not enough to simply identify the subject; you must tell what the author says about it.
  • Identify the scope of the work, e.g., what era does it cover, what subtopics?
  • Explain how the author supports his thesis and assess his success in proving it.
  • Explain what kind of evidence he uses to support his conclusions. Be specific - do not simply say he uses primary or secondary sources. Identify the type of sources: oral interviews, personal papers, newspaper accounts, census data, etc.
  • Evaluate the author's style. For example, is it narrative or analytical?
  • If it is not obvious from the title, explain the general nature of the book. Is it diplomatic, social, administrative, economic, military, or psychological history?
  • If the book is part of a series, identify the series.
  • If the author brings any special experience or training to the work, identify and explain this.
  • Identify the audience to which the book is directed.

Suggested Procedures
  • Read the complete book carefully, pausing to think about what the writer is trying to do. Take careful notes if it helps. It might be wise to stop at the end of each chapter and summarize in a paragraph what the author said.
  • Write the first draft of your review. Set the draft aside for a day or two before revising into a second draft.
  • Review these guidelines before starting your second draft.
  • Proofread your manuscript carefully before submitting it.

Style and Grammar Reminders
  • It is usually best to use the present tense when writing about the book or author and the past tense when discussing the subject of the book. For example: "The author believes that Halsey was well prepared...."
  • Do not repeat information in the body of your review which is included in the bibliographic heading. A particularly poor opening sentence repeats the author's name and the book's title.
  • When mentioning an individual for the first time use his/her full name.
  • Be certain that someone who has not read the book will understand it after reading your review.
  • Use the active voice whenever possible, but remember that there are times when the passive voice is more appropriate.
  • Phrases or sentences quoted from the work should be followed by the page number in parentheses.

Things to Avoid
  • Writing in the first person. Say: "This is a good book," not "I think this is a good book." The entire review is your opinion.
  • Slang. Reviews are formal papers.
  • Contractions.
  • Repeating items or facts which the reader can be expected to know. For example, assume that the reader knows Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.
  • Using hyperbole. For example, "This is the best book ever written on the subject."
  • Long quotations from the book. It is usually best to state material in your own words.

© James C. Bradford, 1997.
Used by permission of the author.