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How to Write a Successful Book Review for University Courses, Academic and Newspaper Publications

June 3, 2022

Thank you to Dr. Joshua Sinai, Professor of Practice, Intelligence and Security Studies, for composing yet another excellent guide for college students and industry professionals on how to write a book review for academic assignments or journalistic publication. If you have not read Dr. Sinai's previous guide, How to Write a University Research Paper, we highly recommend that article as well as it is a valuable template to help with writing college research papers.


I’ve been writing book reviews of various categories, types and lengths throughout my academic career and am often asked, “are there any formulas for writing a successful book review?” The answer is yes. Like writing any type of article, it involves a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but unlike an article, a book review is intended to describe, discuss and evaluate a published book in as concise and engaging a manner as possible for the reader, with the focus on the reviewed book, not the reviewer. 

Why Write a Book Review? 

There are several reasons for writing a book review. The first reason is to share one’s thoughts with readers about a newly published book that might meet, exceed, or fall short of one’s expectations. Other reasons range from completing a required class assignment for a university course (where less recent books might be assigned for review), to getting a publishing “credit” by writing a book review of a newly-published book for an academic journal or newspaper (whether in print or online). Publishing a review in a journal or newspaper will also entitle the reviewer to a free copy of the book from the publisher. Nowadays, one can either get a free print copy or an e-book copy [I prefer a print copy whenever possible, but will settle for an e-book if it’s the only alternative provided by the publisher]. 

Categories of Book Reviews 

As mentioned earlier, there are three categories of book reviews. These are: a class assignment, an academic journal, or a newspaper. Each of these categories has its own set of requirements and writing styles. For example, a class assignment will address the requirements of the course’s teacher in terms of guidelines in covering the book’s topic and the review’s length. An academic journal will expect the review to be written at a high academic level in accordance with the publication’s writing guidelines. Finally, a review in a newspaper is expected to be written in an interesting manner for a general readership, for instance, free of any academic jargon. 

Types and Lengths of Book Reviews 

 Regardless of the categories of book reviews, there are three types and lengths of reviews. Reviews that cover single books are generally 800 to 1,000 words in length. Capsule book reviews, in which several books are covered in a single review column, will generally each be 300 to 400 words in length. In capsule book reviews, the reviewed books generally cover a similar overall subject, such as national security, but can focus on different sub-topics within it. A capsule book review column does not require a concluding paragraph or sentence. In review essays, which generally are published in academic journals (or in university courses), several books will be reviewed, with the overall essay beginning with an introductory overview of the books’ subject, with each review intended to cover an aspect of the overall subject, and with a concluding paragraph that presents a finding about the reviewed books’ contribution to the academic discipline. 

Writing the Book Review 

Once the category, type and length of a book review is selected, the same formula can be applied to writing the review. This consists of six components: 

  1. Essential book information 

  1. Introductory “hook” 

  1. Summary of book’s content 

  1. Evaluation of book’s content 

  1. Recommendation 

  1. Concluding paragraph or sentence 

 

1.Essential Book Information 

The beginning of a review will include the book’s publication details. This will generally consist of the author, the book’s title, the publisher’s city and state, the name of the publisher, the year the book was published (including whether it is a revised edition), the book’s page length, the book’s price, whether the book is a hardcover, paperback or e-book, and the book’s ISBN number (the acronym for International Standard Book Number, which identifies a specific book or an edition of a book). Note that not all of these details need to be included in a book’s publication details, depending on the category of the book review and the publishing guidelines of the publication where the review is published. For university courses, the APA 7th Edition citation style guide may be selected. 

Example:  

Jack Devine, Spymaster’s Prism: The Fight Against Russian Aggression (Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books/An Imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, 2021), 304 pp., $34.95 [Hardcover], ISBN: 978-1-6401-2378-6.  

 

2. Introductory “Hook” 

A review’s introductory sentence should serve as a “hook” to interest the reader in noticing and reading the review. It can be a compelling or provocative statement in general about the book’s topic or about the book itself. After the initial sentence, the reviewer might mention the author’s professional affiliation to validate his/her expertise on the book’s topic. 

Example: 

“How can we define terrorism with so many definitions being proposed for it? This important book proposes a new definition that will provide the solution. The author is ideally qualified to discuss these issues, as he/she is a professor of ___________ at the University of ____________, and has published books and articles on this topic.” 

 

3.Summary of Book’s Content 

This section provides a brief synopsis of what is the book is about. The book’s main points are the summary’s focus. To accompany the synopsis, if possible, the reviewer should provide quotations from the book, including their page numbers. This is important as it ‘brings the book’s text to life’ and also demonstrates that the reviewer has actually read through the text (or at least read enough to write a review). Do not include the author’s conclusion(s) until the end of the review. 

 

4.Evaluation of Book’s Content 

Evaluating a book’s content is the review’s most important and longest section. It differs from the previous summary as it provides the reviewer’s evaluation of the book’s content. This will enable the readers to know whether and how they would benefit from reading the book.  

Example: 

“The book’s coverage of the Second World War revealed new details, based on newly uncovered documents, about the effectiveness of the Allied military campaigns. These details included…..” 

 

5.Recommendation 

After evaluating the book’s content, provide the reader with your recommendation of the book’s worthiness in 1-3 sentences (or longer, if necessary). Also, who do you think would benefit from reading this book, such as university students, faculty, practitioners in the field, the general reader, etc. 

Example: 

“The book contributes to advancing the state of the academic discipline on these because….” 

 

6.Concluding Sentence 

The concluding sentence can be the same as the recommendation sentences or a final comment about the book. 

Example: 

“In conclusion, this important book is an invaluable resource for those working on this topic, as its findings provide new insights for understanding these issues.” 

 

Conclusion 

I hope that this template for writing a book review will help you write it for one of these various categories, types and lengths. Remember that the most important aspect of writing a review is to be as interesting and concise as necessary, since gaining the reader's interest in the book is the primary reason for writing a book review.  


About the author:  Dr. Joshua Sinai is a Professor of Practice, Intelligence and Security Studies, at Capitol Technology University. Over the years, he has published dozens of full book reviews and about 1,000 capsule reviews in academic journals, magazines and newspapers on national security subjects, including terrorism and counterterrorism. He started writing capsule book reviews, in particular, as one of his responsibilities while working as a Senior Intelligence Analyst at the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress (FRD/LOC), and after leaving it turned book reviewing as a “side business” as a way to obtain free review copies of books for his personal professional research library.