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This article is designed for people who are looking for a little bit of guidance when it comes to writing a formal fictional[1] book review. Certainly, whilst opening a review with witty one liners and humorous anecdotes can work extremely well in newspaper book reviews, this article gives assistance to those seeking to construct a more formal book review. Perhaps you have a school project, university module or extra credit task assignment and you are wondering where to begin.

Sometimes it can be hard to know where to start with a review or critique when you have finished a book. But simple structuring and formatting are the keys to constructing a successful book review. You want to have a clear layout ahead of you to follow as this will help you to control the direction of your writing so that you do not go off at a tangent. It also helps to provide a sense of continuity to your review so that the reader can follow it through more easily. I will cover each section of the book review in order.

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If you are sat down with your unread book in front of you thinking where should you begin, then the first thing to do is to remember to make notes as you go along! No-one can remember every little intricacy of an entire novel on the first read through unless they are extremely talented so make yourself a ‘book review guide’.

Count how many chapters there are and remember to make a few notes after each chapter as you read it. Head up your paper or word document before you start if it helps you to feel more organized. Use bullet points, underline information or even use specific colored pens for different characters. You will need to refer to these notes afterwards to help jog your memory and to write more specific sentences regarding the plot later on, so make sure that your notes are legible.

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1. Background And Story

The first thing that you should do when writing a book review is to introduce your reader to the author and then to the premise of the story. You want to be able to neatly summarize the plot, characters and story in your opening whilst trying to stay subjective. This means attempting not to stray into your opinions or thoughts at this early stage as there will be much scope for this later on in the review. 

In your opening you will be trying to give your reader a sense of the characters in the novel and an overall feeling for the book. Think about what genre you would class the book under. For example is it a mystery, drama, crime, thriller, romance or comedy? Try to almost put yourself in the author’s shoes and imagine that you were trying to sell the book to a publishing house. Your language style will be formal and you will want to sound convincing. Therefore, do wait until you have completely finished your book before starting the book review so that you are fully versed with the story and aware of the plot and sub-plots.

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2. Providing Your Opinion

Although I have mentioned that your opening should try to stay subjective in content, as your review progresses you can bring more of your own personality into the writing. However, you want to lay out the groundwork first so that the reader has a clear and level idea of the story. Only after this is it wise to interject the narrative with your own personality. There are some writers who do this immediately with book reviews and whilst some people may find this helpful, I personally find it can act to taint your opinion before you have even heard anything about the book.

For example, if someone instantly says ‘this book disappointed me because..’ or ‘I have never read anything that moved me as much as this story did...’ then you are instantly transported into the reviewers head and you are less likely to form your own separate ideas and opinions. Some people arguably find that this approach is useful because it can save them time. I personally prefer to make up my own mind when it comes to reading a book review. So what am I looking for in a book review you may ask? In answer to this a great book reviewer will leave you desiring to know more about the story and wanting to make up your own mind about the book. There should be a clearly defined line between offering ideas and thoughts and in over-bearing the reader with one’s opinion.

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3. Content And Context

If you are an avid reader then you will find it easy to relate your book in question to other novelists writing from around the same time (or what can also be called your author’s ‘contemporaries’). Doing this will help a wider audience to understand your review and to put it into context. It is important to consider the time in which an author was writing because political and cultural events can have a great impact on artistic expression. It is just something to keep in mind that this point applies to writers as well as other creative arts such as music.

Perhaps you can see similarities in your author’s use of language or in their approach to humor with another author. If you are unsure of the contemporaries of your author then research the date of publication and the time period of the author’s life to learn and discover more about them. You will be able to give a far more rounded and objective perspective on the book than if you focus in isolation on this one novel alone. Consider the author’s other body of work and output and how this novel fits in thematically with them as well.

Under book context I also wish to discuss themes. Does your novel have any running themes throughout it? For example in terms of romance or humor? Does it argue a point or try to discuss a key idea? Consider how you would also describe the writer’s style and use of language. Do they use descriptive language and what linguistic tools do they employ?

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4. Summarizing

Some people may prefer to combine their summary in a book review with tip number three and to intertwine contextual information about the novel within a conclusion. However, both are perfectly acceptable options and the order of your book review’s middle sections are entirely up to you. However, when it comes to the end of a book review, I like to find a clearly written summary which takes into account a wide range of issues.

From characterization to sub-plot, what really stood out to you as a reader? Was this book a real page-turner or did it leave you feeling slightly bored? Was it fast or slow paced and did you connect with any specific character over the others? Apply your analytical skills to address these concepts from the novel.

The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing
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One way to achieve this is to imagine that you are telling a friend about the book and you only had a few sentences to do so. What would be the first thing you would say about it? Try to express those ideas and feelings verbally. If your book review is a personal project then you could ask a family member or friend to read the book (or a specific passage or chapter) after you so that you can share your thoughts and ideas together. Alternatively, if you are reading the book as a class or group at school or university then get together to discuss it over a drink or meal out and you will probably return home with countless ideas and new perspectives on the novel.

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5. Rating System

Whether you decide on marks out of ten or a star system for rating your book, giving readers an estimated rating is what counts. Many films are given a rating out of five stars and it is similar in the literary world for books. Through rating your book you are expressing in a concise and succinct manner how the book affected you and on the level of quality you believe it possesses.

You may find it easy to come up with a rating out of ten. But for those people that struggle, think about the emotional impact that the story has had on you. How well was it written? Did you think it was clearly structured? Did you like or dislike the central characters? And in what ways could it be improved?

Breaking your feelings about the book down in this manner could help you to come to a clearer conclusion on what number to rate it at. Perhaps come up with some categories from characterization to narrative and rate each one and then combine your score.

I hope that this brief guide to writing a formal fictional book review can offer you some assistance with how to structure and organize the content of your review. Remember that there are lots of different templates[6] for reviews[7] available online too. Regardless of your word limit or the time you have available, follow these five simple steps to help you create a book review that you can be really proud of.