Book Reviews or Book Reports: Which are you writing?

I recently asked my students to take 15 minutes during class to brainstorm a book review for a novel we recently finished.  The group–a small, remedial class–labored over the assignment, and as I wandered through the room it became evident that they weren’t reviewing the novel so much as retelling it.

While some students wrote lists of facts about the book, others drew elaborate webs with key plot points and details.  It was heartening to see them employing some of the brainstorming techniques I’ve been teaching but not one student had any notes or points critiquing the story, writing, or characters.

I could have chalked it up to the fact that this was a basic skills group and their aversion to reading and writing hindered their efforts, but I realized that the students didn’t know that there actually is a difference between a book report and a book review.  Instead of lamenting their weakness, I decided to teach them the difference.

As I prepared my plans for this week, I took a two-pronged approach.  I created a mnemonic device to use as a writing guide and also brought in some professional book, music, and movie reviews to show as samples.

During our discussion and lessons, I emphasized that though my students haven’t actually written any books they are still qualified to voice their opinions and critiques so long as they offer support from the text.  We also discussed how to diplomatically criticize a book, character, or writing.

We talked about the major differences between book reports (more topical, basically a retelling) and book reviews (an analysis of themes and the story).  I used fairy tales as examples and the group was able to quickly determine that Hansel and Gretel employed the popular ‘good triumphs over evil’ theme and collaboratively wrote a short review of the story.

I didn’t feel that my students were quite ready for book review guidelines of a college caliber, but I did want them to write more sophisticated reviews and avoid retelling the story.  To that end, I devised a mnemonic device to guide them.  With the exception of the first and last steps, I encouraged the kids to play with the order of the steps.

  • R: RELAY basic book and author information (Title, genre, a bit about the author and the book’s theme)
  • E: EXPLORE the content and succinctly overview it without giving away too much detail
  • V: VOICE your opinion.  Are the characters credible? Are their actions and dialog authentic? What major problems or successes did you find?
  • I: ISSUES (What issues does this book discuss?  What is the author’s take?)
  • E: ELEMENTS (Discuss exposition, characterization, symbolism, irony, etc)
  • W : WINDUP your argument and assessment

My reviews tend to be a bit of both reviewing and reporting.  I don’t feel academic pressure to do as much critical analysis as I would if writing for a class or journal because it’s more casual here.  That said, I still want to write quality reviews that don’t just retell the story and offer my like it or don’t like it opinion. How would you characterize your reviews?  Are you a book review OR a book report writer?  Or maybe a bit of both?

22 Comments

  • At 2011.04.07 09:02, bermudaonion (Kathy) said:

    I’m sure mine are more reports than reviews. I don’t think I’m smart enough to critique a book.

    • At 2011.04.07 09:17, vivienne said:

      I think I am a book reviewer. I try not to give too much detail away about the story.
      vivienne´s last blog post ..Live Twitterview Today at 12 noon with Liz Kessler

      • At 2011.04.07 10:56, Jess (The Cozy Reader) said:

        I’m a reviewer. I hardly state any details about the story that aren’t said in the summary. Great topic and I love the mnemonic device you created! 🙂

        • At 2011.04.07 11:02, Dishy said:

          As a non-book blogger I don’t do either. But I would have LOVED to have had you as a teacher, Nat!
          Dishy´s last blog post ..Spinach Salad with Warm Maple Dressing

          • At 2011.04.07 12:35, bybee said:

            I’d been wondering this very same thing about my own blog writing this past week. I go both ways, I guess. Love your mnemonic device…I’ll plug it in when I write my next review and see how new and shiny and improved I am! Thanks!!!
            bybee´s last blog post ..84- Charing Cross Road

            • At 2011.04.07 15:39, The Brain Lair said:

              I’m a bit of both, though I wish I could move to more of the reviewing. The problem is then it doesn’t “sound” like me. I’m going to try to include more story analysis coming up though. It might be just the thing I need.
              The Brain Lair´s last blog post ..Spring Bookaday Interruption – Cupcakes and Shopping!

              • At 2011.04.07 16:26, Man of la Book said:

                I’m actually not comfortable calling my posts “book reviews”. They are my thoughts about the book but even I wouldn’t say they are a review.

                • At 2011.04.07 20:00, Jenners said:

                  I think I skate between the two and sometimes I’m just in a whole other arena!!!
                  Jenners´s last blog post ..Writer’s Workshop- My 15 Minutes

                  • At 2011.04.07 20:13, toothybooks said:

                    I feel like I need to be in your class and learn the proper way to write a book review. I think most of my “reviews” are a mixture of both a review and a report. My mind has a tendency to do whatever it wants to do and I usually let it. Sometimes I’m in the mood to write a report and somethings I feel so passionate about the book that it comes across more as a review.

                    • At 2011.04.07 21:08, Kathleen said:

                      I’d probably classify what I write on my blog more as commentaries since I am usually responding in a personal way to the book and not trying to cover all of the bases that a review might. It sounds like you are great teacher and that your students are lucky to have you.
                      Kathleen´s last blog post ..Review- Separate Kingdoms by Valerie Laken

                      • At 2011.04.08 01:25, Jess - A Book Hoarder said:

                        I’m somewhere between the two. I think it depends on how much the book affected me. Sometimes I find that I have so much to say about the book that there is no room in my thought process to recap the story aside from little tidbits that jump in as I rant about what I loved or hated.
                        Jess – A Book Hoarder´s last blog post ..Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

                        • At 2011.04.08 08:45, S. Krishna said:

                          Hrmmm…I would say I’m more of a reviewer because I try to give away as little as possible about the story and focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Great question!
                          S. Krishna´s last blog post ..Book Review- Double Black – Wendy Clinch

                          • At 2011.04.10 11:08, Mary (Bookfan) said:

                            Mine are more reports than reviews but really, I just share a little about the book and then my very brief thoughts. I don’t read lengthy reviews because I’m afraid they will take away my pleasure of discovering a book on my own.
                            Mary (Bookfan)´s last blog post ..Mailbox Monday – April 11

                            • At 2011.04.11 11:24, Meg said:

                              Yay! I’m sure you’re a really fab teacher, Nat. I’d say I’m more of a reviewer than a reporter, but I do try to provide a few paragraphs summarizing the story in my own words before diving into what I thought about the book.

                              As a book review reader, though, I’d say I have a tendency to skip book summaries all together and focus solely on what a blogger/reviewer thought about the book. The plot isn’t as important to me as what a reviewer has to say about it . . . does it work? Is it awesome? Basically: should I spend my money/time on this novel? If they feel it’s worth it, regardless of the content, I’ll give it serious consideration.
                              Meg´s last blog post ..A pint for you — off to England

                              • At 2011.04.12 12:49, Alyce said:

                                I loved the review acronym that you shared! I think I end up doing a bit of both with my reviews, and since it is a hobby (and I am not a professional reviewer) I don’t feel like I have to delve into the depths of critical analysis. My main goal is to write the sort of review I would want to read, so I try not to include spoilers, and I don’t summarize more than giving a basic idea of what’s going on (especially if the publisher’s blurb is decent). I find that I do more summarizing when reviewing nonfiction in order to explain the basis of my opinion.

                                One thing that turns me off from reading someone else’s review is if it is incredibly dense and long. I just don’t have the time or patience to read a review that looks like a thesis paper (no matter how excellent it is).
                                Alyce´s last blog post ..Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton – Review

                                • At 2011.04.12 14:11, mari said:

                                  Thanks for this. I think I do a little of both, keeping my reviews short and sweet. I try to give a little detail about plot and also share my thoughts/critiques of what I read.

                                  • At 2011.04.12 16:26, Kari said:

                                    Oooh what a nice little device! I try to give a one paragraph brief review so that the reader will have some background as to what I’m talking about. Otherwise, I try to do review. I don’t think I get as critical and detailed as I used to…now I try and focus on keeping my writing style conversational and easy to read, full of my own reaction and opinion to the story.
                                    Kari´s last blog post ..For the love of big books

                                    • At 2011.04.13 15:42, Gwen said:

                                      I really dislike writing summaries, but always try to give the basic flow/plot of the story. Of course all that changes depending on where the “review” is going to be published. (publication, book blog, or other non-book blog)

                                      Love your breakdown of R E V I E W! Your students are lucky to have you!
                                      Gwen´s last blog post ..March in Review Whole Lotta Reading Reviewing Not So Much

                                      • At 2011.04.22 13:05, Kit Steinkellner said:

                                        This is great stuff, dude. Acrostics to the rescue!

                                        • […] (Book, Line, and Sinker) wrote a great post – Book Reviews or Book Reports: Which are you writing? – about how she taught her students about reports and reviews. What I liked most about it was how […]

                                          • At 2011.04.26 18:07, Callista said:

                                            A little of both. With many nonfiction books, I want the review reader to know what was covered in the book. That was one of my qualms with many nonficiton reviews. Even a table of contents sometimes isn’t explanatory enough to tell me what topics are covered. So in my reviews, I often go over the table of contents and explain what exactly that chapter covers. However for fiction I don’t give away the story at all other than the summary.

                                            However I also don’t write about characters, theme, plot etc too much as that’s a bit beyond what I can do. Perhaps that’s why I don’t review fiction too much.
                                            Callista´s last blog post ..Rubber Balls &amp Liquor Available April 26 – Check it out!

                                            • At 2011.04.27 18:20, Rebecca said:

                                              I am a reviewer. I might give a quick synopsis but the whole point of the blog has always been for readers to figure out if they would like the book based on what I write about it. If I give them another back cover/inside flap cover to read, that is not helping them any. A critique with both good points and bad points are what helps a reader decide if they would like the book. A synopsis/book report isn’t going to do that.
                                              Rebecca´s last blog post ..Hello Again!

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