How to write a Book Report
This concise guide to writing a book report written by PhD Professor Jacob Leland will help you confidently and consistently write solid book reports. This guide provides you with an overview of the requirements for content and structure as well as insight into the expectations of your professors and the key points on which your book report will be assessed.
This guide will teach you how to:
- Explain, analyze, and evaluate the book your writing on.
- Write a spot on summary and analysis.
- Address the right target audience.
- Craft proper citations and bibliographies.
- Avoid plagiarism.
The guide also covers:
- The differences between college and high school book reports.
- How book reports differ from other assignments e.g. book reviews & essays.
- What background information to include in your book report.
What Is A Book Report?
A book report is usually a 500-word writing assignment. You should be sure to check with your instructor about the required length. The report itself is just what its name implies: after reading a book, you report back on what you have read. You will provide your reader with basic information about the book, so that he or she may better understand the book and its topic before reading it. You should inform your reader, as objectively as possible, about the book. A book report is different from a book review, which will go beyond the basics to evaluate and make more subjective claims about the text's quality. A book report is also different from an argumentative essay, which advances an original thesis. Finally, although it may be part of a sequence of assignments leading up to a research paper, which investigates a topic through a variety of sources and takes a position within a set of claims about that topic, a book report is not a research paper.
A book report, unlike any of these, is written by a reporter:
someone whose responsibility is to tell his or her reader what's going on. This means you need to answer a reporter's questions: Who? What? Where? When? How? Why? The way to answer those questions will vary depending on the type of book you've been assigned: whether it's fiction or nonfiction, narrative or expository, and so on. A few things hold true over all these categories, though, and understanding them will help you prepare to write your book report. You'll need to identify the major plot, characters, thesis, and/or main idea, and trace for your reader how the book you've chose or been assigned develops those things. In order to most effectively address the basic questions a reporter needs to ask, let's examine the reason for writing--and assigning--a book report.
Why Write A Book Report?
Of course, you are writing a book report because you have been given an assignment. The purpose of the assignment, though, is somewhat different from that of book reports you may have written before this point in your education. Until now, the book reports you have prepared have served a simple purpose: to prove that you have completed, and understood, the assigned reading. They were a way for your teachers to test you. The book reports you write in college should still prove that you have done the reading, of course, since this is crucial to your ability to establish authority, but at the university level your writing is more than a test. Now, like all your writing, your book report should be useful to its reader in his or her scholarly work—and to you, in your own.
Think of your book report as a step in the research process: it should add the book to its reader's knowledge base. The next time you and your reader approach this topic, instead of reaching for the book itself to decide whether it's a useful resource, you should reach for this book report. In order to fulfill this function, your report should explain, analyze, and evaluate the book you've read, with respect to the literature surrounding it, the other assignments you've been given for the class, and the discussions you've had leading up to this particular reading assignment.
- Explain: What happens in the book? What does your reader need to know about it? If it tells a story (fictional or otherwise), what is the plot? Here is where you'll need to identify the setting and the characters. If, instead of a narrative, your book is expository prose, what is the main idea or argument? What is it claiming, or trying to convince its reader to think, believe, or do?
- Analyze: How does the book tell its story or make its argument? What tools does it use? Here, you may want to discuss themes, motifs, symbols, and other rhetorical devices the book uses.
- Evaluate: How effectively does the book accomplish its purpose, communicate its ideas, or argue its point? How convincing is it? Where does it fit into the course for which you've been assigned this report, and how do you imagine discussing it in class? How useful will it be to someone undertaking further research? Evaluating a text is not the same as saying whether or not you enjoyed reading it. Your reader needs to know about the book—not about you.
Where to Begin
Start taking notes as soon as you start reading. Some students make the mistake of waiting until they have finished reading to begin writing. You should always be writing! If you own the book you're reporting on, take notes in the margins. If not, keep a notebook with you while you read so that you can consult your notes later. Once you get into the habit of this, it will make your reporting much easier.
You already know the basic structure of your report, and what you'll need to pay attention to while you read in order to explain, analyze, and evaluate a work. Here are some vital questions you can usually answer before you even open the book:
- Author: Who wrote it? What, if anything, do you know about the author? This is one of the most important things to know about any book, since it is perhaps the primary category most readers use to organize their knowledge of texts.
- Publication Information: When and where was it published, and by whom? What do you know about that time and place, or about that publisher? No matter what kind of book you're reporting on, these are important questions to keep in mind as you read.
- Genre: Are you reporting on a novel? A biography? A history? A critical or theoretical argument? Is your book fiction or nonfiction? Who is its intended audience, and how does it expect them to approach it?
- Title: The title is one of the best ways to start answering the last question, since it is what the author him/herself decided to use to introduce the book to its reader. What does it do for you? What does it accomplish for the book itself? What does it tell you about the book? What does it tell you to expect? What, if anything, does it assume you already know?
- Cover Art, Book Jacket, Et Cetera: This can be a little more complicated, because often the author of a book has no control over how the work is packaged. That's obvious in the case of, say, recent editions of Shakespeare plays or Dickens novels, but it's usually also true of contemporary works by living authors. Still, the way that its publishing company chooses to package and sell a book can help you to identify its target audience and decide whether it will be useful to your research. You may not decide to include this information in your finished report, but it will be helpful to you in preparing to read and write.
|Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Publication Information: New York: Scribner, 1925. My copy: 1999.
Title: The Great Gatsby
|The Great Gatsby, a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, was published in New York City by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1925.|
|The first column here is more like what appears in a bibliography, which we'll cover later.|
Notes to Keep While Reading
Now, you're ready to open the book, begin reading, and prepare to write your book report. You organize your report according to the questions a reporter asks: Who? What? Where? When? How? Why? Keep in mind the following usual components of a book report, so that you can take notes and know what to read for.
Is Your Book Narrative or Expository Writing?
For the purpose of easy classification, we will divide the books you may be assigned into two major categories. You may already think of these as fiction and nonfiction, but the more useful distinction is between narrative and expository prose. Narrative texts can be fiction or nonfiction. They tell stories, fictional (as in a novel or a short story) or not (as in a biography or history). Expository texts, which are usually nonfiction, inform and explain, as in a critical or theoretical work. The content of a book reports will vary according to whether the book is narrative or expository, but the form should be largely the same.
Summary (Reporter's Questions: Who? What? Where? When?)
This is where you make it clear to your instructor and reader that you've completed your assigned reading. You'll demonstrate that you've made yourself familiar with the book and its contents, and you'll introduce your reader to them. You should go into enough detail to make this clear, and to make clear that you've gone beyond reading someone else's summary (more on this in the plagiarism section) or watching the movie. You still need to be economical with your language and with your reader's time—get to the point as quickly as you can.
Narrative: Introduce the setting and major characters. Give an overview of the plot. Note that it is customary, especially when discussing works of fiction, not to give away the ending.
Expository: Introduce the author and his or her background. Identify the main idea, or what the book proposes to teach or explain to its reader. Explain the historical or academic context of the book's most important claims. What do you need to know in order to make sense of the material, and what do you learn that you didn't already know?
Analysis (Reporter's Question: How?)
This section is where you can display your insight into, and expertise in, the book and its topic.
Narrative: Give a more detailed account of the plot. You'll need to introduce some minor characters, and you may want to give a chapter-by-chapter account of what happens and how it unfolds. It may help, in this section of your book report, to know the following terms, which belong to a diagram called Freytag's Pyramid (see below), named for the 19th century German scholar and playwright Gustav Freytag:
- Exposition: gives the reader the basic information needed to understand the story: the characters, setting, and basic conflict
- Rising action: complicates the basic conflict, presenting the characters with obstacles to overcome and other secondary conflicts.
- Climax: the dramatic, often exciting, point at which things begin to change for the story and the characters.
- Falling action: the resolution of the climax's conflict.
- Denouement (pronounced Day-Knew-Mwah): illustrates the state of affairs after the climax, or the consequences of whatever decisions the rising action and climax forced the characters to make. Usually, in a comedy, the denouement shows how things have gotten better for the protagonist; in a tragedy, it shows how they have gotten worse.
Freytag's pyramid is not a mathematical formula. Like the terms it gives us, the pyramid is simply a tool for understanding how stories work. Unless you have been specifically assigned this task, you should not diagram the book you have read according to Freytag's pyramid. You can help your reader understand how the story develops, though, by identifying its components.
Expository: Break down the book's argument for your reader. How does its author establish his or her authority on the subject matter? How does the book advance its thesis? What particular claims make up its argument? What are its major examples, and what do they prove? What kind of rhetorical appeals does the book make? Explain and follow its logic as it develops throughout the book.
Evaluation (Reporter's Question: Why?)
This section will be largely the same, whether you are writing about a narrative or expository text. It is where you can bring your own thoughts on the book into play, as long as you remember that your thoughts and responses are different from your likes and dislikes. Be sure to focus on the book itself, and not on whether you enjoyed reading it. What do you think of this book?
What do you agree with or disagree with? What makes it important—worth writing a report on, or assigning you to report on? Would you recommend it, or assign it, to others? What would you tell them before they read it? What are the first few things you would bring up for discussion with someone else who had read it, or with someone like you, expert enough to report on it to others? What kinds of questions does this book raise in the context of the class for which it was assigned to you? What avenues for exploration does it open up?
Conducting Further Research
Sometimes, you'll want to look outside the book itself to fill in some of the gaps in your knowledge of the book. Outside research can help you create a fuller picture of the historical, literary, or academic context in which your reading assignment exists, and to more effectively analyze and evaluate your reading material. It can also impress your reader with the extra effort you've put into your book report! Supplemental reading material is never a substitute for doing the reading assignment itself.
Using Sample Papers and Evaluating Outside Sources
You're not alone, and you don't need to reinvent the wheel: we can almost guarantee that you are not the first student or scholar to write about the book that you've been assigned. This is good news: you can turn to others' writing for help. Writework.com has a database of over 100,000 sample papers and guides — some were written by experts like me, and others were written by students like you. You may be able to find one that discusses your reading assignment, its author, and/or other works by its author. When you are looking for outside sources to supplement your own ideas, you'll want to keep two things in mind: you need to evaluate your source, and you need to carefully avoid plagiarism.
To evaluate your source, you need to identify both its author and the venue in which it was published.
What do you know about the author? What credentials--professional, academic, or otherwise—does he or she present? In most academic writing situations, a piece written by a professor at a well-respected university will carry more weight than one written by a student at that university, a blogger, or an online reference source such as Wikipedia. Next, what do you know about the publication itself? Is it a scholarly, journalistic, or popular publication?
Scholarly sources are the bound journals in your library. They are often published by universities or by university presses. Usually, their contributing authors are scholars—professors and researchers in the journal's or the book's specialized field. They are always peer reviewed, which means that an editorial board consisting of experts in the field has been consulted before the work was published.
Journalistic sources include most newspapers and magazines with which you're familiar. They are published by for-profit corporations that accept advertising, and they cater to a wider and less specialized audience than do scholarly sources. They have editors, departments of standards and practices, and mechanisms by which readers and the general public can hold them accountable.
Popular sources are usually self-published. They are not regulated by an outside authority, and often do not require their authors to make themselves available or accountable to correction. Many blogs, term paper sharing websites, and internet sources fall into this category.
Each type of source can be useful to you in your research, but you need to be aware of which you've found, and what kind of authority it wields. As a general rule, you will find scholarly sources to be most effective, but you can use any of them to help refine or inspire your thinking about a text or topic.
Whatever source or sources you use, you are always responsible for avoiding plagiarism. Your school has a code of conduct, with whose particular definition of plagiarism you should make yourself familiar. For our purposes: using, borrowing, appropriating another's work (words or ideas) in any way without acknowledgement or proper citation constitutes an instance of plagiarism. It is the language equivalent of stealing from another, whether it involves using another's exact words without giving credit or paraphrasing another writer's ideas, opinions, graphs, statistics, facts, et cetera.
Avoiding plagiarism, for all the trouble it causes in education, is simple. When doing research, document with careful and precise notes, so that you know what you have read and when. When writing, pay careful attention to where you learned any information that you put forth—and if it is neither common knowledge nor your original idea, cite its source. You must cite outside sources whether you copy their claims word for word or paraphrase their ideas. In addition to impressing your reader with all the outside work you have done, careful citation will make your report a more useful document to both you and your reader, since you will be able to situate it within the larger body of work on your topic.
Citations and Bibliographies
There are a variety of citation formats, and you should check with your instructor about the one that is correct for your book report. Ordinarily, university English courses use MLA Style. All of the most common (MLA, Chicago or Turabian, and APA) have handbooks and websites (see below), and many computer programs, such as EndNotes, will format your citation, footnotes or endnotes where required, and bibliography or Works Cited page in the style of your choosing. All the styles serve the same basic goal: to help your reader locate the original source material, on the Internet, in the archives, or on the shelf. You should note the author's name, all the publication information, and the page numbers where applicable. Once you get into the habit of documenting your sources and preparing bibliographies, it's really very easy.
Established in 1995, WriteWork is an online academic resource featuring a student community with over 375.000 members and a comprehensive library of research papers, essays, and book reports. WriteWork also offers a number of hands-on writing guides written by PhD Professors from some of the most well established colleges and universities in the world. Writing guides include: How to Write a Research Paper and How to Write an Essay.
Suggested Further Reading
On MLA Style:
MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. mlahandbook.org
On Chicago Style:
The Chicago Manual of Style.
On APA Style:
Concise Rules of APA Style
On more general questions about writing and research:
Purdue University's Online Writing Lab
Diana Hacker's Research and Documentation
The Craft of Research, Third Edition by Wayne Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph Williams
A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, Seventh Edition by Kate Turabian