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Writing About Non-Fiction Books

TIP Sheet
WRITING ABOUT NON-FICTION BOOKS

At some point in your college career you may be asked to review a non-fiction book to enable you to learn more about some aspect of your course work. The assignment is demanding because you are required to describe and evaluate an author's contribution to a subject that you may know little about. How should you proceed?

Your instructor will usually offer some guidance, such as a suggested list of books or some guidelines to follow in selecting a work. Generally, you should try to find a relatively recent work of about 200-350 pages on some aspect of the course that particularly interests you.

Describe and evaluate
You are expected to describe the book, that is, to summarize some major points of interest, and to evaluate it, that is, to make judgments about it. The areas to address include the following:

Description

  • Information about the author
  • Background information about the book
  • Author's purpose-to inform? Entertain? Persuade?
  • Author's thesis
  • Organization
  • Summary

Evaluation

  • Other reviews
  • Scholarship
  • Strengths and weaknesses

Later you may decide to omit some of these points. Their order may be changed, with more important or striking matters appearing first. Usually the descriptive section appears first in non-fiction reviews, especially in scholarly journals. All these organizational decisions are subjective and can be revised as needed.

While reading the book, take notes of the passages and their page numbers that relate to how you can describe and evaluate the work. In particular, be on the lookout for thesis statements, chapter summaries, striking quotations, discussions of methodology, conclusions, and author's recommendations. If you question whether or not to take a particular note, remember that it would be wiser to err on the side of having too many, rather than too few. You can always eliminate notes that appear unnecessary.

Points of description
Information about the author may appear on the book jacket or may be obtained or inferred from what is written in the preface. In order to determine to what extent the author is an authority on the subject, you should do some library research into the author's present position, background, experience, and qualifications. Biographical sources such as the Biography Center in the GaleNet database will help you find this information. It need not be much, perhaps just a sentence; at most, it might consist of a short paragraph.

Background information about a book consists of the historical, sociological, economic, scientific or other circumstances that may have influenced or contributed to its publication. This information may have some bearing on the book's importance or interest.

Often the author's purpose–to amuse, inform, persuade-will be apparent from the preface or introduction.

The thesis or central idea of the book will probably be stated in the introduction or the conclusion. To gain an overview of the book that will help you realize its purpose and main ideas, read the preface and the introductory and concluding chapters first.

The organization of non-fiction depends partly on what kind of non-fiction it is-philosophy? Biology?–and partly on the author's purpose. History, for example, might be organized either chronologically or around central issues. Or, if the author's purpose is to challenge a widely-held position, he may choose to refute ideas point-by-point. Look at the table of contents and, as you read, refer back to it.

Because so much depends on your audience, the summary may be one of the most difficult parts of the review to write. Are you writing only for your instructor who has probably already read, or is familiar with, the book? Are you writing for your classmates who have not read it? Or are you writing for other people who are not in the course and are therefore unfamiliar with the subject? Your instructor can tell you what audience the paper should address. Then you will be able to judge how thorough your summary should be and whether or not terms should be defined and points explained in detail.

Points of evaluation
At the same time that you gather information to describe the work, you should be thinking about your evaluation of it. Read a few other reviews of this book to inform your own opinion–what points did other reviewers address? Were professional reviewers unanimous in their evaluations, or did their opinions differ? Of course, any ideas or quotations obtained from these reviews should be attributed to their owners in your paper. To consult published reviews of the book, ask the reference librarian to help you find an appropriate index, or check an online database. Following is a partial list of the databases available to Butte College students:

  • Proquest Direct–for general disciplines including health, humanities, sciences, social sciences, arts, business, education, women's and multicultural issues.
  • SIRS Researcher–for topics including science, history, politics, and global issues.
  • Wilson Web–for biographies, obituaries, science, education, current events, and social science.
  • GaleNet–for biographies, authors, history, science, and literature.
  • Health Reference Center–for topics in health, medicine, and nursing.

Some online databases offer full text articles; others offer abstracts (summaries) and information on how to find the full text in other publications; you can quickly scan abstracts to determine which articles are most likely to be useful to you. Advanced search features allow you to search using Boolean operators (and, or, not) for either full texts or abstracts. You can also narrow your search to scholarly journals for better search results. (From the Butte College home page, http://www.butte.edu, use the library links-search For Articles and select a database from the alphabetical list.)

The print-version Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature (in the Butte College Library, 1959 to the present) may also be helpful. This index also summarizes and tells you where to find the texts. The names and dates of the publications in which they appear are listed, and you should be able to refer to your selected reviews with little effort. The different indexes are usually organized by year, but keep in mind that a work published late in the year might not be reviewed until the following year.

You may find it difficult to judge the scholarship of a work or an author's expertise because of your limited understanding of the subject. But it does not require highly specialized knowledge to note what sources the author uses (look for the notes or bibliography sections), how much and what kind of evidence he provides, or how he analyzes data and justifies his conclusions. Read carefully to identify omissions, discernible bias, or unsupported generalizations. For example, someone reviewing a work entitled War in the Falklands would have little difficulty pointing out that this account of the 1982 war between Britain and Argentina is pro-British, containing little information about the Argentine politicians, participants, and purposes.

When considering a book's strengths and weaknesses, discuss the following points:

  • The tone and style of the writing
  • The importance of the book in its field
  • The value of the book for its intended audience
  • The effectiveness of the author's argument
  • The soundness of the author's conclusions
  • The practicality of the author's recommendations.

Your discussion the book's strengths and weaknesses may overlap with your discussion of scholarship. Plan to sort this out when revising your review so that your paper concludes with your general reaction. If your overall evaluation is favorable, admit the book's few weaknesses first and conclude with its many strong areas. If unfavorable, name the book's strengths first and conclude with its numerous weaknesses.

Mention any particularly interesting or memorable points or passages, and support your opinions with references to the book, but use quotations sparingly.

In your evaluation, you might reflect on how the book relates to your course. Consider what issues, ideas, or institutions the author criticizes or defends. Note the methodology and evaluate how it shapes or restricts the topic. Also, evaluate how well the author has added to your knowledge and understanding of the subject, particularly how it supplements the ideas in the textbook and the views of your instructor.

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