Book Reports Writing For Students: A Definitive Guide

Any student who thinks book reports are assigned only in English is in for a nasty surprise.

History and social classes often require book reports. Nor is it uncommon for a science teacher or foreign language instructor to ask for a book report.

Book reports are also a feature of adult life. Employers ask workers to report on relevant books at staff meetings, religious organizations and social groups use book reports as a means of sharing information with their members, and so on.

Since it seems we are to be pretty much the victims of book reports in one form or another for years to come, let’s discover how to best handle the problem of preparing a quality book report while remaining calm and collected.

Start Off Right for a Good Report

Preparing a good book report is like having a day go well. A good beginning can make all the difference in the world.

The trick, of course, is knowing just how to achieve that good beginning.

Is it necessary to suggest that you listen, really listen, to the teacher who assigns a book report?

Failure to absorb the guidelines your teacher gives is perhaps the easiest way to start off in the wrong direction on a book report (or, for that matter, on any other type of assignment).

The next worst step in heading wildly off in an improper direction is not reading and heeding any printed guidelines your teacher may prepare for you.

Written instructions provide you with something to check and double-check as many times as necessary while preparing a book report. Sometimes these guidelines are intended to be used as a reference for every book report you will write over the course of an entire term or year. (Printed instructions also save the teacher the effort of having to explain things over and over to students who have questions, were absent or didn’t listen in class.)

Assuming you have listened carefully, asked your teacher for clarification if you missed a point and read any printed material, here are a few questions to keep in mind in getting your book report off to a successful start:

What sort of book am I to choose for my report?

• Should it deal with a specific subject?

• Is there a list of books I must choose from?

• Must it be written by a certain author?

• Does it need to be one type of literature, such as fiction or biography?

Exactly what am I expected to include in my report?

• Is the report supposed to be a general summary of the book, a character study of a fictional person, a chronology of the life of an individual or a critical evaluation?

Is there any length requirement?

What special form, if any, is my book report to take?

• Does it require any special effects, such as artwork?

• May I write it in longhand or should it be typed?

• Do I need to buy a folder for the report?

When is my book report due?

• Are there any due dates for things other than the finished report, such as: title selection, outline or rough draft?

It is all too easy to self-destruct when faced with a long assignment such as reading and reporting on a book. Many students somehow forget about the assignment (perhaps thinking that a far-off deadline will simply disappear!). Others let crucial time slip away – they’re often paralyzed by fear as to how to begin, or have other assignments that are more pressing.

Neither of these things can be allowed to happen, of course. The best way (and the only way for many of us) to avoid this is to make an assignment schedule. Such a schedule is nothing more than a list of due dates for all the various requirements which are part of creating a successful book report. Using one is simple. As soon as you have your assignment, write out a schedule such as the one below. Refer to it to remind yourself of where you need to be on any given day.

As you complete each step, check it off or cross it out (this is good for morale) but don’t black out a step you may need to refer to later on. Here’s the sort of assignment schedule you might want to make:

Book Report Schedule

Assignment Date Due

1. Select title ________

2. Have teacher approve title ________

3. Read book (determine how many pages you need to read each day……); take notes as you read ___________

4. Review notes and organize them into an outline ________

5. Write first draft of the report ________

6. Proofread and revise first draft ________

7. Write final copy ________

8. Turn in perfect report ________

Read with Your Report in Mind

Once you have chosen a book and had your selection approved, it’s time to get busy and read.

This is not as easy as it sounds. For one thing, one easy mistake to make is assuming you can read the entire book in one or two sittings, thus leaving the actual reading until too late in the game. That’s when you visit panic city!

Therefore, you need to set up a reading schedule and stick to it. If you have five days in which to read a two hundred page book, a bit of basic math tells you; you need to read forty pages each day. Don’t get so hung up on your schedule that you read exactly forty pages a day if that leaves you three pages from the end of a chapter or if you’re enjoying the book so much you feel like reading more. Just don’t get caught short by reading ten pages each day for four days and then suddenly finding yourself faced with one hundred and sixty pages left to read on the fifth day.

Of course, just reading the book isn’t enough. It is surprisingly easy to read an entire book and once finished have little or no idea what to include in your report. For this reason take notes as you read.

Remember, the sort of notes you take will depend upon the type of report you are expected to turn in.

If you are expected to write a story summary, then jot down each important event as you encounter it.

Just to be on the safe side, always include the page number for the material in every note; there may be more frustrating things than turning pages to locate a certain event, but who wants to be frustrated at all?

If you own the book, you may want to consider high-lighting with special highlighting markers or colored pens and pencils-certain passages that you want to refer to later.

When you are asked to write a character study, plan to take notes every time the chosen character does or says something which indicates a basic character trait or growth or change in that character.

For a critical study of a book, your notes will naturally include those items you wish to agree with or take exception to. Remember, a critique is a more opinionated type of report, so you must back up what you say with evidence and/or examples.

When reporting on a non-fiction book-such as a biography or historical account-you’ll take notes on important events, major ideas or those things that happened to an individual which shaped his or her life.

Don’t be fearful of taking too many notes. Though it may seem a waste at the time, or inconvenient to stop the story’s flow to write a note, the time and effort spent taking notes will be repaid when it comes time to write the first draft of your report.

Should notes be taken on individual note cards or on sheets of paper? Your teacher may have a preference; if he or she requires you to hand in your notes with your report, the question is moot. If the choice is left up to you, my recommendation is to take your notes on file cards. File cards allow you to deal with one note at a time and enable you to arrange or rearrange those notes in any order you wish. Also, once you get into the writing of longer reports and term papers, you will find that file cards are just about the only way to avoid massive confusion. (Always have rubber bands to wrap around your stack of file cards; dropping an unbound stack in the hallway during passing time is another of those stresses you don’t need.)

One more hint is in order. We already mention that you shouldn’t be afraid of taking too many notes. Let’s go one step further by saying that if there is even a remote chance you may need a bit of information you come across during your reading, include it as a note.

It’s a lot easier to discard an unused note than to spend two hours trying to locate the information under deadline pressure.

Try to develop your skill at evaluating the material event, etc. is important to your report, to the plot advancement or to character development. If it is you read. Ask yourself whether a specific action, important, make a note of it. It’s that simple.

Organize for Success

Your English or creative writing teachers have no doubt told you to start each essay or story with an opening sentence which grabs the reader’s attention and sets the stage for what follows. This same idea holds true when you prepare to write your book report. In fact, it doesn’t hurt to keep this in mind as you read and take notes.

Try to summarize the main thrust of your report in one statement. This statement need only be one sentence long, but it should describe exactly what it is you want your report to accomplish. Once you have arrived at this statement (some call it a thesis statement), write it down and then make sure that everything you present in your report has something to do with what you just wrote.

Having read Peter Benchley’s Jaws, your statement might be: The great white shark in Jaws was a victim, not an evil creature.

When dealing with a biography of Thomas Edison, you might write the following: If Thomas Edison were alive today, he might well find himself unable to create as successfully as he did in the past.

Once you’ve boiled your report down to one statement, it’s time to organize your notes into an outline.

This sort of outline doesn’t have to be terribly complicated. Rather, its purpose is to enable you to sort your notes into a logical order and logical groupings. Therefore, keep it as simple as possible-but detailed enough to let you organize your notes properly.

Begin your outline by writing your summary statement at the top of the page. Keeping this statement in mind, sort your note cards into groups of related ideas or information.

A report which is a plot summary is easy to organize. Basically, you’ll set things up in chronological order and divide your notes according to the logical main topics you’ve discerned. For instance, your main topics might be similar to these:

I. Childhood

II. School years

III. College

IV. First job

V. Marriage and family

VI. Later jobs

VII. Old age

A report based on character analysis might have main topics like:

I. Basic character

II. Character changes resulting from death of parents

III. Growth of character at boarding school

IV. Further character development during war

Once you have established your main topics, it becomes a matter of checking your notes to find the ideas which support or enlarge upon those topics. They should then be “slotted in” to your outline. You may come up with something like this:

I. Basic character

A. Happy and outgoing baby

B. Shy around strangers

C. Non-aggressive

If your note cards indicate that there are even more details, or if you need more details to make your point, your outline can take one more step:

C. Nonaggressive

1. Shared food and toys willingly

2. Allowed brother to dominate him

3. Never known to hurt another child or a pet

Remember, an outline is supposed to help you organize your book report. Don’t make it any more complicated than necessary; you’ve already got one project on your hands and don’t need another.

As soon as your notes are organized into outline form, it’s time to pick up pencil or pen and write the first draft of your book report. Keeping in mind the need to interest your reader from the opening paragraph, it’s necessary to create a really great opening sentence. Consider your summary or thesis statement and come up with an opening which delivers that message.

Which of these opening statements do you think would be most likely to convince the teacher your report is worth a good grade?

  • This book is about a boy who lived in Missouri.
  • Tom Sawyer was the sort of fellow who was constantly having exciting adventures and getting in and out of dangerous situations.
  • Who would believe that any single human being could manage to cause as many problems for himself and his friends as did Tom Sawyer?

After writing the best opening sentence you can, develop an organized and comprehensive opening paragraph. Then follow your outline and write your book report. Follow the lead of your opening and summary statement. If you have told the reader that Tom Sawyer constantly has exciting adventures, then tell your audience about the thrilling, dangerous situations in which Tom finds himself.

In short, once you have set the stage in the first paragraph, don’t let the reader down by forgetting to deliver what you have promised you would deliver.

Just as you started the reader off with a strong opening, so should you try to wrap up the report within a powerful closing paragraph. Those final words are a summation of the main body of your report and should leave the reader feeling you have done a good job. Consider these closing statements and you’ll see what we mean.

  • Though Tom Sawyer survived his adventures he leaves readers breathless, wondering what this creative Mississippi River boy will do next.
  • That’s the end of my report. It was a good book.
  • It is no wonder Tom Sawyer remains one of the best-loved characters in American literature. His adventures allow readers to share in the excitement and joy not only of Tom’s boyhood, but of the world in which Mark Twain lived and matured.

When you write, it’s also important to assume ignorance on the part of your audience. Always fully explain statements and back them up with facts. Never take for granted that your reader knows what you’re talking about-or has even read the book! You will find that if you follow this rule of thumb, your reports will be more comprehensive and coherent.

Finish with Confidence

The more careful you are with things such as spelling, grammar, capitalization and punctuation in your first draft, the less revising and correcting you’ll have to do before writing your final or “hand-in” draft.

It’s tempting, especially when you are pressed for time, to “decide” to do a perfect job the first time through and hand in that version. To be entirely truthful, if you did a good job of note taking and outlining, and you have a good command of the English language in general, you might be able to get away with turning in your first draft. In most cases, however, you’d be better off lavishing a little more attention on your report. This is your hard labor; why go only halfway toward seeing it all the way through? It all boils down to whether you are satisfied with a good job or would rather have a polished final report. Let’s go for perfection.

No matter how careful most of us are as we write, errors somehow manage to creep into our work. Misspellings occur when we work too fast or when our minds are leaping ahead of our pens and pencils. A comma gets left out; a capital letter is omitted or gets written in lowercase. The variations are endless and often difficult to spot. These things happen to all of us and are just the kinds of errors which cause a teacher to scatter a paper with red marks, turning an A report into a B.

Because writing properly is such a real talent, there is an incredible array of things to watch for when proofreading:

  • Spelling mistakes (now’s the time to consult the dictionary).
  • Sentences which go on forever because you’ve run two or more together.
  • Subjects and verbs which don’t agree (and pronouns which have somehow gotten into disagreement, e.g. Tom spoke to she and him).
  • Words used over and over again. Variety is the spice of life, so they say, and that old axiom certainly holds true when it comes to writing. Instead of being “very good” and “very old,” how about “extremely good” and quite old”? Or how about consulting a thesaurus to find words such as “excellent” and “historic”?
  • Superlatives used too frequently. One “fantastic adventure” is acceptable, but don’t fall into the habit of describing every happening as “fantastic” or your reader will begin to question your ability to determine what is fantastic and what isn’t.

More generally, as you proofread keep in mind the content. Have you said exactly what you intended or did something go wrong between your thoughts and what your pencil wrote? Perhaps you can come up with a more appropriate word for a specific sentence.

You may discover that a particular paragraph would fit better before or after its present location. You can circle it in red (or blue or green) and draw an arrow to its new position, or you can “cut and paste” -cut out the paragraph and paste or tape the piece of paper onto another sheet after you have relocated the material you wish to move.

How much revision and changing is necessary depends largely upon the care you used in your first draft. (Note that we are calling this a first draft rather than a rough draft. A rough draft is a first draft, but calling it “rough” may give the mistaken idea that, since it’s going to be corrected anyhow, you should pay less attention this first time ’round.)

Once the proofreading is complete, it’s time to copy the revised material into your final copy or draft. Whether you do this longhand or with a typewriter or computer depend upon the requirements set by your teacher and by your typing ability. Just keep in mind that you want the finished product to look fresh, clean and professionally presented.

Don’t Let Special Types of Book Reports Bother You

We’ve already mentioned the fact that teachers may assign different types of book reports. Since you’re probably most familiar with the plot summary type of report, let’s start with that.

Plot Summary

A book report that takes the form of a plot summary is one in which you tell what happened in the order events took place. Begin with your opening statement and then take things pretty much in order. In a sentence or two tell where the story takes place.

Name the important characters and briefly describe each. Remember, books are based on conflict, so you should tell in a few sentences which important events in the story create the conflict. Then, in greater detail, describe the main event or climax of the story. Tell how the book concludes, mention any lessons learned, and your task is finished.

Character Analysis

If you are asked to write a report based on character analysis, then you will be concerned with how a specific character thinks and what he or she believes, since it is these thoughts and beliefs which cause thee character to act as he or she does.

You will probably mention various events in a character analysis report, but when you do so you should explain each event in relation to the character you are discussing and how that character thinks and acts based on or toward those events. Your conclusion will be concerned with how the character grew or changed rather than merely how the story ended.

Critique

Students normally grow somewhat apprehensive when they hear that they’re to do a critique. But in reality this sort of report need not be scary at all. In a critique you are usually asked to react to or comment on what happens and why. This type of report allows you to give your opinions on characters and their actions and reactions. This may sound easy, but each time you present an opinion you must back u up with evidence from the story. Here’s where careful notes taken while reading are a real boon to you.

Since you know you’re doing a critique, watch for quotations and descriptions which you can use to explain why things happen as they do. When you give an opinion, refer to your notes and include those elements from the story which support your idea. One way to end a critique is to use the final paragraph to summarize the material you have already presented.

Oral Reports

Oral reports also have a way of upsetting many of us. It isn’t the material in the report so much as the actual presentation which causes oral reports to be dreaded by many.

Preparing for and giving an oral book report calls on a number of skills that are different from those used with written reports. First, you must hold the interest of the other students while remembering what it is you want to tell them. Second, you have to know what you are going to say well enough so you don’t feel the need to read your report. A good opening statement is a must if you don’t grab the class’s interest immediately, many of your fellow students will tune you out.

Keep in mind that you don’t want to spend a lot of time explaining small points, even if they are important. Just as you want an author to keep a story moving, so must you keep your oral report flowing in an interesting manner. After writing out your report, make a series of note cards on which you list the main ideas you plan to discuss. Then practice delivering your report at home until you are comfortable using just the cards you hold in your hand.

Try to avoid pauses and hesitations, and avoid using words and sounds such as “and,” “a” or “um” because you don’t know what to say next. Don’t squirm; stand on one foot and then the other, mutter or any of the other distracting things you dislike when others are talking to you.

Putting Life into Book Reports

At times your teacher may suggest activities (such as those which follow) designed to enliven your book reports. And even if your teacher doesn’t mention any of the following, you may want to add a little extra sparkle to your book report on your own. Check with your teacher to see if this is appropriate (most likely it will be).

Few of us are true artists, but any student can devise an artistic cover or design which gives the reader a clue as to the book itself. For instance, a report cover showing a great white shark attacking the hull of a boat is not terribly difficult to draw and certainly illustrates the thesis or main thrust of Jaws.

Or you might construct a cover whose shape is directly related to the book being reviewed: for instance, The Secret of the Unseen Treasure could have its report cover in the form of a treasure chest. In fact, the entire report could be cut to fit such a motif. But don’t get too artistic, in the event that your teacher wants you to remain completely focused on the paper itself or simply doesn’t think much of this type of imagination.

Consider the case of Marilyn, the best artist in her class and someone who loved to draw. She did some really great colored drawings for each page of her book report, but Marilyn’s teacher didn’t appreciate it. “Messy paper”. “Don’t scribble in the margins!” she wrote, giving Marilyn a C.

Many teachers keep file card summaries of book reports as a reading guide for other students. When you are asked to prepare this sort of report you are given limited space in which to tell about the book. Every word has to count. Here’s a sample of such a card summary:

AUTHOR: ___________________________________

TITLE: ________________________________________

TYPE OF BOOK (fiction, biography): ___________________________________

REVIEWED BY: ___________________________________________

BRIEF PLOT SUMMARY: ______________________________________________

MAIN CHARACTERS AND THEIR DESCRIPTION: ______________________________________

I WOULD RECOMMEND THIS BOOK BECAUSE: ________________________________________

I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS BOOK BECAUSE: _______________________________________

You can also take a different approach to book reporting by doing a plot or incident study. A plot study may make up the entire report or can be one part of a longer report. Here are some of the things you might include (an incident or event study follows the same format except that it deals with only one incident):

  • Tell how the plot opens and whether this was an attention getter.
  • Explain how the plot develops as the story progresses.
  • Summarize the point at which the plot begins to lead toward the conclusion.
  • Tell whether the plot was one you could predict in advance and why or why not.
  • Explain how the book’s ending is in keeping with the plot.
  • Summarize several incidents in the book which helped advance the plot.
  • Note whether the plot was believable and how the characters did or did not seem to fit the plot.

Yet another way to vary your book reports is to do character studies in which you analyze a character much as you did the plot. Consider including such items as these:

  • Name the main character and give examples from the story which prove this is the most important character.
  • Show which incidents illustrate how this character grows or changes as the story progresses.
  • Tell what makes this character one in which you can or cannot believe.
  • Describe those events which illustrate how this character really feels.
  • Discuss this character’s strengths and weaknesses and support your views with examples.

From time to time several members of the same class will read the same book for a report. At times like these you may want to consider presenting a group report. Usually, group reports are given orally, but they may be written as well. In either case it takes planning in order to make it successful. (Need we suggest that everyone should read the book?) The group must meet together and divide up the responsibilities: for example, who is going to report on the plot, who is going to report on the characters, etc

Once this decision is made, it is a great idea to spend some time discussing the various points to be covered by each member; even though each member has certain responsibilities there is no reason everyone involved can’t make suggestions to help others before presenting it. One note of caution: Try to practice the report before presenting it.

Keeping Nonfiction Book Reports from Being Dull

Book reports for social studies, history and science are usually concerned more with facts and events than with character development and plot movement. Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean these reports have to be boring.

One good way to involve the rest of the class in what you’ve learned from your outside reading is to present at least a portion of your report in the form of a puzzle. Hidden-word puzzles aren’t that difficult to make and are fun to solve. Just start with graph paper and remember to place your words vertically, horizontally and (when possible) diagonally. Try to cross words over other words whenever possible. Crisscross puzzles (some people call them crosswords but they really aren’t) are also constructed using graph paper.

Begin in the upper left-hand corner and make sure each word you add to the puzzle crosses or interlocks with at least one other word. Try to place the words as close to one another as possible to avoid those big open spaces you sometimes see in these puzzles. Run enough copies for each class member on the copier and hand out your puzzles as a part of your report. (Never, never present such a puzzle without checking and double-checking it for errors!)

Another idea for adding a bit of life to nonfiction book reports is to assemble a list of new facts you came across in your reading. This list may be offered in addition to the report assigned by your teacher; you can also go all out and make it bulletin board size for classroom display.

When you review a biography or autobiography, you might consider doing a character study of the person about whom the book was written. Just because someone actually existed doesn’t mean you can’t do a character study! Begin by deciding on the character traits which made him or her a notable person. Then, each time you list one of these traits include one or more incidents from the person’s life and work which prove he or she possessed the character trait you listed.

Is it possible to use artistic efforts in enlivening non-fiction book reports? Consider creating a map tracing the journey of Lewis and Clark as they explored the territory of the Louisiana Purchase. A diagram of “Little Bighorn'” can be just the thing to give added interest to a report on the life of George Custer. Other possibilities include building a model of Jamestown when reporting on a book dealing with that colony, or of a ship or plane when your book deals with transportation, whaling, aviation and the like.

If you want to be creative with your writing, think about fashioning a report in the form of a journey log or diary entry which might have come from the time about which you read. You could also write a news article or series of articles which could have appeared concerning an event, a discovery or an invention.

In Conclusion

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking book reports have to be difficult. Neither should you feel that book reports must be dull. You can be as creative as you want in presenting the finished report. Organize your time and your thinking and you’ll find that they aren’t all that hard to do-and do well.

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