A Book Review Rubric

I hope to do more book reviews in the near future. I’m planning on posting these reviews naturally to share my ideas  but also as a record of my notes. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received in the last year or so is that to become a better writer, especially long form writing, you have to read a lot of other people’s work; study what works and doesn’t work.

I’ve never been a big fan of rubrics but it could be useful here. Using a rubric will force me to consider all of these aspects of the book. I’m not particularly interested in coming up with a final grade. For some books, it may be OK to get a poor grade on one aspect. For example, the degree of referencing will depend on the target audience and the niche the book is looking to fill in the market as much as the author’s preference. Likewise, some books don’t attempt much of a narrative.

This is for non-fiction monographs only! I expect that it will be primarily for history of science/medicine and perhaps some science.

Book Review Format

Book Citation:


Time and Place:



Narrative grade

A = Hooked me from the beginning. Constructed a compelling narrative with good informative structure. Context and background does not break the flow. There is a logical flow from chapter to chapter.

B = Sections of good narrative and a logical flow between topics; context and background may not be well-integrated into the narrative.

C = Narrative doesn’t pull you through the book. Context or background chapters disrupt the narrative flow. Context and background information may be missing.

D = No attempt at narrative, reads like an interesting textbook or spliced together blog.

F = Reads like a boring textbook more concerned with packing in facts than story or argument.

Historical Content grade

A =  Addresses the primary historical questions on the topic or event without unnecessary tangents. Clear thesis statement or discussion supported by sections of the book.  Uses primary sources, artifacts, or data to support their topic/argument; primary sources are translated. Makes appropriate and relevant comparisons to modern life.

B = Addresses the primary historical questions with some unnecessary tangents. Thesis statement or discussion that is not as well supported as it could be. Uses primary sources, artifacts or data; primary sources are translated. Makes inappropriate comparisons to modern life.

C = Gaps in the topic coverage with little use of primary sources. Tangents  distract from the main topic or argument and tax the patience of the reader.  A few inaccurate facts or improbable interpretations. Makes inappropriate comparisons to modern life.

D = Thesis discussion is vague and unsupported by the text.  Large gaps in coverage and/or many inaccurate facts. Uses primarily secondary sources. Tangents seriously distract the reader from the main topic of the book indicating poor structure.

F = No thesis statement or main argument. Structure is poorly planned and executed. Uses only non-academic secondary sources with inaccurate interpretations of facts. Cherry picking sources to only support their argument.

Scientific Content grade

A = Correct, up-to-date scientific information with logical interpretations presented at the appropriate reading level for the audience.  If an argument is being made, science is correctly used to support the argument without bias.

B = Correct modern scientific information and conventional interpretations. Most of the information is presented at the right reading level.

C = A few incorrect scientific statements or improbable interpretations. Much of the information is not at the target reading level. Unnecessary scientific facts inserted into a historical narrative.

D = Some incorrect scientific statements and interpretations.  Incorrect scientific interpretations used to support a historical argument. Inconsistent reading level.

F = Incorrect scientific statements and interpretations used to support biased positions. Pseudoscience, uses some poor ‘science’ studies to support their position.

References and Usability grade

A = Full references with footnotes/endnotes and a complete bibliography. Appropriate historic or scientific sources. The footnotes/endnotes and bibliography are easily usable. Maps and figures are located within the text where they are most useful. Fully indexed.

B= Bibliography with only a few footnotes/endnotes on the most important facts. Footnotes/endnotes are available but not easily usable. Appropriate historic or scientific sources. Figures and maps are located all together (front or separate section) rather than within text. Could have used more maps or figures. Selectively indexed.

C = Selected bibliography or suggested reading list. No footnotes/endnotes and little or no index. Not enough maps or figures.

D = Slim or incomplete selected bibliography or suggested reading list. Little or no index.

F = No references or reading list, little or no index.

(Ironically I can see that books with poor referencing could have good maps and figures based on different audiences or targeted niches)


A = Plenty of maps and figures to aid the reader. Maps, figures and photos are well labeled with clear legends and referenced. Color illustrations if color aids understanding. Tables are professionally produced and easily read, complicated data is presented in tables.

B = Enough maps and figures for the reader follow the text. Maps, figures and photos are labeled and referenced. No color illustrations. Tables may be overly complicated and figures have difficult legends. Complicated data is not incorporated into table.

C = Not enough maps or figures for the reader to easily follow the argument of the book. Maps and figures are minimally labeled and with poor references. Tables not used to present data.

D = Lacks enough maps and figures to understand the text. Maps and figures have insufficient labels and legends to understand the illustration. No references on the illustrations.

F = Lacks (enough) maps and figures. Labels or legends are confusing or incorrect.

This rubric is obviously evolving. I could use some suggestions and criticisms. Do you seen any inconsistencies? Something that is missing? I’d love some feedback from authors and avid readers!

(Edited Dec 26, 2011)

3 thoughts on “A Book Review Rubric

  1. This looks good. Though I’d add a few things:
    – an overall U grade for ‘utter fail’ or ‘unclassifiable’ it’s so bad, that will keep the other, lesser grades clear
    – an overall star for something extraordinary, something amazing, original, new, paradigm-breaking
    – perhaps a grade for usability: how easy is it to find those footnotes, to flip back and forth between the map and the index?

    And finally two questions:
    – will you be considering illustration quality/type/labelling?
    – and what about a grade for the digital version of the book (intuitive navigation, zoomability of illos, etc.)?


  2. Michelle,

    This looks pretty good. I have just a few areas which may be worth addressing.

    First, narrative scores won’t work with books which are essay collections however there should be some way to capture how well the editors did in selecting articles including; are they of sufficient breadth/detail for the topic at hand? Is there an authority in the field whose views have not been at least considered? If there are multiple “schools” of thought, are these taken into consideration or does everyone come from the same general background? Are the essays covering different aspects of the topic or is there some repetition? For me, some repetition is OK so long as the authors are using either different methodologies or through examining the evidence arrive at (at least somewhat) different conclusions. Is there a section of the book which provides a decent overview – something to tie everything together?

    For historical and scientific content, for me the absolute best books are those which either; a), through examining the evidence arrive at a new conclusion or conclusions, something nobody else has found (so long as this is a justified conclusion from this examination – if it’s something that goes into what I call my “wingnut” category by reaching wild conclusions then it goes to the bottom in my opinion) or; b) offers up a new (again, justifiably) methodology/approach by which to examine an issue. Or maybe they do both. An example of the former for me is Susan Reynolds Fiefs and Vassels (her topic had been discussed before but never in such detail in a book) and for the latter, McCormick’s use of a database/case study approach in Origins of the European Economy. That’s not to say nobody had ever done a study using McCormick’s methodology but I’m unaware of anyone using this methodology – a detailed examination of all reliably attested Mediterranean trade/travel – to tackle this sort of topic.

    Another book which I grade very high is one which takes up an issue nobody has tackled before at book-length. For me, Kim Bowes’ Private Worship and Public Values did this (I think – I don’t know of anything else on this topic in a book).

    The above three types of books all get extra high scores from me for their risk-taking. They may end up being wrong, or at least partially wrong, but they definitely advance their respective fields by taking things in a new direction.

    Good start – I may see something else but those are my initial thoughts and I think that overall what you have is quite good.


  3. Good suggestions:

    I like adding usability to the references area and adding a section for Illustrations. I think comments to go along with the letter grades will highlight extraordinary failures and successes. I still haven’t made the transition to e-books so I’m not very likely to evaluate functionality. I’m not really wanting to evaluate things I think are the publisher’s control though either.

    I think this rubric is only for monographs. As you say Curt, there are different criteria for essay collections by multiple authors. I’m not very likely to review collections. In fact, I don’t often read entire collections since I’m usually going to it for an essay or two. I don’t have your stamina. 🙂

    I’ll make the changes above. Thanks for the suggestions, keep them coming!


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