Most academic journals have a section called “Book Reviews” toward the end of each volume. Academics refer to this section to keep up with the field, know what the new books are about, and decide whether the book is something they would like to read. Typically, book reviews include not just a summary but also an assessment (strengths and weaknesses) of the book. Thus, book review writers play an important role in shaping the preliminary judgment that readers may have about the book.
In graduate school, many courses have writing a book review as an assignment, and book reviews are often the first academic publication for graduate students. Below, we have compiled useful resources to help you get started with writing a book review.
Before getting into the nuts and bolts of writing a book review, it is helpful to think about the readers’ expectations when they are reading book reviews. In other words, what do readers want from a book review? Most readers are looking:
– To understand what the book says/does (Descriptive)
– To understand how the book fits into the field of study (Synthetic)
– To hear the reviewer’s evaluation of the book (Evaluative)
As you start drafting your piece, it is important to remember that book reviews are most helpful to the readers when they address these three aspects: description, synthesis, and evaluation.
The Classic Structure
The length depends on the journal, but usually, it is around 1,000 words. Summarizing a whole manuscript down to a few pages can be daunting, but a careful structuring of the review can ensure that it addresses the main requirements of the book review. Below is the classic structure:
|Header||Full bibliographic details of the book (title, author’s name, date, publication city, publisher, number of pages, price, ISBN, and etc.) adhering to the journal’s style|
|Introduction||A paragraph on the author’s purpose and main thesis of the book|
|Body Paragraphs||A paragraph or two summarizing the book
A paragraph or two on your evaluation of the book
|Conclusion||A paragraph on the final assessment of the book|
Things to Keep in Mind When Writing a Book Review
- A book review does not cover every point made in the book. The focus of the review should be on the book’s main arguments. It is not necessary to summarize every chapter in chronological order.
- Summarize the book in your own words. Use direct quotes sparingly.
- Make sure to include your assessment of the book. Voice your agreement or disagreement with the book’s arguments with concrete examples.
- When evaluating the book, just briefly mention gaps unless a particular absence is inexcusable given the book’s primary goals.
- Do not review a book that you think is bad, especially when you’re a graduate student. A mixed review can be a constructive thing to write; a strongly negative review is just picking a fight, and it won’t help a junior scholar’s career to do that.
Strategies for Reading
Active reading is the key to understanding and evaluating a book. Rather than reading the text passively, engage in a process of inquiry by taking careful notes about the book’s arguments and your responses/questions to them. Here are some questions that could facilitate the active reading process:
Questions that help describing the book:
- What are the main objectives of the book?
- What are the key ideas of the book?
- What methods and evidence does the author use?
- How is the book structured?
Questions that help synthesizing the book:
- How does the book fit into the existing literature?
- Who is the author in conversation with?
Questions that help evaluating the book:
- How novel is the book’s contribution?
- Did the author achieve their stated objectives?
- Does the evidence strongly support the main arguments?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of the book?
- To whom would you recommend the book?
- Is the writing clear and accessible?
How to Write an Academic Book Review by Wendy Belcher provides a comprehensive guide on book reviews.
The guide from The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill includes sections on developing an assessment of the book and writing balanced critiques.
This guide from the USC Library website includes helpful questions to consider when reviewing the book’s overall quality.
Also, check the journal website for specific formatting/submission guidelines. For example, Social Forceshave a section on book reviews under their “Instructions for Authors” page.