Book reviews are important inputs into a wider system of academic publishing upon which the academic profession is symbiotically dependent, and in a previous career advice column I argued that all scholars -- regardless of career stage -- ought to set time aside on occasion to write them. Graduate students who are told that they should not waste their time reviewing books are being taught, implicitly, to reckon their time solely in terms of individual profit and loss. Were this sort of attitude replicated across the whole of the academy, intellectual life would, in my view, become more impoverished as a consequence.
Perhaps you were persuaded by that column and agree that writing academic book reviews is an excellent way of making a contribution in service to the profession. If so, I thank you. But perhaps you are also a junior scholar, unsure of where to start. That would be entirely understandable. Like many academic practices, book reviews can seem like an insider’s game -- those who already understand the unwritten rules play frequently, while those who do not are all too often never invited in. This column, therefore, aims to demystify the process with a basic how-to guide for writing academic book reviews and getting them published.
Counterintuitively, it is actually best to begin by explaining how to get reviews published. There are, broadly speaking, two ways that editors of academic journals and other periodicals solicit book review writers: 1) proactive commissioning and 2) reactive commissioning. Proactive commissioning is where an editor seeks out potential reviewers and solicits their contribution. Obviously, you are more likely to be targeted for this if you already have an established reputation in your field of expertise, and some journals will only publish reviews which have been proactively commissioned. Most journals, though, also accept reactive commissions, where a potential writer him/herself reaches out and proposes a review, and many will accept them from graduate students.
If you are keen to write your first book review, a reactive commission is probably the way to go. Some journals will publish or otherwise advertise the books they have available for review, and then it is just a matter of putting yourself forward for one of them. Or, if all else fails, you might even try emailing an editor directly and suggesting a newly published book that you think would be of relevance to the subject area of that editor’s journal. You may find that particular books are deemed inappropriate or otherwise have already been allocated, but the response is usually receptive, and it should take no more than two or three good, concerted tries before you have landed your first opportunity.
So now you’ve got a book to review and reasonable assurance it will be published if you do a good job. What should you be writing? Some academics, including very senior ones, see reviews as an opportunity to hold forth at great length on their own strongly held views. This really isn’t what you (or they!) should be doing. Don’t forget: you are writing about a book, and you probably only have between 800 and 1,000 words in which to do it. While your readers may be interested in your opinion, they are, first and foremost, interested in learning about the book itself and whether or not they themselves might want to read it. Bear that in mind.
In fact, like other genres of academic writing, such as journal articles and research proposals, academic book reviews tend to have a standard, even formulaic, structure. Although of course this may vary slightly by discipline and/or publication venue, my advice is, if in doubt, to use the following framework, with one paragraph for each of the following seven sections:
Introduction. All good pieces of academic writing should have an introduction, and book reviews are no exception. Open with a general description of the topic and/or problem addressed by the work in question. Think, if possible, of a hook to draw your readers in.
Summary of argument. Your review should, as concisely as possible, summarize the book’s argument. Even edited collections and textbooks will have particular features intended to make them distinctive in the proverbial marketplace of ideas. What, ultimately, is this book’s raison d’être? If there is an identifiable thesis statement, you may consider quoting it directly.
About the author(s). Some basic biographical information about the author(s) or editor(s) of the book you are reviewing is necessary. Who are they? What are they known for? What particular sorts of qualifications and expertise do they bring to the subject? How might the work you are reviewing fit into a wider research or career trajectory?
Summary of contents. A reasonably thorough indication of the research methods used (if applicable) and of the range of substantive material covered in the book should be included.
Strength. Identify one particular area in which you think the book does well. This should, ideally, be its single greatest strength as an academic work.
Weakness. Identify one particular area in which you think the book could be improved. While this weakness might be related to something you actually believe to be incorrect, it is more likely to be something that the author omitted, or neglected to address in sufficient detail.
Conclusion. End your review with a concluding statement summarizing your opinion of the book. You should also explicitly identify a range of audiences whom you think would appreciate reading or otherwise benefit from the book.
Writing good academic book reviews gets easier with experience, just like any skill. And provided you meet your deadlines and are amenable to any changes your editor may wish you to implement, your opportunities to make contributions in this genre and to the collective pursuits of a community committed to the advancement of knowledge will only increase with time. All you need to do is take that first step.
Casey Brienza is a lecturer in publishing and digital media in the Department of Culture and Creative Industries at City University London.
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