How to write a book review

So you want to start writing- take  the plunge and think about 2014 being the year that you write your first book review. Here are some tips I have gleaned along the way as a reviewer. And for those readers who are experienced reviewers, please leave a comment if you think I have left something out or you have a different strategy to share.

Most journals include short reviews of new books likely to be of broad interest to their readership. These reviews serve several aims: to promote the work of authors, to boost sales and to inform readers of new work in their field. Publishers provide the books gratis to journals. Some journals advertise the books received and available for review – as does our local journal Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work – if you’d like to review a text you contact the editor. The book becomes your property when a publishable review is submitted.  Some journals commission reviews to ensure that the reviewer has the appropriate mix of skills / knowledge to write a thoughtful and fair review. The latter in my view does generally produce better results. I feel that reviews should be of a consistent standard and meet basic writing conventions. As an author there is nothing worse than a cursory or inaccurate review of your work, where one might question the credentials of the reviewer.

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Book reviewing adds to your kete of skills

If you are keen to write and see your name in print, undertaking book reviews is an excellent place to start. Practitioners, supervisors and practice teachers, teaching fellows and tutors are well-placed to review social work books  and reflect the needs of busy people who want to stay up-to-date. And reviewing enables you to update your bookshelf free. If the journal commissions reviews rather than advertises available books, email the editor with your brief CV and areas of interest and offer your services.
So what follows are some suggestions for writing a great review:

  • Read the book! This is the bit often taken for granted. I have read reviews where it seems the author may not have read the book, or at least not thoroughly.
  • When starting to read, consider this- you volunteered or agreed to take on this review. What attracted you to the title? The content – or was it that the author’s previous work was known and appreciated.  What are your expectations in approaching this work?
  • I suggest if you are a very busy person with many things to read that you take a planned approach to the reading. If you have the luxury of time and read fast you may be able to read the book in a day and have strong impressions easily able to be composed into a review. If you are like most people you will read the book in chunks – a chapter or two today and then you may not get back to it for a few days or even weeks.  So take good notes that summarise content very briefly and record your impressions.
  • Remember it’s not fiction so there is no need to worry about spoilers. So my approach is to read the first chapter, which should clearly set out the author’s or editor’s intentions and goals. Then I read the last chapter, especially if it is a summary or ‘way forward’ chapter. Reading these sections will enable you to clearly frame your review abut the work as a whole.
  • Stick to the word limit if provided. Most book reviews are in the 600-1000 word range as the journal will have a word ‘budget’ and if you write over it may be sent back. Ask for guidelines and if these are not available look at previous reviews for the structure and length. Most reviews are headed up with the title, the author or editor names exactly  as they appear on the front cover, the publisher and place of publication, year of publication, ISBN number, number of pages and price in the place of publication of the review.
  • An authored book– focus your review  on the main themes and the extent to which the author has met their aims – does a ‘handbook’ provide good coverage of a subject, well referenced showing depth of knowledge? Does a theoretical work elucidate the main ideas clearly and with strong accessible arguments?
  • An edited book – my approach to reviewing an edited book is typically to consider the collection as a whole. The editors will have set out their aims for the book and chosen contributors to align with their intentions. Does it work?  Is there a coherent thematic structure to the book? Does each contribution add something new to build the reader’s knowledge? When reviewing an edited book  you can’t mention each individual chapter, as much as you would like to. My strategy is generally to discuss the overall aims of the book as provided by the editor(s) introduction and then explore one or two chapters from each section. If there are no sections I will choose chapters to highlight themes or type of contribution. Whatever you decide it is a courtesy to all the contributors to explain the rationale for your choices.

Being critical

A review covers content but editors will expect you to comment on readability, style and an evaluation of the work’s relevance and interest to the journal’s readership.  A book review is scholarly writing but your opinion and impressions are valid and useful to other potential readers. Be generous in your praise and fair in your criticism. If there are flaws or omissions say so.

You are writing for the journal’s readership and so of you think the book is of limited interest say so. In social work there is a never-ending river of books published in the UK written specifically for local social work degree programmes. Some are so closely tied to local requirements they should be called reading guides not books.  Most US textbooks appear to have been written by authors and contributors who appear to have never read anything written by anyone other than another  North American. We can’t claim status as an international profession and ignore the world beyond our own borders. Remember publishers and authors are trying to sell their expensive  books to you and your colleagues so challenge them to be less parochial!  I am always hugely entertained by reviewers of my work who worry about the NZ context of my research and writing as if this might be an impediment. Especially since they are reviewing for journals which purport to be of ‘international’ standing’ but contain mainly local (e.g. UK) content which until recently might have failed to acknowledge any country or cultural context at all, often even within the UK. So note the omissions of international, cultural or gender perspectives if you ascertain such weaknesses,  and note the potential limitations for a local readership of a work which prescribes practice in a narrowly defined context.

That said, if you are being critical, always run your own check of your assertions before you submit. If you say not mentioning X or Y is a terrible omission be very careful that you are right! And of course each work will have some merits and in noting these be generous. For example, some of the  text book types I have mentioned above contain excellent learning exercises which can easily be adapted to your own context if you are teaching or supervising.

Writing conventions

Follow basic academic writing conventions: if you quote, use quotation marks and ensure the page number is given. Reference authors after the first mention by their surname only unless there are several contributors with the same name. If it is an edited book the author of each chapter must be acknowledged if discussed or quoted. This includes chapters by the editors.  Each chapter in an edited book is an individual work with its intellectual property belonging to the author, not the editors.   Failure to attribute authorship correctly suggests an inadequate review and the editor should send it back for correction. You do not need to mention every chapter however.

The chapters in an edited book need not be referenced at the end but any other works should be cited correctly including prior work of the editors or contributors. Try not to use too many references. Your review should focus on the work in hand and is not really an opportunity for you to demonstrate your own breadth of reading. An exception to this advice is where you are writing a longer review of several works on a theme or in a genre e.g. if you have been asked to review three new research methods texts published around the same time.

Finally, edit to the word length if necessary, proof-read your writing, check your assertions, make sure you have spelled the author’s or editor’s name correctly throughout, check that you have provided all the information and submit to the editor. One last teeny thing, the editor will normally allow a few months for a review, try to keep to this.  I cannot honestly say that I have always been reliable myself in this matter, as finding time to read and review a whole book is not always easy, but after a few years the review may be of less use.

Here’s a blog post about writing a review you might also find useful

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About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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One Response to How to write a book review

  1. Pingback: Call for social work book reviewers | A website for ANZASW Members

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