Writing a Book Review

From E-Learning Faculty Modules



Contents

Module Summary

Book reviews are a little-noticed but important part of academic publishing. They enable reviewers to expand their knowledge and hone their analytical and writing skills. They promote heightened awareness of books that deserve attention. This short module introduces book reviews (in the academic space), summarizes their basic components, lists the professional standards for their writing, describes the social norms applied to review writing, and explores the general role of book reviewers.

Takeaways

Learners will...

  • consider what the role of a book review is in academic publishing
  • list some of the purposes of book reviews for publications, readers, and book publishers
  • describe some of the basic elements of a book review and the professional standards for the writing of book reviews
  • consider what “outside” information may be included in a book review
  • debate the importance of a book reviewer’s public identity and personality

Module Pretest

1. What is a “book review” in the academic publishing space? What sorts of publications publish book reviews? How are books selected for book reviews? What is the relationship between publications that publish book reviews and the respective book publishers?

2. What are some of the purposes of book reviews for publications? For readers (both specialists and the general reading public)? For book publishers?

3. What are the basic elements of a book review? What are the professional standards for the writing of a book review? How many outside sources are generally used in a book review? What are the typical lengths of book reviews? What are capsule (or bullet) book reviews?

4. What author details are considered fair game in a book review? What other outside details are considered relevant in a book review?

5. What is the importance of a book reviewer having a public identity and personality? What is the importance of reviewer voice, point-of-view, personality framework, and history?

Main Contents

1. What is a “book review” in the academic publishing space? What sorts of publications publish book reviews? How are books selected for book reviews? What is the relationship between publications that publish book reviews and the respective book publishers?

A “book review” is essentially an analytical critique of a published book. In academia, book reviews are some of the most highly cited types of formal writing in the public space.

Various publication types publish book reviews. These include periodicals in both academia and in mainstream publishing. These include periodicals that are published electronically and in print.

Books selected for book reviews include those that are topically within the purview of the periodicals, of interest to readers, and within the expertise of available reviewers. Also, the publishing companies have to be willing to share review copies (usually as electronic files that are watermarked).

Generally, there should not be a formal relationship between the periodical publishers and the book publishers; otherwise, there may be a conflict of interest. If there is a formal relationship, this relationship should be acknowledged.


2. What are some of the purposes of book reviews for publications? For readers (both specialists and the general reading public)? For book publishers?

Within a professional field, book reviews serve not only to notify professionals of new works and research advancements (albeit as lagging indicators), they also set standards for quality work. The critique in book reviews help practitioners in a field to meet quality standards.

For the periodical publishers, the book reviews provide an ability to address topics that they may not be able to engage with otherwise. Book reviews enable a publication to broaden its topical reach. For their readers, book reviews help readers learn more about topics of interest, albeit in an indirect way. For book publishers, reviews raise public awareness of books and may bring these to a public audience (and so serves a marketing, advertising, and sales purpose).


3. What are the basic elements of a book review? What are the professional standards for the writing of a book review? How many outside sources are generally used in a book review? What are the typical lengths of book reviews? What are capsule (or bullet) book reviews?

While academic peer review is often double-blind or single-blind, a published book review is available to a broad public audience, and both the reviewer(s) and the book author(s) are known (at the time of publication).

A book review is generally comprised of the following elements: a title, a summary, and analysis. The work may include biographical details of the author. It may include outside information related to the general topic. In terms of layouts, there may be photos, imagery, pull quotes, and other elements.

Critically, book reviewers need to first be able to suspend their own sense of disbelief and actually engage an original work on its merits. If a reviewer is too quick to judge, he / she may not hear out the author first and therefore guarantee a skewed review. If a reviewer cannot come at a work in an unbiased way, then he / she should recuse himself / herself and let someone else who can approach in a fair-minded way review the work.

The professional standards to writing a book review are generally as follows:

  • The book review should be accurate when representing facts. (Some of the readers of the review will never read the original book, so it is important to be fair in selecting information about the book to represent it. Sophisticated readers will be able to identify fact from analysis, but less sophisticated ones may not.)
  • There should be grounds for the provided assessments.
  • The reviewer should have some background on the topic, and he or she should generally acknowledge any subjectivities.
  • The book review should be written for a general “lay” audience, not to experts—if the readership is a lay audience one. However, if the review is written to professionals, then the level of writing should acknowledge that.
  • In terms of critique, the focus generally should be on substance and style, never personal attacks. What is “fair game” may include the informational contents, the author methods, the originality, and the practices in the field. Criticisms should be gauged based on what may be practically achieved with the given resources in the field at the particular time.
  • The book review should not be written to sell the book per se, and it should not be used as a reason for writing about a topic. It should not be used to settle scores, just as it should not be used to promote a friend or colleague. [Of course, publishing about a particular topic will promote awareness and may contribute (slightly) to sales.]

Outside sources are often included in book reviews albeit as background knowledge or additive details (like professional biographical information). Sometimes, reviews may run alongside mainstream articles and interviews (both using primary data).

The typical lengths of book reviews varies. For print publications, these tend to run shorter and may be capsule or bullet reviews (comprised of a paragraph or two). In mainline journalistic publications, the reviews tend to be shorter reviews, maybe 300 – 800 words or so. In some online publications, book reviews may run much longer (because of the lack of print constraints on cost of inks and paper and postage, etc.).

Capsule or bullet book reviews are very brief book reviews, which may be comprised of a few sentences up to a paragraph or two.


4. What author details are considered fair game in a book review? What other outside details are considered relevant in a book review?

In general, established author biographical details are fair game in a book review particularly if they apply to the work.

Contemporaneous facts about the topic being addressed in the reviewed work are also considered relevant in a book review.

Integrating such data with finesse is critical to a work because there are standards and norms to how such data may be used. Respect for the authors are a given (to a degree), and reviews should not be used as occasions to attack others (no ad hominem attacks). If a work is very poor, it is usually not given the “light of day” of additional attention, in terms of formal reviews.


5. What is the importance of a book reviewer having a public identity and personality? What is the importance of reviewer voice, point-of-view, personality framework, and history?

Book reviewers who review works over time will begin to form a reputation—by their

  • commentary,
  • values,
  • stances,
  • styles,
  • areas of expertise / interest, and other aspects.

Some reviewers will also share more of a sense of personhood and personality. They will create microblogging accounts; they will have social networking sites. Many readers enjoy receiving information through a “personality frame”; they enjoy engaging with information through others’ personalities (particularly charismatic ones) and various points-of-view.

Examples

How To

There are many ways to write a book review. A simple sequence may be as follows:

  • read the target book
  • take notes
  • decide whether or not to advance with a book review
  • draft a review
  • conduct further research, if needed, and
  • revise and edit the work.

Possible Pitfalls

What are some possible pitfalls to writing and publishing book reviews? As with any sort of publishing, there are risks related to sharing ideas to a general public on the Web and Internet. If a book review runs negative, there are risks to calling out others for their work. There are opportunity costs to investing in the analytical work of book reviewing (so it helps to be learning something while one is doing the review).

Also, a reviewer has to stay clean from conflicts of interest.

Module Post-Test

1. What is a “book review” in the academic publishing space? What sorts of publications publish book reviews? How are books selected for book reviews? What is the relationship between publications that publish book reviews and the respective book publishers?

2. What are some of the purposes of book reviews for publications? For readers (both specialists and the general reading public)? For book publishers?

3. What are the basic elements of a book review? What are the professional standards for the writing of a book review? How many outside sources are generally used in a book review? What are the typical lengths of book reviews? What are capsule (or bullet) book reviews?

4. What author details are considered fair game in a book review? What other outside details are considered relevant in a book review?

5. What is the importance of a book reviewer having a public identity and personality? What is the importance of reviewer voice, point-of-view, personality framework, and history?

References

Extra Resources