How to... write a book review Part: 3

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How to... write a book review

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What academics look for

I have reported elsewhere the results that I found when I sent an electronic questionnaire on reading and writing book reviews to groups of academics in the arts, sciences and social sciences (Hartley, 2006).

Approximately 50 people in each group replied. Almost two-thirds of these respondents recalled reading a dreadful book review. Some of the things said about such reviews were that they were:

  • pointless, uninformative, indecisive and boring
  • a mere listing of the contents
  • pretentious, unkind, careless
  • personally abusive about the author’s credentials
  • written to cherish the reviewer’s ego.

Generally speaking, book reviews were not highly regarded if they simply outlined the content of a book, in a chapter by chapter format. On the other hand, approximately 55 per cent of the respondents recalled reading an outstanding book review. Here it was thought that such reviews:

  • gave a balanced critical evaluation of the text
  • made seemingly dull topics interesting
  • were well written, succinct, and informative
  • displayed awesome scholarship
  • made people want to buy the book.

How then can authors write such "outstanding" book reviews? Respondents to my questionnaire were reluctant to say. Most argued that it depended on the book in question. One, however, wrote: “I use a basic sort of ‘recipe’ that touches on all the information that I think readers of book reviews need”.

Two stages appear to be needed here. First of all there is the preliminary reading and thinking about the book. Sometimes this is done before putting pen to paper, but some reviewers start making notes from the outset. At this stage then reviewers are concerned with selecting and thinking about information that will be relevant to the four-stage writing procedure outlined above. Sometimes this will involve a trip to the library or to particular websites to check up on the required information.

Next comes the actual writing of the review. Here different writers have different preferences. The quotations given in the above panel provide but two examples.

Whatever the procedures, it is important that a book review contains a number of key features. The checklist in section 4 might prove useful in this respect. In my experience, however, rather than just summarizing a text, better book reviewers spend more time critiquing it.