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How to... write a book review

The four stages of writing a book review

Book reviews are a special form of academic writing. They have well-known structures with familiar components. Here, James Hartley of the School of Psychology, Keele University, UK, consults with academics on writing the perfect book review and presents a potential checklist for book reviewers.

When writing book reviews colleagues use a variety of phrases that carry hidden meanings. Consider, "This is a surprising book" or "This is a useful book for the library". What these phrases really mean are, "This book is better than I expected" and "This book is not worth buying for your personal use".

When we are familiar with the format and the hidden meanings of sentences we know that we are reading a particular text genre – in this case a book review. Essentially we can always tell we are reading a book review from the language and the structure that it employs. Writers of book reviews typically progress through four stages, as follows:

1. They introduce the book by:

  • outlining the general topic
  • indicating who the book is for
  • placing the book in its field.

2. Next, they often outline the content of the book by:

  • giving a general view of its the organization
  • stating the topic of each chapter/section.

3. Then they highlight parts of the book by:

  • selecting particular chapters or themes for evaluation
  • critiquing the argument of the book.

4. And finally, they evaluate the book by:

  • commenting on aspects of the content
  • indicating how it meets the readers’ needs
  • remarking on its format, price, and value for money
  • making recommendations for purchase or otherwise.

When we examine book reviews we find that most, if not all of these components are present, even if they are not always given in the order listed. Some reviewers, for example, like to start with items from Stage 4 – evaluation – then move to Stages 1-3, and finally conclude by justifying their original opening evaluation.

Examples of how academics write book reviews

Example 1

"I usually read completely the books I am reviewing (so as to be sure that I do not misunderstand them), marking parts that I think are particularly meaningful. Then I start by saying what the book is about and the intended audience (since having this information first may allow readers who are not interested to skip the rest of the review, and readers who are interested to raise their attention). Next I outline how the topic is developed, as concerns facets of content and depth of treatment. Then I point out what are in my opinion the points of strengths and weaknesses of the book. Finally, I try to give a global evaluation of my appreciation and possible usefulness of the book. Finally I polish the form and try to bring it to the required length. This writing phase lasts usually around two hours."

Example 2

"I read the book through, marking on it possible points for inclusion on

  1. what the author says the book is about,
  2. possible key findings, and
  3. controversial statements.

I then decide on which of these to include and which bits of the book to write about and what to leave out (because of space limitations). I word process the first draft, which is usually too long, and then I cut it and continually refine it through numerous editings – with periods for incubation between each one – until it emerges, in my view, as a highly polished piece of prose!"

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.

A potential checklist for book reviewers

Make sure that your review contains:

  • An early paragraph saying what the book is about, and putting it in context
  • Information about the intended audience
  • A critique of the argument/content of the book
  • Remarks on the strengths and limitations of the book
  • A note on the format, length and price (or value for money)
  • A note (if appropriate) on how well the text is supported by tables/diagrams/illustrations
  • Any supporting academic references.

If the following details are not supplied for you, please make sure that your review contains:

  • Accurate details of the authors’/editors’ names and initials
  • Title of the publication
  • Edition
  • Date of publication
  • Publisher and place of publication
  • ISBN number
  • Format (hardback, paperback or soft cover)
  • Number of pages
  • Price.

Try to make your review readable and entertaining. Write it in the first person, as though you are describing the book in a letter to a close friend.

Reference

Hartley, J. (2006), “Reading and writing book reviews across the disciplines”, Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, Vol. 57 No. 9, pp. 1194-1207.

Copies available from the author.