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The nuts & bolts of writing a book review

As a scholar and a writer, I am surrounded by books. I buy books at conferences. I buy books online.  A stack of books grows on my desk, and even finds its way onto any horizontal surface in my living room.  I identify them from reading the reference list of journal articles. I get recommendations from peers.

One of the services I can provide my peers is to write a book review on one of my most recently purchased books. A review serves to help my colleagues decide whether or not they wish to read the book.

What is a book review? Book reviews answer the main question: What is this book about?  Sometimes the review might also answer the question: What do I, the reader, think about this book?  In general, though, first and foremost the reviewer tells the reader what is in the book.

Many, but not all, academic journals publish book reviews. Some journals publish book reviews in one issue annually, while other journals may include reviews in all issues. Journal editors often use book reviews as a regular feature, the number varying per issue based on how much space is available. Most reviews appear in the last section of journal.

Why write a review

First of all, a review is a publication.  It is submitted to a journal and reviewed by the journal editor or the book review editor. Therefore, typically it belongs on your CV under refereed publications. Even though it counts as a publication, in my experience, promotion and tenure committees do not rate book reviews as high as a journal article or book. Some committees do not rank them at all. However, publication of a book review shows that you are willing to put your ideas out for public scrutiny, and you are doing current reading.

Second, writing a book review is a very good introduction-to-academic-writing activity for doctoral students and even new faculty because the process acquaints these emerging scholars with key components of publishing: analyzing text patterns, working with journal editors, and making submissions. From my experience of helping over 75 doctoral students publish book reviews, I have gleaned some essential steps that can lead to success.

Contacting the journal

1) Identify a few books that you would like to review and that you want to read. Since you are going to read the book anyway, you might as well write a review. The book should be current, that means usually published within the last two or three years. Because of the length of time it takes to get book reviews considered and published, the more recent the date of publication, the better.

2) Find a journal that has book reviews in your research/study area. Since not all journals have reviews, it might take some time to identify a journal. You can ask your librarian for help. I also pick up extra copies of journals at conference book exhibits, and note the ones that have reviews. In addition, I can put an older book’s name in my library online database, and check out the reviews that pop up. I note the journal’s name because obviously that journal publishes book reviews.

There are basically two different types of book reviews. Most are typically short­, three to six paragraphs. That is the type of review I describe in this article. Others are called “article-length reviews”, 2,000 to 5,000 words. This longer review might compare two to three books on the same topic, or might be about how you used the book in your class and how students responded to it. Obviously the longer review requires a greater time commitment.

3) Research the editor or the book review editor of your target journals. Once you know the editor, email her/him to introduce yourself and explain why you want to write a book review. For graduate students, I suggest you attach your CV so the editor has an idea about your background. If the review is an assignment for a class, I advise the students to write that in the query letter as well.  Disclosing that the review is for my class has not caused any problems for students.  In fact, one editor commented that she was glad to have the review vetted by an experienced academic before she got it.

4) Name two or three books you would like to review. Providing more than one book title not only allows the editor to select the book for review based on their own preference, but it also lessons the risk of being rejected because the proposed book is already being reviewed. Sometimes if you get lucky the editor will even send you the book. You can email several book review editors at the same time with different lists of books.

Writing the review

1) Photocopy at least three current reviews from the journal you have contacted.

2) Conduct a text-structure-analysis of the book reviews you have copied. You are not looking for content, you are looking for the text structure. Journal editors can change. Therefore, another and more current gauge as to what the journal is accepting is to look at the structure of a recent set of reviews.  Carefully analyze how the review is structured.

  • What is the length of the review?
  • How many paragraphs?
  • What is in the first paragraph? Second? Etc.?
  • How does the review describe the book’s contents — each chapter with full details or only a brief overview of all chapters?
  • How much of the reviewers opinion is present? Where is it located in the review?
  • Are there any patterns across all three reviews that I should match when I submit my review?

3) At last, read the book. While you are reading, keep in mind the information you have gathered. Follow the pattern from your text-structure-analysis. Your research has provided the basic framework to write the review.

4) Submit the review. Be sure to check out the author guidelines on the website for text style, formatting and submission procedures. Editors balk at spending time getting authors to comply with their written guidelines. Take the time upfront to match what you are sending in with what you have seen on the published reviews and the author guidelines. That upfront effort will save you revision time later.

5) Persist. Journal editors and book review editors are juggling this unpaid task along with their other academic and professional responsibilities. If you do not hear anything within a few weeks of submission, it is permissible to ask, “What is the status of my review?”  It is a simple, direct question and she/he will usually respond quickly. Also, remember the book reviews are not always published immediately after they are accepted because of their place in the production line.

Dannelle StevensDannelle D. Stevens, Ph.D., is a professor of curriculum and instruction at Portland State University. In her role as Faculty-in-Residence in the Office of Academic Innovation, she has created the Jumpstart Academic Writing Program involving over 60 faculty practicing and publishing academic writing. She is the co-author of three books, all framed around different ways to assist faculty in their complex roles as scholars, authors, teachers, and community members.