What Makes a Good Book Review: Some Editorial Advice

21 August 2018, 1104 EDT

The following is a guest post by Andrew Owsiak, Associate Professor at the University of Georgia and Book Editor for International Studies Review. 

The race to push scholarly research into the world carries a few consequences, perhaps the most notable being that it proves challenging to stay up-to-date with what is published. To help with this, some journals, for example International Studies Review[1], publish reviews of recently released, scholarly books. These reviews offer great sources of information–to those wishing to remain abreast of current trends, seeking to incorporate relevant work into their own research output, and wanting to incorporate the latest studies into their classrooms. The value of this information, however, depends largely on how the reviewer writes his review. A reader who finds herself mired in jargon has no context in which to understand the review, while one facing only a series of generalities loses grasp of what the book is about.[2]

Mindful of the reader’s plight, I will offer some advice for those writing book reviews. I do this for two reasons. First, book review authors are often—although not exclusively—junior scholars with less publishing experience. As an editor, I enjoy seeing this. Book reviews can be a great, low-stakes (~1,000 words), point-of-entry into the publishing world. It familiarizes authors with the submission, editorial, and decision process, often without introducing the peer-review component. It also allows them to enter a dialogue with more established scholars (i.e., the book authors). Yet if we are to be fair to those writing the books, to the review authors, and to the readers of book reviews, it behooves us to offer review authors guidance about what a book review should and (probably) should not contain. How will they know otherwise? And this leads to my second motivation: nobody, to my knowledge, provides this advice comprehensively elsewhere.[3]

Before I continue, let me offer a couple caveats. First and foremost, I do not pretend to hold all the answers about what journals want book reviews to contain. I have, however, solicited, monitored, read, and issued decisions on a fair number of book reviews in conjunction with other members of our editorial team. This experience allows me to see some general trends, and I wish to speak to and about those—to increase the chances that a submitting author’s book review will be accepted (ultimately) for publication. I necessarily assume that the trends I see—and therefore, the advice I offer—remain applicable at other journals who publish book reviews, although I do not speak for them. Second, following the advice below will, I expect, increase an author’s chances of successfully publishing a book review, but it will not guarantee it. The stochastic component of the publication process always operates. In addition, different authors will succeed at following the advice to varying degrees. All this is to say that I want to be held blameless for individual publication results.

Having said all this, here is my advice:

  1. Low-stakes does not mean easy.

Book reviews *are* reviewed, even if they do not go through “external peer review.” Any manuscript must clear an editorial review (if not external review as well). Because book reviews are “low-stakes” and short, one might conclude that they therefore require less effort. I would argue the opposite. Tight word limits and a more limited review process means that authors must think carefully about what they submit; every word they insert into a review needs a purpose.

  1. Write with your reader in mind.

Who is the book review reader? An educated person—usually a scholar, although practitioners, policy-makers, and others who are educated and need information may travel into book review content as well—that has foundational knowledge in the general discipline, but not necessarily detailed knowledge of the subfield in which the book sits. This is perhaps the most important thing to remember as a book review writer. Editors want a review to be valuable to a broad audience (hint: so should review authors!). Successful authors achieve this goal. Unsuccessful authors, however, usually intend to achieve this goal, but fail for one of two reasons:

  • They use inappropriate terminology.

The terminology an author employs can quickly exclude readers and narrow the potential audience—as when the language becomes too philosophically heady (e.g., “ontology”), too subfield specific (e.g., the “commitment problem” in international relations conflict research), or too vague (e.g., “rivalry,” which means different things colloquially and scholarly) without the review author providing definitions or context that brings the reader along. This does *not* mean that authors should abandon a book’s or discipline’s terminology. Rather, authors must guide the reader into and through that terminology. Give readers the necessary terms, but no more. Provide readers with the appropriate context (i.e., explanation and definition) when a term must be used. And set aside “sounding smart.” We are all smart people; the simplest language possible will be best.

  • They lose sight of the review’s purpose.

Imagine a review that says something like: “Chapter 7 addresses international waterways and contains 15 testable hypotheses.” In this fictitious line (yes, I made it up), I would, as a reader, be asking: (i) Does Chapter 7 especially matter to me? Should it? (ii) What does “addresses” mean? (iii) What are international waterways? (iv) Does the fact that it contains 15, or even 1, testable hypotheses really matter here? More generally, does the reader need every word the review author provides? In most failed cases, they do not. So editors begin to strip away the unnecessary words (usually, mentally). If there is not enough content left at the end of this exercise—or if the editor is not confident that what remains is intelligible to readers without significant revisions—then editors will neither see the reader that will benefit from the review nor a clear path forward to publication. Given limited journal space, why should they then consider it further for publication?

  1. Use proper spelling, grammar, and syntax.

I probably do not need to say much about this, but every submission—book reviews or otherwise—needs a thorough check before an author submits it. Readers (of any material) make snap judgements about authors from tiny clues. A series of run-on sentences, the proliferation of unnecessary semi-colons, and awkward phrases (e.g., “the question as to whether”) not only distract readers from the author’s message, but also suggest either that the author does not know how to write or, worse, knows better but does not want to take the time to do so. Readers who see this ask: if the author cares little for his central message, why should I? (The best advice I can offer on these mechanics is Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.)

  1. Include the things that you, as a reader, would want in a book review.

This threatens to open the door into a subjective world, so let me tell you what I believe the median reader wants to see in a short book review:

  • A summary of the book’s main argument and findings.

If the book’s author were going to advertise it in a series of Tweets, what would these Tweets say? This is a place to present what the author sees as the main argument, findings, and contribution of the work—that is, what *they* think and say? (Of course, if you cannot identify these things, or they are confusing, what a great point this is to develop as a critique [see below].)

These hypothetical Tweets will probably not say things like: (i) “The effect of alliances seems irrelevant in three of the fifty models presented in Chapter 5.”; or (ii) “I offer a welcome and timely addition to the research on comparative political institutions.” And yet, book reviews often travel this ground. These travels are neither fair to the book author’s position and work, nor valuable to readers.

  • Placement of the book within the larger discipline.

If there are 50 new books on human rights, why should a reader focus her limited attention on this book, as opposed to the others. Is it far afield of what we already know? Is the contribution large—or small? Is the contribution theoretical or empirical? Is it the only work to do something, or one of 100 that all say and do the same thing? Here is where the book review author’s status as expert becomes important. Your reader will not necessarily know the full topography of the subfield; help them understand it.

  • A critique of the book.

I appreciate that critique can be challenging, and that many of us want to avoid it. Yet it serves important functions. First, as a reader, it is helpful to know that the review author thought critically about the book he is reviewing. The review author is a(n)  (budding) expert in the subfield—someone positioned to evaluate the work, often times better than the review reader. If that evaluation will not be forthcoming, why would a reader not just look at the book jacket and marketing materials instead? What value do you, as book review author, bring to the table? Second, if there are shortcomings, readers want to know; these often affect whether she can apply the book in question to her research or whether it will be useful in her courses.

There will be an immediate objection that critique will hurt careers—of both the book and review authors. That’s not true, if it is done well and professionally. Every scholarly work has shortcomings—mistakes, omissions, and room for improvement. We all know that. Thus, discussing shortcomings is not unfair to book authors. Moreover, scholars do not fault one another for critiquing, provided it is done respectfully and fairly (e.g., critiquing the author’s work, as opposed to what one wishes that work would have been). Our aversion to critique largely arises because we see cases where it is done inappropriately. Our aversion is to inappropriateness, not critique. So be critical, but also professional and thoughtful, and you will sidestep the reasons the aversion exists.

  1. Avoid what the average reader does not care to see in the context of a book review.

To prevent our falling into a subjective chasm yet again, I’ll offer a handful of suggestions.

  • A chapter by chapter summary.

If you’re traveling down this road as a review author, you might be missing the forest for the trees. Readers who find the book worth picking up (hopefully, because of your review) will want these chapter-level details. To decide whether to pick up the book in the first place, though, they prefer to get the information discussed above instead.

  • Personal, unsubstantiated opinions.

The book might be “timely,” “refreshing,” or “hastily written.” Readers will not find that assessment valuable, however, without significantly greater detail—if they find it valuable at all. A better approach is to cut these vague comments and add and elaborate on the above information instead.

  • Halfhearted or nit-picky criticism.

Yes, I know I said to be critical, but halfhearted or nit-picky criticism is annoying and unhelpful. Imagine a book reviewer who says: “This book has two major shortcomings. First, it’s quantitative….” Such a statement suggests that the review author holds a preference for qualitative work; that’s not bad, but it is unfair to fault the book author for not meeting that preference. Now, if that omission leads to causal inference problems, the critique might be sharpened and elaborated; that’s a different matter. Alternatively, imagine a review that says: “I disagree extensively with how the author measures [i.e.,operationalizes] democracy.” I get it; there are whole debates about measuring democracy. But that means this is a “low hanging fruit” critique. Is it likely to be the main, noteworthy shortcoming with the entire book? Probably not. It therefore makes sense to cut this in favor of something bigger.

  • Maddening generalities and repetition.

A review that talks in circles (repetition) suggests that the reviewer did not delve into the book in sufficient detail, or perhaps did not understand it. The same perception arises from a review that gives the flying altitude (i.e., 32,000 foot) view without any details. Thus, there is a balance. We don’t want to be describing the forest tree-by-tree, but we also don’t need an aerial view of the entire state of Oregon. The appropriate balance lies between these extremes—an aerial view that allows us to see for a few miles across the book’s terrain and (perhaps) how that terrain connects with that of the wider discipline.

  • Excessive quoting

Book review authors often err when they attempt to signal that they “read a book” through the use of excessive quotation marks. The usage itself comes in two forms. The first relies on stitched together, short phrases—in order to “be sure that readers understand” they have “incorporated the author’s words” in a way that “does the author justice.” The second uses larger block quotes (e.g., of the author’s main argument; usually from pp.1-20). Neither is necessary or desirable. Use your own words and summarize. That’s why journal editors ask scholars to write book reviews, rather than selecting and stitching words together directly from a book manuscript. They care about what *you* have to say. Can you identify the argument? Can you explain it and make it accessible to others? Can you critique it? And so on. The book review author *is* an expert; to resort to excessive quoting is to either cede that expertise to the book author instead (at best) or to admit that one does not have it at all (at worst).

Let me be clear: this is not a license to quote without quotation marks (i.e., plagiarize). If you quote directly, you *must* cite appropriately. Instead, I am suggesting here that (i) there is not space in short book reviews for excessive quoting, and (ii) authors who resort to excessive quoting do so because they think it sends a signal that it decidedly does not.

In closing, let me leave you with one thought that captures all the advice offerred above: sympathize and think carefully about the reader.

“…[T]]he reader must always be your main concern; without Constant Reader, you are just a voice quacking in the void. And it’s no walk in the park being the guy on the receiving end [of a written work]” (Stephen King, On Writing, p. 124).

Having said that, I do not implore review authors to abandon their desired message, voice, or style. Rather, they “must sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time)” (E.B. White, Elements of Style, p. 84). That sympathizing allows you, as a review author, to find how best to say what you want to say. And if you’re not sure what to say, it gives you a solid anchor.


[1] https://academic.oup.com/isr/pages/General_Instructions.

[2] For consistency, pronoun usage will be masculine for review author and feminine for review reader.

[3] Here is a post I missed.