Before my life spiralled out of .. well, not control exactly, but let’s just say before it took a sharp turn, I accepted and opportunity to do an academic book review for a fairly important journal in my discipline. Actually, in my hurry to re-enter academia, I solicited the opportunity for even when the book I was really interested in reviewing turned out to be taken, I responded by volunteering for the one I now have to do – and it does not look like a fun read.
But, I figure this is a good opportunity to learn about the process of writing an academic review and also to test my resolve about academia – am I serious about wanting to go back and play? Because if I am then writing a review should be a piece of cake right?
After a quick search (thankyou devonthink pro) on my hard drive, I found a pdf on writing academic book reviews by Wendy Belcher. I have taken to pertinent parts re actual writing and pasted them here but it you would like some information on choosing a book and/or a journal you can download the whole pdf: Writing the Academic Book Review
Reading the Book
It is best, when writing a book review, to be an active reader of the book. Sit at a desk with pen and paper in hand. As you read, stop frequently to summarize the argument, to note particularly clear statements of the book’s argument or purpose, and to describe your own responses. If you have read in this active way, putting together the book review should be quick and straightforward. Some people prefer to read at the computer but if you’re a good typist, you often start typing up long quotes from the book instead of analyzing it. Paper and pen provides a little friction to prevent such drifting. Take particular note of the title (does the book deliver what the title suggests it is going to deliver?), the table of contents (does the book cover all the ground you think it should?), the preface (often the richest source of information about the book), and the index (is it accurate, broad, deep?).
Some questions to keep in mind as you are reading:
1. What is the book’s argument?
2. Does the book do what it says it is going to do?
3. Is the book a contribution to the field or discipline?
4. Does the book relate to a current debate or trend in the field and if so, how?
5. What is the theoretical lineage or school of thought out of which the book rises?
6. Is the book well-written?
7. What are the books terms and are they defined?
8. How accurate is the information (e.g., the footnotes, bibliography, dates)?
9. Are the illustrations helpful? If there are no illustrations, should there have been?
10. Who would benefit from reading this book?
11. How does the book compare to other books in the field?
12. If it is a textbook, what courses can it be used in and how clear is the book’s structure and examples?
It can be worthwhile to do an on-line search to get a sense for the author’s history, other books, university appointments, graduate advisor, and so on. This can provide you with useful context..
Making a Plan
Book reviews are usually 600 to 2,000 words in length. It is best to aim for about 1,000 words, as you can say a fair amount in 1,000 words without getting bogged down. There’s no point in making a book review into a 20-page masterpiece since the time would have been better spent on an academic essay that would count for more on your c.v. Some say a review should be written in a month: two weeks reading the book, one week planning your review, and one week writing it. Although many don’t write an outline for an essay, you should really try to outline your book review before you write it. This will keep you on task and stop you from straying into writing an academic essay.
Classic book review structure is as follows:
13. Title including complete bibliographic citation for the work (i.e., title in full, author, place, publisher, date of publication, edition statement, pages, special features [maps, color plates,etc.], price, and ISBN.
14. One paragraph identifying the thesis, and whether the author achieves the stated purpose of the book.
15. One or two paragraphs summarizing the book.
16. One paragraph on the book’s strengths.
17. One paragraph on the book’s weaknesses.
18. One paragraph on your assessment of the book’s strengths and weaknesses.
Writing the Review
Once you’ve read the book, try to spend no more than one or two weeks writing the review. Allowing a great deal of time to fall between reading the book and writing about it is unfair to you and the author. The point of writing something short like a book review is to do it quickly. Sending a publication to a journal is always scary, sitting on the review won’t make it less so.
Avoiding Five Common Pitfalls
1. Evaluate the text, don’t just summarize it. While a succinct restatement of the text’s points is important, part of writing a book review is making a judgment. Is the book a contribution to the field? Does it add to our knowledge? Should this book be read and by whom? One needn’t be negative to evaluate; for instance, explaining how a text relates to current debates in the field is a form of evaluation.
2. Do not cover everything in the book. In other words, don’t use the table of contents as a structuring principle for your review. Try to organize your review around the book’s argument or your argument about the book.
3. Judge the book by its intentions not yours. Don’t criticize the author for failing to write the book you think that he or she should have written. As John Updike puts it, “Do not imagine yourself the caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind.”
4. Likewise, don’t spend too much time focusing on gaps. Since a book is only 200 to 500 pages, it cannot possibly address the richness of any topic. For this reason, the most common criticism in any review is that the book doesn’t address some part of the topic. If the book purports to be about ethnicity and film and yet lacks a chapter on Latinos, by all means, mention it. Just don’t belabor the point. Another tic of reviewers is to focus too much on books the author did not cite. If you are using their bibliography just to display your own knowledge it will be obvious to the reader. Keep such criticisms brief.
5. Don’t use too many quotes from the book. It is best to paraphrase or use short telling quotes within sentences.
the plan is to follow Belcher’s advice and ideas. The review is due for submission 1/3/12 which doesn’t give me long taking into consideration that in that time I am die to move houses, towns and jobs. Ouch!
Will update with my progress and any insights I glean along the way.