Book reviews are a staple of academic journals. They help to spread the word about new books on the market, provide valuable spaces for evaluation and critique of published work, and also give emerging scholars an opportunity to dialog with published works.
In the blog post below, journal Editor Stacey M. Johnson describes what a book review should include and some key questions to think about for authors who find themselves stuck staring a blank page while write a book review for SPR.
What should my book review actually be about?
Hopefully you have already read Part 1 of this series on writing book reviews and gotten an overview of the process from our Managing Editor of Book and Tool Reviews, Faith Blackhurst. In this post, I am going to speak directly to those of you who may be in the (very common) position of staring at a blank Word document on your computer screen. You’ve read and evaluated the book. You’ve committed to writing this review. You believed this would be a quick paper to knock out! So, why is it so hard to write this book review? If this is you, trust me, you are in good company. I hope to give you a few tips and guidelines here that will help move the process along for you.
Like any form of published writing, book reviews have conventions that dictate their form. While there is room for creative interpretation of the format, let me assure that there is no expectation or even demand for creative, innovative book reviews. We’re happy when you conform to the format! In fact, I would go so far to say that when authors conform to the established format of a book review, it helps their readers engage more deeply with the content because there are fewer surprises to distract from your evaluation of the book at hand. All that to say, when our journal readers approach a book review, they have some expectations for what it will contain, and it’s a good idea to meet those expectations.
So, what are those expectations? A book review should contain:
- The MLA citation for the book along with the ISBN and number of pages.
- An introduction to the book, the author, the overall themes or goals of the book, and the intended audience among other salient factors
- A chapter-by-chapter summary of the book
- An evaluation of the book including elements such as this non-exhaustive list of possible points of analysis: strengths and weaknesses of the work; theoretical, empirical, or practical implications; how the book succeeds or fails in its goals; and whether the review author might recommend this book and to whom. The evaluation can be interlaced with the summary or made into its own section. Often the evaluation of reviewed books is somewhat generous, although we expect the reviewers to bring a critical eye to any work they review rather than simply summarizing and praising the book.
What should I do if I’m stuck?
Chances are, if you are struggling in writing your book review, you are looking at the review as a whole rather than breaking it up into these four discreet pieces. Can’t think of how to write the whole thing? That’s ok! Start today by writing the elements in numbers 1 and 3 from the list above. These two elements tend to be pretty straightforward summary elements and require a bit less heavy lifting, but will get your review started and get YOU thinking about which parts of the book you want to highlight. Then, tomorrow, come back and write number 2 from the above list: the introduction. On day 3, once you’ve had time to really mull the review over, you can do the harder work of writing your evaluation. However, starting from a review that is already 3/4 of the way done is a much better position than starting from scratch!
Of course, since the evaluation is where most of us get stuck, it might be that you need a little push from here to finish up and get your book review ready to submit. There is no magic wand for this stage, but I do have two pieces of advice that I want you to take. If you do these two things, I promise you will write a much stronger, more publishable review.
1. Read the book reviews SPR has already published.
Check out our archives! We have already published quite a few book reviews, and reading a few recent ones will give you a better idea of what they typically include. Here are a few recent examples you can peruse:
Review by Jessica Rodrigues Poletti: Aramburu, Diana. Resisting Invisibility: Detecting the Female Body in Spanish Crime Fiction
2. Think about the journal and its audience
When we write, we write for readers. Who are those readers, and how will this book review be useful to them? In the case of SPR, our audience is a broad coalition of teachers and researchers in Spanish and Portuguese. Specifically, our journal narrows in on graduate students as our key constituency.
How might this book be read by the audience of this journal?
What will readers encounter in this book?
Why would they be interested?
What might these readers need to understand about the context or discipline in order to benefit from the book?
What is the mission or goal of the book? How is that goal relevant to this audience?
In what ways might this book accomplish its mission and in what ways does it NOT accomplish its mission?
Would you recommend this book to the audience of this journal?
Hopefully these questions give you some starting places for your evaluation of the book you are reviewing. If you have further questions, please feel free to get in touch!
If you are curious about how to actually go about writing a book review, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series for more guidance or reach out to us with your questions. We’re always happy to coach, encourage, and give advice! Leave a comment below or reach out by email to firstname.lastname@example.org!