How to write (and how not to write) a scholarly book review

I’m sure I speak for all of us at the Floating Academy when I say how grateful I am to those academics who commit their time and energy to the various volunteer roles of editors, advisory board members, and manuscript readers, and thereby help create the forums where we can read the work of other scholars and publish our own research. In recent conversations with friends and colleagues in editorial roles, however, I have detected a pattern that concerns me and it relates to all the ways that we scholars, the very ones who benefit from this volunteer labor, make an editor’s role more challenging than it needs to be. Whether through missing deadlines, not responding to queries in a timely way, or not being as careful as we might be in our writing and documentation, many of us add untold hours and stress to our colleagues working in editorial roles.

Let me start by noting that I am not innocent of many of these behaviors – indeed only a few weeks ago I had to request a deadline extension for a promised article – but I want to bring up the issue as a way of starting a conversation about some of the disciplinary practices of publication and peer review. This might also turn into a conversation about the larger issue of the work (and workload) in today’s academy because the causes of what we might call scholarly inconsideration, in this context, are, I think, more structural than individual. Most of the academics I know are considerate, hard working and dedicated to their work, so, in discussing some of the ways that we, perhaps, fall below those ideals at times, I’d like to invite you to consider systemic issues.

In today’s post, I would like to specifically address the form of the scholarly book review as published in journals. In order to get a clearer picture of how to (and how not to) write a book review, I asked the following questions to about a half dozen “Book Reviews Editors” of scholarly journals in the humanities about their role and about their perspective on successful book reviewing. I paraphrase and summarize their responses below, with gratitude for their taking the time to respond so thoughtfully to my questions.

1) How many hours a month do you spend on your “Book Reviews Editor” duties?

 There were a range of responses to this question which reflected, in part, the number of annual issues (and reviews) published by the journal in question. One editor reported sometimes spending as many as 25 hours a month as a publication deadline approached (for a quarterly publication) while another reported as few as four hours a month (for an annual publication).  The mean and median were both ten hours per month.

2) What are the qualities of a great book review?

 There was strong consensus amongst my respondents regarding the following qualities of a successful book review. According to them, a great book review:

-       is concise/succinct

-       is fair/not overly harsh in its critique

-       provides a description or analysis of the main arguments of a book

-       contextualizes the book within the field of study

-       offers a critical analysis or evaluation of the book’s strengths and weaknesses

Some editors offered additional features of a successful book review that were less widely noted. For some editors, then, a great book review also:

-       notes who the book will be of interest to

-       considers “how the argument has been constructed and the information gathered”

-       “advances thinking about the methods/context of the text”

The issue of how much summary should be included in a book review was perhaps more controversial. One editor explicitly stated that he/she did not want a summary of the book in the review, while another advocated for the inclusion of a description of each chapter. Most of the editors did note that a strong book review contained some summary of the book. One editor, in particular, described the ideal way for that summary to be presented as follows:

 “I’m grateful when reviewers summarize a book’s arguments before evaluating the merits of those arguments – a kind of neutral abstract of the book on its own terms – engaging with the book firstly by articulating the goals of the book and the work it does, what it sets out to do before moving into evaluation of the book’s achievements, relevance, etc.”

 And, finally, in their responses, some of the editors emphasized the importance of careful proofreading and documentation in book review essays including the proper recording and citation of quotations, author names and titles and providing a works cited. One editor reports that for “at least one in three reviews,” he or she has to “write the reviewer asking for the page numbers of quotations from the book.” As one editor noted, “it would be great if more reviewers treated their review, despite its short length, with the care they treat other forms of writing submitted for publication.”

3) The most challenging elements of being a “Book Reviews Editor” include….

The word “chase” appeared frequently in responses to this question. Again and again, the most challenging part of the job, according to the editors, was the need to chase down late or absent reviews. Indeed, one reviewer noted that probably 70% of book reviews fall into this category. Another reviewer noted that tracking down these reviews could be difficult when working with individuals – often graduate students or contingent faculty – who are facing employment challenges (and may end up leaving the profession entirely). The editor noted that, of course, he/she was “supportive of those” vulnerable members of the profession in the face of these circumstances and “difficult choices”, but simply wanted to note that it was another complicating factor worth mentioning, and, I would add, one that will probably continue with the increasing casualization of academic labor.

Late or absent reviews also cause difficulties for the editors when dealing with publishers who would like to know why a particular book they provided did not get reviewed in a particular journal. This issue of tardiness also makes it difficult, according to most of the reviewers, to create and keep track of the right balance of reviews-in-progress and to ensure that a book is reviewed in a timely manner. Some editors may find themselves “scrambling” to have enough book reviews for an upcoming issue.

Of course, this issue of chasing down reviewers only emerges once a scholar has agreed to write a review in the first place, and many of the editors reported that finding the right reviewer, and then getting that reviewer to agree to write the review, is also very laborious and even stressful. Many invitations to review apparently never receive responses, which leaves the editor, in the words of one respondent, “wondering, waiting, awkwardly following up in another email and as a result precious time is lost to the shelf life of a review.” One editor also shared a stranger challenge that he/she faces around filtering appropriate reviewers: “One individual – who shall remain nameless – periodically gets one of his graduate students to write offering to review the supervisor’s latest publication”!!

Finally, many of the editors reported that it was challenging to balance the duties of the role with all of their other work commitments. I’m sure that when taking on the job of Book Reviews Editor, it must be very difficult to suddenly carve ten hours a month out of an already-full schedule. And yet, even amidst these challenges, some editors reported many personal benefits to the work they do including getting to meet and work with new people, learning more about the operations of scholarly journals, becoming more familiar with new work in the field, and improving their own writing and copyediting skills.

4) And, finally, I wish every scholar who writes a book review would:

-       “Meet their deadline!”

-       “Reference their contributions fully!”

-       “Actually read the journal they are submitting to.”

-       “Sincerely and seriously engage with the book they are reviewing.”

-       “Take the time to think about how they would like their own book to be reviewed!”

Well, readers, I turn the issue over to you.  Mea culpas, thanks to book reviews editors, thoughts about what successful book reviews accomplish, and ideas for how to improve the process of scholarly book reviewing are all welcome in the comments below.

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2 thoughts on “How to write (and how not to write) a scholarly book review

  1. Thanks for this thought-provoking post Jen. I do think there is a culture in the academy of presuming that deadlines don’t matter much, even among people who are otherwise hard-working and reliable. Maybe this has to do with the long timelines on academic publications? It can be hard to think a deadline really matters when publication is crawling at a snail’s pace, but of course it does.

    Your post made me think of a related issue, the genres scholars need to learn in their early careers that aren’t typically taught in grad school. The book review and the book proposal are two big ones, and to a lesser extent funding and grant applications. (I think Canadians may learn this one faster due to the institutional culture of applying for SSHRCs etc. annually.) This is probably a whole different blog post, but I do find it interesting to think about the genres and roles we need to master as our academic careers progress.

    • Great point, Karen! The book review really is a new genre that we often teach ourselves how to write as grad students or in our early careers. I hope that this post will be helpful on that front for first-time book review writers too!

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