Writing a Book Review

By Dr Charlotte Bates, Dr Robin Smith and Dr Gareth Thomas 

Before adding yet another item to your long ‘list of things to do’, it’s just as well to consider what the point of book reviews are, and why you should write one.

Book reviews seem to be increasingly thought of as means to promote a publication, but they can also be key in identifying and developing debates in a field. They are often written in a more conversational tone which can often lay bare divisions within substantive areas and approaches (see for example, Denzin’s review of Frame Analysis and the no-holds barred response from Goffman). Even in these kinder times, reviews offer a contribution to the field by offering a concise and critical evaluation of new research and thinking. In this sense, they also offer a kind of cumulative record of responses and receptions of key and more minor publications across different readerships and intellectual communities.

But, given that such scholarly contributions are not ‘REF-able’, why should you spend your time writing one?

Well you get a free book for starters. Offering a review to a journal is a good way to get a copy of that overpriced hardback. Moreover, writing a book review will allow you to get a relatively quick publication; filling that blank on a CV is a big step, and a book review goes some way. It will get you used to commenting critically and publicly on the work of others which can be daunting as an ECR; gaining confidence in that will help develop your writing and analytical skills. Reviewing books in your field, making the kind of contribution indicated above, will improve your academic profile. And you will learn more about the publishing process, from the practicalities of navigating online submissions systems to communicating with editors.

Review Editors usually publish lists of books available to review on their website, via email, or through social media. When these are released, they move fast, so you will need to be quick. When contacting the Review Editor, make a short case by outlining who you are, including your expertise and career stage, and why you want to review the book. Reviewers can also be more proactive. If you have identified a book that you want to review, propose this to the Review Editor, but ensure that the book has been published relatively recently – you can ask the Review Editor if they currently have a cap on dates. It is important to consider where the review belongs, not simply where you would like to publish, together with its format and guidelines. Most reviews are short, single publication pieces; reviews in Qualitative Research and Sociology of Health and Illness are typically 750-800 words, while reviews in The Sociological Review are a little longer at 1000 words. However, Review Editors may also be interested in receiving long-form reviews and review essays which bring together two or three publications for review.

Before starting your own review, read other reviews published in the chosen journal to get a sense of what, and how, to write it. When writing your review, focus on achieving a balance of context, content, and critique. The context should briefly position the book in relation to what is going on in both the journal and the field more generally. It is unusual for a review to have more than a very few references, and often none at all. The coverage of content should tell the reader what is in the book, but it should do more than simply constitute a (dull) recounting of each individual chapter. You will not be able to cover everything in the book, so pick out details and highlights, and – where appropriate – identify its dis/connections to other literature in the field. Consider the book’s clarity, originality, and contribution to the discipline and beyond. The critique should be both critical and glowing. Do not be afraid to (courteously) point out the book’s shortcomings, but you should remember a review is also a moment to celebrate a book and all the hard work that has gone into making it. Imagine you are writing the review for someone with an interest in reading the book, but also write in to debates in the discipline or field. It might help to imagine that you are entering into a conversation with the author. In this way, above all else, your review may contribute to a more sociable sense of sociology.

By Dr Charlotte Bates (Review Editor, The Sociological Review), Dr Robin Smith (Review Editor, Qualitative Research), and Dr Gareth Thomas (Former-Review Editor, Sociology of Health and Illness).    

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