How to write a compelling book review
Summer is a time when many of us have a little extra time for reading. For me, that means Go Set a Watchman, some Haruki Murukami and James Lee Burke, plus summer mysteries and thrillers. It means catching up on what local authors and friends have published. And it means reading new books in my field and writing book reviews.
Book reviews are an essential but unappreciated genre. Reviewing is much more than service journalism. Book reviews are the first thing I look at in the Sunday paper, the first section I turn to when I get the latest issue of an academic journal. For publishers, reviews are an important way of getting the word out about books they believe in. For authors, reviews are much needed feedback, giving them both a sense of how their peers view their argument and validation that their work has not gone unread. For book reviewers themselves, writing reviews is an exercise in thinking about other peoples’ thinking and writing about other peoples’ writing.
How do you review several hundred pages of someone’s blood, sweat, and tears in just the 500 or 1,000 words allotted to you by an editor? Of course, it depends on the book—novels, anthologies, nonfiction, and reference books all have different constraints. But there are some general principles that will make reviewing something you can look forward to.
1. Pay attention to the deadline and length guidelines
Authors and publishers count on timely reviews—reviews that appear when the book is new. And editors have space limitations, even online, so you can speed things along by following guidelines.
2. Leave yourself plenty of time, so that you can read the book a couple of times
Give it a quick skim, then a careful perusing (in the older sense of the word), carefully reading a chapter a day and taking notes. That gives you plenty of time to form an impression and think your evaluation through. What is the author’s point and who else cares about it? Did the author win your confidence? Overexplain? Preach? Drift? Was the exposition at the right level, well-supported and exemplified? Was the narrative propulsive and the characters and dialogue convincing? Pro tip: As I read nonfiction, I also take notes about things I might want to mention in classes or research ideas to follow up on later.
3. Your job is to create a relationship between the reviewer, the book’s author, and potential readers
To do that, you need to establish some context for the book. The best reviews quickly situate a book against some social, scientific, cultural, or disciplinary backdrop. A clever title or opening line helps, but it’s more than that. What important ideas or questions does this book address? Who would be interested in the book and why? A good review can amplify that background for readers and may even cause the author to think about the work in a new way. The opening of a Washington Post review of Allan Metcalf’s book, OK: The Improbable History of America’s Greatest Word reads: “Probably there are as many theories about the origins of ‘OK’ as there are theorists to expound them…” If I am interested in that question, I’ll read on.
4. Keep in mind that a review is also part summary
Sometimes a chapter-by-chapter summary is helpful, especially when the book is organized as an unfolding nonfiction exposition, historically or thematically. But often chapters can be grouped together more holistically (as you would in summarizing a fictional narrative), allowing you to more quickly focus on the cross-chapter theme an author raises rather than strictly on the exposition.
5. As you summarize, try to fit the best examples from the book into the review, rather than just relying on a retelling of an author’s points
Try to refer to the material that brought the book alive for you, juxtaposing different examples to reinforce your reading of the book. Ben Zimmer’s New York Times review of Green’s Dictionary of Slang gives the flavor of the work itself by including the following examples in his piece: booze, crib, punk, and skeeve. Similarly, if you review an anthology or collection of essays, you have just enough space to discuss a few pieces in depth and will need to briskly note most of the others.
6. Summary, however it is handled, should be combined with your evaluation of the book
This is your honest judgement of what parts of the book are the strongest and the weakest. Where does the writing sparkle? Where does it lose its way? What might there be more of, or less? What is innovative and what is missing? Who is this book intended for, and who should pass it by? Give the reasons for your judgement, insofar as you can, and avoid being snarky. One of my professors, the late Samuel Levin, joked that he once wanted to begin a review saying, “This book creates a great void in the field.” But he didn’t. Book reviews are not the place for gratuitous put-downs (for example, “This is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force” or “The covers of this book are too far apart.”)
7. Book reviews are the time to practice the art of brevity and to polish your own writing
You will probably only have a few hundred words, so make each one count. Engage your readers by getting their attention and winning their confidence, by moving briskly through what you have to say, and helping them to decide if they want to read the book for themselves.
8. Book reviews can lead to other review-like writing
You may find yourself asked to do a longer review article, basically a review of two or three books on the same topic. That’s your opportunity to put similar books in touch with one another and offer a more extended discussion on both the books and the topic. Another opportunity is the bibliographic essay, like those of Oxford Bibliographies. Here, writers survey the literature of an entire area: phonetics, dialectology, aphasia, you name it. The summary and evaluation aspects are concise annotations, while the background context takes place in paragraph-long overviews. For the bibliographic essay, the exciting challenge is to share your expertise with those who may be new to something, helping them to see the whole and establish a plan for further reading.
Following directions. Planning. Context. Summary. Evaluation. Your best writing. Those are the fundamentals. Book reviewing, like book writing, is a lot of work. But it matters to writers, readers, and publishers, and it is well worth the effort. Even in the dog days of summer.
This article first appeared on the OUPblog.