How do we write a good book review? This is the question I get asked several times by my peers and friends. But, at the outset, I recognise that writing a good book review takes time. It comes with practice, as much as almost everything else we do. Besides, a good book review requires effort, skill, and a delineated method.
I am unsure if I write good (enough!) book reviews, but I have been honing my writing skills for quite some time now. Moreover, in my scholarly field of politics and international studies, I have been fortunate enough to have published book reviews in several top journals of IR (such as International Affairs, International Studies Review, and others) as well as have written several book reviews on this very blog (check them out here).
I believe this helps me give a novice overview of how I write my book reviews, which have been getting published in one or the other place. Therefore, I take up this task to discuss some essential elements of writing a book review.
1. Pro-tip: read magazines and emulate
Apart from that, I would also like to add that there are critical book review journals such as the London Review of Books, the LA Review of Books, the New York Times Book Reviews, the Paris Review, etc. If you read them occasionally, you will be able to write better.
You will learn to think of ways to engage with an author’s work critically. Lately, I have been enjoying book reviews by historian and Oxford University lecturer Pratinav Anil, whose unique writing style makes the reviews elegant and enjoyable. Check them out!
2. Understanding what makes a good book review
Good non-fictional work always asks one question (just one main question) and seeks to answer that without cluttering pages with multiple unrelated prose. Once you know what the author aims to answer, assessing the work is more accessible.
Every good review tells us the book’s key objective—and how they were effectively achieved (or not). They also allow us to discuss methods for coming to the kinds of conclusions the author does—and are they right?
Is there a methodological coherence in the text, or is it merely collected thoughts without a logical flow? Does the book address what it seeks to address? Is it located within the broader context of scholarship? Is it a methodological intervention in the field? Or a theoretical proposition? Or is it empirical? Addressing all these aspects will make a review a good one.
3. Place the reader at the centre of your review
A good book review always keeps the reader at the centre of its review. Think of who is going to read what you have written. Based on who will read this review, you will have to tune your review accordingly. Don’t be consumed in the jargon.
In my field of research, there is an obsessive tendency towards using terms such as “ontology”, “epistemology”, “great power”, “explanatory variables”, etc. Try to avoid them as much as possible. Or probably, you may explain while you use them.
A good review also considers spelling, grammar and syntax in the loop. Grammatical errors may sometimes be a put-off. (I make many grammatical errors while publishing on this blog, partly because I do everything myself.)
Finally, remember to include all essential things: a summarised version of the book’s key arguments; how this book fares with other books in the field; a critical engagement with the text; and finally, who benefits from this work—and how they should approach it. If you can keep all these things in mind, you will be able to work on an excellent review.
4. Read the book carefully
Writing a good book review begins with reading well. Elsewhere, I have discussed Virginia Woolf’s guide to reading a book and Orwell’s guide to writing. Keep them as a backgrounder for your reading and writing. For me, reading is about treating an author’s subject as they want us to treat them. Reading must be both careful and attentive.
Reading every page carefully also requires understanding what is written and what others think of it. Back in school, I read several things without understanding most of them. Over the years, I have come to grow as a careful reader. Speed does not matter. I have read some books in a day; others have taken ages to complete. Every book requires different kinds of attention. Remember that!
I have grown to understand and appreciate a text for what it is. This is the first stage of writing a review. Read, Understand, Synthesise, Analyse, and Critique. It is a process. Once you have read something, you must understand and synthesise the text; further, you must analyse and provide a critical overview.
5. Make comprehensive notes on the book
Now, say you have begun to read a text. As you read the book, you also come across ideas, events, acts, and things. Jot them down! Write them on a piece of paper or a notebook (or if you are techno-savvy, write on the laptop). You need not write things in your own words at this point in time.
I usually write down whatever the author has written word-by-word (but keep the page numbers handy). However, writing this way allows me to re-read essential things while writing my review. Making notes highlighting important parts of texts is crucial.
I use multiple coloured gel pens (say, blue, green, red, and black) to make notes. It also allows me to concentrate better. Every page looks different, and every paragraph seems different.
6. Structure your review: introduce, analyse, conclude
Usually, a book review contains over 800 to 1,200 words (unless you are writing a critical review essay of 2,500 words for a literary journal). It would help if you thought of how to write a good review within these word limits. Every review contains a hook introductory para, a body containing multiple summarisation paragraphs, and critical sections ending with appraisals.
7. Introduce the book well!
This is how every review is structured. Your introductory paragraph should ideally begin with the question the author seeks to answer in their book. Then, a brief about their proposed answer and how that situates in the broader theoretical frame of discussions.
8. Provide an excellent overview of the book
Now, after introducing the book, you should also give an overview. It means you must tell how many sections/parts this work entails and how they are connected. You also need to elicit how many chapters there are and if they have thematic sections.
You must also briefly summarise the methodology and sources used in this work. These aspects will give the reader a background into what they are getting into. It will tell them if the book is quantitative in nature or qualitative.
It will also describe what kinds of sources there are for a particular kind of project. After that, you need to discuss how many arguments the author makes. If required, explain them in detail, with examples.
7. Remember the rule: Show, Not Tell!
The book review will flow well if you can discuss aspects of the book without giving crude information. Explain each argument. Explain how the author comes to those arguments. And also elicit their processes. All this helps in shaping your review better.
Once you have substantiated your arguments, you must discuss whether the author’s arguments make sense.
- Are there better explanations for them?
- Does confirmation bias in their approach drive the author?
- Is the author correct in treating this approach?
- Has the author succinctly achieved their goals?
- Does the author broadly contribute to the scholarship?
- This is a critical engagement with the text. It is necessary. And this is the crux of your work.
8. Provide a critical appraisal of the book in conclusion
It not only tells the reader whether they should pick up the work and read it, or you have read it for them/and that they don’t need to waste their time on this book. These are essential judgements to make. And one has to be considerate when they read others’ work. Now, you need to point to the important implications of the book for future research in the field of scholarship.
9. Re-read, edit, and submit
This is the final stage of your writing. Once you have written your assessment, it still needs some work. You should give it a day or two. Don’t look at it for two days. After that, you need to re-look at the draft.
Once you take a fresh look at the work, you realise that several things could have been added to this draft. You can also critically engage with the text better. Finally, you can edit and proofread it for final submission.
10. Take feedback from others
Before you do that, show it to your peers and friends. (Teachers, if they are kind enough to read it.) Everyone. Take them seriously. Nobody wants to pick fights with you. If they have spent time on your text, they would have something to tell you. But, remember, it is your text. It is in your name, and the work goes out. And accordingly, take suggestions and make edits.
Finally, a good book review always flows well. It informs the reader of both the content and quality of the book. It is critical and evaluative. (And always keep your criticism healthy.) It is not just a summary of all that the author writes. Remember, you are writing this for someone else. Write well!
This website and the newsletter (fuzzy notes) have been a labour of love. While they are free to access (and will continue to be free), they are not free to create. I spend significant time researching, writing, and proofing every article I publish here, apart from all the logistical aspects of buying and managing the domain and hosting plans. Each article is written meticulously to help fellow readers (such as yourself) get the best knowledge, which is also witty and articulate in this outlook. You may reach out to me at [email protected] (and tell me what you liked about the essay you may have just read or if you want me to write on anything you wish to read). If you have benefitted from reading articles on my website and the newsletter, consider buying me a coffee (as a token of love and appreciation ♥). If you cannot do so now, it’s okay! (understandably, each of us has our problems to deal with every day.) You can still do something else: share the article with someone who may like it.