Writing an academic book review: five top tips and two things to avoid
International Affairs publishes one of the most comprehensive and respected international relations book reviews sections, which covers all areas of the field. In recent issues we have published reviews on topics as diverse as US — Russia relations, the Ebola epidemic, and Foucault’s influence on International Relations. It’s not just the books — the journal’s reviewers are also a very diverse mix. Contributors include both junior and senior academics, as well as practitioners and policy-makers (a spectrum reflected in our readership). We also try to keep things fresh by mainly featuring books published within the last 12–18 months.
As the editor responsible for commissioning book reviews over the last three years, I can say that good book reviews do have some things in common (as do bad ones). Here are a selection of my top tips on writing book reviews, as well as some thoughts on why they can be such valuable additions to your portfolio of publications.
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1. Follow the rules
This might seem basic but whatever publication you’re writing for, good reviews always follow that publication’s guidelines. In the case of International Affairs, draft reviews should not be significantly over the word limit and should focus solely on the book under review. The text should also be clearly written and in line with IA’s house style — ‘excellence in scholarship and accessibility in style’. It is especially important that interested readers not familiar with the topic can enjoy the review, as they are very unlikely to be experts in every field covered by the reviews section.
2. Describe and evaluate
What should be in the book review? Of course it should give readers an overview of the content of the book, but a good review won’t stop there. Although a book review is not the place to discuss your own research or push an agenda, it should include your assessment of the book and your view on how it adds to the field. Above all it must be critical and evaluative. The most common problem I come across is a purely descriptive review; that’s really more of a summary.
Avoid giving yourself too many column inches
Although the reviewer’s judgement makes the review interesting, it’s important not to err too far in the opposite direction. In the case of IA, readers value the book reviews section as a way to decide which books they should read, and to make this call they want to know what the author actually says.
3. Be even-handed
It is incredibly rare that there are no issues with a book, and some reviews are ultimately bound to be negative. But it is also very rare that there is nothing of value in it either.
Avoid being hypercitical
A purely negative review could suggest bias. I would recommend developing one or two objections, instead of listing every single issue or problem.
4. Find the hook; avoid a list
Books reviewed in IA are often several hundred pages long, and they might be edited volumes or even handbooks. How do you deal with the word limit? In my experience it is best to discuss the main themes of the book without giving a strict overview of all chapters. Sometimes there might also be a clear hook: for example, why is the work relevant now? When it comes to edited collections, again it is best to avoid listing every chapter, and instead highlight a few outstanding (or less valuable) contributions. Grouping chapters or sections by overall theme also tends to work well, although that of course depends on the book.
5. Publicize your review
Journals publishing as an industry is increasingly engaged with social media. Most of the top journals in the field of IR/international studies have Twitter profiles, as do all of the major publishing companies. For book reviewers, social media can be great tool for engaging with authors and publishers. Twitter can act as a forum for you to reach out to the senior thinkers in your field, regardless of their location. It can also help to raise your profile with publishing companies when the time comes for you to start pitching your own book ideas.
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Feel like reviewing now? Although the majority of our book reviews are commissioned, we are always happy to hear from prospective reviewers with proposals for new titles to review. If you are interested in reviewing for the journal or just have more questions about the book reviews section, you can reach me at email@example.com.