Some Rules for the Preparation of Book Reviews

Perhaps some enterprising young scholar will stumble across this blog and wonder, “How precisely does one go about preparing a book review?” Should such an unlikely event occur, I hope that this post will answer their question. I have four very simple rules for preparing a book review. Here they are:

  1. Reviews should be 3–5 pages long, double-spaced. (Yes, I write my reviews in Word first.)
  2. About one-half of the review should be a summary of the book composed around its central theme. Judicious quotations should be provided.
  3. About one-quarter of the review should cite and interact with other reviews of the work, if they are available.
  4. The final one-quarter should cite the authors credentials and provide the reviewers evaluation and criticism of the work under review.

Allow me to expand on this somewhat: The ideal book review (in my opinion) should be 4 pages long (double-spaced). Thus it will amount to roughly 1500-1800 words, depending on the font and font size used. While there was once a day when it was not at all uncommon for book reviews to be 6000 words or more in length (which meant that the review really had to interact with the work in question), those days are long past. In our era, the majority of academic journals demand a hard limit of 1500-2000 words; any longer than that, and you’re no longer writing a review, you’re writing a review article.

The summary of the book you provide should be just that: a summary. I have been guilty of providing too much information (for example, see here). You’re writing a book review rather than a book report—a fact you ought to remind yourself of often. You also need to remember that those reading the review aren’t there to be buried under quotations from the book. Only use direct quotations when it’s absolutely necessary (the author is stating the theme of the work, etc.); otherwise, paraphrase the material and provide a citation. Too many quotes and the reader isn’t reading a review any more; too few, and they will start to wonder if you read the book at all.

If there are other critical, professional reviews of the work already in print, you ought to incorporate their conclusions and interact with them; do they properly understand the book they’re reviewing? What did they get right? What did they get wrong? This is a fairly important—and highly overlooked—aspect of writing a good critical review. For an example of how one might do this, see this review of John Frame’s recent work on apologetics.

Finally, if the book you’re reviewing is absolute garbage, say so! After reading some of the reviews in the current editions of The Westminster Theological Journal and The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society I’m left with the impression that nobody writes bad books anymore; every single volume was recommended (with greater or lesser degrees of vigor). Nevertheless, even if you do commend the book to the reading public, you may find yourself disagreeing with the author of the book you’ve reviewed. If this is the case, it isn’t enough to just disagree; you need to explain why you disagree and offer a solution. Otherwise, it’s just so much belly aching.

So there you have it. I sincerely hope that someone finds this helpful! Best wishes on writing a successful, publishable book review!

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