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How to Write a Book Review

Professor Charles King, School of Foreign Service and Department of Government, Georgetown University

Here are some simple guidelines for writing a book review for a scholarly journal.

1. Have a look at book reviews in some of the major journals in your field to get a sense of the style and length. Make sure you know what kind of audience the book reviews section of the journal is meant to target: Generalists in a broad discipline? Specialists in a sub-discipline? Specialists on a particular region?

2. Give full publication details for the book being reviewed. If the review has been solicited (as most are—few people write reviews without having been asked to do so by an editor), the editorial staff will provide this information (including, for example, the sale price).

3. Adhere strictly to the editor’s word limit—or better yet, come in just under the limit. The only reason to go over is if you consider that the work is a truly path-breaking piece of scholarship that deserves an entire review article. Even then, speak with the editor first. Don’t turn in a thirty-page manuscript when a 500-word review was solicited.

4. A review is more than an annotated table of contents. Avoid going chapter-by-chapter and simply describing the contents: “Chapter One discusses . . . . Chapter Two begins with a survey of . . . .” Focus instead on the book’s overall theme or argument. What is the essential “take-away” from the book? In edited volumes, there is no need to talk about each contribution. Focus on the chapter or chapters which you think are most important.

5. A review should be critical but respectful. Maintain a tone of collegiality. Of course, if the author argues something that is genuinely laughable or otherwise self-evidently suspect, say so—but an iron fist is always more pleasant inside a velvet glove.

6. Avoid ending with a sentence of this type: “Despite these minor flaws in the argument, this is an important contribution which will be enjoyed by students and scholars alike.” I’ve written a few sentences like that myself, but they really are the last refuge of someone who can’t figure out how to end a review.

7. Be sure to put your name and affiliation at the end of the review (or follow the review editor’s instructions).

© Copyright 2003, Charles King
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