Friday, 14 November 2014

Four steps for writing an academic book review

How to write a book review... Well, first of all, should you be writing a book review? The simple answer would be "yes". The more in-depth answer would be, "if you have the time to spend on reading a book not directly related to your work, then yes, because…"
  • it shows a willingness to get something committed to the page
  • it bulks out an empty-looking publications list 
  • it’s a collegiate thing to do; book reviews are a good guide for others trying to locate relevant literature (plus, when I was an undergraduate, book reviews helped me to get my head around dense texts that I didn’t “get”)
  • you generally get to keep the copy after you’ve reviewed it.
I’ve reviewed a few books, and thought it might be useful to explain how I approach a book review in a few steps.

Step one – Get the book
If you want to review a particular book, you can approach a journal to source it for you. In my experience, if they feel the book is relevant to the journal remit then they will access a review copy for you and send it your way.  I wrote a review for Sociology after I approached them and asked them if they could get me a copy of the book. Some journals publish a list of the titles they have available for review. For instance, Political Studies Review maintains a record of all the books and the person to contact to get hold of the copy.

Step two – Read the book
Seems obvious, but I generally skim-read books for relevant chapters to my work (I’m doing a PhD. Time is sparse!) However, if you’re committing to the page an in-depth critical review of somebody else’s work, do them the honour of reading it all. I generally try to read it as fast as I can, underlining every time the author explicitly makes an argument and annotating anything I find interesting. If I can find all the arguments quickly when I flick back through, it makes the writing the review a fairly quick process.

Step three – Draft the review
This is the hardest part and it requires you to basically cut down an entire manuscript onto a page of A4. I recently reviewed a book for the Sociology of Health and Illness. The guidelines they give are straight forward:
"A successful book review has three main functions: description, analysis and appraisal."
You needn’t go chapter-by-chapter through the book. You can focus on one or two, or just draw out a couple of key arguments that re-appeared through the text.  There are a few key things to remember to include, and it might get knocked back to you for editing if you don't put these in.
  • the intended audience (and who, in your opinion, would benefit from reading it)
  • the main objectives of the author (and whether, in your opinion, they achieved them)
  • the main arguments of the author (and whether, in your opinion, they were convincing)
  • the breadth of, and kind of, sources/data that the work relies on
Generally, I avoid references to outside texts, but it can be useful to mention the names and titles of a couple of books that you know "fit into" the same canon that the monograph you're reading is trying to establish itself within. You're not reviewing them, so don't spend words on external texts. Mentioning them does help to 'situate' the book though. Journals will differ on whether they want a bibliography to be included.

Step four – Don’t be too brazen in your critique
If it's really that bad, then why are you wasting your time reading it? Sure, if there are ideas you want to wrangle with, that's fine, but you’re not Hannah Arendt yet so don’t feel like you have to throw all your critical weight into a book review. A coherent explication of the points, with some reflection on their value, is the tone that journals seem to look for.

Incidentally, the author of a book I reviewed actually emailed me to thank me for the review, which wasn't scathing, but took some to unpack the ideas she'd presented. It was a big deal because I enjoyed her previous work and so asked a journal to review her book because it's relevant to my field. The fact that we are now in correspondence is a big deal – not least because she agreed to look over a draft of a journal article afterwards.


A book review can be a worthwhile thing to do, especially if you're in the midst of your PhD. The free book alone makes it worthwhile, but it can also be a good break away from the intensity of dealing 100% with your thesis. Of course, feel free to add any of your own suggestions in the comments section. Most of all, good luck with your review.

Monday, 10 November 2014

PhD Autumn Open Lecture Series

Over the past few weeks I've been putting together a lecture series for PhD students in our department to "showcase" their research to other PGs and staff who might not be familiar with the work being done in what we affectionately call the "PhD corridor", where we are all lucky enough to share offices and work day-to-day within the Department of Sociology.

I've written at more length on the department blog about the purpose behind the event, and the lectures begin this week with Alex Simpson talking about his research in the financial centre of the UK, the City of London. This will be followed by papers from Piotr Maron on the measurement of male anorexia, and Holly Steel on the "live blogging" of the Syrian conflict.

It's quite a catholic selection of papers, intended to draw out the diversity of PG research in the department, and make our own work visible to the wider university.