Writing an Academic Book Review

Tiffany Ip, Hong Kong Baptist University

Benefits of Writing an Academic Book Review

An academic book review serves different purposes and also benefits both the author whose work is being reviewed and the one who writes the review. It is one of the quickest and easiest routes to publication, and if you are a novice writer, it may be an excellent choice as a first publication experience. No matter how experienced you are as a writer, your book reviews serve the primary purpose of advancing the scholarship in your field. Given that many scholars and teachers have limited time to read or even select what to read, book reviews inform us of new books and guide our reading preferences. Reviews can also influence how authors develop future editions of their publications, giving them the opportunity to take into account feedback suggested in reviews. Librarians may use book reviews and recommendations to acquire library holdings and identify important or poor titles in the holdings as well.

Some Might Caution You Against Writing a Book Review. Why is This?

Unless you are a renowned scholar who has the honor of being invited to review a book, you may wonder why you should spend precious time writing a book review instead of an academic paper. It is true that the former does not carry as much weight on a resume as the latter; publication of a book review is not appraised highly within academic institutions, nor does it have as much of an impact on a journal’s quality as an academic article. Book reviews though, could be thought of as the “grunt work of academia,” and their benefits should not be underestimated. They enable the writers to stay current in their field and also contribute to their academic peers’ professional development. Besides, writing an academic book review is one of the best ways to keep critical thinking, reading, and writing skills sharp–without the tremendous effort used to collect and analyze data.

Start with a Book

There are no set answers as to what books you should use for a review. That being said, your review will likely be of greater interest to the readers if the book is on a currently trending topic that has been recently published by a reputable publisher.

You might consider choosing a book that you can use both as a review publication and as a reference for a future research article. If you are a novice writer or graduate student, you can get a head start on the reviewing process by reviewing a book you have been using as a reference for your dissertation or article. Graduate students may alternatively write their first review based on a textbook or anthology because books in these genres are not frequently reviewed, and some journals may appreciate this as well.

Before actually writing the review, it is best to first identify the leading journals in your field that publish book reviews, and then contact the book review editor of your targeted journal. This is primarily for two reasons: One is that the journal may not accept unsolicited reviews, the other is that you may be able to get a copy of the book for free.  The editor may request a copy from the publisher and send it to you for the review.

Structuring the Review

Different journals may have different book review submission guidelines. It is important to first check their guidelines, so you know how long the review is supposed to be, and what content you need to focus on, in advance of writing.

Regardless of the journal-specific guidelines, the main body of a review is generally expected to be analytical and evaluative rather than being subjectively descriptive. Using quotes from the book is acceptable to a degree, but take care not to use too many. According to the writing guide provided by the University of Southern California (2017), “the task of the book reviewer is to ‘tease out’ the book’s themes, explain them in the review, and apply a well-argued judgment on the appropriateness of the book’s argument(s) to the existing scholarship in the field.” 

The foremost task for the review writer is therefore to identify the book’s major purposes and intended audience. The review will usually include (a) the author’s intended purpose in writing the book and whether it is successful, (b) a brief overall (rather than chapter-by-chapter) summary or outline of the book with explanatory highlights, and (c) an evaluation of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. (Note: The writing guide from the USC serves as a great reference as it outlines the slightly different essential elements to be included in two types of academic book reviews: short summary reviews and essay-length critical reviews. Although this research guide is aimed towards those writing book reviews in the arts and humanities fields, the principles are applicable to those writing in social science fields as well, such as TESL and those dealing with second language acquisition.)

A Word of Caution

Your book review should be making an analytical judgment, but this does not mean you have to be particularly negative in your assessment. Any criticism should be substantiated and warranted, constructive, and written in a professional manner. When reviewing, you can ask yourself these questions: “Does the book make a contribution to its field? Does it add to our existing knowledge about its topic? Who will find this book to be particularly useful?” Just take caution. The book can be making a contribution even if it is not breaking new ground in the field; the author may be contributing to current debates in the field by providing arguments from a unique perspective, or by simply enhancing readers’ understanding of the issues at hand.

Additionally, it is vital to avoid digressing into trying to display your own knowledge in the book review. The review is not a chance for you to convince the readers that you are an expert of the field that the book addresses, and readers are not expecting to read personal critical comments that condemn the author for not writing the book or formulating the arguments in the way you see fit. The review is not about a book that should have been written, but about the book that has been written, and regardless of your own expertise, it is fair only when you examine the book in terms of its ability to cater to its intended audience and purposes. 

While you may worry about not being qualified to evaluate another person’s book, especially if it is written by a top professor or a famous scholar in the field, you should always remember it is your tactful and reasoned arguments that matter. In sum, writing academic book reviews is a challenging, yet valuable, skill.


USC Libraries Research Guides. (2017, February 6). Organizing research for arts and humanities papers and theses: Writing academic book reviews. Retrieved from http://libguides.usc.edu/c.php?g=235208&p=1560694