A New Norm for the Academic Book Review

T.M. Law January 29, 2013 1

MRB aims to create a new norm for the academic book review. Every review passes through several stages of an intensive editorial process. Our review editors work with authors to ensure the review conforms to our standards, and then the review goes to our team of development editors who may smooth out or enliven certain elements of the prose. Every modification is approved by the author before publication, but no review is published without some collaborative effort to reach a publishable result.

To help us achieve the standards for which we aim, we offer some advice on how you can write reviews in a way that is critical, informative, and engaging. These suggestions encapsulate the most important components of the type of review we hope to publish.

We also encourage you to read the pieces by John Barton and David H. Aaron. The former uses a comparison of two genres, book reviews and recommendation letters, to demonstrate the characteristics of a good book review. The latter elaborates on how the lengthier review essay presents an opportunity for the writer to make a significant contribution to her field.

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MRB carefully edits every submission in several stages.

Invite curiosity.

Make your readers want to read the book if your evaluation is positive. If you hope to convince readers that they shouldn’t bother or that their interest in the book should be limited, write the negative review in a way that leaves them inspired with an understanding of what books in our disciplines could be. But most importantly, write a review that keeps your reader engaged to the end. A well-written review is a fun read, not merely a vehicle to convey information.

Be a distiller, not a sports commentator.

Reviewers often feel they must tell the reader the details of every single chapter (each paragraph beginning with, ‘In Chapter 1…In Chapter 2…’), but our goal as reviewers is to give an overview of the book, not to re-present its content and argument in full detail. We should think of ourselves as distillers rather than sports commentators. We are not aiming to give our readers the play-by-play of a book as it happens; we are aiming to extract the essence of a book and present it in a palatable – even flavorful – manner. Not only will this invite our readers’ curiosity, it will also let them determine quickly and easily whether the book is relevant to their personal or research interests. Imagine that our experience of reading reviews is efficient as well as engaging. Strive to create that opportunity for your readers.

Be selective.

Similar to the previous point, reviewers should be selective. A reviewer cannot possibly say everything there is to say about a book in 1500 words. Often when we try to be comprehensive, we end up with a paragraph or two full of unrelated observations, leading ultimately to an inchoate review. Joseph M. Williams, that master teacher of prose style, emphasizes that ‘there is more to readable writing than local clarity. A series of clear sentences can still be confusing if we fail to design them to fit their context, to reflect a consistent point of view, to emphasize our most important ideas’ (Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, University of Chicago Press, 1990, 45). There is something to be said for selectivity. To that end, it can be helpful for a reviewer to choose a single theme which connects her critiques.

Connect the book to bigger ideas.

This could be the most important point of all. Choosing a theme for a review can be as simple as figuring out how the book is relevant to the big questions in one’s discipline. But we should not stop there. MRB publishes reviews of academic books, but we envision our readership to extend well beyond the academy, which makes connecting to the meta-discussions outside of academia just as important. We want this publication to be a forum that invites readers to recognize the importance of our disciplines. We are aiming to create a space so that anyone who is interested can read about and participate in a discussion of these big ideas. Once you figure out what you want to say about the book’s relevance to the meta-issues, it is easier to write a cohesive review in which the overview and critiques, both positive and negative, are focused on moving your reader toward an understanding of your main point(s).

Avoid stodgy academese.

Academic reviews can be boring and even difficult to read. They also normally have a few of the same less than desirable features. Avoid overusing connecting words (‘in fact…’, ‘therefore…’, ‘moreover…’), which may insult your reader’s ability to follow your logic. Excessive direct quotes from the book (in lieu of your own paraphrase) may indicate the reviewer’s lack of understanding and engagement with the subject. Use abstract nouns sparingly, since they can often be turned into verbs that better articulate the idea of the sentence. (E.g., instead of ‘adoption’ try the verb ‘adopt’: The beginning of the nineteenth century saw the adoption of this idea. >>> Scholars adopted this idea at the beginning of the nineteenth century.) Avoid beginning sentences with hanging prepositional phrases (‘In chapter 1…In chapter 2…’, ‘According to the author…’) or with the author’s name or a pronoun referring to the author (‘Smith argues…’, ‘On page 234, he states…’). Hanging prepositions and the repetitive use of pronouns dampen the reader’s curiosity. Mix it up a bit. Draw your readers into the next sentence without heavy-handedly grabbing their ears and pulling them into it.

Use imagery.

We often make the mistake of thinking that colorful language is not compatible with objectivity and has no place in academic prose. We should disabuse ourselves of this notion. Overuse of vivid language, like overuse of anything, will certainly destroy your prose. But careful and appropriate application can make abstract ideas easy to grasp and remember. Note the use of images like ‘distiller’, ‘sports commentator’, or ‘heavy-handed ear-grabbing’, which we employed above in hopes of making an editorial statement on writing reviews more exciting for you!

Imitate good prose.

Reading good writing is requisite for producing good writing. Artists learn technique by copying masterworks. Mechanics learn their skill by taking machines apart and putting them back together. We can likewise put into practice ideas like the ones offered here by imitating exemplars. We suggest reading reviews in publications like The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement, which have a lot to teach us as writers of academic reviews. We also encourage you read broadly in order to find your own sources of inspiration.

Read the finished product aloud.

This final step will do wonders. Reading aloud helps us to hear awkward expressions that we missed when we read the text. If the pace and flow of the piece is too jerky or too long-winded, it will be impossible to ignore when you hear it. We recommend reading the text as the very last stage of the editing process. Try it and be surprised.