Saturday, May 27, 2006

How to Write a Non-Fiction Book Review

Book reviews are an excellent way for aspiring writers to break into publication. They further provide a needful service to readers who are seeking to determine whether a book is worth reading or for readers who are looking for other perspectives about a book they have already read. I have written dozens of book reviews over the last twenty years or so in diverse publications such as Christianity Today, The Denver Post, The Rocky Mountain News, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Philosophia Christi, The Christian Research Journal, The Philosopher’s Magazine, and Books and Culture. My first publication was a book review in Radix in the early 1980s. I continue to find writing book reviews rewarding and worthwhile.

What book should you review? The first concern is to review a book that some publication would likely want to review. The subject of the book should fit the ethos of the publication, both with respect to the subject matter and the intellectual level. So, a thoughtful book relating religious faith and public policy is a natural fit with First Things or Books and Culture. This would not be the case for a youth ministry magazine.

The book review should be strategically placed for the best effect. For example, a book review in a non-Christian publication (such as a local newspaper) praising a book that makes a significant apologetic argument for the Christian worldview could have a profound impact. On the professional side, one should consider the academic quality of the periodical. A book review published in a refereed, academic journal is “worth” more on your resume than a review in a newspaper or a magazine.

Timing is crucial for book reviews. Academic journals may take several years to publish a review (my book, On Jesus, was reviewed three and a half years after it was published!), so there is no great rush to review the book quickly (although you should contact the journal as soon as possible, so that no one beats you to the book you want to review). On the other hand, magazines and especially newspapers review only books that have been published recently.

Your second concern in selecting a book is your interest in and expertise regarding the book. You need not be an expert on the subject matter of the book to write a competent review, but you should have an interest in the material and some background knowledge. (You should be fair and accurate in your description of the book and not use it as a pretext to write an essay on some other topic. A few of my books have been “reviewed” in this unfair way.) I was once asked to write a book review for The Denver Post on a book about the creation of the King James Bible. It was outside my area, but I thought it was worth a try. After reading a chapter or so, I realized that is was far beyond what I could intelligently discuss, so I declined to write it.

Some books are not worth reviewing because they are inconsequential. However, one may want to review a book that one disagrees with vigorously if that book is written by a noteworthy person (and is likely to find a large audience) or if the book addresses a topic of importance. I write many negative book reviews. My basic thought is, “This is terrible. Someone has to refute it!” So, I launch into a review of a Ken Wilber book, for example. (Wilber is a prolific and influential nondualist.) There is a place for this. On the other side, one may find a book to be superb and worth praising in public. Some books are important more because of the status of the author than because they are extremely good or bad. Many people—or significant people in a particular discipline—will read this book, so you want to weigh in on it intellectually.

In most cases, you should write a query letter about the book you want to review. This should state (1) the full bibliographic material for the book, (2) its basic subject matter, (3) why it is important for the journal or magazine to review, and (4) why you are the person to review it. That is, you should explain your qualifications for writing the review. If your review request is accepted, make sure to find out what your word limit is (and don’t go over it!) and the due date (and don’t miss it!). You should realize that almost no academic publications pay for book reviews, although they may be able to send you a complimentary copy of the book you review. Other periodicals may offer a small fee for book reviews. For example, The Denver Post and The Rocky Mountain News pay (me at least) $50 for a review of about 700 words.

A book review worth reading follows a basic pattern. First, it should clearly explain what the book is about and perhaps how it fits into the larger genre of books on its topic. For example, I wrote a review of Thomas Woodward’s excellent Doubts About Darwin (Baker/Brazos, 2003). Since there are many book on the Intelligent Design movement, I made it clear that this book was unique in that it was a rhetorical history of the movement. You need not discuss every chapter of the book to explain what it concerns. With longer books this may not even be possible, given your space concerns. You should also explain the intellectual level of the book. Is it very technical, thoughtful but not academic, or more popular? Second, you should evaluate the book as to the cogency of its arguments, the quality of its writing, the adequacy of its documentation, and so on. Does the book make a significant new contribution? How does it relate to similar books on similar topics? Does it omit anything essential? Does it commit any egregious logical or factual errors?

A book review may be your first publication. On the other hand, established academics often write book reviews that are taken very seriously by scholars in their discipline. For example, Richard Swinburne recently reviewed Alvin Plantinga’s magnum opus, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford, 2000), for Religious Studies. Intellectual heavy weights are sometimes brought in to critique other intellectual heavy weights.

If you read books on a steady basis (and you should), why not review some of them? Doing this also helps you evaluate and internalize what you have read. It increases your own understanding. And by reviewing a book, you can also plant some seeds of truth and rationality for the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33).

8 comments:

Tom Wanchick said...

My first print publication was a book review of Norman Geisler's, *I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist.*

It was published in the Christian Research Journal in 2005.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Tom:

Good for you, young man. Onward and upward in Christ Jesus (Col. 3:1-2).

Best,
Doug Groothuis

JimSimply said...

Thanks for the advice. Excellent.

Jamie
(Blog)

Maeghan said...

Thanks for the info and advice. Reviewing a Romans commentary is part of my module requirements for Greek Exegesis on the book of Romans paper I am currently taking. Your notes will be of great help as I do not even know where to begin. Thanks again!

Blessings,
Maeghan

Paul M. Kingery said...

Dear Douglas,

I would like to invite you to write a short review of a new Christian ebook called Land of Canaan: Ancient Hope for Future Peace. See it free online at www.landofcanaan.info and let me know what you think.

Your brother,
Paul

Daniel said...

Dear Curmudgeon, Thank you for a very helpful post. I'm writing a review of an excellent new book called "Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge" by Dr. Alan Wallace and intend to publish it in Science or Nature. Your advice to contact the journal first to find out their constraints was very helpful.

Best, Daniel

Ulysses Castillo said...

sorry for the late comment. You mention a negative book review of Ken Wilber. Do you have that review handy? I'm studying Wilber, and frankly, most of it sounds like gibberish. I'm trying to figure out if I should bother trying any more.

Mabel said...

If you found this book intriguing, you will definitely enjoy reading My Stroke of Insight - a Brain Scientist's Personal Journey" by Jill Bolte Taylor, and her talk on TED dot com about her stroke which is an 18 minute talk you Must Not Miss! (there's a reason it's been forwarded friend to friend millions of times!).
When you read the book and see the TEDTalk, you'll understand why this Harvard brain scientist was named Time Magazine 100 Most Influential People. Her unique experience, combined with her perspective as a neuroanatomist, and her sensitivity and awareness (not to mention beautiful writing style!) has produced something so powerful and so revolutionary that I think it's going to become a transformational movement in itself. Oprah also did four interviews with her (that I was able to download on the Oprah website) that are also worth checking out.
I am trying to share Dr Taylor's story with as many people as I can because I truly believe if everyone saw it the world would be so much better and people would love one another and no longer fight.