Monday, 6 October 2014

How To ... Write a Book Review


Learning to communicate effectively is very important for those in the information profession. Despite the stereotype it's likely that you will spend much of your day interacting with people, either in person or online. Most library and information professionals I know are very good at talking to people and helping them to find what they need but many seem to panic a little at the thought of written communication. This might be down to the fact that writing things down means that people are actually going to read it! or it might be that it gives them flashbacks to library school essays.

Aside from being a good skill to learn for your job, written communication skills can really enhance your 'brand' as a professional. Whatever your feelings about the terminology I don't think it gets hurt to get your name out there. Writing a blog is one way to do this but there is also the option of writing for publication. If there is a burning professional topic that you want to write about or a project that you want to share then you already have something great to write about and you can probably stop reading here. If not then read on...

Writing book reviews is a great way to dip your toe into the waters of writing for professional publication. Reviews generally follow a set structure and plenty of advice is given by the publication requesting the review. I've written quite a few book reviews over the last few years, both for actual publications and online programmes and I've encouraged others to do the same. I get asked a lot of questions about exactly how to go about producing a review so I thought I would share my process.

What do I have to do?
Book reviews are basically just short pieces which help the reader to decide if they want to buy (or borrow) the book in question. Basically is it worth their time? If you want to buy a new laptop there is a good chance that you will have a look at some online reviews of the one you want to buy to see what others think of it. Book reviews are exactly the same and therefore nothing to be scared of.

Basic structure of the review
As I said, most publishers provide detailed outlines of exactly what they expect the review to contain and you should always follow these as they may be different for different publications. Below is the basic structure that I tend to follow which might help you get started:
  • Introduction: talk a little bit about the book, what is it about?, who is the intended audience? Does the book tell you what it's aim is (this will help you later on)? Most of the answers to these questions are found in the books introduction or somewhere on the cover.
  • Content: perhaps the most important part of a book review. Does the content meet the expectations you had from reading the title and description or has the writer gone off topic? Who are the authors, practitioners or researchers? If there are a number of academic contributors but no practitioners would you have preferred more application than theory? Consider the subject content of the book and ask yourself if it covers enough of the subject and in enough depth for the intended audience. If the book is aimed at students and contains a lot of obscure terminology then is this explained somewhere or will they be left scratching their heads? It's also important to consider any potential bias here. If the book is written from one particular perspective (eg. a specific country) is this acknowledged anywhere and what implication could it have for readers? 
  • Structure: taking a step back from the content for a moment think of the book as a physical object. How is the text laid out and is it easy to read? Are the chapter headings clear and do they reflect what the chapter is about? Think about navigating the book - a clear contents page and a complete index make it really easy to find what you're looking for and save the reader time.  
  • Main takeaways: if anything really stood out it would be good to mention it as it helps to personalize things and make the review more interesting to read (in my opinion). If there was one top tip that you learnt from the book or something that you want to take forward in the future then mention it here.
  • Recommended to ...?: I always finish a review by making it clear who I would recommend the book to. Is it good for beginners or is it for a more advanced audience? This is also where finding out the aims of the book is helpful as you can determine if the book has actually fulfilled it's aim.
The above is by no means an exhaustive list and nor will the points apply to every book. They're just points to think through and get you started.

It's important not to just describe the things in your review but reflect as well. Go through the what, so what process and really think about things. The chapters are nice and short. Great, but is that a good thing for those in a hurry or would you have liked more depth? To get some idea I would recommend just having a look at reviews on the Internet or in any publications you can get your hands on. Why not check out Amazon and look at some of the most popular book reviews on there? I'm sure they say more than just "this book was good".

How to get started
Watch out for calls for reviewers - these are frequently sent out via email lists and Twitter from various publications. You could also write directly to the publication and express your interest in reviewing. You might not always get an answer but it's worth a try. Speaking from a CILIP committee member perspective it can sometimes be quite hard to get people willing to review! There are also online review programs which you can take part in such as the O'Reilly Reader Review Program. This is the one I take part in but I'm sure there are many others.

I hope that this short guide helps some of you realize that book reviews are not scary and can actually be quite a fun way to add to your skill set. If all else fails and you hate the experience then at least you have something different to put on your CV!

photo credit: Olivander via photopin cc


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