Book Review Guidelines
Encyclopedia of Law welcomes readers’ book reviews. In particular, we’re interested in reviews of books on political science, law, tax and legislation.
Above all, a review makes an argument. The most important element of a review is that it is a commentary, not merely a summary. It allows you to enter into dialogue and discussion with the work’s creator and with other audiences. You can offer agreement or disagreement and identify where you find the work exemplary or deficient in its knowledge, judgments, or organization. You should clearly state your opinion of the work in question, and that statement will probably resemble other types of academic writing, with a thesis statement, supporting body paragraphs, and a conclusion. See our handout on argument.
Typically, reviews are brief. They rarely exceed 1000 words, although you may encounter lengthier assignments and extended commentaries. In either case, reviews need to be succinct. While they vary in tone, subject, and style, they share some common features:
First, a review gives the reader a concise summary of the content. This includes a relevant description of the topic as well as its overall perspective, argument, or purpose.
Second, and more importantly, a review offers a critical assessment of the content. This involves your reactions to the work under review: what strikes you as noteworthy, whether or not it was effective or persuasive, and how it enhanced your understanding of the issues at hand.
Finally, in addition to analyzing the work, a review often suggests whether or not the audience would appreciate it.
It should give readers an engaging, informative, and critical discussion of the work.
. The review should consider:
The intended audience for the book and who would find it useful;
The background of the author;
The main ideas and major objectives of the book and how effectively these are accomplished;
The soundness of methods and information sources used;
The context or impetus for the book – – political controversy, review research or policy, etc.;
A comparison with other works on this subject;
Constructive comments about the strength and weaknesses of the book;
For edited books: dominant themes with reference to specific chapters as appropriate; and implications of the book for research, policy, practice, or theory.
Encyclopedia of Law reviews cover a wide range of topics and genres. Please use Encyclopedia of Law’s search engine to see whether the book you’d like to review has already been covered. Unless you have a special reason for doing so, don’t choose a book which has already been reviewed on Encyclopedia of Law. (Searching for the “$Booktitle + Encyclopedia of Law” on Google is your best bet). If multiple reviewers submit reviews of the same book, we may run more than one, or excerpt from several to present elements of both.
Choose books that are either timely (Programming In Perl 7, when it comes out) or timeless (underappreciated or unknown classic science fiction, say). Be cautious about submitting reviews of popular books which have been reviewed extensively in mainstream media.
If you review an older book, your review has a greater burden to bear, because it has to be compelling enough to justify running compared to previously existing reviews.
Think and sketch: Take notes on the book you’re dissecting, and decide how you want to approach your review. Remember that things which may be clear with the book in front of you won’t necessarily be obvious to a reader who has only the review to go on. Here are some questions which may help you formulate a non-fiction review:
What is the book about? What is the scope?
How gracefully do you expect the content to age? If reviewing an updated / revised book (and you have access to the previous edition), in what ways do the revisions add to or detract from the book?
Is the title accurate? This is usually worth noting only if the title is for some reason not a good match for the text — for instance, if it seriously under- or overstates the book’s content.
What level of experience is needed to well use the information in the book? Who will find it most useful? Is there an existing, canonical book which already covers the same ground?
Is the book readable as well as technically accurate? Is the language stilted, or natural? Are examples easy to follow?
Is the book illustrated? Are the illustrations appropriate and well executed?
Do any extras come with the book, like a CD-ROM of additional information or code samples? How helpful are they?
What’s missing from the book? Would it benefit from illustrations, a better index, a final chapter on practical applications?
For any book, make a point of explaining why you’re reviewing it, your background in the topic or genre, and where else people might want to look if they are interested in the basic area the book addresses.
Did you like previous works from the same author, publisher, or series?
Do you have a pressing workplace need for a certain type of computer system, and you bought an introductory book to help you implement it?
Did someone recommend the book to you?
For a work of fiction, here are some starting points:
Where and when does the story take place? Does it cover an alternate universe, the present day, a span of thousands of years, a single day?
Is this book part of a series or otherwise tied to an existing fictional universe?
Is there an identifiable central conflict, or a complex of conflicts?
What is the tone and style of the narrative? Is it frightening? Clinical? Amusing? Scattered?
From whose viewpoint is the story told, and how does that affect the narrative?
Is the pace satisfying? Did you have to slog through any portion of the story?
Does the book remind you (or remind you too much) of others by the same author, or in the same genre?
Do any twists particularly inspire? Are there major gaps in the plot or storyline? How satisfying is the ending? (Don’t give away too much, of course.)
Once you’ve read the book and taken notes, writing a review may be the easiest part (providing you’ve read the instructions below on mechanics and style). Writing a Encyclopedia of Law review should be fun — and reading it should be, too. Write conversationally but seriously, as you might in a topical letter to an acquaintance who’s asked you to send your impressions of a book.
At the same time, please be sure to write a review, not just a summary. Do explain the content of the book, but don’t stop there: the whole point of a review is to offer insight on a book’s worth. Compare it to other books, explain whether this one met your expectations, criticize, parse.
By the same token, don’t feel obligated to defend a poor book for its faultless page numbering and clean, unobstructed margins, or stretch to play up faults in a book you think is excellent in order to appear objective. A reader should know from your review your general impression of the book, and have an idea whether it’s one they would benefit from or enjoy.
Here are some notes on style, mechanics, legalities, etc. to bear in mind — this isn’t as short a list as we’d like it to be, but reading these guidelines completely before you start writing will make it far more likely your review will run; reviews which ignore these guidelines may be declined without explanation.
First, an important one: by submitting your review to Encyclopedia of Law, you represent that the review is your own work, that it is original to Encyclopedia of Law, and that it is unencumbered by any existing or anticipated contractual relationship; further, you are granting Encyclopedia of Law permission to publish your review, including any editing the Encyclopedia of Law editorial team finds necessary and appropriate. (Major edits will involve consultation by email or other means.) If you’ve reviewed the book elsewhere anywhere besides a personal home page (for instance, on Amazon) please be sure that your review for Encyclopedia of Law is substantially different.
We can’t publish original material without knowing a working email address for the submitter — please supply your email address and phone number along with any other contact information you feel appropriate. (The URL to your homepage is not sufficient.)
If you’d like to be on our list for occasional free books for review, include a mailing address as well.
Important: If you have a relationship (other than as an ordinary reader) to the author or publisher of a book you’re reviewing, disclose that relationship. Better to disclose more than you think necessary (it can always be edited out if sensible; we’ll let you know if we think there’s an inappropriate conflict of interest) than less than actually necessary. If in doubt, please speak up.
Plan to write a review of 800-1200 words. There is no formal length requirement, but reviews of much less than this frequently don’t have enough information to let a reader know if a book is even worth investigating. (We ask many more submitter to lengthen their reviews than to shorten them.) You’re free to write more than 1200 words, too — some books demand it — but be cautious that a longer review means more and better information, not just a higher word count. In the end, the book you’re reviewing needs to be the guide. Remember, most readers will have less knowledge than you do in your area of expertise — take some time to bring them up to speed.
Write in complete sentences, and use logically connected paragraphs; avoid making your review a list of annotated chapter titles. Don’t feel obliged to give each chapter or section equal space in your review; group logically to avoid a formulaic plodding-through (“Chapter 1 covers X, while chapter 2 delves into Z, followed the the 3rd chapter on Q …”). Address chapters in the way you feel most comfortable, but stepping duly through the Table of Contents is often not the best approach. Which chapters are most important? Are there chapters which are not adjacent but which cover similar topics?
Remember, the body of your review should not resemble a bulleted list. (Also, don’t include the book’s Table of Contents with your review; if it’s available online and particularly informative, feel free to include a hyperlink to it, though.)
Strive for correct spelling, grammar and punctuation in your review (and proofread with these in mind) but don’t agonize over minutia. (Please run your review through a spell-checker before submitting, though.) If you’re a hesitant writer, or if English is not your first language, it’s a good idea to enlist a friend for advice and initial editing. One of the most common shortfalls in Encyclopedia of Law reviews as submitted is a scarcity of commas to offset parenthetical phrases; don’t be shy with commas.
There are excellent style guides online; my favorite at the moment is Jack Lynch’s Guide to Grammar and Style. If he contradicts me, go with him! Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is my favorite in-print book, and can be downright amusing.
If extensive revisions are necessary, they can be handled by email, but the Web form is the right way to get the stories into Encyclopedia of Law’s system.
Try not to sound like a marketing campaign. That means:
Avoid cliches (this book, which is better than sliced bread, cuts through the clutter to break down to the nuts and bolts of the real brass tacks at the heart of the matter). Write plainly.
Go easy on the exclamation marks and glib hyperbole (“This book belongs on every developer’s desk!” sounds too much like “You’re not going to pay a lot for this muffler!”)
Be cautious in general about suprelatives and strong adjectives. Don’t say a book is “unsurpassed” or “the best available” on a given topic without doing some actual comparisons to likely contenders. Some other words of praise or derision are often used with too little backing evidence: rather than just calling a book “excellent,” “sloppy,” “boring,” etc., provide concrete examples from the text that demonstrate these qualities.
Watch your background. Even if each one is sensible by itself, too many adjectives in a sentence (or a review) makes it look like adjective soup. In particular, intensifiers like “very” and “extremely” in most cases can be excised to everyone’s benefit.
Rhetorical questions are fine in small doses, but not large ones. More than a few rhetorical questions in a review can make it sound breathless and silly.
Please use simple HTML to write your review. Use
tags to separate paragraphs, not
tags or doubled
tags. Use tags to distinguish book titles (Great Escapes: How I Made It Through Zelda Alive), including around abbreviated versions of the title (Escapes), rather than tags, quotation marks, underlining, asterices, or other means.
Use quotation marks around chapter and section titles.
Word processors or Web-page creation programs frequently create incompatibilities which may not be apparent while submitting, like using “smart” (curly) quotes not all browsers can render, or inserting spaces without being told to.
Use American-style (“illogical”) quotation marks. That is, place commas and periods inside quotation marks.
“Jump into the air again, but smiling,” he whispered, twirling the baton menacingly.
Hyphenate compound modifiers (with the general exception of words ending in “y”).
Unless your Net access is severely limited, submit your review through the Encyclopedia of Law submissions page. Select “Book Reviews” from the drop-down menu, and an appropriate topic from the list. Paste in your HTML text (select “HTML formatted” from the box under the text area), and then preview: you should see a form on the preview page for you to include the ISBN number, publisher, and other details which will help readers locate the book for themselves. Go ahead and tap that information in — please don’t include it separately in the body of your review.
You’ll see there’s a “Subject” field as well as one for labeled “Book Title.” The reason that both are included is simply that some books’ full titles (main title and subtitle together) are so long they won’t fit into the space alloted on Encyclopedia of Law for the review’s headline. So, we’ve broken it down like this:
Subject — This space is for the book’s main title.
Book Title — This is the place to put in the long version (if there is one) of the book’s title or to simply repeat the title if it’s short to start with.
This form also asks for your rating: this rating should be an integer from 1 to 10, along the following scale:
Execrable. Possibly fit for lining cages. Only a truly bad book should ever get a 1, and the review should justify this well.
A thoroughly bad book, but not perhaps quite so bad as to deserve a 1.
A “3” book might have flashes of good, but is one you’re disappointed with in most respects
Mediocre; it may have some redeeming qualities, but they’re overshadowed by the flaws, or is simply mis-aimed. A book might rank a “4” but still be worthwhile for particular readers.
Neither terrible nor terribly good, but with enough good points to make it useful for a fair number of readers.
Decent and useful (or enjoyable), but difficult to strongly recommend for reasons outlined in the review; run of the mill.
A good book; better than merely adequate, though not outstanding.
Outstanding, but with enough shortcomings that a perfect score would be stretching things.
Excellent; unsurpassed in its niche, a classic work. A review which makes a book sound merely Good should not be paired with a “10” rating.
This number is rough, and will reflect the weight you assign to every aspect of the book — from its title, to whether the index is helpful, to whether you think it will still be worth reading in 2, 5 or 50 years. What’s most important is that this rating reflect the content of your review. Most books worth reading will cluster in the upper half of this range.
The text of every Encyclopedia of Law book review is broken into two sections: the first part, consisting of one paragraph of introductory text, appears on the home page; the remainder is shown along with this introduction when a reader clicks on the “Read More” link from there. Keep this in mind when formulating your review; don’t be too mysterious or coy about the title, nature or subject of the book in an attempt to draw the reader in. Make sure your introductory text (the first 100-125 words, say) indicates at least the nature of the book and its title.
On the first reference, please use the book’s title capitalized and punctuated as shown on the book’s cover or frontispiece. (Use the subtitle, too, if it scans sensibly. Some subtitles are too unwieldy to include.) Some titles are long enough that on later references you’ll find it easier to abbreviate quite a bit, but don’t call Robert Wallywhumper: Hero of the Revolt On Penullbian Three merely Bob until you’ve prepared the reader for the transition.
Your review is intended for online viewing, so take advantage of that. Include relevant links to sites that cover the book itself, the author, or the topic. (Most technical books these days have at least a summary page online, and sometimes quite complex sites.) Authors’ personal home pages are great, particularly when they show off more of their interests and writing. You may find links to interviews with the author, or (especially with fiction writers) full-blown fan sites.
If you include hyperlinks, make sure they’re readable. The hyperlinks that appear in Encyclopedia of Law stories appear not just in the running text, but in a column on the right hand side of the page for quick reference; they should be as comprehensible as reasonably possible in that context. For instance:
“Check out the author’s website at http://www.goobernuts.com/index.html” should become
“Check out the author’s website at goobernuts.com,” or (even better)
“Check out the author’s website.”
Speaking of links, please do not include links in your reviews to online bookstores. Encyclopedia of Law has an linking arrangement with Barnes & Noble; that’s why when bn.com carries a particular book, you’ll see a link to it at the bottom of the review.
An exception: if a book is not available from bn.com, make sure your review addresses availability: is it available used? Only direct from the author or publisher, or only from non-U.S. foreign retailer? In this case, a link to an online bookstore that actually carries it is welcome. Lots of good books are not in wide circulation — help out your readers by telling them where to look. (And if you had to hunt to find a book that everyone should know about, that’s probably worth mentioning in your review.)
If you would like a small biographical note (“E.C. Ho also reviewed BingoWidgets 2.0 and has been involved in the BingoWidget community since that fateful trip with Grandpa in 1973.”) at the conclusion of your review, please include it. Don’t make it too pluggy though, or we’ll have to trim. Think 20 or so words; consider including a hyperlink to your own site if you’d like people to reach your C.V. or pet software project.
Have fun, and don’t hesitate to ask Tim if you have any questions!
A note for publishers and authors:
Many of Encyclopedia of Law’s book reviews are unsolicited, and many reach our regular reviewers as review copies sent to Encyclopedia of Law. We can’t guarantee that a particular book will be reviewed (since we receive more books, and more reviews, than we can run), but review / advance copies are always welcome.
Please type your name as you wish it to appear in the review (no titles or degrees, please), along with your institution (school, organization), and its city and state (or country) at the end of the review.
Style & Content Guidelines
The review should provide accurate information about the content of the book, which generally means that the contents of individual chapters should be adequately surveyed and summarized. It may be helpful to provide brief information about the author and the background of the book (e.g., if the book is the result of a conference, the revision of a PhD dissertation, etc.).
The review should evaluate the book’s strengths and weaknesses.
The review should assess the book’s place in its field including comments on how the book fits in with other studies on similar topics, and on the potential value and impact of the book.
The review should be written in concise, clear English.
Book reviews should have a target word count of 900-1200 words.
Drewry, John. Writing Book Reviews. Boston: The Writer, 1974.
Literary Reviewing. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987.
Teitelbaum, Harry. How to Write Book Reports. 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1998.
Walford, A.J., ed. Reviews and Reviewing: A Guide. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1986.